Sunday, August 5, 2012

Light Enough to Travel

There are two schools of thought when it comes to travel: travel light, or travel like you’re Placido Domingo.

I only know how famed Spanish opera singer Placido Domingo travels because years ago, my mother had a Domingo sighting when she was in the international terminal at the airport in Dallas. While my mother schlepped a piece or two of the standard 5-piece canvas luggage set to her gate, Domingo whizzed by her in the courtesy transport cart reserved for the physically disabled, dramatically late, or, in this case, one of The Three Tenors. Her description of the scene was almost cartoonish – Domingo rode, statuesque and elegant, while the driver darted through weary travelers, unaware of the legend in their midst. He was accompanied by piles of Louis Vuitton luggage, and in my mother’s memory, she wants to believe that he wore a red cape that blew in the wind as he flew past her. The only thing missing was that he should have been belting out “Nessun Dorma” while my mother fainted by gate B 27.

This story, and the brief glimpse at how the other half lived, left me with a teenage yearning for more. I longed for a Louis Vuitton steamer trunk the size of my bedroom. I dreamt of hat boxes, dog carriers, and specialized bags for every whimsical item I needed to accompany me on life’s journeys, regardless of the fact that most of my life’s journeys at that point were fifteen minute-long road trips to my father's house every other weekend.

And then I became an exchange student. The exchange program I joined allowed you to carry a maximum of 55 pounds with you. For a year. This was in the late ‘80s when I owned 55 pounds of hair product alone, so packing for the year was a bit challenging.

To prepare me for a year in Europe, my mother shelled out crazy money for a black internal frame JanSport backpack that would be my trusted companion for my year abroad. My mother and sister and I packed it together by using traditional folding methods, weighed it, and failed. We unpacked it, parted with the absolutely unnecessary, yelled at each other, cried, and packed it again with a more efficient rolling method. In those days I weighed a little over a hundred pounds wet, so when we snapped it on my back, I looked like a turtle on toothpicks, but I was a turtle that complied with the weight requirements.

Traveling this way for a year changed my vision of steamer trunks and hatboxes. It’s quite liberating to travel and live with the bare minimum. My sister later spent a year in Switzerland with the same weight restrictions, and to this day has a travel mantra, “Take only what you can carry yourself.”

I travel for business now, and try to abide by that mantra. Yet I fail miserably, and end up having my husband help haul my bag to the curbside check-in when he drops me off at the airport.

I'm a bag-checker. I simply don't like carrying my bag on-board. I’m often forced to pay to check bags based on the duration of the trip and the given airline’s policy. (I’m particularly fond of JetBlue, who will let you check a bag for free if it’s below 50 pounds.)

Recently I was on my way home from a work trip, flying from Boston to Austin with a layover in Charlotte, North Carolina. I gathered the necessary on-flight gear – laptop, a business journal and a gossip rag for reading, minty gum for ear-popping and breath freshening, a large bottle of water, and headphones and my iPhone for music. I checked my bag and prepared for a long flight home. 

While waiting to board, I scanned the terminal for a plug to juice up my phone, and plopped down next to a man in his late-70’s who introduced himself as Charlie. I immediately noticed three things about Charlie. He was a man in desperate need of a piece of my minty gum (I somehow attract people with awful breath).  He was clearly rebelling against his doctor’s orders to wear hearing aids. But most noticeably, he was carrying absolutely nothing with him. Not a bag, not a book, nothing. Nothing! I found this both wildly unpractical and charming all at the same time, mainly because I work very hard to carry only a laptop bag and a small cross body bag on board, and I like to fancy that I look quite chic this way.

Charlie and I chatted loudly (so he could hear me and hear himself) while the gate clerk herded in the passengers, all squeezing in with rolling suitcases and the authorized second bag to shove under the seat in front of them.

 “You travel pretty light,” I yelled, stating the obvious.

 “I’ve been flying for work for years,” Charlie bellowed. “I check one big bag. Those bastards make me pay for it now, but I hate carrying a bag.  And now, they make it so everyone wastes time fighting for the overhead space. It’s ridiculous.”

While we shuffled down the jetway together, Charlie and I moaned and groaned about everyone with their rolling bags. We rolled our eyes while weary business travelers and parents strained to heave their bags above their heads to fight for the limited overhead space. Charlie took his seat and we said our goodbyes as I sardined myself in the window seat several rows behind him, plugged in my headphones, popped some gum in my mouth and prepared for the journey.

Here’s where my husband enters the story. I’m married to a man who is most likely a descendant of the Joad family from The Grapes of Wrath. While the rest of us pack our suitcases with three outfits, an extra pair of underwear and other standard travel items, my husband brings along some of the most hysterical and random items imaginable. He’s unzipped his suitcase to reveal second-hand boogie boards that he packed to use while on the beach, but plans on dumping after their use. Actually, he’s only a one-way Joad, because when he packs the extra stuff, he’s always planning on leaving it behind in a weird, pay-it-forward kind of public littering system. I must admit his tendency to schlep random stuff is quite endearing.

My husband, once the victim of lost luggage, has a very strict policy of taking a carry-on bag with an extra change of clothes and toiletries. He always gently suggests I do the same, and I always scoff at him. Where’s the trust? My bag will make it. It always does.

So of course Charlie and I weren’t so lucky on our flight from Boston to Charlotte. Mechanical issues nearly stranded us in Boston, but U.S. Airways managed to limp us to Charlotte, where just before midnight we were informed that we’d be spending the night there, courtesy of the airline.

I was standing wearily in line for my hotel and shuttle voucher when Charlie shuffled up to me. 

 “Where are you staying, honey?” he hollered, a hint of desperation in his voice.

 “I’m still waiting to find out,” I answered, grateful to have a comrade in a strange city.

 “Well, I’ll be at the Homewood Suites if you want to ask them to put you there, then we can have a drink at the bar,” he said, holding only a boarding pass for the next day and some vouchers. I wondered briefly if Charlie even had a wallet on him, or if he’d checked that as well.
As the grandmotherly counter clerk shook her head with disapproval, she leaned in closely to get out of Charlie’s earshot, unaware that he couldn’t hear her if she talked to me through a megaphone.

“You are not going to stay where he is staying,” she whispered frantically in a beautiful North Carolina drawl, “That man is sweet on you.”

 “Oh, okay…” I said, oblivious until I noticed that Charlie was gazing at me longingly through his bifocals in anticipation of a hot night with a sweaty mother of three. “Please just put me somewhere nice. It’s been a long night. Now, will they bring my bags to me?”

“No ma’am,” she answered smartly. “You’ll get your bags at your final destination.”
As I walked with my elderly gentleman caller to find our separate shuttles, I considered the possessions I had on my person, and patted myself on the back for the disposable toothbrush and travel-sized deodorant. Then I considered the lack of clean clothing and decent shampoo.

It wasn’t long before I heard my husband laughing, “I told you so!” from 1,100 miles away.  I heard him laugh harder as I cursed while washing my clothes with Cashmere Bouquet bar soap in the confines of the single most disgusting motel Charlotte has to offer. He continued to mock me from afar, as I dove headfirst onto a colony of bedbugs while wrapped in a bath towel the size of a washcloth. And as I dozed off for a 3-hour long micro nap before heading back to the airport, I laughed a little to myself, thinking of Charlie, sitting alone in a dingy Homewood Suites room, no bar in sight, no sweaty mother of three by his side, and not even a toothbrush to get him through the night.

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