It’s a terrifying experience to be on a bus in a foreign country where certain events cause you to suspect there may be drugs aboard. I met a Canadian couple in the Sahara desert some years ago who had landed themselves in an Ecuadorian prison, blamed for drug possession of marijuana that wasn’t theirs. I’ve had nightmares about it ever since.
This story starts with a three day bus journey that covered nearly the entire west coast of South America – starting in Lima and ending up in Bariloche, Argentina. What a great way to see the landscape, right?
Liz has come along for the ride because she hasn’t learned her lesson yet that traveling with me is never really a good idea. I pride myself in finding the absolute cheapest way to get from Point A to Point B. (Because saving that extra $2.00 was worth spending twenty-eight additional hours on a dirty bus that broke down fifteen times en route.) Using every last frequent flier mile, I was able to get all the way to Lima, Peru – even though I needed to be in Bariloche, Argentina, which is more than 5,000 kilometers away. “No problem!” I thought. I’ll just bus it over a couple additional countries. It will take no time at all, right?
“Won’t that take, like, several days?” Liz inquired as she reluctantly booked her flight to Peru.
“Nah,” I responded. I actually had no fucking idea how long it would take. Ever since my ride on the death train in Mexico, even a fifty hour busy journey seemed completely painless.
Liz’s words came back to me as we boarded bus number two (of five) on our way to Argentina. There was something peculiar about the crowd of vertically-challenged Peruvian natives preparing to board our portentous jalopy. Groups of antsy passengers were huddled around various piles of clothes, franticly slapping on the absolutely maximum quantity of apparel their slight frames could handle. What wouldn’t fit on their bodies they shoved into plastic bags, which were subsequently hidden by cramming them into the overhead shelves aboard the bus.
Liz and I looked at each other quizzically.
“What’s with all the used clothes?” Liz asked.
“I don’t know… do you think they’re trying to transport something… illegal?” I suggested, cringing. It certainly seemed like it. These people were anxious, desperate, and wearing a lot of clothes. Damn, I know dressing in layers is normally recommended for long journeys, but these people were wearing about ten to fifteen layers each. This is a classic technique for absconding narcotics. (I mean, I think it’s a method for absconding narcotics. I’ve never actually absconded narcotics, but that’s what I’d seen on multiple episodes of Locked Up Abroad.)
As the bus approached the first police checkpoint, complete anarchy broke out among the bus passengers. Crowds were shoving each other in the narrow aisles whilst attempting to stash a copious number of plastic bags filled with “clothes” in every orifice the bus offered, others opting to throw on even more clothes despite sweating abundantly (did I mention it was at least 80 degrees?), the ample sweat only making the lawbreakers’ guilt even more obvious. The women, in particular, were running from the front of the bus to the back and vice versa, exchanging bags, hollering anxiously back and forth, having seemingly broken up their groups to appear less suspicious.
“What the hell is going on?” Liz asked as we watched pandemonium ensue.
“No idea, but it’s definitely illegal,” I said, noting that everyone started freaking out just as we’d approached the police check point. I was starting to get pretty damn nervous. I had started to sweat a little bit too, scared that Liz and I would be guilty by association, or that one of these trafficking passengers had planted drugs in my bag.
“Shit, we’re on a drug bus, Kim. We’re totally on a drug bus,” Liz said, shaking her head.
And just as those words spilled out of Liz’s mouth, I felt a leaden tap on my shoulder. It was the woman who had been sitting opposite Liz and I.
“Pueden esconder unas bolsas debajo de sus sillas?” she asked desperately, wide smile pleading for help. Could we keep some of her plastic bags under our seats?
“Um, are those bags full of bras?” Liz whispered to me, pointing at the plastic bags being pushed our way. I looked down.
Yes, yes they were. The woman was trying to give us plastic bags full of bras.
“Jesus, is she trying to hide drugs in those bras or something?” I asked, suggesting the only logical explanation for a tiny Peruvian woman on a local bus trying to hand off plastic grocery bags full of seemingly previously owned lingerie onto two vacationing American girls, who would surely not undergo much scrutiny during the impending police search.
“Good God, they’re drug bras!” Liz cried.
“Look, lady. I’m not putting your drug bras under my seat.” I said firmly, trying my best to sound mean.
“Por favor!” The woman pleaded, oozing of desperation, offering her drug bras, miming putting them beneath seats and in our personal bags.
“Hell no! I’m not taking your drug bras, woman!” cried Liz as the woman became more pushy, urging her plastic bag full of drug bras into Liz’s lap. Liz put her arms up in defense, but the woman dodged them and dove over us both, forcing the bags under our seats as the bus doors opened to reveal our first policeman.
“Hey! Stop it woman!” I shrieked, fighting to throw her stout body off of us, snatching plastic bags from under my seat and propelling the drug bras as far away as possible. “Take your drug bras back to your own seat!”
“Son mala gente!” the woman snorted as she regained her balance, scowling at Liz as she turned around to return to her own seat to retrieve the drug bras I’d thrown, to face her imminent punishment.
“Did she just call us bad people?” Liz asked.
A policeman boarded the bus and the tension increased tenfold.
Everyone fell silent. Stillness.
“Everyone off the bus,” the policeman said.
The passengers obeyed, silently exited the bus.
“Shit, are they arresting people?” Liz asked me anxiously.
“How the hell should I know?”
We left the bus with the rest of the passengers. I prepared my speech of innocence, going through the words for “crazy woman” and “drug bras” in Spanish in my head, just as I saw Liz turn to look at the towering building in back of us.
“Whoa, is that building full of clothes?” Liz gasped.
I turned around to see a whopping heap at least twenty feet high of used clothes inside the enormous barn-like structure.
What was going on here?
“Excuse me,” I said to one of the police, turning to one of the police officers. “Um… what’s with all the used clothes?”
“Oh, these people are trying to transport used clothes that they bought in Lima to their hometowns to sell,” he explained. “But it’s illegal – selling used clothes, I mean.”
“Did he just say that selling used clothes is illegal?” Liz asked.
“Used clothes. Not drugs?”
“So I guess they weren’t drug bras, huh?”
So I guess the “illegal goods” were the bras themselves and not anything that was hidden inside them. I spent the rest of the bus ride trying to avoid the drug-bras woman’s glare, feeling tremendously guilty that I hadn’t helped my bus neighbor transport her used lingerie to her hometown (her bras were confiscated). But seriously, Peru, what’s with the funky laws about used clothing?