Humbled in an Quito Prison

Having interviewed Wally Broderick just a few weeks ago for Colombia Calling about the state of Colombia’s prison system, it sparked several memories of the few occasions upon which I had entered, as a visitor, the Garcia Moreno Prison in Quito, Ecuador.

The Garcia Moreno Prison, Quito, Ecuador

The Garcia Moreno Prison, Quito, Ecuador

Wind the clock back to 2004 and I was working as a freelance social projects coordinator and expedition leader for a British outfit with my base in Ecuador. One of the warm-up activities to which we would subject our keep of British Gap Year students coming out for some much needed exposure to the world, was to gain access to either of the male or female prisons located in that capital city and show them the horrors within.

The idea behind this was to open their fresh young eyes to the reality of drug smuggling in the hope that they might not stray into this pastime whilst we were responsible for them. So, we would make contact with British or Anglophone inmates and set up a visitation hour.

I’ll admit that entering the Garcia Moreno Prison was never a comfortable outing to lead, so often does one read of hostage-takings, uprisings or even as has been revealed recently in Colombia, dismemberments and disappearances of visitors. I never fully relaxed until we were all out and in a truck heading back into Quito, especially if we led groups weighted with more women whilst in the men’s prison.

On the first visit we were fortunate to contact an elderly Dutch inmate who had been imprisoned for allegedly having drugs inserted into the computer parts he was shipping back from Ecuador to Holland. His story, while well delivered, presumably from having convinced himself of his innocence over time, was less than credible. During the 40 minutes or so he spoke to us about the unpleasantness of life on this inside, a friend entered. Also in his 60s, this stout German admitted that he had managed to avoid becoming a target of the ne’er do wells in the joint by propagating the rumour, effectively so, that he had been a personal bodyguard to Chile’s General Pinochet. I suppose that so nefarious were Pinochet’s actions and so widely known across the continent, this kept people at bay despite the German’s advanced years.

Seeking out Ian from England, we were invited to his cell. Gifts of lewd magazines and cigarettes made, Ian would tell us how he was now a proud Ecuadorian since the lady he had been seeing during conjugal visits had given birth to a little girl. He would never return to the UK he would state. He said that since conjugal visits had been permitted – something relatively recent in 2004 in Ecuadorean prisons I believe – the cases of rape had decreased significantly.

Pabellon B, Garcia Moreno Prison

Pabellon B, Garcia Moreno Prison

Did Ian show any regret or remorse for his actions of having tried to smuggle cocaine out of Ecuador and to the UK? Not an iota. He was, just as his friend from New York, now as convinced as ever that they knew the system even better and how to beat it once they were out. “I even have smuggling contacts in Greenland,” the New Yorker ventured after giving us class A1 on shifting drugs.

Briefly a father and son smuggling team from northern England appeared. They seemed too out of it for conversation.

Whilst being given the full tour of each wing of the prison, we momentarily passed through an incongruous looking area with fresh paint, hanging baskets with blooming flowers, a sizeable grill in the corner providing decent-looking hamburgers and where each cell appeared to have been fitted with a television.

Peering into once cell I could see that the game was on. I knew at once which one. The FA Cup game Manchester United vs Exeter City. A third round replay after a courageous 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, this was glory tie for the low-ranking Grecians but business as usual for the ridiculously talented United. Having graduated from Exeter University in 2000 the local side occupied and continues to occupy a place of affection in my heart.

“That’s my team!” I expressed excitedly to the prisoner slung along his bunk.

“Ah Manchester United, very good team,” responded the prisoner.

“No the other one.”

“The shit one?” He looked at me suspiciously as one looks at a madman.

Later I was informed that this area of the prison had been specifically designed by and for high-ranking actors in Ecuador’s drugs trade. If only I knew a little more about the individual with whom I had shared but a few words.

I had been humbled by a man deprived of his liberty.

Exeter City went on to lose 2-0 at home

I have since read that the prison was closed in 2015 and you can now take a 30 minute tour of the buildings. Certainly this would be chilling, but nothing on the experience we shared with the groups when its inhabitants lived there.


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Orange Fanta in Uyuni

Shaking his fist, the backpacker, remonstrated perhaps a little more impetuously than he should have. He was genuinely angry.

On the other side of the window, three or four Aymara children jumped puck-like with glee kicking up dust as they continued their jig at the backpacker’s expense.

Orange Fanta in Uyuni

Orange Fanta in Uyuni

“Fanta, Fanta, Faaaaaaaaantaaaaaa!”

Their round faces, each one with dried snot gummed to their upper lips and burnt cheeks from the Altiplano sun, were tearful from their hysterics. Their taunting of the English backpacker couldn’t have gone better.

Now picking out cheap ceiling plaster from his scrambled eggs, the backpacker leaned over to catch the owner’s attention.

“Can I have some more eggs please?”

“That will cost you,” replied the restaurant’s owner, a gruff and solid-looking local.

“But, plaster fell from the ceiling into my breakfast,” retorted the backpacker dusting off his shoulders, hair and jumper.

Indignant and incredulous he looked around for support from the other travellers around him. He got none.

Only days previously this guy, if I remember rightly, who hailed from Plymouth had vomited into my Peruvian chullo. Somehow the ceiling had missed me and my food, but had dropped squarely onto him.

There was no love lost between us.

The Bolivian lady spoke no more. Her piece had been said. It had nothing to do with her that ceiling plaster in her restaurant might have fallen onto this unsuspecting backpacker’s head and into his breakfast at the very moment when he was being cuckolded by local children for being a red-head unlike anything they had ever seen before here in Uyuni.

When you don’t have an expansive vocabulary and your frame of reference is confined to a poor selection of school materials and the ubiquitous invasion of popular culture and big soda even to this isolated desert town at 3700m above sea level, then what is the most appropriate description of a colour so vivid of that of an extreme redhead?

Orange Fanta of course.

Did enjoy this short travel anecdote? Perhaps you might enjoy this tale from Panama or this one from Ecuador

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The Boyacá Road trip

Since most of my travel plans in the precious few days here and there involve the ubiquitous journeys up to Mompos from Bogotá to check up on the chuzo, I am finding fewer opportunities to involve myself in an activity so close to my heart…exploring my adopted homeland, so with no plans to head up to the coast during this past Semana Santa, I leapt at the opportunity to take the family on a Boyacá road trip.


The beautiful scenery of Boyaca was at times truly breathtaking

In fact, this is something I had been craneando or mulling over in my head for some time. So close to the capital and outside of the weekend destinations of Villa de Leyva and Raquira, this is a region almost wholly unknown to me. So, that was it, a Boyacá road trip was loosely planned and we set off on the most Colombian of holidays with a rough outline of where to go and what to do.


Nobsa had a great deal of charm – and great merengon – and it is here that you can get your hands on a lamb’s wool ruana (poncho) if you are so inclined

My reference as to this being the most Colombian of holidays can be justified in that we were doing as a Colombian family would do (although I hasten to add that we left our Weimaraner in a kennel and neither brought the mother in law nor extended family members), hitting the road, direction unknown, to explore Boyacá, as if following  in the footsteps of Simon Bolivar’s British Legion, we would explore colonial towns and stop at each and every byway and highway and main plaza to enjoy some of the culinary delicacies of the region.


the Esquina del Chisme, Nobsa, Boyaca

And Boyacá did not disappoint.

And while I have claimed that this was a Colombian holiday, I will have to admit to you all that on one thing I did not cede and my Britishness won out. I did advance book a room in a centrally located and beautifully sprawling colonial hacienda called the Hostería San Luis de Ucuengá in Punta Larga on the road between Sogamoso and Duitama.

The Hosteria

The Hosteria

I am reliably informed by a friends from Boyacá that the best merengon (a sort of Eton Mess!) in Boyacá, created by “pioneers” of the dessert, is found on a Y junction between the towns of Nobsa and Tibasosa. But, I have to say that my favourite was eaten in the plaza of Nobsa. Tibasosa is worth a shout out in that after a short conversation with a vendor in the plaza there we were invited to some traditional chicha and to try out some genovés locally made sausage too. Overall the food was of an excellent quality and very reasonably priced.


La Puerta de la Historia in Mongui

Our exploratory loops included the aforementioned towns of Nobsa, Tibasosa but we also spent time in Paipa, Aquitania, Tota, Cuitiva, Firavitoba and Mongui. Yes, the Laguna de Tota is spectacular and well worth visiting, although during Semana Santa – like everywhere else in the country – it was very crowded. I still cannot believe people would bathe in that water at 3.115 meters above sea level. And, as is the custom, a nearby asadero put on their music at full and distorted levels so as to be sure we knew that they were open for business. So Playa Blanca in all of it’s pristine and natural glory as the second highest navigable lake in South America behind Boliva and Peru’s Lake Titicaca, was less spiritual than one would have liked.

The penetrating smell of spring onions in the air could become overwhelming in between Tota and Aquitania, but the scenes of the hardworking folk performing the backbreaking task of hauling them from the fertile soil almost seemed worthy of a National Geographic photo expose.

Talking about hardworking though, chatting idly to a salesperson in a shop selling, predictably, balls in Mongui (the town produces balls of all shapes and sizes), I was informed that the town had been contracted by Heineken to produce 50,000 footballs for a campaign soon to be released. These balls need to be handed over in the space of just two months, so, everyone is working hammer and tongs to comply with the contract. Mongui also made the football for the Brazil World Cup, the Brazuca.

But what really caught my imagination was the historic nature of the region, not only for the strong and omnipotent pre-Columbian roots but also for the importance of the region to the independence of Colombia (or New Granada as it was then) from their Spanish colonial masters.

The Commander-in-Chief of Bolivar’s British Legion was an Irishman named James Rooke, who is celebrated in various parts of Colombia, but no more so than in Boyacá. Rooke passed away a few days after the battle from his injuries and subsequent amputation from wounds acquired during the Batalla del Pantano de Vargas on July 25 1819 in the town called Belencito. He is also honoured with a splendid bust in the main plaza, named in his memory as well, in the town of Paipa.


the picturesque main plaza at Iza

Heading to the Pantano de Vargas to see the hulking sculpture of the Lanceros by Rodrigo Arias Betancur erected 1969 is well worthwhile if only to hear the experts talking about the developments of this pivotal battle and learning about some of the principal actors. I had no idea about the story behind the Guahibo indian from Arauca, Inocencio Chincá, who rose to the rank of Sergeant in the army for independence and dying in Tibasosa from wounds sustained in the same battle. Is his rank and acceptance a display of emancipation in 19th Century Colombia or more of a case of all hands to the good fight?


the Puente de Boyaca

Also visited was the Puente de Boyacá on the way back to Bogotá to check out the memorials to the battle of Boyacá which took place on August 7, 1819. At the base of the hill, represented by a bumpy mound there is another monument to James Rooke and his men and once again offering me a chance to feel closer to my adopted homeland through a shared notion of history.


Monument to Simon Bolivar at the Puente de Boyaca

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Bogotá Stereotype No3: The Carro Escolta

We’ve all been there, whether it behind the wheel of your car and pushed into a non-existent third lane of a two-lane thoroughfare, or feeling as if you are staring down the blunt yet deadly tip of the lance in a jousting tournament as the tell-tale 4×4 bears down on you at the pedestrian crossing, or narrowly avoiding certain death at the hands of the suited driver behind the tinted windows of a Chevrolet Blazer as it pulls up and over the kerb to park on the pavement. Yes, today’s target of choice is the Bogotá Stereotype No3: the Carro Escolta or the vehicle escort detail.


The Carro Escolta often seen on Bogota’s streets

Following on hotly in the footsteps of the Bogotá Stereotype No1 the Oficinista and No2 the Bicinazi, we have No3 the Carro Escolta, I have decided to narrow down my focus in this circumstance and take aim at an infinitesimally small yet ever-present sector of society.

Clearly, since these licensed bodyguard drivers are subject neither to established traffic norms nor to Bogotá’s ubiquitous car free days, they run riot over the capital’s roads with a nonchalance herewith only otherwise seen practiced by drivers of the yellow zapatico taxis. Basically, what you are looking at is a taxi driver in an upgraded car (several times over) with the authority and permission to carry a gun.

To this day, I have still yet to hear the driver of a Carro Escolta speak. Happiest behind the wheel of the aforementioned Blazer, Toyota Fortuner or Ego, the Carro Escolta driver is the personification of a four-slice toaster draped in an Arturo Calle suit. Dare I suggest that many of them suffer from “small man syndrome” and being vertically challenged thus compensate this in (hoodlum) driving prowess for what they lack in stature?

For some time I have asked about the reality and actual need for so many Carro Escoltas in Bogotá. I say this in no way as a statement of disrespect to those who live and who have lived under the continual threat and cosh of kidnapping or worse in Colombia, but surely, some percentage of these vehicles can be left in the garage now?

Only this Sunday I saw former mayoral candidate and current Minister for the Post Conflict Rafael Pardo enjoying himself shopping in the north of the city. I looked for bodyguards everywhere and while my eye may be untrained, there were none in sight.

Visit Bogotá or any Colombian city and you too will be able to spot the Carro Escolta. They move like pack animals, group in the Zona G and downtown near to the seat of power and answer to nobody. If you suffer from road rage and feel the need to reprimand the driver of a Carro Escolta for running you off the road, find that happy place within, where your anger management training kicks in, and you may just get away unharmed.

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