Prison gates must look the same all over the world.
Tall, steel and fitted with one of those imposing sliding grills.
I was the first out of the taxi. I tapped hesitantly on the grill.
“Hola,” I called quietly.
The grill slid back and an Ecuadorian eye observed the four gringos standing on the pavement. We squinted back at him through the sunshine.
The door opened.
We stepped into a courtyard, full of men and women in military uniform.
They wanted our passports, they wanted to search us and our bags, they wanted to inspect our fruit, our shampoo, our chocolate.
They wanted to know who we were visiting.
“Turistas?” I ventured. “Foreigners?”
Bryony and Pippa, whose Spanish is excellent, pressed home the point.
Alex was on the other side of the courtyard, undergoing a search.
“There is Filipino woman. She no get visitors,” the guard said.
We shook our heads politely.
“English, Europeans?” we asked. Best if we could actually speak the language.
“Si, si,” they replied and stamped our hands with blue ink.
We followed their directions into the prison, blinking as we emerged in a long corridor, full of people, sitting and standing, gossiping and hugging.
Above us were the cells, you could see towels and clothes hanging outside.
But it was a bit confusing. Were we just supposed to wander?
“You guys okay?” called an attractive, apparently American woman.
She was jangling a set of keys. Visitor or inmate?
Still, she was pretty and friendly, her make up immaculate.
“Oh you want Emma. I think she’s asleep in my cell. She’s British.”
(definitely an inmate, those must be her cell keys)
“EMMA!” she screamed.
Emma (not her real name) appeared. It turned out she was British born, but had grown up elsewhere in the world.
She was wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a tatty baseball cap. Her face was a little worn, there was a scar above her eyebrow.
But she was friendly. She readily admitted she didn’t get many visitors and led us to a bench, where we sat grouped.
It was a nice afternoon. The conversation flowed. We mostly talked about her home country – she was big on tourism advice – and her life in the prison.
In a roundabout way she also told us why she was there – the same reason as many – and said she had been on remand about seven months, awaiting her sentence and expecting about eight years in jail.
“It’s not too bad here,” she shrugged.
“I have a Spanish teacher who comes in twice a week. He also teaches music and other stuff. You can have a TV in your room if you can afford it.
“Sometimes we can sign up for work. It’s proper slave labour. We put toothpicks in pots. But they get funny about how many we put in each pot, so if it’s the wrong number they open it and you have to start again.”
Slightly surreal. But Emma was funny and open and happy to tell us stories about the other women in the prison – including one inmate who had murdered her husband in a particularly gruesome way.
“I think she’d been watching too many horror films,” she laughed.
Emma was also open about herself and told us she had no intention of applying to complete her sentence in her home country.
“I’ll do my time here and go home with a clean slate,” she said.
“It’s a female judge. I just hope she’s not on her period.”
You couldn’t deny this girl had a sense of humour and we couldn’t help but wish her well, whatever her choices.
As we stood and turned to leave the friendly American returned to say hello, bringing with her the only other British girl in the prison.
She was bristling with hostility, her face cold, her eyes on the floor or glaring angrily in our direction.
But we were leaving anyway and deposited our pile of goodies with Emma, who accepted them gracefully. We may well return to visit her.
Within minutes we were back in the sunshine.
Rarely has it felt so good.