From Destinations

NM 2014-08-16-2700

“Old Main” Prison Tours in New Mexico

Tip of the hat to the woman I overheard talking on her mobile in the DFW airport this summer:

“And we were, like, going to go on this rilly cool tour of the prison outside Santa Fe? But it was, like, totally sold out?”

After I got over the cognitive dissonance (prisons? tours? upspeak?), I quickly googled and found…yes, the New Mexico Corrections Department runs tours of the “Old Main” prison facility outside Santa Fe. (Go check out that link now: There are two more tour dates this season.)

Which was still a little hard for me to grasp, actually, because that prison, which is no longer in use, was the site of one of the country’s worst prison riots, in 1980. Thirty-three people were killed, many in really grisly ways, and the whole facility was taken over by the prisoners for a while.

I was seven years old then; we lived about 45 minutes down the road. I happened to overhear the grownups talking about what went down, and happened to see photos (a family friend, unfortunately for her, was a paralegal with the state attorney general’s office and had to deal with all the materials). Let’s just say I learned a bit about man’s inhumanity to man, with a blowtorch, at an early age.

So…now it’s a tourist attraction? I was confused, but I booked tickets for Peter and me later in the summer.

Main entrance to the State Pen, opened in the 1950s.
Main entrance to the State Pen, opened in the 1950s.

It was a really good tour. Other sites of trauma and tragedy should be so lucky to have their stories told so well.

A lot may have hinged on our particular guide, a retired guard who started work in the facility in 1981, not too long after the riots.

Our guide in action.
Our guide in action.

His experience kept the tour from seeming morbid or voyeuristic.

The tour itself was done in interesting way, telling the hour-by-hour story of how the riot began and developed. You couldn’t really make up a worse set of unfortunate factors and bad management: recently installed but untested “bulletproof” glass; an unsecured construction site in one cell block (that’s where the blowtorches came from); prison policy that dressed “vulnerable” prisoners (pedophiles, snitches, etc) in different-color jumpsuits, and so on.

Clocks above the cell blocks were set to the times of key turning points in the riot.
Clocks above the cell blocks were set to the times of key turning points in the riot.

Woven in were details about how the corrections department learned and changed following the incident.

These details included not just practical things, such as the more secure way they store cell-block keys now, but also “softer” stuff, all the various programs for prisoners and the like.

One goal of these tours, I realized at the end, was perhaps to explain to people why treating prisoners well is a far better idea than treating them poorly. Even my mother, who is a pretty liberal lady, said when we were talking about the tour later, “Well, prison should be terrible.”

Inside the Protestant chapel in the prison.
Inside the Protestant chapel in the prison.

Actually, no, these tours seem to be saying. If prison is terrible, it makes people do terrible things–and then these brutal people will get out of prison and live right next door to you!

So, yes, please, teach the gang leaders how to decorate cakes that they can give to their kids when they visit. Yes, please, have prisoners grow vegetables and run a printing press and sew boxer shorts for the other inmates.

It seems to be working. The woman who spoke to us at the end of the tour said recidivism in New Mexico is only 48 percent–which sounds not so great, but the national rate is more like 75 percent.

The view out.
The view out.

So, here’s to being soft on crime, or at least on criminals. Thanks, NMCD–I certainly never thought I’d be inside that building and hear the full story I did.

moonnm3

Another Book Update: Moon New Mexico

moonnm3Hey kids–the new edition of Moon New Mexico is out! Check it out if you’re planning a trip around the Land of Enchantment. I covered thousands and thousands of miles last year, in a dinky rental car, to bring you all the news.

There’s a new section on the bootheel of New Mexico, way down in the southwest, and a lot of other nifty little finds. I love that, ten years in to working on this book, there are still new places to explore in the state.

That link above leads to Amazon, which is not the greatest, I realize, especially now that Perseus, which owns Moon, has been acquired by Hachette. Consider the link for info purposes only–hit up your local bookstore instead.

Speaking of local bookstores, I will be at Bookworks in Albuquerque on August 17, at 3 p.m., to talk about the goodness of the guidebook, show some pics from recent trips, and generally answer questions. Mark your calendars!

Doing the tourist thing, at the genocide memorial

Kigali Genocide Memorial (and the 9/11 Museum)

A couple of days ago on Facebook, I posted this essay–The Worst Day of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction–about the new 9/11 museum (excuse me, National September 11 Memorial Museum) in New York, and it got me thinking.

First, the whole museum seems icky, doesn’t it? Just twelve years after the event. $24 admission–what, it’s like the MoMA now? And a gift shop, for God’s sake. I have no interest in going.

Yet…when I went to Rwanda, one of the “tourist” things I did was visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Which is also a museum.

(One of the more bizarre moments on that trip was telling our host we’d gone to the memorial, and we’d liked the museum. “Wait, did you go to the memorial, or the museum?” Because of course there’s not just one memorial, or one museum. Our conversation went around in circles, like a Pizza Hut/Taco Bell situation.)

Honestly, Peter and I were thinking we would blow it off–we’re not morbid tragedy tourists. Except the people we were visiting said it was good!

It was great. It was somber without being grossly emotional. It was very informative (Herero massacre–what?). It was well lit and professional, but with no multimedia fanciness. And it was free–though of course donations are encouraged. The “gift shop,” in a little wood hut, carried a few books about the genocide, and some crafts.

The whole thing opened in 2004, on the ten-year anniversary of the genocide. Too soon? Not if you want a genuine memorial for people who died, of course not. (Though I would be curious to know how it was discussed at the time.)

The key to the genocide memorial not seeming maudlin or exploitative or generally icky was that when we arrived, a guide greeted us and took us to one of the mass graves. He briefly explained the situation, and the efforts of the memorial center, then we stood for one minute of silence.

After that, we were free to walk around however we wanted, with our audio tour or without.

I don’t envy that guide his job, but I think this human connection made all the difference in how we saw the whole museum/memorial.

Because, honestly, tourists can suck. I’ve yawned or daydreamed at some very serious places, maybe in full view of people who had been affected by the given event. It’s easy to fall out of the moment, if you’re hungry or your traveling companion has raced ahead, or whatever.

But one real, live person, talking directly to you–that’s the key to helping you focus on the place, why it exists, and what you might get out of it.

There’s plenty to learn from Rwanda, but that’s one concrete, small thing, and I’m glad I saw their model. It makes me at least not hate the idea of the 9/11 museum.

Doing the tourist thing, posing for a group photo at the genocide memorial, with Rod and our Rwandese friend Eric
Doing the tourist thing, posing for a group photo at the genocide memorial, with Rod and our Rwandese friend Eric
These guys are in the restaurant, in view of everyone. They're also sort of hammy, and loved having their picture taken.

Addis Ababa Food Tour with Addis Eats

Did I mention they eat Ethiopian food in Ethiopia? I mean, of all the crazy things!

This only struck me as remarkable, I suppose, because the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to all have very much the same aesthetic and presentation and menu. So I assumed they were presenting a semifictional version of Ethiopia, the way a certain type of red-lacquer-and-moon-doors Chinese restaurant does of Chinese food.

But there it all was, injera rolled out on platters, dotted with different stews, and men sitting there, eating with their hands, like it was utterly normal. (Which it was, yes. It slowly sunk in…)

The grocery store was even stocked with all the ingredients for these dishes. Berbere, shiro, etc, etc. (Also lots of pasta. And, the one real surprise, loads of different kinds of peanut butter.)

So nice to see such huge bags of red chile...
So nice to see such huge bags of red chile…

After the initial surprise wore off a tiny bit, we went on a food walking tour (now officially my favorite-ever kind of tour to take, anywhere) with the excellent ADDIS EATS

I can’t recommend this tour enough! Our fantastic guide, Xavier, was up for any question, and the neighborhood we walked around was also an interesting mix of business and residence and income. We went everywhere from a really basic lunch joint to a weekend-splurge restaurant that specialized in raw beef.

In the end, the tour didn’t reveal a wildly different cuisine from what Peter and I knew (not the way, say, just walking down the street in Bangkok did the first time we went there). But it did fill in a lot of detail in the big picture we already had. It also gave me fresh respect for the Ethiopian restaurants I know, and how true to the cuisine they actually are.

Ethiopian coffee--it's real! (Secret ingredient: rue.) These cafes are all over Addis, complete with frankincense.
Ethiopian coffee–it’s real! (Secret ingredient: rue.) These cafes are all over Addis, complete with frankincense. Note businessman in navy blazer in background–he’d just stopped in for a quick sip.
Chat, aka qat, is legal in Ethiopia, and sold all over the place. Alas, no photo of the neat little to-go bundles.
Chat, aka qat, is legal in Ethiopia, and sold all over the place. Alas, no photo of the neat little to-go bundles. In this pic, I like how it’s next door to a liquor store. One-stop mind-altering shopping!
Standard lunch place, with our guide and another tour member. Please note water served in old Stoli bottles. And platter of shiro wat on injera. Just like you expect.
Standard lunch place, with our guide and another tour member. Please note water served in old Stoli bottles. And platter of shiro wat on injera. Just like you expect.
Fried fish! This is something we wouldn't have found on our own, and didn't know about from Ethiopian restaurants already. Note the scoring into bite-size chunks--easy for eating with hands.
Fried fish! This is something we wouldn’t have found on our own, and didn’t know about from Ethiopian restaurants already. Note the scoring into bite-size chunks–easy for eating with hands. And that was a great hot-fruity chile sauce.
Ethiopia has excellent beers--this is another thing I didn't know. Our guide made sure we tried them all, including a freakish non-alcoholic version of Guinness (not pictured). Ambo, the water in the middle, is delicious.
Ethiopia has excellent beers–which I didn’t know. Xavier made sure we tried them all, including a freakish non-alcoholic version of Guinness (not pictured). Ambo, the water in the middle, is some of the best fizzy water I’ve had in the world.
At the splurgey raw-beef place, you get served a huge hunk of raw meat, and a knife. How bad-ass is that? These men were happy to show off their bad-ass meal.
At the splurgy raw-beef place, you get served a huge hunk of raw meat, and a knife. How bad-ass is that? These men were happy to show off their bad-ass meal.
These guys are in the restaurant, in view of everyone. They're also sort of hammy, and loved having their picture taken.
These guys are in the restaurant, in view of everyone. They’re also sort of hammy, and loved having their picture taken. It’s their job to cut all the fat off the beef, so when it arrives at your table, it’s just a glistening ruby of flesh.
We got the pre-cut version for our table. Comes with red chile sauce and mustard, for dipping. (We also got cooked beef cubes, which were easier to compare in flavor to American beef. Guess what--Ethiopian is much better.)
We got the pre-cut version for our table. Comes with red chile sauce and mustard, for dipping. (We also got cooked beef cubes, which were easier to compare in flavor to American beef. Guess what–Ethiopian is much better.)
Just for context, here's the in-house butcher in a different restaurant. Right?! (Both Rod and the butcher are watching the football game on TV.)
Just for context, here’s the in-house butcher in a different restaurant. Right?! (Both Rod and the butcher are watching the football game on TV.)
"Special tea": tea, ginger, pineapple juice, honey, optional ouzo. Filing with some of the best international drinks ever.
“Special tea”: tea, ginger, lemon and pineapple juices, honey, optional ouzo. Filing with some of the best international drinks ever.