This story was contributed by a gringo expat in Bogota, Mark Kennedy. Read another story featuring Mark, When Speaking Spanish Doesn’t Serve. I lived in Arequipa for a year and, coincidentally, he lived there for a while too. He was even locked up one night. Here’s his story.
Two years ago I found myself in La Ciudad Blanca – Arequipa. I was living in a hostel that overlooked a 400 year-old monastery. After spending the day finishing an article for a British travel website, a night on the town was well deserved.
I had a few beers with other backpackers in the hostel, but it was a weekday and no one wanted to go out. So I headed out for Arequipa’s main drag – Calle San Francisco.
I entered a non-descript building with large wooden doors that led to a courtyard. The courtyard was home to three different bars. In the biggest of the three I got a beer and sat at a table. There was a group of what looked like high school aged kids hanging around an older guy in a suit. When I went for another beer they approached me. Suit-n-tie told me he was an English professor at a local university, and he was there with three of his students. “I want you to help me test their English,” he said, and bought me a beer.
We talked about what I thought of Arequipa, of Peru, and what my country is like. The professor’s English was good and so was that of the three students, so we carried on in English, partly for their practice but mostly because my Spanish was shit. I asked him why he was out drinking with the kids. “I tell my students at the beginning of the year that the best ones will get a night out with me, and these three are my best,” he said.
When the students had scurried off, Suit-n-tie said he could drink me under the table. He bought a bottle of pisco for the table, with two shot glasses. By this time the bar had filled up nicely, even with some eye candy. No matter. I wasn’t allowed to get up from the table until one of us puked, passed out, or surrendered.
Pisco is the national liquor, but it’s not something to do shots of. It’s meant to be mixed into delicious cocktails. It burns like the fires of hell when drunk neat.
After a while the professor started to struggle. I called him weak for chasing his shots with water. He eventually got up and went to the bathroom. When he didn’t return after 10 minutes, I offered the bottle of pisco around to everybody in the bar. Whether or not they wanted it didn’t matter. I poured generous amounts into their glasses – glasses of beer, rum, wine, whatever. Not everybody was happy about my generosity.
Later I found the professor passed out in the bathroom stall and helped him outside and into a cab.
Then I was drinking with a few other gringos. We saw a foreigner couple arguing so severely that the guy put his hands around his girl’s neck and choked her. My new friends and I pulled him off. Someone got him in a head-lock and the rest of us carried him by his arms and legs toward the exit. A well-dressed Peruvian – probably the owner of one of the smaller bars – rushed ahead to open the wooden doors and we literally threw him out on his ass. I remember him kicking at the giant doors and calling for the girl while we laughed and went back for another round.
It became obvious what had set the guy off. Back in the bar his Barbie-lookalike tramp was all smiles, working her way around the room and grinding away to the music with whoever approached her (including me) and kissing whoever wanted one (again, me).
I somehow left the bar and was drinking some liquor from a green bottle with four Peruvian guys in the street. It was well sun-up, maybe 7 am, with cars and people passing by on their way to work. These guys spoke no English whatsoever, and by then I only knew a few phrases in Spanish, but it didn’t matter. We drank and laughed.
Hector suggested we smoke a joint at his place. A taxi took us away from the city centre and wound up the side of a mountain to the shantytowns above. It dawned on me that I was hanging out with true-blue working class, salt-of-the-earth people.
We got out of the cab near a school and someone pulled out a bag of weed and began to roll a joint. Before we could spark up we heard the sound of sirens, and I turned around to see a black police SUV with lights flashing. Everyone scattered. I ran downhill and Hector followed. We were running directly down the slope of the mountain, perpendicular to the winding road we had come up. Hector passed me and I could tell he’d done this before, the way he deftly maneuvered his feet around loose rocks on the uneven terrain. I wasn’t so skilled. I tripped on something and landed face-first in the dust. I fell the rest of the way down to the road, just as another police SUV pulled up to us. They had us bracketed. Two cops got out of the truck with their guns drawn. Still on my ass, my hands shot up and I froze.
Handcuffed in the back of the police truck, I wondered how hard Peruvian prison is. I was bleeding from the left side of my face, elbow, and my knee was bruised and bloodied too. There was a sizable tear in my pants, and I was covered in dust. As we wound our way downhill towards the city, Hector said something along the lines of “Don’t say a word, I’ll do all the talking.” I nodded. I figured my best chance of getting out of this was to pretend I don’t speak a word of Spanish – not much of a stretch. When confronted, I’d ramble in English and hopefully they’d let me go. Bribing my way out of this mess was out of the question. I didn’t have enough for another beer, let alone a get-out-of-jail-free card.
At the police station we were led to a holding cell, where they un-cuffed us and pushed us in. There were about 10 guys in the cell – drug addicts, insane rambling weirdos, homeless people, petty thieves. Their eyes widened and they all stiffened up as we came in. No one looked at me, they were all staring at Hector.
Hector walked over to an old bearded drunk sitting on a bench. The guy gave up his seat instantly. Hector nodded at the guy next to him and he moved too, then he motioned to me to come sit down. I didn’t immediately understand what was happening. Then I realized they all know Hector, and if they know him it’s probably not for something good. Then everyone stared at me, mumbling to each other. “Who the fuck is this guy and what’s he doing with Hector?”
I asked Hector why everyone was afraid, and Hector replied in Spanish. I only caught “mi familia” (my family).
Eventually the police took Hector and me from the cell. A desk cop adjusted papers in front of him, eyeing us up and down. At another desk, some light-skinned Peruvian rich kid was being interviewed by another cop. I didn’t notice until Hector said something in his direction. I gathered the rich kid is talking about me. I heard him say “el gringo” a few times, nodding in my direction. This set me off. I yelled at him in English “Who the fuck are you?” and “You got something to say? Say it to my face!”
“Tranquilo,” Hector said.
The cop interrogated us and I barely paid attention. When it was obvious the cop wanted to question me directly, I just said “Yo no hablo español.” I glared at the rich kid, trying to understand what he was saying about me. I’d never seen him before. His tone suggested he was trying to convince the cop that I did whatever he was accused of. I stood up and screamed “FUCK YOU!” and moved toward him, only to be pulled down to my seat by Hector. The little bitch wouldn’t look at me. The cop at our desk said something and walked off.
Hector told me that when we get out, he wants me to come to his house and meet his son. Then I was picked up by a big Peruvian cop and thrown back into the holding cell. The interrogation continued without me.
I was woken by a cop yelling “¡Oye, gringo!” I got up and was led outside into harsh daylight and thrown into the back of a squad car. Hector was already there, in handcuffs. The cop didn’t cuff me. Two cops sat in front, one of whom was talking on the radio. We sat for about five minutes.
Then the rich kid walked past – a free man apparently – into the waiting arms of his mom. Fucking pantywaist. Through the divider I asked the cops in Spanish, “Can I use your gun?” They looked back and laughed. Hector laughed too and so did I. The mood lightened.
Another police car pulled up and a cop opened my door, saying in English “Please get out and come with me.” I hugged Hector and said goodbye, thinking I’d never see him again. I was put in the back of the other car and we sped off. The English-speaking cop asked if I had my passport. No.
“Where are we going?” I asked. He didn’t answer. I got a cold feeling in my bowels. Is he taking me to some ditch to shoot me in the back of the head or something? Will I be disappeared?
“Where are you staying?” he asked, and I told him. He drove to the hostel and we went inside. I explained to the door guy that I need my passport and he gave me my room key. Some gringos saw the state I was in, being escorted by a police officer, and just stared. I retrieved my passport and got back in the car. I was taken to the city’s tourist police station.
I was sat down on a bench and told to wait. A lot of time passed. The sun looked like late afternoon through the window. I got up to get tissue from someone’s desk and cleaned the dried blood from my face, arm, and knee. I laid down on the bench and faded in and out of sleep.
I woke to two cops arguing. I gathered they didn’t know what to do with me. Most tourists come after being mugged or to report their cameras, bags, or wallets stolen. Finally I was led to a desk and told in English that I was caught with a known drug dealer, but there was no evidence that I was involved in any illegal activity. “Why did you run?” the cop asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “It just seemed like the thing to do at the time.”
I was fingerprinted, required to sign a few forms, and then told I could go. The cop gave me back my passport, along with a piece of paper. I had no idea what it said. I was led out and the officer told me which way to get back to my hostel. “Ten cuidado,” he said, smiling. We shook hands and I limped away.
I spent the next three days in my hostel tending my wounds. The hostel staff translated the document the police gave me. It said I had “suffered from an accidental fall,” and that I was not found to be doing or in possession of anything illegal. Ten hours in police custody before they could reach this conclusion? Fair trade I suppose.
I still have a scar on my elbow and my knee from that day. Scars help remind you of the stupid shit you’ve done. The past is real.
- Pisco is horrible shit, only drinkable as Pisco Sour.
- The bar Mark was drinking in was the scene of My First KO in Peru.
- The neighborhood Mark was arrested in could have been any number of hillside slums. Most famous however, is Arequipa’s Ciudad de Dios.
See Mark’s accommodation and event-planning business, InHouse Bogota.
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