“A man attaches himself to a woman— not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself.” —Simone De Beauvoir
HEAT GRIPPED SANTA CRUZ, BOLIVIA, with a sultry heaviness, even in the early hours. I looked at the room where I’d stayed for the past week, half my things still scattered across the floor, and knew I had no choice but to go.
“Come with me, Jacey. We have to get out of here now.”
She looked at me, confused and exhausted from a full night of perfor- mances, and said,“I just don’t understand why they would do this. They already have my passport.”
“I know, but they don’t have mine. Elena is trying to keep us here. She needs my passport to do that. All of this is wrong and about to get worse, Jacey. We should be free to leave anytime that we want! Look, do you remember that guy that I met in the club the other night? He told me where to get help, and I’m out of here, and you need to come with me.”
“I’m not going,” she said, bewildered.“It’s all just too much.”
“Fine, I’m not begging you,” I said. “I’ll go without you and I’m going right now.”
We’d only met the week before on the plane, and I felt bad leaving her alone, but not bad enough to stay. I heaved the heavy wooden window shutter up and crept out the window and accessed the roof. I quietly tee- tered across the roofline pitch. I couldn’t exit from the guest room door as I suspected that we were being watched. The sounds of traffic and the chaotic city reverberated through the night, but I moved as quietly as possible toward the fifteen-foot-high wall surrounding the compound. This same wall they’d told me would keep me safe was now like a prison holding me in. Shards of glass embedded in the top were like razor wire. My pink hard-shell suitcase, which I’d packed haphazardly in my rush, bumped against my legs as I crossed the roof to the wall. I lifted it up above my head and tossed it over, a silence followed by the thump of the case hitting the ground on the other side. I looked over my shoulder, then up at the wall, where the glass shards promised to cut me apart if my hand slipped or made a wrong move. Then I jumped up and grabbed the top of the wall. Using all my adrenaline and strength, I shimmied up and over. When my feet hit the dusty ground on the other side, I picked up my suitcase, and ran as fast as I could in the direction where the most lights were on. Blood dripped from my palms down to my fingertips.
At the corner, I hailed a passing cab. When he stopped, I got in and slammed the door and remembered to breathe perhaps for the first time since climbing out the window. My suitcase handle was bloody. I frantically hunched down in the cab, checking over my shoulder for anyone coming out of the compound.
“Can you take me to the US consular agency?” I told the expectant cab driver.
“No Englais,” he said.
I dug through my purse and desperately produced the paper Tom had given me hours before. There was an address scribbled on it, and as soon as I gave it to the cab driver, he nodded and pulled away. A wave of relief came over me, but I was still so worried that the embassy wouldn’t help me or that no one would be there. I yanked the long sleeve of my camel- coloured shirt from my arms and balled the extra fabric into my palms to stop the bleeding. A quick glance confirmed that there were only a few surface cuts that should stop bleeding soon. The car moved through the streets, and I watched the city pass through the windows—the goat farms, the walled-in compounds, the sidewalk markets, and the dark storefronts. This had been my first taste of the developing world, and even after a week, it overwhelmed me. It was almost as disorienting as the events that had led me to this hurried escape.
I first heard about these international trips in the dressing rooms, where the muffled sounds from the stage underscored shop talk. We’d be changing costumes or getting ready for a show, and girls would talk about going abroad for club openings and coming home with enough cash to buy a Lexus. Working the circuit in Western Canada as an exotic entertainer meant my coworkers on any given night were a rotating cast of girls from all over the country. Some clubs paid more or attracted a wealthier clientele, making them more desirable to work. And we all learned how to get ahead and make more money in the business by talking to the other girls. They’d say things like,“I was in Berlin for two weeks at this club opening. I was making so much money I wanted to extend my contract.” The Canadian circuit offered big money, but the bigger money existed in high-end club openings abroad. And I wanted in.
Getting booked for these contracts meant getting in with the other big agency in Canada, Best Entertainment in Vancouver. A port city, Vancouver offered the international bridge to the rest of the world. And club owners from the farthest reaches of the world can’t get enough Western World girls. Our skin, our hair, our brash attitudes. In the late 1990s Canadian exotic entertainers came highly desired because we tried hard and came ready with highly coordinated choreography and cos- tumes. And because we took it all off with explosive, energetic sets filled with vibrant variety.
Dancing was easy for me because of years spent as a classically trained ballerina. The formal study of ballet is extremely disciplined. The epitome of top-class designation in dance. I ended up showcasing the complete opposite of that as an exotic entertainer. I always felt that the contradiction of my classically trained years as a ballerina really gave me the skills to crush it as this kind of entertainer. A “head start” apprenticeship, if you will. As long as I could look to the left and look to the right and not see anyone I knew from back at home, I could lose myself in the work on the stage, using all my talents and flexibility skills.
Enticed by these lucrative international opportunities, I sent my promo kit—headshot, body shot, and resume—to Best Entertainment and got a meeting. I had never worked for them before. But in their eyes, I wasn’t perfect. My face and reputation as an entertainer preceded me, which was probably why they agreed to meet with me. But my breasts weren’t as big as they typically liked. Mine were perky, 34 B-cups, nicely shaped. Good enough for a shot, they said, but not perfect. They said they’d try me out on a club opening in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. And if I did well there, they’d consider me for other, higher-scale events.
When you’re nineteen, there’s a lot you don’t know. I was tough, but I didn’t know anything, especially having never left Canada. But to me, fresh off the farm, Santa Cruz sounded like an oceanfront paradise. They upsold it as an opportunity for me to see how they operated. I didn’t realize until after I signed the contract that Santa Cruz is completely landlocked and poverty-ridden. And I never considered the danger I might be putting myself in. With organized crime groups running our booking agencies, it wouldn’t be hard to guess that criminal club owners might be in contact with other organized crime groups for their entertainment needs. But I never thought to worry about that. I took the six-week contract. Even if it wasn’t the most lucrative job in the world, it would be an experience. And I was definitely looking for those.
A few weeks later, I was on a plane to Bolivia with two other girls on the same contract. One was the feature entertainer, Heather, who was over-the- top gorgeous with extra-large fake breasts. She was probably twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old, which was like being forty in this business. And she was the main blonde bombshell event. Then there was a girl named Jacey from Boise, Idaho. I’d never worked with an American girl before, and Jacey came off a bit odd. She looked like a beatnik wearing all hemp clothing, a fact she quickly pointed out to me, and drank from a silver cup that dangled off her hiker-style backpack. Jacey couldn’t stop talking about the salt flats of Bolivia and maybe getting the chance to venture outside of the city to find good hiking. I rolled my eyes and assumed she was born and raised in a concrete city. Nature nuts are always from the city. Farm kids hop on a four-wheeler every day.
Girls in our business were very competitive if they didn’t know each other; they didn’t become instant friends on the plane and gab all the way there. They were borderline cutthroat. We were travelling with a handler from the agency, who was with us to make sure we got there safely and to manage us while we settled in. Eddie, the agent accompanying us, had the same used-car salesman feel as my agent, Carl, in Edmonton. He was polite, and very upbeat, and told us how much we were going to love this new club and its sexy owner, Elena, whom he’d met in Los Angeles at one of the Best Entertainment satellite agencies. These agents loved to make it seem like they were in it for us, there to protect us and make us happy, when really all they cared about was fulfilling the contract and getting that big remaining deposit money—balance due.
As the plane took off, I was excited. Eddie was excited. Even stone-cold Heather cracked a smile. Still, I was concerned with the club details and listened intently to what Eddie had to say about the club and ownership group; that’s where the gold was. I was going to make a lot of money and I couldn’t wait to get to my honeypot.
Money is the only thing a girl truly needs to survive on her own. Definitely not men, maybe not even family, but money. At nineteen, so far I knew that much about life. I was used to making big money.
I also knew how to make and multiply money too. My family started up businesses for breakfast. I wasn’t worried about money. Still, I needed it to dodge away from home and to afford to stay away for an indefinite amount of time.
I struggled to make authentic connections with people. If they were left bolstered after an experience with me, that was a ruse for them, with typically little benefit for me. And I was tired of it in my regular off-work life. Working as much as I could allowed me to tune out and focus on easier necessary elements of my life, like shoring up capital to survive. My job required bursts of gregariousness and came with lots of moments filled with solitude. I liked those the best.
Bolivia was completely mercenary to me, otherwise nowhere near my top-ten list of destinations. Just another job and another way to make more money with a hit of adventure. Up until now my job hadn’t required global travel. It could have been Timbuktu and I’d have taken the job if it looked remotely fiscally promising.
We flew from Vancouver to Panama. Along the long, intercontinental flight I smoked Player’s Light cigarettes and watched the world pass through the window. In Panama, we stepped onto the tarmac to grab our final flight to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. It was dark and sticky-humid and hot. We next boarded a twin prop vessel with seating for fifty. It was a jalopy plane that instantly felt unsafe. Joining in on everyone else’s nonchalance, we loaded up single-file through the very rear of this vessel, literally from the anus of this plane, not a side door. It looked like a cargo entrance. Once plateaued on the center aisle, we walked past chickens in cages, and two extra fat pigs also in cages, squealing and grunting. I began to pick at my fingernails anxiously with my thumbnail, trying to look relaxed as we found our seats closer to the cockpit. It was a short flight, and all the prerecorded flight information was Spanish, and no one demonstrated the seatbelts routine or indicated where the emergency exits were. Anxiety, my old friend, crept up with that familiar skin-prickling effect of cortisol rushing onto my capillaries. I became very scared of this bizarre plane and the upcoming flight experience. I popped my head up and counted from my row . . . how many rows I would be away from the door if we crashed and I needed to find an exit in the dark. Four—I was four rows away from the nearest exit.
Sometimes as a kid I was secretly OCD. This is the undesired bane of existence for any Virgo child. I lifted my feet slightly over train tracks and wouldn’t step on a sidewalk crack and blew ten whisper kisses at every graveyard passed on the open road. I bit my fingernails down to the quick, and picked all the skin around my nails off until they bled and became very sore. It was worse when I was little and disappeared when I started getting acrylic nails. But this kind of panic called for something to help calm me down. Before this flight would take off, I created a secret flying ritual. Rituals help people with OCD. Your brain tells you that if you do this “one thing or sequence of things” every time you need to get through something scary—that you’ll be fine. It provides this weird sense of justification that allows you to calm down and trust your own weird process, whether it be turning a door handle three times to the left before you open the door, or washing your hands a certain way. I looked around and all I saw was the seat pocket airline magazine in front of me. I pulled it out and looked out the window for anything stuck in the ground that would “ground” me. It couldn’t be something built on top of the ground, but inside the ground, something that was structural or supporting something with ground strength. I saw a four-foot-tall parking blockade post; that would do. And I kept my eyes on it as I blindly felt to the last page of the magazine, fixated on the concrete post with my eyes. I felt for the second-last page and opened it, then the third-last page and opened it, while never looking at the magazine. I promised to myself to not look at the magazine pages to cement my new weird safety ritual. I then placed the closed magazine in the seat pocket and pulled on the elastic pocket three definite times, one, two, three. I then closed my eyes and I said one Lord’s prayer and one Hail Mary in my head. I then asked God to protect my brother at home, and to watch over me until I landed safely back in Canada in six more weeks.
When we arrived in Bolivia, the club owner, Elena, had a car waiting for us at the shabby airport. All of us piled our suitcases filled with props and costumes into the rundown van. We stuffed into the van with little room for shoulders and legs. The sights overwhelmed me—the streets were crowded and chaotic and loud. This was my first time seeing anything like South America at all. When you’re born and raised where I was born and raised, there’s zoning: the business section of a town and the residential section of town. In Santa Cruz, there was no zoning. There was a goat farm right downtown next to an auto repair shop. I was shocked. I’d never seen anything like it. All was a mashup of themes and lifestyles competing for relevance. And seeing it rush past through the window of the car made me wonder for the first time what I’d really gotten myself into. With all of my girlfriends’ stories ringing in my ears about how great going abroad was for them, I decided not to be so negative or scared. At the same time, I never put together that Berlin was probably a lot different than Santa Cruz. After this eye-opening drive, we arrived at the club owner’s compound. It sat in the middle of this crazy, no-zoning city, and was fortified by a fifteen-feet-high cement wall, encrusted along the top with shards of green and white glass. Big spikey chunks of glass, broken up from used soda bottles.
“What are these walls about?” I said to Eddie. He was a short man with a slight build and a weasel-like presence. He made me feel like my gut was being fooled, but otherwise gave no indication of insincerity.
“Well,” he said,“it’s South America, honey. We’ve got trash on the outside and paradise on the inside of these walls.” Anytime any of us expressed doubt about what we were doing, he just talked up Elena.“She’s absolutely wonderful. You’ll love it here. Her staff is going to wait on you hand and foot. You’ll have your own rooms and bathrooms.”
He was right. The chaos and clutter of Santa Cruz fell silent when we entered Elena’s luxury compound. Inside the walls were gardens and a beautiful Spanish Colonial mansion with a bright white stucco facade and clay roof tiles the colour of tanned leather. Our accommodation was an adjacent guesthouse that had five bedrooms, each with a private bathroom and balcony. There was a courtyard in the center, and the buildings were old, but I was sure it was very luxurious especially by Bolivian standards.
Breezing down a semi-circular suspended staircase, Elena welcomed us to Bolivia and her home with arms open wide. Draped in gold at the wrists and fingers tipped with a French manicure, she was a stunning Latina who had bright hazel eyes and a smile that revealed all her perfect teeth. Hers was the kind of beauty and perfection that money buys, from her bleached highlights to her enhanced breasts. She was very fit and her toned shoulders peaked out of her glamorous asymmetrical neckline top.
Elena explained how critical we were to the success of her new club. She’d done a lot to promote the opening and drum up excitement. There had never been an adult club like this in Santa Cruz, and she’d started an initiative to bring this kind of business to the city.
“I made promises to people that the whole city would benefit from bringing this business to Santa Cruz,” she said in near-perfect English.“And I have promised the most beautiful and talented American entertainers. I need this to work, and I’m counting on you.”
Standing there in the courtyard, surrounded by a lush garden and pil- lared house and flanked by her staff of housekeepers, Elena’s presence commanded attention. She may have been only in her twenties, but she dripped money. Weary from a full day of travel and shock at seeing the developing world for the first time, my relief that we were staying in a nice place outweighed any concerns I had when, casually and as if it were all part of arriving and settling in, Elena said, “Let me have your passports, for safekeeping.”
“Okay.” Jacey dug into her bag and handed hers over.“Here you go.”
“Hell, no,” Heather, the feature entertainer, said. “My passport stays with me, always.”
Elena blinked but didn’t falter and turned to me.
Grabbing a clue from Heather, I said, “That’s okay. I think I’ll hang on to mine.”
The next night, opening night at the club, I tucked my passport in my bag before leaving Elena’s compound. It may have had only one stamp, but something told me I should keep it on me at all times. A car carried Heather, Jacey, and me to the club, where we became part of the flurry of activity preparing for the first night. Outside, the venue was tall, dark, and nondescript. Inside, the purply-red velvet fabric covered the walls and rope lights trimmed the aisles, bar, and stage. The floor sloped downward from the back of the room toward the stage, like a theater, and we had a dressing room in the back with easy access to the stage. While Eddie, our handler, and the club manager worked out how everything would work for the opening night show, I looked around for somewhere to stash my passport while I was on stage. I thought it might be too easy for others to find if tucked in my makeup bags in the dressing room. I found a pile of boxes and props behind the stage that looked like no one had touched in years. The building must have been a theater they’d retrofitted into a strip club. When no one was looking, I stuck my passport in there, and then got ready for my performance.
The club was packed, wall to wall, with people. The music—American hits with a Latin flair, like Ricky Martin’s“Livin’ La Vida Loca” and Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas’s “Smooth”—throbbed and the lights flashed. Jacey and I watched the feature open up the night from behind the stage with her Marilyn Monroe show, watched the patrons dropping bills at her feet, and felt like we were about to become rich.
That night, we all took our turns on the stage, making what appeared to be huge amounts of money. When the show was over and the crowd thinned to no one, a car took us from the club back to the compound. Then the three of us sat down together and counted our piles of cash. Jacey and I were giddy and buzzing off the energy from a successful and incredible opening night. But right away Heather, our unofficial house-mom, said,“This looks like a lot of money, girls. But if you convert bolivianos to Canadian or US currency, it’s practically nothing.”
Jacey and I looked at her.
“It’s actually worse than the Mexican peso.” She tucked her neat pile of bills into her bag.“There’s no way I’m staying here for six weeks. I saw a travel agency not far from here. I’m going to get my return ticket changed ASAP.”
Breaking my contract hadn’t occurred to me, but as soon as she said that, I started calculating how much I’d make if I did stay for all six weeks. It wasn’t anything fantastic, and it wasn’t more than I could make back in Canada. I liked adventure too, but not more than making money.
The next morning snuck up on me after that busy first night. I was up before the other girls, and went looking for breakfast. The maid in the main house did not speak English at all. A blank stare is all that I got when I politely asked for something to eat. Only after I motioned food to mouth did she clue in and guide me back out to the courtyard garden. I followed her to a grand table setting of a five-star breakfast complete with croissants and fresh papaya and ham. It was glorious and beautifully set in the sunshine. When the other girls woke up, they found me and settled down at the table. We gathered our wits about us, and our conversation quickly turned to getting out of Santa Cruz. Heather insisted that she was slipping away that day, before we went into work that night.“You two should come with me.”
“I don’t know.” I’d seen the travel agency she was talking about. The shabby storefront, papered with faded travel posters, didn’t look like the kind of place I trusted to get me where I needed to go.“Maybe I’ll wait and see how it works out for you. It’s pretty nice here. I might not make a lot of money, but this is like a paid vacation with maids,” I quipped.
“Suit yourself,” she said, with her cool, characteristic detachment. “Just don’t lose your passport, dummy.”
The three of us went to work that afternoon, and the subject of leaving didn’t come up again. But the next morning, I woke up early. On my way to my private bathroom, I passed Heather coming out of her room, suitcases in hand.
“What are you doing?” I asked, still tired and unaware.
“I got my return tickets changed yesterday and I’m out of here,” she huffed. She took a cab to the airport, and I never saw Heather again. This panicked me but I decided to give it a shot. It was only day three.
The language barrier made mingling with the crowds after my show awkward. If the men did speak English, it was broken and difficult to follow. Like any crowd in any club, there was a mix of wealthy and blue- collar patrons. There were men who seemed comfortable, and men who seemed like they’d been dragged out by their friends. Whenever I pulled out a cigarette, someone always had a lighter ready. They were kind and treated me with great respect. Even the local go-go dancer girls seemed to be enthralled and intimidated by us. They danced on side stages in between our feature shows to keep the crowd and club vibe going. But since we couldn’t really talk, they just stared, awestruck, like they’d never seen anything like me before. Funny to me, when they danced to English songs, they mouthed the words perfectly. Music is borderless like that. These local girls had all those famous Latina curves and perfectly plump bums. They were stunning and I laughed that their own local men didn’t seem to notice. The local Latino businessmen patrons in the club treated them like servants and me like a star.
When I came across a white guy with dirty-blonde hair and hazel-green eyes speaking English to his friend, I was so excited I went straight to their table and pulled up a chair.
“It is so amazing to see someone speaking English,” I said.“Do you mind if I just sit with you and have a conversation? I need to talk to someone from my side of the planet, just for a bit.”
“Not at all,” Tom, the white guy, said, introducing himself.
His accent said southern American, so I asked where they were from.
Tom was from Florida, and the other guy was from Louisiana. Santa Cruz wasn’t exactly an American vacation hotspot, so I asked what in the world they were doing in Bolivia. And that’s when they loosely explained, as secretive as cops can be, that they worked for US Customs in drug enforcement. At first, this didn’t mean much to me, but Tom leaned in and whisper-explained that they were in town working to prevent large-scale drug operations from coming into the United States. They even carried badges. Not knowing anything about the drug business, I said,“Shouldn’t you be in Columbia, then? Isn’t that, like, the cocaine capital of the world?”
They both looked at me like I was an amusing but stupid kid.“Yes,” Tom chuckled.“But a lot of people don’t know that just as much cocaine is grown in Bolivia. And even when they grow the cocaine in Columbia, they move it to Bolivia for processing because labour is cheap and control measures are easy for drug cartels to manage.”
“Wow, that seems very serious,” I said wide-eyed. I may not have known much about the drug trade, but I could tell that Tom wasn’t the kind of guy who usually hung around strip clubs.“Are you enjoying the show?”
“Of course,” Tom said, looking sideways and mildly embarrassed. Most men don’t object to looking at beautiful naked women, but he struck me as the kind of guy who’d had a hard day at work and ended up check- ing out the new club at the insistence of his friend. You could always tell with a group of bachelor party guys, college guys, or business guys that there was usually one or two who the rest of the group had to drag out. Tom gave off that vibe. “How about you? Are you enjoying your stay in Santa Cruz?”
“Honestly, I haven’t seen much of the city. I’m nervous to leave the place where I’m staying because I don’t know Spanish, and everything is so different. I’m bilingual, I speak French and that is kinda helping me get by here in Spanish-land,” I joked, feeling so good to speak English to someone.
“You know, there aren’t many English-speaking girls for us to talk to around either,” Tom said.“If you’re up for it, maybe I could take you around the city tomorrow.” “I don’t know,” I said, hesitating because I was, in general, wary of men and offers like this.
“No pressure,” he said.“Just a walk around and something to eat. I’ll give you my number and you can think about it.”
“Sure, that would be great.” He was a cop, after all.
He wrote down the number at his hotel and gave it to me.
The next morning, I got up early and excited to get in touch with Tom
and his sexy southern accent. I wanted him to talk to me all day. The housekeeper, who barely understood me, helped me figure out how to make a phone call to the La Quinta Hotel where Tom was staying and what callback number I should leave. I left him a message and he called me right back.“Why don’t you meet me in the lobby of my hotel?”
I agreed and caught a cab. I never understood what cab drivers were trying to say. I usually ended up tossing a fistful of dollars their way until they seemed satisfied. From Tom’s hotel, we set out on a city promenade. I wore an Edmonton Oilers hockey T-shirt and cutoff jean shorts. And Tom wore khaki cargo shorts and a linen button-up shirt with pilot-like Ray-Ban sunglasses. He had a small bulge from the back of his shirt that I suspected was a handgun.
We had an amazing time together, walking around the city, talking, and getting to know each other. I remember many moments of high contrast: we saw vendors selling beautiful tropical flowers, artfully displayed, but then moments later ran across the most deplorable beggars I’d ever seen. A man with no legs and only one arm, his begging cup arm. It looked like polio had ripped through this country hard. It was remarkable how this mashup of natural unkempt vegetation could instantly contrast with the dirtiest of dirt underfoot. We walked across a bridge where below, instead of a river, a solid concrete ravine held only a few inches of dirty, murky water. This was unlike anything I’d ever seen, coming from the clean countryside and cities of Canada.
Tom, as my tour guide, was very experienced with South America. He hadn’t told me so, but he showed it in his comfort with being around so many disabled beggars. His Spanish was fluent enough to converse with local vendors or in stores as we browsed and set out to find me a dispos- able camera. I asked where he had learned all of his Spanish and he noted simply from many tours in and around South America and self-study to help him improve in his job.
I told him that I was pissed with our housemaid as I felt that she was rude and uncaring and stealing our clothes. My upper-middle-class upbringing made me a bit of a cocky kid more often than I cared to admit. As soon as I blurted out my disdain for the housemaid he gently reminded me that perhaps I was being unkind, even a bit self-entitled. I pointed out that she was probably behind our missing clothing pieces, like my beloved vintage Club Monaco sweater and Victoria’s Secret pajamas. Still, I felt instantly embarrassed at my lack of empathy; he challenged me gently and did not care to hang off my every word, as was my previous experience with most men. I liked that about him, very much.
I shared with him that although you couldn’t tell a lick from sound, that I spoke French fluently with a Parisian flair. Half my family was extremely French, descendants from France, not Quebec. He asked me to prove it, and I prattled off a paragraph asking where I could find a camera and gave a detailed update of the weather, hoping that would impress him and help him forget my previous insensitivity. I didn’t want him to think I was rude at the core (although I certainly could be at times, never for sport, but rather self-defence). I was a scrappy, take-your-eye-out kinda girl if needed.
You can tell a lot about people by how they treat others. Tom was friendly, smiley, and encouraging when vendors shied away from speaking any English words. He explained to me that the ability to speak English revealed class. I never thought that knowing English was anything special, but he reminded me about how much of an asset that was to these people. He explained that all these people here desired to know English.
He then reminded me that perhaps the reason my clothes went missing was because the maid thought I was a bit of a princess who needed a cor- rection. Taking Tom’s advice to heart, I then resolved the next time that I saw her to exchange English words for Spanish words. This would be my approach to attempt to get her to like me a bit more and to subsequently stop stealing my clothes.
Burger King had just opened in the city, which was a big deal, according to one of the housekeepers at Elena’s. Tom and I decided to check it out because I craved something familiar.
Even in such a foreign city, the Burger King looked like every other Burger King everywhere, with illuminated menus behind the counter, bold logos, and drink fountains. We ordered our burgers and fries and slid into a hard booth by the window.
“This is the weirdest Whopper ever,” Tom said after washing his first bite down with his Coke. The Cokes were also too syrupy, and the fries were different too.
“It is, isn’t it?” I watched a Bolivian woman pass on the sidewalk outside. Her full skirt had faded from wear, and she carried a sling on her back. A small, thin boy walked alongside her, and reached for her hand when they went to cross the street. “The housekeeper where I’m staying said her daughter wants to come here for her birthday party. But she said it would take a whole month’s salary. So, it’s Burger King, but it’s ridiculously expensive for the people who live here.”
“Where are you staying, again?”
I told Tom all about Elena our club owner and hostess and her luxurious compound, with the high walls, gardens, and full staff of housekeepers and our luxury breakfasts.
“She sounds exactly like a cartel princess.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like she has a well-connected father or uncle or someone in the cartel,”
he said. “This is South America. Anybody who’s got that kind of wealth here, 99 percent of the time that’s coming from some sort of drug income.” I never would have made this connection, but his concern seemed to grow when I told him that she’d tried to take all our passports.“One of the girls
actually changed her return flight and left after three days.”
“Honestly, I don’t think this is a safe situation for you,” he said.“Maybe take a cue from the girl who left. Please promise me that you keep alert
and stay aware of suspicious behaviour.”
We finished our lunch and parted ways, making plans to see each other
again the following day. The more I thought about it, the more Tom’s concern made me nervous. Early the next morning, I left the compound and walked to the travel agency that Heather used, where they helped me book a return flight in a few days. With the end of my Bolivian adventure in sight, I carried on as if nothing had changed. I thought it’d be best to just leave like Heather and to not alarm Elena beforehand. I asked Tom to come see me again that night, which he did, and we made plans to spend the following day—Sunday, my day off—together. And he was the only one I told about my plans to leave. At least at first.
In case Elena was not a cartel princess who deserved the benefit of the doubt, I didn’t feel right leaving suddenly. I concocted an excuse about my father being sick and my family needing me back at home. When I told Elena that I was leaving, she asked again for my passport.“I need you to fulfill your promise to me that you will stay here and help me open my club.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t. I have to go.” I looked at the floor, terrified after Tom mentioned the cartel.
“You don’t understand how my reputation is at stake.” She looked me directly in the eye when she spoke.“It would look terrible for me if only one of the three girls perform for five more weeks. It would be disastrous.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just can’t really make that my concern. Thank you for your hospitality, but I need to get home. And Jacey’s going to stay,” I said enthusiastically, trying to upsell boring bits Jacey.
Elena’s brow furrowed in anger.“I need someone besides Jacey.”
“I guess I can think about it.”
“We can talk about it more in the morning,” she said.“Just promise me
you won’t take off like the other girl.”
“Okay, yes, of course.”
The next morning came with sunrise, but even the sunshine didn’t
make me feel better or less worried. Aside from what Tom told me about her possibly being attached to the cartel, Elena had not been unkind or inhospitable. She’d been straightforward and even admirable in how she handled herself and her business. I got dressed and ready to leave to meet Tom, assuming that I’d run into Elena. Maybe I could straighten it all out with her. When I went downstairs to call the cab, I couldn’t find Elena. Then I left the compound to meet Tom.
Before we left on our walk, Tom invited me up to his room as he had to get a few things prepared before we toured. He seemed well-intentioned and I gut-trusted him. Once in his room, he hid something wrapped tightly in a bundle and pulled out his work gun. I had never seen a handgun in my life, ever. Only hunting rifles. I expressed this and asked why he had to hide the mystery bundle, and he explained his distrust for hotel room privacy.
“What about here?” I motioned to a wall cupboard.
He said most people would easily guess that spot if they were looking for something valuable. Then he pulled the chair over to the wall and stood on it to reach a high air vent near the ceiling. He popped the vent cover and hid the mystery bundle there.
I was blown away at what my naïve self just witnessed. Guns, handsome, strong, tall, and safe. This would be a great Sunday spent getting to know him more.
Wespentthedaytogetherasplanned,exploringSantaCruzandtalking about all his travels for work. He never went into detail about his job, and I sensed that I shouldn’t ask, although I was completely curious! I took pictures as we walked with my new disposable camera—the kind you click andthenhavetowindagaintosetupthenextshot.Wetalkedandlaughed about how different life at home was from life in Santa Cruz.
Then, I tried to use my ATM card and noticed that it was not linking to my account in Canada. I had lots of Bolivian money from tips from perfor- mances and resolved to use that while here. But I noticed that everything cost thousands of bolivianos, even fast food. At this rate, I would be out of bolivianos shortly.
Because he was twelve years older than me, Tom was different from any man I’d ever dated. He didn’t ask my age, but I ordered alcoholic drinks at lunch to perpetuate the illusion of being older than nineteen. The drink- ing age in Alberta, Canada, was eighteen, but I knew it was twenty-one in the United States where Tom lived. During our time, he didn’t even once joke about my profession, and he treated me like a lady through and through. And I found myself completely smitten with him. He had a fabulous vocabulary, an even better body, and his southern syrupy drawl was completely disarming. He was strong and capable, and made me feel incredibly safe. While crossing the street, he stepped ahead, cleared the way, and grabbed my hand like a gentleman.
After our walk we returned back to his room. I knew instantly that I wanted him to touch me and hoped that he wanted to. Without saying a word, knowing and feeling our joint desire, we collapsed into each other’s arms and made love over and over again throughout the night, stopping only to catch our breaths and to learn more about each other with our hands and head-to-head whispers. He didn’t mind that I smoked cigarettes during our breaks, even though he only smoked cigars occasionally. Cigars, of course. He was a debonair combination of Ralph Lauren and GI Joe.
I never thought I would see him again. We had such a great, fast-colliding time together in an unlikely circumstance in an unlikely place—a first for me in many things. He was unafraid and unbiased about my job. Almost every man is off-the-charts insecure if their girlfriend is a stripper. But Tom was unconcerned and very mature within himself. This shocked me; a total first in terms of how I looked at men. Knowing I was leaving in a few days and that I had no money, except for what would exchange to about twenty-five dollars, Tom offered to give me money to travel home. I was instantly mortified. I refused it. I could not possibly think of taking money, not even with the promise of paying him back. The idea of taking his money abhorred me even though I would snatch it from scads of other men in the clubs before they knew it was missing. This was how I knew that I felt differently about Tom.
He was worried that I might have trouble leaving Elena’s if I didn’t play it cool enough. He worried that she was smart and cunning. I told him not to worry and to shush as I started to kiss him again. I gave him my phone number in Canada, and he told me that he’d looked but couldn’t find a Canadian embassy in the city. So, he gave me the address for the US consulate office in Santa Cruz and said that the United States had an agreement to help Canadian citizens abroad. So even though I wasn’t American, if I got into serious trouble I could contact them, explain my situation, and they would have to help me. He said I should call them for an escort instead of taking a cab to the airport and waiting in the terminal—where I could be in trouble if Elena decided not to let me go.
But even though he offered, I didn’t see any need for all that. I was tough; I could handle it. I said goodbye, and he reluctantly let me go.
I didn’t see Elena again until that night at the club. Our dancer dressing room was up a small flight of stairs in a windowless loft. Along one wall, five mirrors surrounded by incandescent lightbulbs hung over a continuous counter. A long, musty and dusty purple velvet sofa lined the opposite wall, covered in the same velvet as the club walls.
With a special I’m-outta-here show in mind, I was determined to take Heather’s place as the feature entertainer for the last few days at the club. I would knock their socks off tonight with my water show and I would keep Elena fooled that I would stay. This would shake her off my back, I was certain. I instructed the stage hands to fetch me a sizable pail of water with a string long enough for me to reach it and instructed them to mount the full bucket of water at the top of their centre stage brass pole. Then I set to work getting ready for my show-stopping set. I applied extra-heavy smoky eye makeup and reached for my curling iron to smooth my very long humidity-attacked chestnut brown hair. As I picked up the curling iron, the handle felt hotter than usual, but I proceeded to curl. Three curls in, while the hair section was wrapped, the iron portion completely detached from the handle and grey goo dripped out of the iron, almost getting on the rest of my hair and dressing robe.
Jacey laughed so hard and explained that I would need a voltage converter in South America. Their voltage and wattage were completely different here. She lent me her iron. She laughed again; I suspected at me, not with me.
Then Elena exploded into the dressing room and demanded to me, “Where’s your passport?”
“Well,” I lied, “I don’t have it with me here. It’s back at the compound, and don’t worry I decided to stay.”
“I don’t think so,” she said, confused. Elena’s tone was a bit panicked and ballsy. It was the first sign of tough I noticed from her.“We checked your room and we couldn’t find it anywhere.”
“Oh.” I feigned surprise at her difficulty in finding it. This was when all my suspicions culminated in the understanding: She was definitely trying to keep me in the country! She reminded me of a capitalist who was chill and cool as cucumber until you threaten her money-making ability. Kinda like I regarded myself. I had seen her type before—she reminded me of a few Hells Angels biker bitches that I knew from back home. Even though she was fancy, I felt that she was not to be provoked further.“That’s weird. I’ll have to think about where I put it, but like I said, Elena, I’m going to stay.” Just then the club manager came in and said something in Spanish that I vaguely understood to be a pressing issue. Frustration flashed across Elena’s face and she looked back at me.“We’ll talk more later.”
Because I went on stage last that night, I thought to give this crowd a taste of true Canadian exotic entertainment where no crazy antics would be spared. Upon my third song of a four-song set, down to only a sparkly bra and matching thong, as the signature tempo ramped up to the explosive chorus of EMF’s “Unbelievable” pounded in their ears, I pulled the water pail string and was sexily doused with cascading water. Only taking a split second for the full effect to execute, I proceed to dance with an increased intensity acting as if being cold and wet was the sexiest thing in the world. Flipping my long, wet hair from side to side, dropping down into leg splits, rubbing the water all over my slippery body, popping up into a full backbend wheel, raising my right leg to a victory close out of the iconic early-90s song.
Music choice is incredibly important if you want to be a successful and rich entertainer. You don’t select music you like; smart girls select music that the audience likes. I learned that night that EMF was a great music choice to make the water show pop. The crowd went wild because they recognized the song and I made more useless Bolivian currency than any other night.
Having managed to brush off Elena, I didn’t see her for the rest of the night. But when we got back to the compound, I found my room completely tossed. They hadn’t simply “checked my room” as Elena suggested earlier, they’d gone through every one of my bags and left everything dumped out in disarray like a warrant search had taken place. My hand went automati- cally to my hip, where my passport had been digging into my skin since I’d retrieved it from the pile of props after my show and stuffed it in my pants. That was when any remaining illusions of my legit job in Bolivia crumbled. I had failed at fooling Elena. She was smarter than I’d accounted for. I had to get out of there, and it had to be now before she came looking for me—and I left without Jacey.
A tall metal gate surrounded the US consular agency. After shaking it with my bloody palms and discovering that it was, of course, locked, I found a buzzer. I pressed the button, and through staticky interference, somebody answered.
“Hi, my name is Carmen,” I said into the speaker.“I need your help. I’m in danger and I’m bleeding. I’m Canadian, please help me.”
For all I knew, I sounded crazy. They probably didn’t get that many people banging on their gates in the middle of the night. Or maybe they did? After a minute, four heavily armed guards came out to the gate, opened it, pulled me in by my shirt with both hands, and closed it right away. Two of them stayed at the gate, watching I guess to see if I was followed, and the other two shuttled me right into a stark room with only a table and metal chairs. Over the next few hours, I told their only English-speaking agent about where I’d been staying and how I ended up at their gates. I told them about my passport and my room being searched and showed them my crusty-blood palms. One guard presented a first aid kit and tossed it on the table for me to use. I told them about my return ticket. And after I’d explained everything, they agreed to let me stay there until my flight left in two days. They would help me and escort me to the airport to catch my flight home when it was time. Thank you, USA, and thank you for Tom’s hot tip about American embassies, I thought.
I felt immediately relieved. They gave me a cozy little barrack-style room. And they showed me where I could find the bathroom and shower, and where to enjoy the grounds. It was a compound similar to Elena’s house, with gardens and a fence all around it. The light of the starting day beamed through the window of my room as I fell asleep. Sleep came heavy and full and uninterrupted until a knock at my door later that afternoon. Disoriented, I got up, crossed the room, and opened the door. A guard, though not one I recognized from before, nodded at me and said,“There’s a woman here. Elena. She says she needs to speak to you. She says it’s urgent.”
“She’s here right now?” All my feelings about her flooded over me and panic pricked my cheeks.
“Yes. Do you want to talk to her? We don’t feel that it is a good idea to talk to her. She is known to us and we want you to stay here, for your safety. We are also keeping a close watch for your other friend.”
“No way. I don’t want to talk to her, I’m staying right here with you.” I spent the next few days hanging around the US consular agency, worried that Elena found me. While in the compound, with the soldier guys with automatic weapons always in tow (also something I’d never seen before) I felt beyond safe. I felt like I could chillax here, hide out, and they would honour their protection agreement. I caught a few of them staring at me often as if I was an oddity to them for even being there under those cir- cumstances. They knew exactly what I did for work and seemed intrigued that a Canadian girl had ended up in their care. They acted like they wanted to chat with me, so I used some French to translate their attempts at com- municating with me. When it started to get frustrating for them, I made them write down what they were saying so that I could pick out words that were similar in French. That kind of worked, but took a long time, and they gave up and headed out to accomplish other tasks on the compound.
The guards were nice. They brought me home-cooked meals of plantains, rice, chicken, and papaya from their little kitchen. I hated papaya until they showed me to sprinkle it with salt before eating it, and they were delighted to see that I liked it better that way.
When the day of my departure came, they presented me with a lapel pin of the US and Bolivia flags. They pinned it on me, and we all hugged. I insisted that we take a picture, one of the last few left on my disposable camera. They must have liked me, because that was strictly forbidden, and they made an exception. We loaded up in their unassuming transport van, and four armed guards, weapons held comfortably across their chests, drove me to the airport and left me safely at the American Airlines counter.
Unfortunately, they didn’t stick around.
“Your flight has been bumped for three days,” the American Airlines rep- resentative said from across the counter.
“What do you mean, my flight has been bumped? How can that happen?”
“I’m sorry, but you missed the early check-in required for international flights. We had to bump your flight to Monday.”
“And that’s not for three days?”
“I’m sorry. This is Easter weekend. The next available flight leaves on Monday.”
Desperate to avoid any further delay, I tried to explain that I didn’t know I had to check in so early, and I’d been in the custody of the US govern- ment for the past two days. But they didn’t care. So I would have to spend the next three days, broke, with nothing but the clothes on my back and a suitcase I’d packed in a rush. I had a hairbrush, some of my costumes, about thirty-two dollars’ worth of bolivianos, and my disposable camera. Terror was all I felt. I started breathing so fast that I thought I was having a panic attack. I cupped my hands over my mouth and tried to breathe. I was afraid I’d never get out of this country.
In a corner of the airport, I found two connected chairs where the arm rest dividing them had broken off and I slept there, feeling foolish for not taking Tom up on his offer of travel money. I had money in Canada, but nothing I could access from Bolivia. My ATM card laughed at me every time I tried to see if this next time it would work.
And the whole time I kept thinking about how, if I just took my last little bit of money and made the phone call back to the farm, back to talk to my grandparents, that all of this could be better. They had no idea I was even here. This would surely scare them and mean conceding that I didn’t know what I was doing, that I was in serious danger, and that I was a loser. I held off.
The Santa Cruz airport wasn’t very large. I contemplated begging a vendor to call the US consulate soldiers to come pick me up, but I thought I’d asked enough of them already. That’s the first time I cried. I cried that those soldiers were stand up Bolivian citizens. I cried for never probably getting to meet someone like Tom again. I cried that I was a loser, and that my school friends back home were in university making their families proud and I was here, doing this. And I sobbed uncontrollably at the thought of likely having to call my family. And if they didn’t answer because they were busy with something on the farm, then I’d have no money left to keep trying to call them. Then what would I do?
The next morning the airport came alive with Spanish-speaking travellers at 5:00 a.m. They looked clean and confident and ready to go where they were going. I was smelly, greasy, had brushed my teeth with my fingers in the bathroom, and was growing completely disgusted with myself physically and spiritually. I found it ironic that I was the upper-middle-class Canadian white girl who was dirty and busted-broke, and these local travellers were poised and confident in their knock-off designer bags and clothes.
On the second day, two men about my age working at a taco shop watched me all day. Then they came up to me and gave me food. I forgot how hungry I was until that moment. I ate all they gave me and teared up as I tried to thank them. They left and came back before their shift ended and motioned me to come with them.
Searching their kind eyes, I followed, and they led me to a tiny back room in the taco place. They pointed to an oversized steel cart and, placing both hands next to their ears and tilting their heads, motioned that it was okay for me to sleep here for the night. I slept on the steel cart with my hard-shell suitcase as a pillow. I slept hard and sound until they opened the taco shop in the morning. It was so nice to lie down straight compared to the airport connected chairs. I was thankful for their simple kindness.
On Monday, I headed to the American Airlines counter as soon as it opened to see what flight I was going to be on and fully transfer my ticket value. That’s when I got the bad news that my spot was cancelled and so was all the ticket value. The value was suddenly non-transferrable.
I cried and pleaded with the agent, who was clearly losing patience with me. She said I was crazy for trying to coordinate flights last minute during Easter week because everyone in South America was Catholic. No matter, I was Catholic too! I proceeded to plead for consideration as a fellow Catholic. None of it worked. Nobody cared.
I’d toughed it out for as long as I could. The possibility of being stuck in Santa Cruz was unthinkable, and I was just as scared as I had been when I jumped over Elena’s wall. If this was the way the airlines in Bolivia worked, my flights could keep getting bumped. That’s when I had to break down and call my family, who had no idea what I did for a living and no idea that I was here in South America. They thought I was working odd jobs in Edmonton. I begged for a phone call from the American Airlines agent, and prayed someone would answer.
“Carmen, is that you?” My grandpa’s voice sounded small and distant through the international connection.
I’d never felt so relieved to have a call answered.“It’s me, Grandpa. I’m in big trouble.”
My father’s parents didn’t have a lot of money, but compared to my mother’s side of the family, they were the most understanding. This was one of the hardest calls I’d ever had to make, but I was straightforward with them that I was far away, needed to get home, and couldn’t get home on my own. They had no idea where I was, but they dropped everything and called the local travel agent while I waited on the line. I put the phone down on the American Airlines counter area and waited and waited and waited. Half an hour later my grandparents came back on the line. Without any questions asked, they booked all my flights on Delta Airlines, triple-confirmed my seats from Santa Cruz, to Mexico City, to Vancouver, to Edmonton, where I had an apartment a few hours away from my hometown.
By the time I landed on Canadian soil, everyone in my hometown knew what kind of trouble I’d gotten in.