It was dawn by the time they released us. We could barely suppress the urge to run as fast as possible away from where we’d been held at gunpoint for the last four hours. But by some amazing feat of self-control, we managed to walk. The situation would never have arisen if my oldest mates Jim, Charlie and Other Matt and I hadn’t chosen our holiday destination by the roll of a dice. Back from our separate universities, we sat in our local and drunkenly discussed our summer plans. We’d all recently read The Dice Man, the cult classic about a loon who lives his life by the throw of a dice. Inspired as only pissed students can be, we decided to let fate choose where in the world we’d visit.
Having chosen six potential locations, I rolled the dice across the lager-splattered table. It looked like it was going to settle on four (a month in Scarborough), then flipped onto six. South America it was then.
On arrival in Colombia’s heavily-policed airport, I began to feel jumpy. My nerves weren’t eased by the American at passport control who told us about the number of Westerners killed in Colombia each year. I was already beginning to pine for Scarborough scampi. Over the next few weeks, we heard countless stories about coke barons, cartels, bandits and revolutionaries. But our days were disaster free. EI Bastardo, a hog of a man with a gun and a badge, was about to change all that.
We’d been boozing in Cartagena and decided to head back to the hotel and smoke some weed with Catherine, an English girl we’d met. We bought some gear from a freak on the beach and hailed a cab. Maybe we should’ve realised this was slightly silly, considering the country’s massive police presence. It wasn't until the taxi came to a halt at an armed roadblock that the penny dropped. So did our faces.
The weed. I had to get rid of it and quick. Notoriously uncool under pressure, I fumbled for the bag. Unable to think of a clever hiding place, I chose a dumb one. Within two minutes, they’d found the booty. Within three, I was spread-eagled against the bonnet with an Uzi nestling between my shoulder blades.
We were searched, then escorted to a dingy roadside cabin. The taxi driver sped off, leaving the five of us at the mercy of the cops. ln faltering Spanish, I insisted that we’d never seen the 10 grams of sticky green bud before. El Bastardo laughed dismissively.
Straight out of a Sergio Leone western, El Bastardo was a textbook tyrant. Reclining in the only chair like an Hispanic Jabba The Hut, he sweated furiously and joked with his gun-toting cronies about “los hippies gringos." Catherine, the only one of us fluent in Spanish, protested our innocence. El Bastardo sat stroking his drooping moustache and lazily pawed at the mosquitoes that plagued him. We watched helplessly as they debated our fate. It was our angel in flip-flops versus the devil in jackboots.
I was spread-eagled against the bonnet with an Uzi nestling between my shoulder blades.
The round of accusation and denial went on until Catherine came over to explain. We were going to be deported to Ecuador. Didn’t sound too bad - we planned to go there anyway. It’d be earlier than we’d thought, but hey, screw the schedule. No, she said, deported aftera stretch in a Colombian prison. I looked round at my friends’ faces and saw the fear. This couldn’t be happening.
Using my limited Spanish, I tried to tell El Bastardo it was a mix-up. He turned and mimicked my shaky voice with such venom that I shrank into the corner and shut up immediately. Jim rushed over, his bum bag in his outstretched hands. “US dollars,” he shrieked manically, pulling notes from his wallet. This attracted the attention of EI Bastardo’s compadres, who until now had been idly loading and unloading their weapons. Keeping one eye on their glinting guns, I watched with horror as Jim tried to bribe the Colombian official.
El Bastardo’s lips pulled back across his tombstone teeth as he sneered at the few dollars in Jim’s hand, and then through a huge grin he said something in Spanish and the place erupted with laughter. We turned to Catherine. “They want you to dance for your freedom," she shrugged.
The police began to chant and clap. I looked round at my mates, then at the jeering audience. It was like something out of Deliverance. Even if we did what they asked, they still might not let us go. But I was shit-scared of incarceration and had nothing to lose but my pride. So I began swaying on the spot. Jim started to click his fingers and twitch to a make-believe beat. Head down, fringe flopping, Charlie also jerked into motion. Other Matt’s moves were betraying his love of techno. His mouth contorted into a raver’s pout and he began constructing the old “imaginary box" with his hands.
Other Matt’s technique proved a real winner among the Colombians, who were now whooping with joy. A couple had tears of hilarity streaming down their fat faces. I shut my eyes and tried to block El Bastardo out of my mind. Occasionally I opened them and caught a glimpse of the ridiculous pantomime I was performing in. I’m not sure how long the dancing lasted. It could’ve been a minute, it could’ve been 30. But when one of El Bastardo’s underlings, shoulders shaking with mirth, handed us our passports and shooed us out, we didn’t wait around to ask questions. We were just glad to leave the party.
Freaked out but free, we stumbled back to our hotel in the light of the new day. The night’s surreal events proved enough of a talking point to keep us spooked all the way. But back at the hotel, the extra-strong joint we sparked up to celebrate our liberty somehow seemed to put the ordeal neatly into perspective.
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