Sunday, October 30, 2005

In Prison! Out of Ecuador and into Colombia




After returning from the coast I had a couple of days in Quito to prepare for the trip up to Colombia. In the end I failed to undertake many of the preparations I wanted but instead had a fascinating couple of days - far more important!

The most interesting part and I believe one of the most off the wall experiences I have had came on a day in the old town. Mike, Jez, Dave and I first visited the magnificent Sancturio de Las Lajas. A Jesuit church completed circa 1670 (I think - apologies if my memory fails me) that is supposed to be the most beautiful in Ecuador. Rumours had it that it was decorated with 7 tonnes of gold. Although this was dispelled by the guide, I can see why the sight of the fabulously detailed baroque architecture covered in lashings of gold leaf would have had the Jesuits' desired effect, leaving locals in awe of the power and the beauty of what was in front of them. The concentration on the semi-idolatry of leading Jesuit figures was interesting. I do not think I am any closer to agreeing with the role of the Jesuits but I at least understand more why they were so successful.

Now, to the PRISON. In the hostel there were many recommendations to visit foreigners (i.e. Europeans etc) incarcerated in the city jails. I think many travellers feel some connection with the 100 or so of them because, for many, the situation could so easily be reversed due to their own consumption habits. We therefore set off to Garcia Moreno prison with the aim of bringing them some cigarettes etc and just hoping to break the boredom (some prisoners had written notes to the hostel asking for just this). Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on what you make of the consequent experience), instead of taking us to the Garcia Moreno prison the taxi driver took us to the prison ON calle de Garcia Moreno - CARCIA NUMERO 2 - a different kettle of fish all together.

Instead of a prison where the foreigners pay more for smaller (even private) rooms with even tv and dvd player, we ended up at something out of Alcatraz. 800 people crammed into 26 rooms in a two storey rectangle around an area the size perhaps of two volleyball courts. The inhabitants were for the most part hardcore drug-traffickers, but there was a fair sprinkling of rapists and murderers for good measure. Of course when we went in we did not know this or in any way what we were getting ourselves in for. An indication may have come when the fully armed guards outside told us to take nothing and I mean nothing in with us. The most extreme illustration was when I was not initially allowed in with shorts. As far as we could translate the reason for this was something to do with them being ripped off and a weapon being shoved in to you - as I say the explanation did not really translate. Jez and Dave went in and after finding a pair of trousers I followed, leaving Mike behind with the bags and his shorts.

After a full-over search and multiple stamps being applied on our arms, we entered the jail. What ensued was circa 20 mins of confusion as we asked to see the English guy from Manchester. The surprisingly helpful guards clearly racked their brains and asked around the prison, but did not come up with any immediate solution. Generally a mood of confusion, especially when we got a peak through the bars into the oh so not safe looking prison yard. After a quick tour of the small workshop (apparently only for 5 people) the guards eventually brought in front of us a small slightly shy looking black Ghanain called Dominic, who spoke reasonable English. After giving him some ciggies we asked/were invited into the prison proper. I had expected to be escorted by guards, but before we knew it we had been locked into this prison yard full of not the most savoury characters and instead of a guard escort we had Dominic and a couple of his mates (the guards were firmly locked on the other side of the bars. I have to say my heart froze as I went shaking hands with the slightly over touchy mass as we were led away to the far side of the yard.

The yard itself deserves more explanation. Cloisters around the sides are chocked full of inmates, with cells lining the walls and a game of volleyball in the centre. Next to the court at the far end is a raised platform where, by what I understood from Dominic's warning, some seriously dodgy characters were hanging - large Latino bros doing their best to look HARD and not looking favourably upon us. Above is another cloister with more people looking over. The place is absolutely packed but only when you get into a cell do you understand the full extent of it.

Once at the far corner (that is as far as is possible from any guards), we were surrounded by a group of rather large guys of African descent. We chatted for a bit with them, seriously wary of our surroundings and what in the hell we had got ourselves into. With shouting from all around and more dodgy looks than in Brixton in the middle of the night, Dave has aptly described the scene as a cross between Football Factory and American History X. Dominic then invited me into to his oh so not enticing cell to which I stalled as there was no way I was going anywhere without the I feared not so protective company of Dave and Jez (I mean in a physical sense as, no insult to them or indeed myself, I have no doubt we could have done bugger all for ourselves in there). We were then escorted and locked into the cell with a few of the guys. To our horror, it was another prisoner who was doing the locking - not many guards around as I said before. What ensued from here was I am relieved to say strangely pleasant, though with a constant undercurrent of agitation on at least my but I believe all our faces. Some music was put on, our ciggies past round and general small chat. Despite what a mate said, I do not believe this was a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Most of the guys were in for trafficking a couple of kg plus of cocaine, but they were relatively nice guys. Especially an Antiguan with whom I naturally chatted about the state of West Indian cricket. They even offered me a smoke to which the obvious answer in Quito's hardest penitentiary was NO, but thank you ever so much for the offer.

Despite the pleasantries of the twenty or so mins locked in the cell, this should not take away from the shocking nature of the place. Horrendous conditions where thirty odd people were staying in a room approx 3m by 5m. Food was apparently horrible, violence and murder rife (we were told people would be writing down names to get them after visiting hour) and for sure not a place you would ever want to find yourself. Add to this the inmates comments about a justice system where if you go to court you are guilty, only serve full sentences (no cutting for good behaviour) and increased sentences are the consequence of any appeal - a pretty standard 8 years for drug-trafficking would become 12 on appeal - and the depressing nature of the place takes hold. Believe me, Amnesty would have more than a field day. The strange thing is that despite this, none of the guys we met claimed their innocence, but instead seemed pissed off at the informant culture of Ecuador (the constant comment of "this is a fucked up country - people talk to much") and wished they were in prison elsewhere - even rather in Columbia. Added to the lack of any Europeans in the prison (because they have embassies) the fact that this was so definitely the wrong prison struck home when I was told that the only foreign visitors were a couple of Germans who came once a month at best - not the general backpacker experience then.

As the end of visiting hours loomed I mentioned we should be off and they were really friendly in their goodbyes and thanks for visiting. I felt sorry for these guys having to serve years in a place I doubt I would survive a fraction of that time. It also became obvious to me as we re-entered the heart-stopping main area that the lock went on the door for our protection against others. I believe those bunch of guys were sheltering us from what lay behind all those dodgy looks. They then escorted us back through the crowds to the gate and after the guard checked our stamped forearms we made our way out with a minute or so of visiting hour to go. Mike, waiting outside, commented on our obvious looks of shock resulting from the obscene amounts of adrenaline pumped into our veins during three quarters of an hour we were within CN2. This was not subsided by confirmation from the guard and Mike (who had enquired around) that we had indeed been in an incredibly dodgy prison full of the real bottom level. The guard commented on how muy peligroso (very dangerous) it was and how we were unique as foreigners to go in. I really feel for any half decent soul who gets shut in there.

Overall it was a thought provoking and more than worthwhile experience, but do not get me wrong, if I had known what it entailed I would never have gone near the place. Sometimes you need to see the best and the worst of the place to assess it and I doubt there is much worse in Quito or perhaps in Ecuador then this place.

This was followed by an evening where I have to admit I was slightly shaken up and a night to compensate and get it out of my system (ended up going to the airport and back at 3am for some reason). The final day in Quito was spent a little worse for wear going to MITEL DEL MUNDO- the equator. Jumping back and forth from the northern hemisphere to the southern, balancing an egg on a nail, playing strange strength games (weaker on the equator) and watching water go anti (north), clockwise (south), and then straight down (equator), while in the distance looking at the official monument in the wrong place (they did not have GPS a couple of hundred years ago when the french marked down the equator) further worked as a chilled out antidote to the day before.

I really enjoyed my time in Ecuador but COLOMBIA beckoned and that is where I am now after a couple of days travels through some of the most startlingly beautiful countryside I have ever been graced to see. Driving along mountain roads of fervent-green flora clad collosi above and deep valleys below, with vibrantly colourful villages here and there - a great introduction to this beautiful country. Add a fun night of drinking games in the border town of Ipiales (the club was shut down for a bit for the machine-gun clad local squaddies to take a look around), a morning at a pilgrimage church set on a bridge across a deep valley and a Halloween night in CALI that I can not begin to describe here (demasiado loco - to much crazy) and Colombia is starting to take shape for me.

From here the plan is to trundle slowly up to the Caribbean coast, Cartahena, some diving, the lost city, Bogata and then the jungle.....
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