the 17th hour


I really need to leave a review on Amazon for this sleep mask:

“Fits snug, but not too tight.”

“Cool and lightweight.”

“Filters out everything from the outside…  including that of a policeman’s flashlight.”

It started 17 hours prior – 17 hours into a 33 hour bus ride. From the border town of Arica down to Santiago. 33 hours of bus travel. [I’ll go ahead and let that sink in for a second to justify the next sentence…]

Which is why I washed two $0.15 Valium down with a bottle of wine.

Now, you go ahead and think what you will, but consider this: I was about to spend more time on one bus ride then you do sitting at your desk for an entire week.

So yes, I wanted to self-medicate and sleep as much as I could.

Which worked, until I was shaken [shook?] awake by a Chilean policeman hovering over me, asking very loud questions in very rapid Spanish.

In my haze, all I could understand was the word bolso [bag] and a string of numbers.

I could also make out that there was no one else on the bus.

Just me and a pissed-off policeman with a lot of questions about a bag and some digits.

Still stoned and slightly drunk, I told him I didn’t speak much Spanish, so he took me by the arm and led me outside – outside where every single other person on the bus were standing in line, flanked by 4 armed policemen, and all of them staring at me.

A policewoman was waved over and began speaking to me in English.

“Is your bag number 3566?” – referring to the receipt they give you when checking your luggage – a security procedure that up until 2 minutes ago I found comforting.

“I’m not sure what the number is.” I told her.

“Can you describe your bag, please?”

“Yes. It’s a medium sized NorthFace bag. With wheels.”

This seemed to be the answer she was looking for. “Follow me, please”.

She led me past 6 more armed guards, three with dogs, to a large van – white almost-Paddy Wagon-type vehicle, but with 6 individual holding cells and a table at the back… set up exactly like this.


[Now, it should be mentioned out that in normal state of mind, I’d be shitting myself at this point, but you have to remember: I had just been woken up, and had both a bottle of wine and 20mg of diazepam in me. It was honestly dream-like. Dream-like until…]

She ushered me to the table in the back of the van and it was then when everything became a quickly-sobering reality, as out on the table was my big bag of coca leaves. The one I bought in Peru, the one I even posted the day before.


Now, enter my frightened-confusion. Coca leaves were legal in Chile – I had both Google’d it beforehand and had bought a smaller bag in Arica [Chile] that very morning – so I knew it wasn’t a crime.

What I hadn’t considered was that I was holding more coca leaves than a normal people could consume in a month… or – better yet – enough to make around a decent haul of actual narcotics, as each leaf possesses 0.5% of cocaine. Meaning, I had enough to manufacture 2 grams of cocaine. But again… it was legal.

“These are yours?” she asked.

“They are”, I said, but holding my ground, added “but I bought it in Arica… In the market. It’s illegal?”.

“In Arica, a small amount is legal, yes” she said, picking up the large bag as a preface to her next point. “But it is not allowed in this area of the country… and this is very much coca.”

I said nothing. To hold me under a “Coca leaves are not legal in certain parts of the country” is something that I knew wouldn’t hold up – or at least have me thrown in one of those menacing-looking cells.

But her next question could.

“Are you carrying any other things?”

“Other things?”

“Marijuana. Drugs. Anything like that?”

“No” I laughed – a forced laugh that sounded more like a cough. “Just my tea.”

“Then may I have your permission to search your bags?”

“Of course”.

Now – up until now, I was cool. I knew I had technically done nothing wrong and if I had, they’d have already have me handcuffed…

But then I remembered the Valium.

See, Valium is legal in South America, just as it is legal in the States… with a prescription.

I didn’t have a prescription.

I had just somehow talked a pharmacist in Peru to sell me 4. And if they found that used pack, my The obscene amount of coca leaves is just for my obscene love of coca tea! argument wouldn’t hold up.

And so, they began taking everything out of both bags – opening whatever could be opened, inspecting everything that could be inspected. It might have been 10 minutes, it might have been 30. All I could do was try to look tired and bored and not-guilty [forced yawns, forced smiles as the officers peering into the van, stretching, etc.], while at the same time, wonder what-in-the-fuck-I-did-I-do-with-those-Valium-wrappers?!

She finished looking through everything and almost-apologetically tried to put it all back.

“I am sorry this had to be done” she said.

“It’s okay. No problem.” Quietly congratulating myself on absentmindedly being the best pill-packaging hider ever.

“But I must take this”, she said, holding my beloved bag of coca tea.

“I understand”.

I packed everything up and walked out of the Paddy Wagon to the scornful stares of the entire bus who had been standing out in the freezing cold the entire time this was all going on. We piled back in and I collapsed into my chair – the severity of what could-have happened finally sinking in.

I’ll sleep good tonight, I told myself, quietly celebrating not being imprisoned.

A celebration that lasted about 4 seconds until I rested my arm on the window.

A window that pinched my elbow when I rested it there.

Because a tiny sharp silver package was resting on the window sill.

A tiny sharp silver package that – had the police searched my seat, as opposed to my bag, would have had me most likely thrown in jail.


And as it turned out, I wouldn’t sleep too well that night…

Not well at all.