Excerpts

Sniff, drink, live

From: Snowing in Bali

Like Rafael, Alberto had been lured to Bali by the lifestyle. He’d first arrived for a surfing holiday, met an Australian girl and stayed a year, racking up huge debts and visa-overstay fines. So when Peruvian Poca, who he’d met on the night scene, offered him a fast way to wipe his debts by a quick trip to Peru, he decided why not.

I did it because I realized there were a lot of people doing this, and I needed the money. I was with debts, like a lot of bills piling up, so I took my chance. I crossed the globe, picked up this bag with two and a half kilos, put it on my back, and then starts the Midnight Express movie.

Alberto spent two weeks surfing in Lima to give himself a viable cover. On the final day Poca’s local contact passed him a loaded backpack. From that moment, his muscles were flexed tight as on every leg of the run he imagined jail, just waiting for the barred door of a cell to slam shut: ‘I thought there was a 50:50 chance of going to jail.’

He was on his own, and knew if he if he got busted no one would come running to help, so decided to play by his own rules, using his instincts. Instead of risking Lima’s airport, he took the bus to Santiago, Chile. Typically, all bags were offloaded at the border, and searched one by one. Alberto was anxiously watching as sniffer dogs prowled the bags. ‘This yours?’ an official shouted. ‘Yes, that’s mine,’ Alberto said, acting blasé as the man unzipped his backpack to let a Labrador stick its nose inside. Alberto tensed in a split second of terror, but the dog lost interest fast. The repellent spray had worked.

His next test was a passport check. Alberto reached the front of the line. The customs official was a cliché baddie, laughable if it hadn’t been such a scary moment. He had a hulking body, huge hands, big head and face, dominated by a handlebar moustache and mirrored Ray-Bans. Alberto handed him his passport. He lifted his sunglasses – it was night time – stared into Alberto’s eyes and asked, ‘What’s your full name and date of birth?’ These were ostensibly benign questions, but clever enough to catch anyone travelling on a false passport, who at the critical moment blew it on the basics. Alberto was using his real name and had mentally rehearsed on the bus trip for the notorious border quiz.

It was one of the scariest moments of my life. I was freaking out, but I was cold-blooded . . . my life was depending on it. He nailed the Chilean inquisition, but for the entire 48 hours was like a kid on a ghost train: sitting on the edge of his seat waiting for the next ghost to lurch out of the shadows. Unlike Marco, he didn’t have insouciant confidence, though he was good at masking his terror with a macho nonchalance.

Simple things, that on a non–drug run flight would mean nothing, turned into heart-palpitating moments. While standing in line to re-board, his name suddenly blasted out of loudspeakers across the airport; they were calling him to the airline desk. He froze, every muscle rigid, his chest squeezing tight. They’d found the blow. He had to run, but where? He was thinking fast. He frantically looked around for an escape. Maybe the toilet window? No, he was on the second floor, and even if he made the jump, he’d never escape the airport fences. He was stuck, plunged into a nightmare where he was being chased but couldn’t run.

I thought, ‘This is it. I’m gone. Oh fuck, they found it for sure.’ My heart was banging. I was looking everywhere for somewhere to run. Then I thought I’m going to just play dumb. I made up a quick story in my head: ‘I exchanged my surfboard for this bag with a guy, Pablo, and I didn’t know the shit was there.’ I would stick with the story to the end.

‘Has Mr Alberto Lopez gone through yet? Is he already on the plane?’
‘Not yet.’
‘Okay. When he comes, please hold him because we have a problem.’

Alberto, now third in line, overheard this conversation, but stuck to his plan. It was his only option; there was no turning back. With adrenalin coursing though his veins, he showed the girl his boarding pass, bracing for police to pounce, his eyes scanning for them, sure these were his last seconds of freedom.

‘Thank you, sir,’ she said, letting him pass. Now it felt surreal, as if somebody were playing a sick game, watching him squirm. Trembling imperceptibly, he walked onto the plane, found his seat and sat down.

I was getting mentally ready to be tortured. I’d heard that’s what they did. I was just waiting for Federal Police to come. Then the stewardess comes and says, ‘Oh, excuse me, are you Mr Lopez? We have a little problem, we overbooked the plane, and sold your seat to a family travelling together, so would you mind if we moved you to business class?’ I was thinking, ‘Thank you, god, I’m never ever going to do this again.’

Finally he arrived in Bali, picked up his bag and, despite a raging pulse, breezed through customs, feeling sheer joy on the other side.

I went through like a kiddy arriving in Disneyland, really happy. It had been two days of jangling nerves and dicey moments, but he was back in the black with cash spilling out of his pockets. The trip gave him something else, too – a brand new career and the door swung open to the blazing underworld of elegant parties, rich, important people, luxury villas, beautiful girls and more cash some days than most people see in a lifetime.

There was a very glamorous side to this business. You’d feel very important; there was all this fantasy surrounding it. It was like living in a movie, like Tequila Sunrise. I would do that secret agent thing until the deal was done, then go back to my normal life as a surfer, just cruise and surf. So I had like two lives, parallel.

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