La Paz: the home of magical realism

Travel Writer: A tour around the infamous San Pedro prison gave Conall Scollard a surreal view of the Bolivian city

San Pedro prison, La Paz: ‘Guards never enter the prison and it is self-governed with prisoners holding elections for different positions.’

San Pedro prison, La Paz: ‘Guards never enter the prison and it is self-governed with prisoners holding elections for different positions.’

 

I waited outside a fried chicken restaurant off San Pedro square while Christina used the baños. As she returned I could see her muttering inaudibly to herself, presumably cursing. Whenever she leaves me alone in South America I attract drug-dealers or nutcases, and now there was a shoeless American wearing rags and a wild beard talking to me.

She was unaware that I had intended to meet Crazy Dave, as he insisted on being called, here. Surprisingly he wasn’t trying to sell any drugs, although he did tell me, unprompted, which kiosks around the square sold cocaine (all of them). On arrival, I had asked around the hostel about the best things to do in La Paz and was unanimously told to go down to the square and wait for Dave to find us. There was one caveat – be careful, some days he can be grumpy. Presumably one of those days was the day he was caught bringing 8.5kg of cocaine through La Paz airport in beer bottles. Today he seemed happy, well as happy as someone who lives under a bridge and doesn’t own shoes could be.

Dave fills the void left since authorities clamped down on prison tours. The book Marching Powder by Rusty Young made San Pedro prison a bit of a cult attraction. Inmates gave unofficial tours of a facility which, like many of the attractions in La Paz, fits with the Latin American idea of magical realism – a highly detailed, realistic setting invaded by something too strange to believe.

On entry to the prison one must purchase a cell. There are luxury five-star sections where wealthy inmates pay for cell extensions. Guards never enter the prison and it is self-governed with prisoners holding elections for different positions. To survive prisoners must find a job or set up a business. Often they will take their family to live with them as they wouldn’t be able to support themselves on the outside. Inexplicably, it also produces the purest cocaine in Bolivia, according to local connoisseurs. Dave entertains us for an hour with stories from his 13 years inside and tales of daring escapes – my favourite was the young inmate who dressed up as a schoolboy and walked out the front gate one morning with the other children going to school. An excellent storyteller, he brought us back down to earth with the origins of his shattered elbow (other prisoners don’t much like gringos) just as it was time to tip.

Dave insisted that he would spend any cash on drugs, so his reward was a trip to the supermercado. He made a beeline straight for the Coco Pops, which he complemented with a tin of powdered milk. The queue was slow and we could see his eyes jumping around, searching for anything he could persuade us to buy before the checkout.

Dave now wanted a razor so he could have a clean shave. I agreed since I had enjoyed his company and assumed it would be inexpensive. Christina tried to redirect him to a single blade disposable razor but for a homeless man he maintained a strong preference for high quality razors, focusing his attention on the Mach 3 Turbo. Our compromise was a normal Mach 3. We just hoped he didn’t sell it off for cash.

Coda: An hour later we were watching female wrestling with a llama foetus in my bag. La Paz may just be the real home of magical realism.

Entries to The Irish Times Travel Writer competition, in association with Travel Department, are now closed. The winning writer will be announced on October 29th in The Irish Times Magazine. See irishtimes.com/travelwriter

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