I was a Peruvian Dishtowel Smuggler

Ok, so I’m not Peruvian. And I never intentionally smuggled anything… Aw shoot. Wait—there were those Chinese chili peppers tucked into my coat pockets that one time, but I swear it was before I worked in the wine industry and really-really, truly-truly became convinced of the whole SAG take on Chile being an agricultural island thing. But I really do get it now and it will NEVER happen again! Really, truly, honest, cross my heart, stick a needle, swear on a stack, and all that! Ya lo cacho… I completely get it now, AND, as much as I really love Chinese red peppers and Indian black mustard seeds, they will never-ever enter the country by my hand (or coat pocket) again! (Phew, Wow- Confession IS good for the soul!)

I hadn’t thought about this for a long time, but Eileen at bearshapedsphere started a group blog on border-confiscated items. I posted my original story on the sad loss of delicious spices intended for the curries of my dreams, but the memories started flooding in. Here’s another, although technically it wasn’t me that suffered the loss this time…

Ok. So the story goes like this. Without delving into dramatic personal details, my daughter and I lived in Chile for a few years as tourists (despite my earnest yet futile attempts to “legalize” my status… but that story’s for another day). Anyway, before I became legal-by-marriage, we were forced to leave the country periodically and re-enter in order to renew our tourist visas. And, as just about every ex-pat in limbo with residency-in-waiting knows, that means 3 or 4 weekends in Mendoza, Argentina per year.

We were only a month shy of the big day, but bureaucracy trumps love and wedding plans, so, off we went, yet once again, my daughter and I and husband-to-be (HTB) aboard a bus and Argentina-bound. Even before we pulled out of the station we couldn’t help but notice a group of 8 or 10 Peruvians who made a fuss about changing their seat assignments. It seemed odd, considering that the bus was only half full and they could sit wherever they wanted, but they insisted that the official roster be changed to show 2 here, 2 there, another 2 over there, etc., dispersed throughout the bus. Curious, but it would all become clear in due time.

My preteen daughter was sitting in the seat behind HTB and me, and suddenly I was very aware that one of the Peruvian men was talking with her… the protective Mom instinct kicks in and I demand and explanation, of course. He was asking her to put a dozen pairs of (new) tube socks in her bag. No way! (How many times have you been warned not to transport goods for someone else?) Besides, our status in Chile was iffy enough as it was (C’mon, 3 years on a 3-month tourist visa is no cake walk!) I didn’t want anything in the world to jinx it just before the wedding, and I certainly didn’t want my KID to get mixed up in any kinky socks affair! Case closed.

Fast forward several hours and countless curvy switchbacks up the mountain to the Argentine border, where the whole seat-changing scheme unfolded. We were lined up by seat number to go through customs, and at that time Argentina required Peruvians to have a certain amount of money ($300US I think?) to enter the country. Clearly the group did not have enough money, so they went through the line, showed the dough, passed through customs, and handed the $300 wad on to the next person down the line. Hmmm. We noticed. Mouths shut. None of our business.

Next step: we had to place our bags on a long row of tables and police inspectors took everything out and rifled through it. Much to my disbelief, out of the bag I was sharing with HTB came a dozen brand new dishtowels that I had never seen before! WHAT?? I assume the officer did not see the extremely nasty look I gave HTB because I’m still here to tell the story, but man, was I MAD!

Once back on the bus and starting to roll, I laid into him, “How COULD you? You KNOW that our status is iffy, You KNOW that I told the guy we wouldn’t take his socks, WHY would you accept towels? And WHO travels with dishtowels anyway?” “Look,” he says, all righteous and innocent, “he’s just a poor guy trying to make ends meet. Back when I was a student, Argentina treated us the same way. I just wanted to help him out. What’s it hurt?” Grrrr…

Before I could continue, the bus came to a stop and 3 uniformed officers boarded. They were looking for Peruvians. Seat 1: “show me your money.” Out comes the $300. Seat 2: “show me your money.” Out comes the money… and so on, until they reached the young woman who could only produce $120. “Come with us,” they said.

They took her off the bus for questioning. We waited for over an hour, and finally we moved on… without her. The Peruvians aboard were clearly upset. One of their own was left behind to an unknown destiny. Would she be arrested? (Surely so.) Returned to Chile? Deported to Peru? It was all in the air. The Peruvians who had boarded with such high hopes of selling their wares in Mendoza and returning with something in pocket for family and wellbeing were clearly distraught. They huddled and spent the remaining hours of the journey locked in group prayer… until, of course, the time came to ask us for the dishtowels back.


3 responses to “I was a Peruvian Dishtowel Smuggler

  1. tubesocks and dishtowels? Well, they do have very nice cotton in Peru. And in Portugal, apparently. I wonder if they do brisk business in Spain. And four years on a 3 month visa is impressive. Though since at least it was to wine country, hopefully it wasn’t that much of a hardship to go to Mendoza.

    And also: this post is liked over at bearshapedsphere! thanks!

  2. Unfortunately, this all went down before I became a wine-o, and before Argentina’s economic crisis, so… as 2 grad students with kids, there wasn’t a lot of money around to enjoy much more than the view! (Which, of course, is spectacular!)

  3. Pingback: Cachando Chile: a Year in Review « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

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