Packing, again

I’m packing again. It feels like I always am. I suppose I should be grateful for a life that lets me run footloose, but I never fail to get stressed out when confronted with an empty suitcase (or two) and a pile (or three) of folded clothing. I suppose this is another form of the leaving anxiety that I write about in my column in this month’s issue of National Geographic Traveler.

The happy thing, though, is that this whole process made me remember an old Real Travel column I wrote about bags. It’s from 2005, so it’s not recent enough to be up on the magazine’s online website with my other columns. So I’ve reproduced the text below, for your reading pleasure.

Real Travel: Pack Mentality

by Daisann McLane

The other day I was reaching, on tiptoe, for a box on the top shelf of my hall closet when something black and shapeless came tumbling out and landed at my feet: my 25 year old Tumi ballistic nylon foldable carryon super-sized suit and dress bag. When I saw it, covered in dust bunnies,  pangs of guilt overwhelmed me, just like when you suddenly bump into an old friend you’ve neglected to check in on lately. I hadn’t taken the suit bag on a trip with me since..well I wasn’t sure. Ten or fifteen years? The crumpled paper tags–MIA and LHR–still clinging to the handle offered some clues. The quick trip to London for a business meeting in 1989, or maybe that job interview in Miami in 1990.  

It made me sad to think of my old faithful travel buddy, the suit carrier, no longer living the glamorous life flying around the world in airplane storage compartments. But when your life as a traveler changes, so must your bag. The Tumi was with me during the years when most of my traveling was business related–and, most importantly, when airlines allowed economy passengers to carry such a bulky item onboard and store it in a hanging compartment. The rules, as we know, changed. And so did my travel style. Eventually I started going on longer trips to faraway places where it didn’t matter if my suits and dresses arrived wrinkled. Where, indeed, it didn’t matter if I’d packed suits or dresses at all. I moved on to other kinds of journeys, found other kinds of bags to get sentimental about.

A bag–whether it’s a backpack, suitcase, carryon, wheelie, or hard valise–is not a teddy bear or a security blanket, but to me it sometimes seems that way. Because when you travel a lot, especially for long stretches of time, the bag is the only real constant in your life. It is my home, best friend, steady companion, and more: my entire life edited down to basics and compressed into a bundle. I became so close to the royal blue Patagonia soft-sided nylon carryon with convertible backpack straps that I lived with for three months in India, that I can still trace in my mind the irregular splotch of the curry stain that, one month into the trip, disfigured the bottom end (a messy lunch near the railway station in Trivandrum). I can remember the panic I felt when, in another Indian train station, a wizened stick figure of a fellow snatched the blue bundle from my arms as I stepped down from the carriage to the platform, and began to scurry off with it towards the exit (as it turns out, the elderly man was the station porter, and he wasn’t about to wait for me to decide whether I needed his services!).  

In Thailand and Malaysia, the Patagonia magically expanded to fit stacks of silk fabrics and batik sarongs; without complaint it swallowed guidebooks, the cheap tripod I bought on Khao San Road, and a set of four shiny brass chargers I picked up in Bangkok’s Chatuchak market. By the time I boarded the last leg of my flight home, my bursting “carryon”no longer passed the airline’s muster, and, to my chagrin, I had to check it.  It arrived at New York’s JFK, but when I pulled it off the baggage belt, I discovered that a careless baggage handler had caused one of the zipper heads to rip off. When I took it back to the Patagonia store to see if they could fix it the clerk just shrugged and said, “You have a guarantee, so we’ll replace this one, but you have to leave the old one with us.”

I stood there paralyzed for a moment, not wanting to part with my curry stained, broken-zippered India travel pal. Then, pragmatically, and feeling foolish, I accepted the replacement.

I have traveled with the shiny new replacement bag exactly twice.

What is it, about certain bags, that makes you want to use them forever, like a pair of well-worn shoes? Design is part of the equation, and so is style, but for me the crucial element is simplicity. I have spent hours researching and exploring baggage that has a million separate compartments dedicated to everything from wet laundry to spare housekeys. But I never buy any of these bags: they are too rigid, too strict. I prefer the bag that allows you to discover new ways it can be used, that the extra compartment on the side, when stuffed with socks, makes a perfect pillow to rest on between flights in a lonely airport, or that the shoe compartment is a good place to put your trashy paperbacks.

Actually, nowadays I seldom spend much time thinking about my travel bags, for the airport luggage rules adopted in the last five or so years have put an end to the days when I could comfortably carry everything I needed for a long trip onto the plane with me. Once I prided myself on never checking a bag; now I check everything, since it is too annoying to have to drag it through security checkpoints. Besides, my carryon these days needs to fit all of the comfort items–pillows, a blanket, food, water, noise-cancelling headphones– that no longer come with most economy class fares .

At the airport counter you will have no trouble spotting me, for I am the traveler with the cheap, functional black suitcases on wheels, the ones purchased for less than $30, usually in some American discount mall or Asian bazaar. If they turn out to have too many compartments or annoying features, I ditch them; if they turn out to be to small, I buy another, larger one in the market in Beijing, or in Buenos Aires. That’s my traveling life right now, and that’s my bag: global, pragmatic, inexpensive, ruthlessly efficient.

Still, I miss my other travel lives. The other day, from the pockets of the 25 year old Tumi hanging suiter, I recovered an ancient TWA boarding pass and a receipt from a Miami Beach hotel that no longer exists. And then I dusted and cleaned the Tumi, inside and out–and put it back up on the shelf. Maybe this bag would never hit the road with me again. But I didn’t want to tell that to my old friend, at least not just yet.