So there I was sat in a Bolivian prison cell being told how the system works by Jacques. He had been an inmate of La Paz's San Pedro prison for five years, arrested at the age of twenty-two for drug smuggling. He was a year older than myself but looked twice his age. I could tell prison life was tough.
Jacques was six foot and scrawny with scruffy blonde hair. He had grown up in the heart of Paris, a place that he could now only see in his dreams. He stood in front of Mark and me wearing dirty blue jeans and a tatty dark green shirt.
Being new to the prison he could see that both of us were nervous and not at all at ease with our new surroundings. Sitting in a Bolivian prison was off the beaten narrative of the trip we had both envisaged when at home in northern England. He motioned for us both to sit down on the bed in his cell before asking if either of us would like a drink;
`Can I get you both a drink? Coca-Cola, Sprite, water? Anything you want,' he offered.
`Sprite please,' I nervously responded.
`Same here,' followed Mark.
Jacques opened the door of his cell and yelled to someone at the bottom of the stairs.
Jacques' cell was situated at the top of a tight staircase in the far left corner of the main court yard that minutes earlier we had come through. He looked at us both with a stern face and said;
`This prison is very dangerous. You need to keep safe, they think you are American Gringo!' he warned us.
`Who are they?' Mark asked.
`The Bolivian prisoners that stared as you came through the gates. They do not like Americans,' explained Jacques.
`What's the problem with Americans?' I was eager to hear his response.
`Because they are bastards!' he barked.
I wanted to ask him why but didn't. Jacques had an unsettling look in his eye and it felt like his mood could change. I just nodded politely and agreed.
The awkward tension in the air broke as someone wrapped a fleshy fist against the heavy wooden cell door,
`Jacques it is me, I have your drinks,' came a soft Spanish voice.
`Come in the door is open,' ordered Jacques.
The door creaked open on its rotten brackets and in walked a small Bolivian woman with black hair in a bob and caramel skin. She smiled warmly at Mark and I as she placed two bottles of ice cold Sprite onto Jacques' small bedside table.
Jacques grabbed hold of the woman, who giggled. He then introduced her,
`This is my wife Maria; she is pregnant with my child.'
Before entering the prison I had expected the worse. I was expecting the conditions to resemble those of the Turkish prison in Oliver Stone's Midnight Express. Thankfully they were not. Jacques' cell was closer in prison terms to the Orient Express; he had everything he could ask for apart from his freedom.
I scanned his cell and was amazed to see that at the bottom of his bed he had a twenty-six inch television. On the far wall was a black shelf full of books and stacks of CDs. Underneath the shelf on the chipped concrete floor sat a CD player and another tower of music discs.
In the right corner he had a small kitchenette consisting of a small gas stove and sink. I sat on his raised bed looking towards a blocked off room by the entrance to his cell. Maria could see that I was inquisitive so told me,
`It is the shower.'
Jacques' cell was small but he had everything he needed, including a wife. He lived in better conditions than we had backpacking through Peru. I was amazed that prison could be so comfortable.
We all know that prison puts the `ow' into shower. If I had to stay here it was something that I would most certainly ask for, Jacques was lucky.
As I finished my inspection of his cell, Jacques turned his back on us. He faced the book shelf and started to flick through his collection of CDs. I couldn't see what exactly he was doing and started thinking that perhaps he wanted to play some music to break the awkward silences that punctured our conversations. I was wrong.
He turned to face us holding out a rolled up Bolivian bank note and casually asked if we would like a line of cocaine. I sat at the end of his bed in shock;
`It will put you at ease my friends, go on try it's the best!'
I couldn't believe the situation we were both in. Sat inside a cell in Bolivia's most notorious jail with an inmate kindly asking if we would like some cocaine to compliment our bottles of Sprite.
Jacques could see that we were both sceptical so before we answered he took the note and snorted two large lines up his right nostril. He pinched the end of his large nose and asked us again;
`Please my friends I insist,' he said.