Friday, August 8, 2014


Sixteen years ago I sailed around the world with a single bra. If you don't wear a bra, try to imagine leaving for a 3 1/2 month voyage without something you need, that you wear everyday, particularly when traveling & hiking.

We embarked on the ship in Vancouver. Two hours before we set sail across the Pacific Ocean to Japan, I searched my suitcase for a bra. What the  ... Where were they? I emptied the suitcase & stared at the mound of clothes. No bras. Not a single one.

I shut my eyes & pictured my bedroom so far away. My bras were tucked inside a satin pouch on my dresser. Why, why had I set them aside? What madness had possessed me? There they were-- my lovely rainbow of bras in cotton, silk & satin-- & there they'd stay, serenely awaiting my return.

I had 2 hours to find more bras. With my 12 year-old son in tow, I raced to a downtown street, but for some reason, I found only 1 lingerie store that carried a handful of bras as an afterthought. Strange, sturdy little bras with a red, white & blue insignia in the middle that looked like a tiny Canadian Mountie. I bought 1. I'll buy more in Japan (I told myself).

Ten days & 3 typhoons later, we arrived in Osaka. I'd washed & changed my 2 bras everyday, but the harsh ship water had already faded the Mountie. As soon as I stepped on land, I went in search of a bra.

I can't explain the scarcity of bras in Osaka. Or Saigon. Or Penang. With my son at my side (sorry, Avi, hope I didn't scar you with this quest), I searched for what was apparently the most elusive item in Southeast Asia: a bra, size 36B.

Not huge, not tiny, but medium-- right? Average.

Not in Southeast Asia. Not 16 years ago, before Victoria whispered her Secret to the rest of the world. Back then, one of these stores would have seemed like a mirage:

A grim realization soon emerged. There were so few bras because the need didn't exist. By the time we arrived in Hong Kong, my 2 bras had lost their shape, the straps were fraying, & the Mountie looked like a grizzled old man. At this port, if no other, I'd find a bra. We docked at a shopping mall, for God's sake! And I had a handwritten note in Chinese: "Bra Store".

We made our way through colorful narrow streets crammed with people to a shop that indeed displayed lingerie in the window. I handed the saleslady my note. Behind a curtain, she & another woman examined me with a tape measure. After many fervent gestures & loud exclamations, one cried, "Ah! You need Queen Mama size!"

Me? Queen Mama?

With another Chinese note, & clutching my son's hand, I ventured down the chaotic streets, including one filled with birdcages & singing birds, to a tiny shop next to a man who sold squirming eels & squid.

An ancient woman read the note & nodded. She went into a back room & eventually returned with what appeared to be a small white knapsack, crisscrossed with bands & wires. "Queen Mama," she said proudly.

It gave me an odd shape, weirdly flat yet pointed, & was so tight she stretched it with a tool that reminded me of a dentist's probe.

Friends, I bought it. I'd have bought 2, but there was only the one, waiting in storage for Queen Mama to arrive.

I had many adventures during that voyage-- I crawled through the Cu Chi Tunnels, entered a Temple in Penang where the Priest threw a basket of live snakes at me, & dined in Saigon with a French woman who had spied during the war & whose young lover serenaded us with a mournful rendition of "Love Me Tender" on his guitar.

By the time we arrived in Italy, months had passed & I'd grown accustomed to my faithful 3 companions. We'd been through a lot together.

Ten minutes in Rome & I found a lingerie shop. Another 10 minutes, & I emerged with 2 shiny new bras. No Queen Mama, no Mountie. No giggling saleslady.

Almost too easy.

On my next voyage, I forgot to bring ... well, that's another story.

In a few hours I'll leave the US for 4 months. I stare down at my open suitcase.

I wonder what I'll be in search of this time.



Joyce Hinnefeld said...

Finally catching up on reading your blog, Ruth, and I am SO happy to see this story in print. It's unforgettable, Queen Mama.

Safe travels to you. I'll be thinking of you!

Ruth Setton said...

Thanks, Joyce! And many thanks for the good wishes!