Saturday, July 12, 2014


Jail Adventure

     Most would say that jail is not their idea of an adventure.  However , there are certain circumstances under which I would always choose jail as the preferred experience.  For example, if you had had a chance to be jailed with other key civil rights protestors in the 1960's ,or even in Selma with Martin Luther King, in South Africa with Nelson Mandela, wouldn't you jump at the chance?  Well, we cannot always be so lucky, or so righteous, or persistent, as to have those kind of moments, but I cannot but maintain that this jail experience I had was the best possible use of my tourist self at the time.

     My Jail story really began in Guatemala, where I had been living in the hills of Huehuetenango.  I had gone to Chi Chi (Chichicastenango) for a Mayan festival.  I had been hoping to see some shamanic rituals that I heard about, that might or might not have been related with the ancient Classic Maya and their calendar, whose hieroglyphs I was studying at the time.  It was there that I met Thomas Lang, the war reporter.

     Tomas (Spanish spelling) was a hard drinking, hard playing, down to earth war reporter originally from Chicago, where he had learned his predilection for siding with the underdog.  Working in the mostly black South Side at the time, he had realized that he could transcend his race and become accepted by the locals, which is how he worked his magic as a reporter.  Previous to working in El Salvador as a stringer for an Illinois small city paper, he had covered the Beirut beat, which according to him was far, far more dangerous.
     Tomas said he wouldn't even have made friends with another American, but that I spoke to him for the first time in Spanish (which I confess was more whim than habit), and we shared a small bottle of El Venado aguardiente ('Deer brand' 'firewater', the local hooch, which we all lovingly nicknamed Envenenado , or 'poisoned'), which naturally had to be diluted with coca cola and friendship.

     After passing many of Tomas's litmus tests, such as having lived on the South Side of Chicago, having been the only non-Jewish WhiteBoy in an otherwise 'All-Black' high school, speaking Spanish and a smattering of Maya, but most of all, being able to metabolize Envenenado, he invited me nonchalantly to come to El Salvador, more specifically the capital where he was based.

     "C'mon down to El Salvador, you'll like it.  Especially the parties..." he said , leaving me just enough of a worm wriggling to intrigue me.  Guatemala was really beautiful and deep with indigenous culture, but I had been a little bored recently, I felt the need to move among my own and socialize a little.  I had been cooped up in the hills for far too long.

     So although I had now been living in Guatemala for a full year, making occasional trips to Mexico for Visa purposes, with no definite end in sight, I now started to slowly make plans to tie up loose ends and continue my journey, which had been stagnated by my love of Guatemala.  In fact if it had not been for this catalyst, I might never have reached Argentina, or even Colombia.

    When I got to El Salvador, I checked into a hotel, which is still one of my favorite travel memories, because the ground floor was used as a tobacco curing shed, and the aromatic, heavenly smells of drying tobacco wafted up through the floors and into all the rooms.  Tobacco is not an unpleasant plant; it makes me wonder how much chemical wizardry goes into making it smell as bad as cigarettes do.

     After a week there, Tomas found me a friend's empty house to stay in, and he proceded to show me the party life I had dreamed of living up in the hills.  It wasn't sophisticated, no cocktails, nothing but beer, the people were great but not exactly what I would call 'my crowd'.  What set the party apart was that it was taking place during a civil war.  Eat Drink, and Be Merry, for tomorrow some of us could be dead.  Not a cute quip, but a reality in that time and place.  Everything seemed to have more meaning because of it, colors were sharper, sounds more crisp, food more tasty.

     Of course after a few weeks of partying like this, even this began to get a little old, and I yearned for more indigenous folklor, some local culture, and there was this town called La Palma in the hills near the border of Honduras and Guatemala, that was apparently worth it, for the entire town had been turned into this art village by this one visionary artist.  He had this unique and yet teachable naif style of painting that he taught to the villagers, and the entire village was just devoted now to churning out this painting style in a variety of handicrafts; gourds, wall hangings, clothes, etc.

     Unfortunately travel around the country was simply not a matter of getting a ticket and going.  More than half of the country was more or less in the hands of the guerrilla, and in a losing battle with the hearts and minds of their own people, the government was restricting travel to these areas.  Any place within walking or even horse riding distance of guerrilla territory required a travel permit issued by the Salvadorean High Command, or  salvoconducto, as it is called in Spanish.

     So, applying for and successfully receiving a salvoconducto often took more than a week, and often two weeks.  Unfortunately, I was at the end of my visa and wouldn't be able to wait that long.  But Tomas simply told me a little trick:  " These things are always changing, according to the situation of the army and the guerrillas.  So just get on a bus, and sit at the front where you are clearly visible.  If you are not allowed in the area without a salvoconducto, they will pull you off the bus and make you go back to the capital, and if not, if the situation is all clear, they'll allow you to go through.

     So we did just that....because by now I had recruited another person, a very blond looking Norwegian dude, in this adventure plan.  We both sat side by side, doubling our apparent foreignness, in the very front seat of the bus, where the soldiers at the roadblocks could clearly see us.  We passed more than five roadblocks in five hours, and at the end, we couldn't believe that we were entering La Palma, village of artists.

     Once we had gotten off of this magic bus, we sought out a hotel in the center of town, threw our packs down, and headed off to the market to search for dinner.  We found a lovely little vendedor selling pupusas and beer, and we joked about being the whitest guys on the bus and how it had worked like a magic talisman for opening up this lovely city to us.  Once we were here now, most of what there was to do was to go souvenir shopping, and possibly to visit with people and see how the art had affected their lives.  With all these plans, we finished our beers and went back to our hotel to get an early night in, so we could be fresh in the morning.

     When we opened up the room, there were three milicos (military police) sitting on our beds, going through our bags.  They looked up at us, without any apology or remorse.  "Good evening, gentlemen" said the one with ray bans, who seemed to be in charge.  "Do you have your salvoconducto to be here?"

     So we explained the whole deal , about how we really wanted to see La Palma, which is internationally famous, but that the salvoconducto required too much time, and how our friend had recommended the method of sitting at the front of the bus.  The commander shook his head when he heard how lazy the roadblock guys had been at doing their job.  We should, and would have been stopped immediately out of the capital if things had been working well.

     So he went on to say that this was a restricted area, and that we were actually in a little danger here, and so for our own safety, he insisted, before we could object about all the casual, safe looking people we had seen strolling around the market, for our own safety we would be taken to the military base, and then in the morning, back to the capital by military transport.
La Palma today, reflecting not guerrillas but urban criminals.

     When we got our first look at our new digs for the night, the military base just outside of town, we were a little agog, for the entrance had bullet holes and divots right at about head level, all around the entrance.  Maybe people had even been killed in this deadly entrance.  The entry was not straight, but protected by a bullet pockmarked wall, and behind that wall, where the other walls were higher, there were other pockmarks to show how ill advised it would be to stick your head up during a fight.

    Once inside the base, they took us to a room no larger than a closet, and locked us in there.  It didn't take long for us  to realize that there were no windows, just the locked steel door, no hope of escape , and possible danger of asphyxiation or being dehydrated to death if it got too hot in here.  We wasted no time nor oxygen in going to sleep. As it turns out, there was just enough air in there for two men to pass a very short night.  In the morning, when they opened our door, we stumbled out, dizzy from lack of oxygen.  It took me all that day to recover my brain function, which I then used to realize how lucky we were they hadn't killed us through incompetence and negligence.  This was how cheap life had become here, apparently.

     They loaded us on the back of a Datsun pickup, with a mounted 50 mm machine gun, the sort of weapon you see now in a lot of middle eastern conflicts, an improvised weapon that is cheap and mobile, and easily switched out with another cheap japanese pickup when the Datsun breaks down.  The ironic thing about this is that we were now being used by the military as human shields to pass unhindered through what was surely guerrilla territory.   To top it off, the men who were escorting us were out of uniform, to increase the confusion for guerrilla snipers. All that day we fantasized that a really talented sniper would pick off the military guys, freeing us and beginning a fantastic adventure.

     But it was a quiet and uneventful ride. The green hills were more like the kind of touristing that we had originally signed up for; only now, we were leaving all of that verdure peace for the bustle of the Big Smoke, where the large and mostly empty prison of the Treasury awaited us.

     My Cell was padded and right next to Ulf's as I'll call the Norwegian travel buddy, to protect his real name, in case he is now a cabinet minister or some other politician.  We could communicate by shouting through the little barred windows in our padded doors.  At first I thought we might have mistakenly been taken to some mental institution, the walls were very thick and it would be pretty difficult to hurt yourself by running at them.

    Looking around the cell, I found the answer.  There was a bloody handprint, at about eye level, and the fingers were smeared downward, as if someone had been thrown there.  This was a torture cell, and the padding was to muffle the screams, for as I found out later, this prison (like so many others) was located within earshot of a residential district.

     It was a chilling sight, and steeled my resolve to take this experience seriously.  I was an American passport holder, I reasoned, and so if I didn't give them any reason to kill me, it would be difficult for them to kill me with impunity (poor reasoning, as I found out later, since they killed over two dozen journalists during that conflict, possibly for having seen something they shouldn't have).  Ulf and I kept eachother company that first night by shouting back and forth through the bars; both of us were afraid that we might be the last living witness of the other's demise, and it made us uneasy in a way we had no words to express, so we traded stories and Ulf even sang a Norwegian Viking dirge for me.

     The next day, it was time for the military to sort us out.  We had been dumped here by the army, but the actual prison was owned and operated by the treasury department, which put it in some sort of legal loophole, or at least out off of the usual journalistic radar.  It was perhaps for these reasons that this particular prison was actually a locus for torture of suspected communist sympathizers, thus explaining the padded cells and the blood stains.

     My cell door opened, and an interrogator in civilian clothes walked in.  He spoke English.  At that point my Spanish was certainly good enough to travel with, but I think they wanted no mistakes when it came to taking my statement, since the results of that could determine whether they let me live or not.

     He was holding my passport in his hand, and began with a classic itinerary interrogation.  Years later, I would study interrogations in detail for my master's thesis, and though I couldn't have known it at the time, this is one of the oldest and simplest gambits for a cop to catch someone lying.  You have the record of their comings and goings, and you simply jump around on the calendar, hoping they will slip up.  The main problem with this is that over a period of years, people's memories are not so perfect.

     "So in April you entered Mexico at the border of Zapotal, Chiapas?"
     I thought for a second.  April was nearly a year ago.  I had left HueHue to get my visa renewed, that time had been a quick crossing just to reset the visa clock.
     "I believe so, yes"
     "And then in July, you re-entered Guatemala from Belize?"
     I was trying to figure out his game.  Was he just trying to get me to slip up on itineraries, or was he referring to my pattern of travel in Guatemala, which had been, just before leaving, to go to remote jungle zones, which just happened to be Guatemalan guerrilla country.  Indeed, that time, instead of turning around and coming right back, I had made a loop through Palenque, Aguas Azules, and the Yucatan Peninsula before returning to Guatemala through the Peten, which is where most of the guerrilla operate.
   "Oh, yeah, maybe I confused that with another time", I said.
     The interrogator furrowed his brow.  Clearly he had just caught me in a slip up, but something else seemed to be happening. He clearly seemed bored with this routine, and this line of questioning was not leading where he wanted it to.
     "So, earlier, it looks like actually a year earlier, you left Mexico and re entered from the U.S. border.
     "Yes".   (trying to recall this distant event)
     "So what were you doing that time?"
     "It must have been Nogales, Arizona.  I went to visit my friends in Tucson"
     "You have friends in Arizona?  Is that where you were living ?"
     "No, actually I was living in California before that.  San Francisco."
     His posture relaxed, and his demeanor shifted.  He parked one leg cross one knee, and said conversationally  "So how is California?  Are there plenty of jobs nowadays?"
     I could barely believe my ears.  The government itself is abandoning the country, I thought. This war is completely lost, I felt my head thinking autonomously.
     Seeing my chance, I shifted my gears also and began making polite conversation, following his lead.  Do you have relatives in California?, I asked, knowing that it was a popular place for Salvadoreans to immigrate to.  How are they liking it? , I continued, trying to draw the attention away from me and my travels.
     We continued that way for another twenty minutes, and by now his mood had lightened considerably.  He went away, leaving the door open for the longest time, a really deadly pause, during which I considered, Are they doing this so I'll attempt escape, and they can shoot me down as target practice?, thoughts which I later discovered were not so fantastic or out of touch with the reality of that grim time.
     After this long pause, with the door swinging on its hinges in the late afternoon breeze, not knowing whether this serendipity had bought my life or not, he then reappeared with a generous slice of cake with pink and white frosting.  I wasn't particularly in the mood for cake, but like so many other offered gifts from tribes and what not, I knew there was no option to refuse or even to put off eating it till later.  I don't know how to evaluate cake, but eating it there, with all the padding and blood stains around me, it tasted like absurdity.
     The Norwegian was released that day, but I had to spend another night, because even though there was no Norwegian embassy at that time, the Charge D'Affairs businessman came and got him as soon as he was informed, whereas my American attache , of whatever department is responsible to come and sign for Americans abroad imprisoned by accident, decided to stay at a coctail party a little later and come for me on Monday instead, because as it turned out, it was a weekend, and the pink cake had been given me on a Saturday.
     Walking out of that place, I decided the best way to decompress from the whole experience was to sit down at some cafe or restaurant, have some coffee or food, and get my bearings slowly, while feeling what it was like not to be in a bloody padded 8 by 8 cell for a while.  I found a nice little street place directly across from the prison, and the woman was pleasant, taking my order for pupusas and eggs and sausages.  Pupusas are like giant, fat steaks of the corn masa that is used all over central america for making tortillas.  They sometimes come stuffed with cheese or meat, but they are the emblem of El Salvador, a unique cuisine that stands in for the nation, like Kimchi does for Korean nationality.
     After she brought me my food, the lady was bored and a little curious, since I was her only customer, and a foreigner, from her face I could tell she hadn't had many foreign guests in her little cafe.  Between eggs and pupusa, I stopped to give her an explanation.  "I just got out of there", I said, and then I saw the clouds of confusion cross her face, so I gave her a brief rundown of my weekend activities at the Torture Hotel.
     When I tried to pay, she said "No charge!" and held up her hands strongly as if Elvis himself had just eaten from her menu and it was an honor she would treasure forever.  As I would later find out from other Salvadoreans, I was one of the only people ever to walk out of that place, alive or otherwise.

     Years later, while married to a Korean, I would end up living in one of the Salvadorean enclaves in Los Angeles, and as I chatted to my neighbors in Spanish, I wondered if I should bring up the story of the ride to La Palma, the Prison cake, and the free Pupusas...better not, I thought, it would bring up bad memories for most; my good fortune in having this adventure would be made absurd and  meaningless by all the horrors of war that had gone on.  While remembering this story, I did some basic research on the civil war, and it remains one of the most horrific conflicts a country has survived in modern times.  I must dedicate this to all the martyrs of that conflict and to the longsuffering Salvadorean people in general.

1 comment:

Eliseo Weinstein said...

Wow! You are the first person I encountered to have such a thought and idea like that. I can’t imagine what kind of adventure you can find inside a jail, but reading your post has shed me some light. The stories you shared are touching and amusing. No wonder you were so inspired to go on a trip like that. Thanks for sharing that, El! All the best to you!

Eliseo Weinstein @ JR's Bail Bonds