Drug Bras

The quirky story of drug bras.

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 foreign prison, blamed for drug possession of marijuana that wasn’t theirs while in Ecuador. 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?

Wrong.

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.

“Yep.”

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.

“Yes.”

“Used clothes. Not drugs?”

“Right.”

“So I guess they weren’t drug bras, huh?”

“Probably not.”

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?

Guest Post Bio:

Kimberly grew up in a cowtown in the Midwest, first traveling abroad to Mexico when she was fifteen. Subsequent years led her to live in Spain, Greece, Japan, Argentina, and Mexico, traveling through many other places along the way. When she’s not writing for her successful travel blog, A Turbulent Tramp, she works with her small nonprofit building computer labs in rural schools in Patagonia.
You can find the tramp on Facebook, or subscribe to her RSS feed.
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  3. says: James

    Stumbled across your site doing research on selling used clothing in Peru.

    I have learned its illegal to import/sell used clothing to most Central/South American countries, except for Guatemala and Chile.

    The supposed reason is it affects the local textile industry as another commenter suggested. There is plenty of US clothing down here though, everybody wears Abercrombie/Apostle.

    Now I gotta figure out how they get it in…

    The more you know!

  4. says: Turtle

    Fantastic story! I haven’t had the ‘drug bras’ experience but there were quite a few times when I was in South America and was convinced something dodgy was going on around me. But with my very poor Spanish, I could never quite work out what…

  5. Hilarious in some ways, not at all in another way, but overall: now I wonder if this could be an excuse for either: 1) For chicks to always go bra less abroad. 2) For male travelers to investigate chicks bra’s more up close…. [giggles]

  6. I don’t understand why they can’t sell used bras, at all. No sense making! Hilarious story though, I can just imagine the freaking out feeling when you suspected they had drugs and then the heavy sinking feeling when it turned out to only be lingerie…

  7. says: Wanderplex

    Oh my gosh, what a story – I was on the edge of my seat!! I completely understand how freaked out you must have been you totally did the right thing refusing the bras – even if they turned out to be relatively innocuous in the end! You just never know, so it’s always best to be wary!

  8. Man, that is one messed up story! I was thinking drugs too. But to think all that fuss just for clothes? Seems a little ridiculous. Just one example of why I am glad I am not a woman – no drug bras! 🙂

  9. says: Chontelle

    Darn! That’s a crazy experience. I imagined being on the same situation, I could have burst into tears out of anxiety and nervousness. Geez.

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  11. says: Joyce

    There are possibly some good reasons why some countries have already outlawed selling used clothing. One is that it will be an additional competitor to the local garments industry. Another is sanitary issues. Last in my mind is the idea that those “hand-me-downs” might affect the morale/dignity of the people.

    Just my two cents.

  12. says: Kimberly

    David, the photo is a result of my stellar photoshop abilities (sense sarcasm.)
    Tiny: I never found out why it was illegal for them to sell used clothing! It baffles me… SO unfortunate. I felt so bad for all those people getting their clothes confiscated, but the barn-like structure I refer to was LITERALLY FILLED with a twenty(or so) feet tall mountain of clothing. I really hope they didn’t burn it 🙁

  13. Wow! That sounds like a terrifying experience. Luckily it was only “illegal” clothing and not drugs. (We just did a show for History Channel about Pablo Escobar and one of the things he used to do was soak designer jeans in a cocaine solution and smuggle them across the border!)

  14. says: Red Hunt

    Too funny, I can totally picture the layers of clothing and tension-filled bus scenario. So many odd, interesting things happen on bus rides…as rough has they can be, they can sure be entertaining!

  15. says: Tinny Bill

    I was deeply carried away with your experience. Very relieved that they were not actually drug bras. Why is it illegal for them to sell used clothing? Here in the Philippines, a lot of used things are sold and I love them. Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience.

  16. says: Ian [EagerExistence]

    Drug bras. Love it. Everyone got pulled from a bus I was travelling on in Egypt once. All the boys had to line up in front of their bags, military-style. A drug dog checked all the bags, but not the guys in line. They were more interested in the Egyptians, than in me. Benefits of being a tourist I guess.

  17. says: John of Travel Rinse Repeat

    Wow what a story! I loved the ending. I have no idea how I would have reacted if I were given a bag of what I thought were drug bras.

  18. mala gente indeed – I can think of all the charity shops in Britain that would have made good use of them.

    By the way, where did the photo come from? That looks suspiciously like an illegal bra next to the legal drugs and drug paraphernalia.

  19. I was on a double-decker bus from Turkey to Syria a number of years ago with only one other passenger beside myself. The 4 bus company employees tried to put boxes of contraband underneath our seats even though of course there was plenty of room on the bus. Little bastards. 🙂

    1. LOL, no doubt. I was on a suspected ‘drug bus’ when I crossed from Bolivia to Argentina on my way back to BA. They nearly stripped the bus for 4 hours before finally letting us all cross the border.