Recently I traveled to Peru to research my next novel.   Peru rattled me, although I am not a nervous traveler.   When I was thirteen, I made the trip from Manila to Boston, including a required overnight stay in Los Angeles, by myself.  There was hitchhiking in Italy in my college years and other bold and ridiculous travel adventures; once I landed in Ravenna with no money and had to work two days at a communist beer festival to make train fare back to Florence.  I drove through the Texas Panhandle in an ice storm and had to sleep in a church.  I’ve negotiated public transport in Bangkok, often alone, and somewhat confidently.  In recent years, I waited out officials at the Zimbabwe/Zambia border as they attempted to extort one hundred dollars—something I would have given them, but which I didn’t have since, as I explained to them several times, only a stupid woman would travel alone and with lots of cash. I didn’t sweat it.  I had time, and I survived through those moments composed and sustained by the notion that, at some juncture, this would make a funny story.  But Peru made me nervous not because of danger, nor lack of money, nor corruption, nor alien culture, but because of language.  Peru made me nervous because of Spanish.  Spanish makes me nervous because I can’t speak it.  More clearly (not speaking Thai doesn’t bother me) Spanish makes me nervous because I can’t speak it, and I look like I should.  I call this particular anxiety “The Spanish Thing.”

Home was Los Angeles. And my life there was one of aimless, tipsy grieving. My father had died six months before this story begins and ever since I’d been casting about listlessly. One of my best friends, Lucy, lived down the street and we spent many a day together, drinking cocktails before 5pm and pondering the meaning of our mid-twenties. One such afternoon we decided that the best possible solution to our problems would be to go into business together importing t-shirts from Thailand. This may have just been an excuse to conduct “business meetings” over Bloody Marys at a restaurant in Culver City called Dear John’s, but whatever the case, we forged ahead with the plan.

The previous year on a travel-writing trip to the Philippines I’d happened upon a series of T-shirts with nonsensical sayings emblazoned across the front. My favorite was a hot-pink tank top with rainbow stitching. The Doritos logo was planted in the center in heavy black letters and underneath it said “It won’t come back to the house early and it will get dark soon.” Another shirt I was particularly fond of simply said “Coccyx Bone” across its deep purple fabric. It appeared as though whoever made these tees had a simple goal of producing shirts with English sayings on them. As in anything in English.

On a subsequent trip to Thailand I happened upon a veritable goldmine of these shirts in large weekend market in Bangkok. Over a “business meeting” at Dear John’s Lucy and I quickly determined that these things would sell and sell fast in Los Angeles. The kicker was that the shirts were cheap. Really cheap. Like 35-cents-per-shirt cheap. We could just go over there and buy a bunch of them and bring ’em back, we slurred at each other, stabbing at our drinks with half-eaten stalks of celery. Suddenly, a business plan was born. And we’ll have to go to Thailand all the time for business! I think Lucy may have spilled her Bloody Mary at this point, so enthusiastic was she about our plan.

One of these shirts simply read “Sexy Daddy Fat Why & Why,” and so we decided to name our little business Why & Why. Naturally we made business cards, in watermelon colors, hot pink and green. How else would it be official, right?

To get ready for our first trip we investigated the amount of goods we could declare returning from Thailand, made some arbitrary lists and planned for a beach vacation on the island of Koh Chang following our big buy at the weekend market in Bangkok. We also invited our friend Holly along, partly for fun and partly so that she could carry back two more suitcases of T-shirts for us.

Armed with a copy of Lonely Planet Thailand and a few extra duffel bags, the three of us set off.

Fully settled into the awesome, vintage Atlanta Hotel in Bangkok, we drank away our jet lag with copious amounts of Singha and finalized our plans to hit the 35-acre Chatuchak weekend market. Unlike anything I’d ever experienced, the market sold everything from live baby squirrels to nonsensical English-saying t-shirts, and it spanned blocks and blocks of densely-filled little tents. There were sections for plants and animals, textiles, furniture and food and we dove right into the clothing district, stumbling over ourselves in our excitement at finding stall after stall selling our shirts.

One stall in particular had an amazing selection and we quickly struck up a deal with the father-daughter pair behind the counter. We excitedly told them about our plan to import their wonderful T-shirts to America, all the while stacking pile upon pile of the shirts on the counter for purchase. The father-daughter team were thrilled.

“Do you have more of these?” we asked breathlessly and they began pulling out bags from the back. “Yes, we shouted! We’ll take them all!”

We shook hands with the shopkeepers enthusiastically and left them to fold the hundreds of shirts we had just agreed to buy while we set off to enact a new and brilliant third step to our plan: we would just mail them back! Hundreds of them! Off we skipped to FedEx.

At the FedEx shop we began making arrangements to have our bounty sent back to LA. How many boxes, how many pounds, blah, blah, blah. All sounds good. Lucy whipped out her credit card.

“And what is it you’re shipping?” the clerk asked.

“Oh, just some T-shirts we’re going to sell back home,” we replied.

“Do you have an import license?” he asked.

“Um, a what?” We quickly explained our business plan to him.

He was young, American, and clearly the manager of the store. “Um,” he said, “have you ever heard of APEC?”

I can still remember the sinking feeling that came over me. APEC, APEC…as I repeated this acronym in my head vague memories of my high school economics class flitted through my head. Words like tariff, trade restrictions, and import laws swam before my eyes.

APEC = Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

APEC = us breaking some major laws and trade agreements by bringing these T-shirts home to sell.

I suddenly flashed back to a drunken moment at Dear John’s. Just as a waiter had placed our third round of Bloodies on the table, I leaned back in my chair and exclaimed to Lucy, “Man, this whole thing is just so easy. I can’t believe someone else hasn’t done this yet!” My cheeks reddened with the memory as we made our way out of the FedEx shop in Bangkok. Back at the T-shirt stall the father-daughter team had just finished sorting and counting the last of the 500 or t-shirts we had agreed to purchase and were grinning at us wildly as we approached.

We hung our heads in shame and explained the folly of our once-great plan. Pressing several hundred dollars of guilt-money into their confused hands, we backed out of the store, our hearts heavy. Our plan had failed.

The next day, on a ferry on our way to the island of Koh Chang, the three of us quietly sipped at cans of Singha. We would have to figure out another way to survive our twenties. Perhaps something less crazy than illegally-imported Asian t-shirts and something a little more upstanding like a game that involves touching other people’s motorcycles.