Monday, May 7, 2012

Expat Anecdotes

Adios to Colin Post. He blogs about sex, drugs and culture at Expat Chronicles, where he just announced that he's out of Colombia.

In addition to being an excellent blogger, Colin is one of those characters whom you meet about once in a lifetime, and describe years later with the afterthought: "and that's the kind of character you meet overseas!"

The Bolivian Times.
(Photo from: Conversion Rate Copywriting.)
During my dozen years in South America I have met many expat characters. The Bolivian Times newsroom, where I slaved away for several years, sheltered a procession of wanderers, wastrels, hippies, drug addicts, evangelicals and even geniuses. One feature story about a bar included a description about the clients' tradition of inserting a cigarette into the mouth of a clay frog and dancing around the beast. Our evangelical editor cut the paragraph because it involved worshipping an idol. Could Jesus Christ really lose followers to a frog?

The Bolivian Times was the sort of place where you could arrive in the country one day, walk into newspaper's office the second and become editor on the third - because nobody else wanted the job. One of our most memorable journalists was a drug-saturated South African who never advanced past a few phrases of Spanish but was soon editing the paper. April Fool's Day came around, and he and a sidekick decided it'd be great fun to invent some humorous anecdotes about things like the president having been beaten up by his wife.

Unfortunately, Bolivia does not celebrate April Fool's Day, and some people believed what they read.

The president - a one-time military dictator with blood on his hands - was not amused, and his office called to complain. The South African druggie had to visit the president's office, grovel, and try to explain the mishap in his dozen words of Spanish.

Another character who visited our newsroom was a gringo who worked as a fashion photographer. I remember him as a sort of spirited, sprite like fellow, who pranced around the room describing to the young women how he'd photograph them. Apparently, he'd had some success, because he made trips to Europe to photograph models there. Inconveniently, however, on one such trip they searched his bags and discovered kilos of cocaine. The guy was soon in a top security prison high on the altiplano, rooming near the cell of yet another ex-military dictator. One of our intrepid reporters interviewed him there, where the ex-fashion photographer explained that he'd gotten into meditation and found true peace. I hope that peace lasted thru his years of incarceration.

He was far from the only gringo whom drugs put behind bars in Bolivia. There was also the story of the young South African transvestite who needed money for a sex-change operation. He decided to fly to Bolivia, buy cocaine, smuggle it to Europe and sell it there to pay for the surgery. But in La Paz, Bolivia's airport they searched him, found the drugs, found something else under his skirts which proved he wasn't a woman, and arrested him. In court, he confessed his crime but pleaded to the judge: 'Your honor, I do the time, but for God's sake, don't put me in the men's prison. God know what they'd do to me!'

The judge felt sorry for him. And, in Bolivia's land of flexible laws, he put him into La Paz's women's prison, where I interviewed the South African. He was living quite happily with some 300 women - and had decided against the sex-change operation.

Girls play inside La Paz, Bolivia's San Pedro Prison. 
Yet another foreign prison occupant showed up while I was living in La Paz, but this one was voluntary. You might have heard of Rusty Young, who paid bribes to spend some four months sharing a cell with an English drug smuggler in La Paz's famous San Pedro Prison, where the inmates manufacture cocaine, counterfeit money and cohabit with their wives and children. Rusty said he planned to write a book about it. But, when he visited the Bolivian Times newsroom looking strung out on the white stuff, I decided that the book thing was only a cover to get access to some of the city's cheapest drugs. Rusty told some great anecdotes, like about the time that he was paying a prison guard his daily 5 boliviano bribe to enter the prison - and they grabbed him instead.

"What's the meaning of this! What do you think you're doing bribing a Bolivian official! Don't you know that in Bolivia we're not corrupt? This is a serious crime here!"

"But, but, but...I've paid every day..."

"That's enough. You're under arrest."

So they took him down the street to the local police station, where a cop explained the dire consequences of bribery in Bolivia, including a fine and  prison sentence. To top it all off, with the weekend coming up, he'd be stuck in a miserable cell for days with God-only-knew what sorts of criminals until a lawyer could even visit him.

It's one thing to pay to stay voluntarily in a prison, quite another to be locked up there.

"But isn't there anything I can do?" Rusty pleaded.

"Bribery is a very serious crime here in Bolivia," they reminded him, sternly.

"But isn't there ANYTHING I can do?" he repeated.

So, he paid a much larger bribe and they let him out.

Rusty, of course, went on to write Marching Powder, which has become a bestseller and a minor classic. He also left me wishing I'd thot of it.

In Paraguay, I met a young South African guy who wasn't strictly an expatriate - I think he'd grown up in Paraguay - but a memorable story nonetheless. When South Africa's white minority government fell, this guy's parents had looked around the globe for someplace where the government wouldn't bother them and they wouldn't have to live near  black people. They found Paraguay, a big country with few people and a corrupt government, which has served as a refuge and hideout for others, including Nazis and ultra-conservative colonial Mennonites.

A street in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.
(Photo: Buenos Aires Corrientes)
Paraguay also invented savage capitalism. Walk thru the Ciudad del Este border town and you'll pass stacks of stereos, cigarettes and whiskey waiting to be smuggled across the river into Brazil. And that's only the stuff that's displayed. Behind the walls are drugs and weapons. It's a hive of aggressive, take-no-prisoners traders from Asia and Lebanon. The South African kid and an Arab partner became successful exporting something more mundane - printer toner cartridges. Until one day, the South African told me, his partner skipped out on him, leaving him with huge debts.

In Ciudad del Este, debt collection practices are not gentle.

The South African guy then went from one man he owed money to to the next, pleading forgiveness and promising to make good - someday.

When I met him, the South African was teaching English in Asuncion for a piddling number of guaranis per hour - but still determined to become rich.

"I'm going to be a millionare before I'm 30," he vowed.

And he may already be, sitting on a mountain of printer cartridges.

Here in Bogotá, I met William, a European guy who'd lived here for several years. He lived with his Colombian girlfriend, taught English and had never bothered to learn Spanish.

"Why should I learn Spanish?" he asked. "They should all learn English."

In any case, he didn't need Spanish. His girlfriend spoke English, and William spent his free time at home watching movies and playing violent games on Playstation.

William also didn't bother to renew his Colombian visa. Whenever the police would stop him and demand his cedula, he'd just threaten to call a fictitious attorney. That, and perhaps his atrocious Spanish, got him loose. When he finally decided to get married in order to fix his visa status to be able to leave the country, the local priest required him to first sit thru months of incomprehensible Sunday sermons.

William had terrible luck - but with good fortune mixed in. One day, he was walking down Ave. Septima, and two guys crowded him from both sides, pressing pointed objects against his rib cage.

"Give us your money!" they demanded.

"I don't have any money!" William protested.

"Hand over your money, or else!"

So, William handed over his money.

"Now your cellphone."

"But I DON'T HAVE a cellphone."

At that moment his cellphone rang. So he had to give it to them.

"What else have you got?"

"Nothing!" William declared, raising his hands in the air to make the point.

That was when they saw his wedding ring. They took his wedding ring.

Poor William. He already had a rocky relationship with his wife because of his dalliances, and he feared that when she saw he'd lost the ring it would end things. So, he started searching downtown's compra-ventas, or pawn shops, for a ring which would pass as his own. In one, he spotted one that looked identical.

"Could you show me that ring, please?" he asked.

They showed him the ring. Inside was etched 'With love, for William.' It was his ring.

"Thank you," he said, handing it back.

He returned later accompanied by police and armed with photos of himself with the ring. He got his ring back.

Another time, William was walking thru La Candelaria, about mid-day. A kid walked up to him and demanded: 'Give me your money, gringo!'


"I said to give me your money, gringo!"


The guy didn't display any weapon.

"Give me your money!"

William punched him. Then he punched him again. All of his repressed Playstation violence boiled out. He punched the would-be mugger again and again, until the guy fell onto the sidewalk, and then proceeded to kick him.

That was when the cop showed up.

"What's going on here?"

William wasn't capable of explaining in Spanish. Undoubtedly, the would-be mugger claimed to be the victim. The cop helped the would-be mugger up and sent him off to find a doctor. He arrested William and took him to the police station, where William got fined for assault.

William certainly went overboard with the violence, but his response did warm the hearts of many of us who've been mugged by young punks.

But back to Colin. He's a physically big, high-spirited guy with interests ranging from drugs and women to literature, business and urban planning. He combined them all in his Expat Chronicles blog, which, predictably, got a following. The blog is worth a read, both for its good writing and its dramatic subject matter about drugs, drug smuggling, bribery, sex and more drugs. I'm sure I've never met anybody who can match Colin's frankness about his personal problems and his crimes and pecadillos - and few people who lead such interesting lives.

Colin is also a mess of contradictions. A big guy with a loud, outgoing personality with the guts to smuggle drugs to the United States - and then blog about it - he was also scared permanently by a low-grade mugging by a La Candelaria vagrant. Don't get me wrong. Getting mugged scares me, too. But I also would never have the guts to go to a brothel, smuggle drugs or do a dozen other things Colin has.

Colin's also got ambition. And when lots of people visited his blog to read about his sex life, he realized there was a market there. So he set up Bogotá Brothel Tours. The business got customers, but also got Colin forced from the country. He finally shuttered it when he found God, as he wrote on his blog.

A guy with as much guts, brains, ambition and initiative as Colin's got - combined with debatable ethics - will be up to more interesting things soon enough.

Related post: How Governments Built a Cocaine Factory

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Colin Post said...

Great stories!

I'm just starting Marching Powder now. It makes sense you took that fella for a skier. That's why he saw a story in that prison - at least he knew he's have a good time. You've heard they're making it into a movie starring Don Cheadle?

Also, funny you remember when I got mugged. No matter how tough I talk on the blog, I have to admit I was walking around spooked during my first few months in Bogota :)

Miguel said...

I heard that Brad Pitt's studio is making the Marching Powder film, or at least that they bought the rights to it.