On Packing

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It is best to use a well-made bed or the floor, so long as you have a large, smooth, clear surface, a canvas, if you will. It is best to start early, to take your time, to mentally map out (a maze of nerves like tangled alleys, footpaths, avenues) the possibilities, the contingencies. You must have time to ask the questions: Will I get lost? Will I be loved? Shunned? Will I make it home again?

Things carried on a journey are personal, situational, and time-bound. Each item, however trivial, will be transformed when, in the midst of strangers and cacophony, it morphs into something singular and iconic: America, mother, lover, home. In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Crusoe in England,” a knife that had once been among its owner’s sole possessions bears this weight of import:

The knife there on the shelf—
It reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived.

This problem of weighty, freighted things terrifies me utterly. I do not want the burden of either the object or its implicit value. One I have to carry, the other I will inevitably lose: Crusoe’s knife, after the journey, won’t even look at him; it is a dull, dead thing. What objects, I wonder, will bear my history along some dusty, wrong-sided road? My grandfather’s compass? The leather-bound diary? A sarong (read: table cloth, dress, satchel, curtain, mosquito net, bed sheet, towel)? And what will I cast aside as dead weight?

I’m an American girl and I have, or have available to me, a lot of stuff. In America, this stuff seems essential or at least worthy of having: shoes for this and shoes for that; winter clothes and dress-up clothes and get-dirty clothes; books I’ve read but keep, books I would like to think I’ll read, books that look nice on the shelf; tools for gardening, cooking, preening, seeing, hearing, being, and so on and on. Much of what I own is nostalgic: I have boxes of mementos—the dried rose given to me by a boy who died, my grandmother’s pearl ring, a ratty stuffed lamb whose eyes and wool have been rubbed away by my childhood affection. Travel forces me to slough away the superfluity of possessions. Travel lightens and enlightens. This act of choosing what to take with me is the initial stripping down, the first rinse, yet I brace against it, clutch closed the throat of my robe, test the temperature with a toe, count to three, and then retreat and cower.

“My mother couldn’t pack, either,” my mother used to remark from the threshold of my upturned bedroom when I was a teenager, packing for boarding school or some educational summer in Europe or the international jobs of my twenties. “I always thought it was because she was an alcoholic. Turns out, it’s genetic.”

If my mother were here tonight, instead of at the other end of my pre-dawn flight, she would probably say this right now.

The process goes like this: I fidget with a box of anti-diarrheal tablets. I set it down again in my “maybe pile.” I pick up two boots, one in each hand, sniff them, pick at the scuffs, retie the laces, and put them aside. I twist on a little flashlight to see if it works, shine it in my eye until I see only blue, toss it down. Even after hours of weighing and wondering, the suitcase remains empty.

The problem, I think, is one of abstraction. That mental map? My efforts at prophecy? I can’t tell what anything is anymore; ceci n’est pas une pipe. This is not a box of anti-diarrheal tablets.

Yes. A drink would help. This too is genetic.

I try to be practical. I write a list in my notebook, then decorate that list’s margins with doodles. Since the dilemma is one of prediction, prescriptive lists should help. Remember that packet that arrived in the mail before summer camp, and in it that photocopied list on goldenrod or Pepto Bismol-colored paper? Socks (4 pairs), Underpants (6 pairs), Toothbrush and holder (1), Soap dish (1), Pillowcase (1).

“I think of travel packing like going to war,” my brother e-mails back. He has outsourced himself to Romania and is the only person I can count on being online at three a.m. “You look over your collective wardrobe and you decide which recruits have what it takes for the journey. They may not all come home, but they can earn a place in your travel history.”

This reminds me of Tim O’Brien’s list of items “humped” (“to walk, or to march, but implie[s] burdens far beyond the intransitive”), so I go to my bookshelf, and pull down The Things They Carried. Here it is:

P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tables, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C Rations, and two or three canteens of water.

So loaded, O’Brien’s platoon mates march toward the unknown and unknowable, carrying Kool-Aid as anti-dote or prophylaxis, as luck charm or cure or momentary comfort (it reeked of meaning!).

As I’m neither tripping off to some wholly charted summer camp nor marching toward unfathomable war, neither helps. While I do apply some haphazard calculus to how many pairs of underpants I’ll pack, not one item humped by O’Brien’s platoon makes my own shortlist: I do not wear a wristwatch. I do not check luggage (so no longer do I travel with pocketknives or matches). I’ve discovered that mosquitoes in other countries do not speak the language of repellence understood by mosquitoes in my country; this is as it should be: the best antidote to any problem exists in the place of that problem.

I confess I do love gear store gadgets—the Rube Goldberg travel musts (the Swiss/Leather Mani/Pedi, Decorking-TreeSaw-Decanter with Pop-Up Goblet, and Power Drill)—as much as the next girl. And I love the practical: an indestructible black hemp dress that is good for visiting churches or peeing discreetly in crowded, unplumbed places. I love the sentimental too: the slender envelope of photographs, some appropriated Celtic or Maori charm strung on a leather cord around my neck.

Since I’m getting nowhere, I write a new list:

  1. My mother: No matter how unnecessary it seems, always pack a swimsuit. Otherwise you have to sit on the sidelines or waste time finding a new one.
  2. My sister: Silk underwear. You can feel pretty without anyone knowing and anyway they dry quickly when you wash them in a sink.
  3. Someone I’ve forgotten: Good socks. If your feet hurt, everything else sucks.
  4. Me, after moving into a one-room home with host parents who had been married the previous Saturday: Headphones.

This is not a list anyone is meant to follow. It is certainly not a list I follow. If packing were so simple as following a list—well. Besides, this essay, when I stop procrastinating, isn’t about bullet-point solutions, but paralysis.

It isn’t traveling that I struggle with—I can swim as well as anyone, if only someone will pick me up and drop me in the lake, or if I just run kamikaze down the dock and plunge, shoes and all. Rather, it is when I get stuck at the edge of an empty suitcase, worrying my cuticles, my clothing and paperbacks and bottles of just-in-case pills piling up around me.

Perhaps it’s lack of imagination on my part—I look forward to my destination as a dark, nebulous hole in which anything at all might happen and there’s no telling what footwear would be best suited to it. Since I can’t or won’t imagine what’s ahead of me, I can’t prepare. I arrive where I am going to find that I’ve brought four pairs of jeans but not one bra. I’ve brought film and extra batteries, but no camera. Bikini top and no bottom. Raincoat, but no shirt. Socks, and only flip-flops. Mascara, but no hairbrush. Six shirts for two days, but not one sweater for six months.

At its worst, my packing precipitates into absurd existential crises. I dump everything. I give it away, foist it on others, throw it out, call my sister and sob across the international delay—It’s all over, forever. Other nights, like this one, I sit amidst my unbound miscellany and let my mind wander off ahead of me, then veer into the past to dig through old baggage that somehow got me where I am.

 

I.

CHIMERA

I took a kimono off
To feel lighter
Only putting it in the load
On my back.

—Matsuo Bashö

The summer before I set off for college, I undergo that bourgeois American rite: “backpacking Europe.” It isn’t my idea, but my mother’s. She takes a long look at the older roughneck boyfriend, the empties in the bed of the truck, the vague plans for employment, and promptly produces for me a Eurail pass, a map, and a plane ticket.

I immediately discover that the phrase “backpacking Europe” is actually quite literal: my backpack—a behemoth I’d picked out precisely because it was “big enough”—becomes the central part of my six-week trip, more central even than Europe, and far worse than the most annoying or awkward of travel companions.

I am traveling alone, so there is no leaving the monstrosity. It accompanies me into teeny train lavatories, it “shares” my bus seats, it hogs my hostel cots. I even arrange my arrivals in certain cities around the bag, or I wind up waiting hours for a baggage check to open and free me of the awful thing. When I am strapped into my pack, which is most of the six weeks I wander, I don’t dare enter a café or gelateria or any sort of shop at all because I know I won’t be able to turn around once I was inside. One night, in Nice, where my guidebook says it is safe to sleep on the beach, I sleep instead on the sidewalk outside the train station’s baggage check, covering my pack and myself with a sleeping bag to look larger or not alone. Not that I feel alone.

I weigh one hundred and twenty two pounds that summer; what I carry comes close to two-thirds that and determines my route, my behaviour, my experience. This effect is not caused by the bag’s contents: A featherweight tent I never use (but which cost too much to leave behind). A sleeping bag. Outfits for all potential meteorological conditions and possible social events (including a white denim halter top that I look damn cute in but am too timid to wear). High heels bought in Italy. A cardboard tube of paintings and sketches I’d done of the Ponte Vecchio and Boboli Gardens. A small pharmacy I picked up while I was sick in Switzerland. Phrase and guide books. Novels and notebooks. A hardback journal with a pretty purple flower inset on the cover.

At the onset of the journey, my pack feels like protection, like a turtle’s shell, but by the end I feel more like a dung-beetle pushing around my own precious wad.

When I do take off this hulking bag, the sensation is that of levitating, of wearing a life-preserver while walking in neck-deep water.

 

II.

LIGHT(E)NING

A nomad never owns more than can be loaded onto his camels’ backs. ―Fadumo Korn

My younger sister, of the silk underwear tip, does not share my packing affliction. She packs excessively when the situation permits—enough, most times, to compensate for everything I’ve forgotten—and she packs sparely when she must. For a week in the backcountry, it is the latter. It is I, the plainer of us two, who arrives in Denver twenty pounds overweight.

“Nothing superfluous,” she says soothingly, since she wants me to do this for myself. She’s trained for the wilderness, but, more to the point, she knows when I’ve crossed over.

I make a show of rummaging around in my bulging new, iridescent orange backpack.

“NOTHING,” my sister says again, looking a lot like our mother when she puts her hands on her hips. “And no books!”

The manuscript of my first “novel” goes in the trashcan.

“NOTHING!”

I moan. Out go some paperbacks, toilet paper, extra underwear, random back-up clothes (in case it rains or gets cold or warm), flip-flops, more paperbacks, and my journal.

My sister magnanimously hands back the journal.

Out in the mountains, our food and the actual packs alone become precious: At night in our tent my sister and I kneel on our backpacks in lightning position, prostrating ourselves to the gods who pummelled our nylon roof with hail and lit up those Rocky Mountain nights for intervals nearly long enough for reading—if only we had books.

III.

RENUNCIATION

Dropping the idea of ownership is renunciation. Renunciation is not dropping the possessions but possessiveness. —Osho

It has the makings of a bad joke: on my twenty-first birthday I am drinking with a college boyfriend bound for Wall Street, my back to the basketball game on the big screens.

“Do you see that girl who just walked up to the bar?” the boyfriend leans close to shout at me. “She just came back from a semester in Tibet.” He wrinkles his nose. “Seriously. She didn’t shave her legs for six months.”

The antidote, in all its unkempt clarity, is suddenly before me: when that boyfriend becomes a banker, I become a Buddhist. Or I try, anyway.

One only has the power to change oneself, Buddhists say. But it turns out I don’t even have that. As I pack for enlightenment, my interest in nonattachment proves more theoretical than actual. Between packing drafts I don my as-yet insufficiently weathered orange pack and stand on the scale. I am reading Milarepa to get ready for the semester, and according to that mystic, “To be untired by the fondness for journey is joy.” I interpret this to mean: to enjoy a trip, one must never carry more than one-third her body weight, or she’ll get tired and grouchy.

I don’t know it, standing on that bathroom scale, but I will remember every item that I take for that semester in India, Nepal, and Tibet with more clarity than I will recall the faces of the college friends I left behind. One fire-engine red fleece. Two identical T-shirts: one black, one dark blue. One pair of darkish jeans (too bulky, particularly in a landscape barren of privacy where we women all wore skirts over our pants). One pair of canvas slacks (better). That sturdy black hemp dress (priceless). Sneakers (useless). Underwear (I can still see the not-so-secret silky pairs mildewing on a string in the monkey-infested hotel room we used as a classroom in India). I also brought a water micro-filter, a jackknife, a passport belt, and a fresh journal. Six months. Eight possible arrangements. Three blades. Four hundred blank pages. Not bad, I think, except it has taken six weeks to assemble.

My newly affected asceticism does not, however, extend into the pharmaceutical realm. I carry (on a first-name basis) Band-Aids, Bactine, Neosporin (extra tubes), NyQuil, Tylenol, Benadryl, Ace bandages, Dr. Bronner’s, Imodium, Coppertone, Skin-So-Soft, Pepto-Bismol, and Lariam. My mother is irrationally angry that the doctor won’t issue me a prescription for Lamotil, the anti-diarrheal she herself had famously borne across India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan twenty-five years earlier.

When, delirious from thirty hours of airplanes mixed with anti-malarials, my new classmates and I convene at Indian Customs with our luggage, I measure my own against theirs and prepare myself to hate the Berkeley blonde whose pack was more petite than mine. Before I get the chance, however, our new teachers ask us to put our luggage all together. As the pile of our collective belongings grows in the middle of the New Delhi terminus, the teachers begin chuckling.

Two days later we abandon all but a change of clothes in a storage room in the Hotel Tibet in Dharamsala.

“You have more things in those backpacks,” our teachers explain as they lock up our stuff, “than your host families have in their entire homes.”

At the end of the semester, I limp home with nothing save these: a man-sized Nepali sleeping bag that announces on its tag to be made up of “100% Fathers” that I have clung to like an actual man through empty-cold Himalayan nights; two pewter butter lamps I will never use; a few scarves to give as gifts; and a bag of dry juniper incense that a benevolent customs agent at JFK agrees to overlook but I will never burn.

IV.

ASSUMPTIONS

Tin spoon, teacup, tremble of tray, carpet hanging from sorrow’s balcony.
Say goodbye to everything. With a wave of your hand, gesture to all you have known.
Begin again with bread torn from bread …

—Carolyn Forché

I arrive late to the first day of teacher-training classes in Pontevedra, on the Galician coast of Spain. In the usual way of things, I have not packed a clock, and, having come up just the day before from Lisbon after the abbreviated night flight out of JFK, I am six hours behind the sun. Thus I have overslept.

I am introduced. This is Molly. American. New York. Hi. Hi. Hello. I look around the table, no one makes eye contact.

My classmates, other future English teachers like myself, are asked to walk me back to our shared flat for the siesta. They are Australian, New Zealander, Irish, Welsh. They have let me know—straightaway and without any effort at nuance—that they do not plan to like me.

“Where is your luggage?” a classmate grumbles, put out at the prospect of lugging suitcases over cobblestones.

“I have my bag,” I answer, holding up a black backpack I have just filched from my parents’ house. It is cinched in tight and small, no bigger than a school bag and all but empty.

“That’s all you have?” For the first time, they look directly at me. “But you’re American!”

I raise my chin, but I don’t know for sure if I’m more proud of that suitcase or the fact of my nationality.

In the weeks that follow, they will be similarly surprised that I can cook, and entertain children, and—far better than any one of them—clean a bidet.

“But you’re American!” they say, more playfully each time.

Then September comes: that “clear blue sky” stained black with smoke and ash. And I am shocked at how “American” I feel. Strangers approach me in the streets of Pontevedra, hug me hard and close, then show me snapshots of a nephew in New Jersey, a daughter in Queens. And then, regardless of where we’re each from, we begin again to cry.

I fly back to New York at the end of the month, my backpack stuffed to the point of rupture with expensive, impulsively purchased clothing, faux fur and knee-high, high-heeled boots, only to see those twin spires of dwindling smoke with my own raw eyes.

I can’t bear it, so my mother helps me repack—pink cotton sheets and Post-it notes—and I don’t live in America for many years after that.

 

V.

LIGHTNESS OF BEING

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness? – Milan Kundera

“Never let your passport expire, and never keep it where you can’t get at it,” my mother has long advised my sister and me. “You never know when someone might want to fly you to Paris on a moment’s notice.”

My mother is the sort of person who makes sure she has sand in her shoes when she leaves the seashore, to keep perspective. But she is married to a rooted man who, when I was young, would not leave his dairy cattle long enough to join us on family vacations.

Neither my sister nor I (nor our mother for that matter) have ever been flown to Paris on a moment’s notice, or at all, for that matter. But one day I fly off to La Paz, Bolivia, alone, on a whim.

I arrive at midnight on a TACA flight from San Salvador, where I’m a teacher. I don’t have a single sucre in my pocket, hostel reservations, or any plans except to find my dear friend Jenny in Cochabamba, where she too is a teacher.

In Bolivia I carry nothing but a daypack—a detachable part of that little black pack I’d had the year before in Spain. I carry it to the market in Cochabamba that stinks of meat and rot. I hold it on my lap in the front seat of the second story of the bus to Copacabana, passing the Easter pilgrims. I wear it over the hills on Isla del Sol, a bottle of coca leaf tea clipped to the back. At one point in this wandering, I buy a thick, llama wool blanket and it fits in easily with my camera and journal and change of underwear.

I am also carrying a question, for Jenny, for myself: There’s a man I’ve left in Central America. When I go back, I think I’ll marry him.

I am weightless that Holy Week in the austere air of Bolivia. And I fully realize it is the freest I will ever be.

VI.

LOSS

“I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Elizabeth Bishop

For two years this man and I wake to parrots, eat bananas from our own trees, drink coffee fresh from nearby fincas. We roam through Honduras and Guatemala. We spend our first Christmas together in Panamá, where his grandmother had gone from Claude, Texas, to marry his grandfather during World War II. When it is time to move on, to leave Central America, I come unravelled, mourning everything and everyone and the parts of our own selves that we will leave behind. Meanwhile, he packs up our house (this is, perhaps, the moment I know for sure the answer to the question I’d taken to Jenny).

We—I mean “we” in the most co-dependent sense (i.e., “he”)—sell our car and our dishes to our successors. We give our linens, shoes, and nearly all of our clothing to the maid we love. We give our orchids, books, and even our computer away to friends.

The rest we pack into a couple Army Surplus duffel bags and one good suitcase. Two years. Thousands of miles of unreliable roads. One love story. Because our one suitcase is the sturdiest, we pack our most precious things in it. Not valuable things—but treasures electric with meaning (to us, anyway): seashells, a raw wool blanket from Guatemala, a carved wooden bowl from a village inside a volcano in Panamá, and two framed etchings by Salvador’s Fernando Llort—the one of a peasant woman with a basket on her head is titled, by my translation, “My Basket is Full,” which I take to mean, full is my heart, my life, my joy. My cup overflows.

Continental Airlines loses everything.

Travel, travelers say, is practice for death.

But I wonder, is it practice for life?

 ~

It is best to use a well-made bed or the floor, so long as you have a large, smooth surface, a canvas, if you will. It is best to start early, to take your time.

The things you’ve carried. The things you’ve left behind. The things you will pick up and carry forward; the things, like Candide’s mythic golden sheep, that will plunge into the morass.

Our cups may overflow, but our luggage mustn’t.

 

Now it is almost morning—our flight leaves at eight for a four-day trip to New York to see my family. I’ve told my husband, who is so busy, that I can manage the packing. Really, I can. I’ve promised him I will start early and I will keep out of the vodka.

I have kept all of these promises, but the backpack isn’t half packed yet and I am scrunched up on the floor, reminiscing in this journal about other bags I haven’t packed and making up maxims I won’t follow.

We won’t need much, not anything, really. I will need sandals and get-dirty clothes. A bathing suit. Silk underwear. A passport (one never knows about Paris—or even Niagara Falls these days). I’ll pack a few things for him too: his dress-up guayabera, some blue jeans, boots. I must unpack the pocketknife I carry in my purse. I must be sure to remember … I have already forgotten what.

Oh, and the tickets…

The truth is, I’m stranded: I’m off to the Rockies, the Himalayas, the Andes. I am leaving El Salvador, forever, again and again. So much for my schooling in Buddhist non-attachment: I am mourning orchids, lost paintings, rivers, a rooftop, an isthmus.

Before that little black backpack I have borne across a dozen countries since I first carried it, I try to imagine a future time in a distant place so I can come prepared, but at the same time my mind is out of focus—this is not a toothbrush, a razor, a left-foot shoe. I’m gazing off over my shoulder, revisiting the past in other places.

Eventually, inevitably, I give up. If we have everything we need when we begin, I reason, to what end is the journey? I close the bag, half-packed. I zip it, cinch it, and set it by the door for when the taxi comes.

 

 

Photo by Melissa Maples.
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About Molly Beer

Molly Beer's travel writing has appeared in Salon, Guernica, Nimrod, Room, and Best Women's Travel Writing, among other publications, and has been deemed "Notable" by Best American Travel Writing. She is a former Olive B. O'Connor Fellow in Creative Writing at Colgate University. Read more about her work at www.mollybeer.net.

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Comments

  1. I could not stop reading :-). It’s great someone so young has found part of herself in a journey covering years. I am still on that quest, my hope is fading.

    Keep ditching the non-essentials.

  2. Great piece, had to stop reading a few times as nostalgia from my similar travels brought up a bit of emotion!

Thoughts?