It is August 2007. I am standing in my hotel room in the Dominican Republic, in front of the wardrobe. I have been advised to wear especially unattractive clothing today, as we are going to visit some 120 Dutch prisoners in San Cristobal prison. I am a bit nervous, it is my first visit to a prison ever. And it doesn’t feel good not to put on any make-up, leaving my rings and jewellery behind and select these ugly clothes I have taken with me in my suitcase. But I’ve been told it is for my own protection as this prison is a very dangerous place for women to be. So I put on my baggy greyish pants and a wide shapeless shirt that used to be blue. And I feel very vulnerable and uneasy when I leave the hotel.
My colleague is downstairs, waiting for me in the car. It is a more than hour’s drive to the prison, and it’s a very hot and sweaty day. As we drive over dusty roads, the tension is mounting inside me. She is telling me all kinds of stories about the present situation in the prison, there have recently been riots and shootings, people got killed, and colleagues of another embassy were attacked and robbed. I have an uneasy feeling in my stomach and I’m getting more nervous by the minute.
‘Just the two of us’
When we finally arrive at the prison gates, she says to me: ‘You wait here, I am going to check if it is possible this time to get a guard to accompany us when we walk through the prison to the Dutch prisoners’ quarters. Otherwise we have to go, just the two of us’. And on that note she leaves me. It’s not looking good. But hey, if that’s what has to be done, then I will have to get through it. And as I am looking at the gates, shaking in my boots, the dirty building, the depressive colours, the dangerous looking men and the nasty smell, every bone in my body is yelling: “No! Go back!”. What if they kill me? Rape us? They already have long imprisonments, so, what do they care? And I am feeling really afraid. Trying my utmost to be invisible and professional at the same time. And failing at it.
After a 15 minutes’ wait my colleague returns and says happily to me: ‘I just ran into the director of the prison and he tells me we can use his office’. Huge sigh of relief! The office is at the front end of the prison so we will not have to cross the prison grounds at all! We go into this office, and it is really, really small. There is hardly room to swing a cat. A very small table for my colleague and me to use, and one or two plastic chairs. The smell is awful. We sit down and prepare to divide the money we brought with us, 30 euros per Dutch national, so they can survive in prison. We are almost settled when all of a sudden I find myself surrounded by a lot of (!) fierce looking men. The voice in my head tells me immediately that these men are drug traffickers. Murderers. Rapists. Dutch criminals with imprisonments from 8 to 20 years. And in no time the tension rises again inside me. I am completely enclosed by them. What if they kill me now? 120 times 30 euros, that is a lot of money, so that will be interesting for them, won’t it?
And then I notice this huge man standing across the room, who is looking straight at me. He is really big, with tattoos and scars and everything, and he doesn’t look too happy. I feel really small behind my little table. He looks impressive, and frowns a lot as he comes towards me. My mind is racing. Can I leave? Where can I go? And I look at my colleague, but she is really relaxed… My eyes meet his eyes and he looks intensely at me. And then all of a sudden his face opens up and with a big smile he says to me: “I am so very grateful that you are here! I would really like to talk to you later, would you please spare a few minutes for a chat later on?”
And I feel utterly stupid.
And the tip for today:
Storytelling is about building up tension. Trying to make your audience relive that personal moment or insight together with you. Trying to make them smell, hear, feel and see it. Feel the anxiety. Feel the relief. Feel the stupidity.