I wanted speakers for my iPod. I got speakers for my iPod.

I turned into a total kid when I spotted it in its gift bag, bringing back nostalgia for the days of pure silly joy at opening a present.

Another Christmas gift made me nostalgic for my time in a Bolivian prison.

No, I’m not kidding. But obviously there’s more to the story. I’m so far from being anywhere near that interesting.

My friend picked Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign out of travel writer Pico Iyer’s other fascinating-sounding books because the back cover mentions a tour of a Bolivian prison, among many other destinations, and she already knows the story of my Bolivian prison tour.

There’s a jail in La Paz where a jittery prisoner, who I assumed was in on drug charges, conducts tours to earn money for his keep. Bolivian prisoners must pay their way, renting their cells and buying their meals so as not to be a burden on the already burdened government.

According to him – and why wouldn’t I believe a coked-out criminal who earns his living entertaining thrill-seeking tourists? – one guy with a scar from ear to ear had the job of protecting the tour groups, and one ran a “night club,” smuggling alcohol into the prison and playing music in their cells.

He also told us prisoner rape is unheard of in that particular jail, since some wives and girlfriends choose to live inside with their mates, and others regularly visit with their kids. There was a strangely domestic air to the place, which felt a lot like a poor – but not too poor – Bolivian neighbourhood.

According to Iyer:

The place was said to be a microcosm of the society around it: some people lived in “cells” that were as well appointed as five-star hotels, while others were squeezed, by the hundred, into spaces originally intended for twenty-five.

Five star is stretching it by about four and nine-tenths stars, but there were bi-level individual cells with televisions and cell phones next to tiny holes in the wall with maybe a blanket next to those overstuffed dormitories.

Iyer’s experience was quite different from mine, most notably in that he never did take the tour. Finding himself in a pen waiting for entrance, he got spooked, and since he travelled shortly after 9/11, while my trip was a couple of years earlier, he had even more reason to feel a sense of potential danger.

There must be something I had done, I thought, on which they could have me up; there were any number of irregularities of which I could be accused.

He’d had his passport taken away with no explanation at a customs check the day before, which caused problems for him when he tried to exit the jail prematurely – they suspected him of being a terrorist, and strip searched him – and would certainly have caused problems if he’d tried to go beyond the holding pen before the tour.

I had to surrender my passport to the guards (to ensure I didn’t decide to stay inside?) who apparently got a cut of the entrance fee in exchange for allowing the tours. Giving up your passport to crooked prison guards is an unwise move, of course, and one the Canadian passport people would frown on. In fact, the friend who gave me the book works for the passport office and frowned when I told her. But this tour was in Lonely Planet, so I figured it must be OK.

I’ve never had a panic attack, but whatever I felt during the tour must be close. My heart was racing, and I could only take shallow breaths as the guide showed us around the terrifying place that, except for the scary looking men roaming around, and the knowledge that the prisoners seemed to have more control than the guards, appeared incongruously unterrifying – a frightening idea in itself, that something so beyond normal could seem almost normal.

Despite my fear, it was one of the highlights of my travels not only to Bolivia, but anywhere, for both the novelty and the peek at a world I would never have dreamed of seeing up close.

Or maybe that shouldn’t be “despite,” but “because of.” To quote Iyer quoting Albert Camus: “What gives value to travel is fear.”

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