Read Before You Travel: Four Hundred and Nine Days by Evan Whitehall

Evan watching the editing process for his interviews with Voortex

by Ronnie Charrier

If I had never endured prison, I would still be struggling for a grasp on life

– Evan Whitehall

             I could’ve been Evan Whitehall. 

            Evan was 25 when he purchased a one-way ticket to Nicaragua in the fall of 2010.  He had an Ivy League degree from Cornell University, some business experience under his belt from running his own business, and an adventurous side he’d yet to let take the reigns.  His next two years, for better or worse, were the inspiration for his new book, Four Hundred and Nine Days (a link to his book is below), in which he echoes a very familiar feeling that myself and others in our generation have felt: “I spent a few years searching for inspiration after college.  After looking in a few wrong places, I decided that when I surfed, I felt the best… as far as surfing destinations go, Nicaragua was untouched, so I got a ticket and went surfing.”  Surf he did.  And for the next few months, the beaches of San Juan Del Sur would be his home.

            Every year thousands of young people get just that sort of itch to leave the comfort of their daily life for something new, exciting, and a little bit dangerous.  Traveling by yourself after high school has been a time-honored tradition for decades and can be seen as a badge of honor for many.  In fact, Australia and most European countries have given this tradition a name: gap year.  They encourage kids and young adults to take a year off from studies to work and travel. 

            I was no different. 

            Just a few months after Evan was on his way to Nicaragua, I had purchased my own one-way ticket to Costa Rica in search of my own personal paradise.  That trip was life changing.  I surfed in both the Pacific and the Mediterranean, got my scuba diving certification in Panama, and spent my days gliding merrily between meeting new friends, enjoying countless new experiences, and taking siestas in hammocks.  I even met my current girlfriend there.  And like a lot of these first time travelers, I wrote off the notion that I needed to show any caution in this new and exotic place.  I had seen The Beach, and I wanted adventure.

            Evan, however, is the one in a thousand case where poor judgment mixes with bad luck to create that nightmare which keeps parents awake at night.  “I’ve been called intelligent, bright, quick, and smart, but I am slow when it comes to taking caution when it is prudent,” Evan writes in his book.  When you’re in a different country, with a different language and a different set of rules, the smallest misstep can become disastrous.

            December 6th, 2010, would be the last day Evan surfed in Nicaragua.  “I was in a taxi, riding up the highway to a party in Granada with my best friend, enjoying the sunset.  I was dreaming about the girl I was falling in love with.  I reached for another beer from our stash, and I noticed traffic was stopped ahead.  Cop trucks were parked on both sides of the road, and officers were searching cars they selected from the line of cars.”  Those cops found the small amount of marijuana Evan had in his bag, and after a short exchange of broken English and Spanish, they put Evan and his friend into handcuffs.  No reading of their rights, no phone call, and no idea what was to come.  Four months after leaving the U.S. to surf, travel, and party in Nicaragua, Evan found himself in a holding cell, awaiting a trial that would take place without his presence, where he would be sentenced to three years in prison.

            I could’ve been Evan. 

            That’s all I kept thinking when I was reading his book.  I couldn’t stop myself from retracing every decision I made when I was traveling.  What made my trip go so smoothly and his so terrible?  Almost every 20-something that has spent some time traveling can tell you dozens of stories of close calls and situations that could’ve been a lot worse than they were.  That’s part of the experience of traveling.  We just chalk that up as part of the adventure.  Part of the story we'll tell our friends when we get home.  We so quickly forget; every one of us could be Evan. 

            I remember being out on the beach in Costa Rica around two in the morning with a beautiful Australian girl who, years later, would become my girlfriend.  We were just talking.  There were no drugs or alcohol on us, when we were approached by two cops.  In most English-speaking countries this would be routine and quick.  But when you're in another country and don't understand what they're saying, it can be a different experience altogether.  I quickly figured out that they were going to pat me down.  "Drogas?" they asked us.  We vigorously shook our heads no.  "Passaportes?"  Shit.  Both our passports were safely tucked away back at the hostel.  Luckily my new friend spoke a little Spanish, and she managed to convince them that we were legitimate, drug free tourists just enjoying the beach.  After a few minutes they moved on.  Different cops, a different beach, or a different companion, and my night could have been much uglier.

            In his book, Evan compares Nicaragua to the ‘Wild West’: “it was open, unpopulated, unregulated, and largely ignored by the rest of the world.”  He might as well be speaking about a dozen places that backpackers frequently travel to.  It's that primitive aspect of life that draws us to these places, eager to see something new, something different.  But as romantic as that sounds when you’re sipping an Imperial beer on the beach, it’s a different story when it comes to a third world prison.  “Most guards’ mindset in the Granada Federal Penitentiary was that prison should be hell, as god intended…Typhoid, dysentery, hunger, thirst, infection, bugs that bore into skin and lay eggs, and coral snakes were also cell mates in prison,” he writes.  “Flies and cockroaches dominated the landscape.  After a few months, I didn’t even care that I was covered in roaches when I woke up each morning.” 

            Four Hundred and Nine Days takes us through Evan's mindset going into prison, what he had to do to survive, and the roller coaster of emotions he felt when he was finally released.  He introduces us to unique characters and tell us stories of despair, unregulated violence, and of hope.  In one of his interviews he did for Voortex (which are all available to watch below) , Evan says that people need to have a form of tension in their life that will pull them out of their comfort zone of feeling that they have it all figured out.  "Because no one does," he says.  For him, that tension came in the form of prison, but it could be any number of things to different people.  I think that's what travel is to a lot of people.  It's a way to test your boundaries and find out what kind of person you are, and want to be.  It certainly was to me.  My outlook has changed greatly since my trip to Central America.  And it changed again when I traveled around Europe.  Our experiences will always shape who we are and give us new perspectives, whether it's from travel, a break-up, a new job, or just reading a book about some kid that spent a year and a half in a third world prison.

             Evan didn't write this book so that you wold feel sorry for him.  "I was guilty as hell.  They have a law there [and] if you're caught with 20 grams of pot, you go to jail for three years.  It's harsh, but that's what it is."  Evan had 25 grams on him when he was picked up.  "It was unfortunate, but it made a difference in my life... I feel lucky," Evan said, "suffering is a part of the human condition.  It's a catalyst for change that you can't ignore.  I hope this book opens peoples' eyes to that."

            Any one of us could be Evan.  This isn't an ad against traveling; quite the contrary actually.  We travel to these places and put ourselves in these situations because we're searching for something.  Evan didn't find what he set out to.  But that's how life works, and great things can still come from horrible events.

            Evan calls his prison sentence a gift and this book is his gift to everyone else.  He ends his book with the same uplifting spirit that he takes with him everywhere he goes now.  "Prison taught me how to live.  I live in a paradise that offers me a million different opportunities to give thanks and experience awe every day."

Four Hundred and Nine Days
By Evan Whitehall