The affair of my bags: love, loss and general tumult (cont.) (cont.)

If I was insistent on rescuing my bag from the mysterious black hole of the airline industry, it was because it ended up doing far more for me than keeping my belongings together.

Country-hopping with it pressed into my back for the last 8 months, my bag became a sort of friend. Our relationship was born out of necessity, had its growth nourished by a solid diet of frustration and animosity, and ended up finding its feet in acceptance, happiness and a devil-may-care complicity.

My bag, my bag. Where do I begin?

Hmmm, I’ll begin with how I hated it for the extra stress it introduced to my travel arrangements. As I would step up onto the car of a train my mind’s energy would be focused entirely on the question of whether the luggage racks would be full. As I descended the steps of the metro in Paris I would fret an inexperienced gambler’s fret over whether the line that I was about to take would be body to body packed, and fret even more at the thought that even being happy to catch the next one wouldn’t help because with the metro people always come to replace people gone. The root of my anxiety then was that with my bags I basically took up the space of 3 people, and I hated the undeniable reality that I was being inconsiderate to others.

Most of the time I was lucky: the passengers on the car of my train had light luggage that they could store on the ledge overhead and the metro was half-full. In fact there was only one time when the luggage racks were full and on this particular journey I also happened to not have a seat allocated to me because I had bought the ticket last minute. So I spent the 6 hours leaning against a wall in the area in-between cars, also known as the point of entry and exit. Every time the train started to slow to a stop I would peer back and forth between the windows of each side, trying to identify which side the platform was on so that I could move my bags out of the way of both the alighting and the boarding passengers. It wasn’t so bad really, though it did get annoying when the train had to stop at a new station every few minutes.

There was also one time when the metro was body to body full and somehow I managed to squeeze in. Somehow in these situations usually translates as “by sheer determination and unwillingness to let things get any worse”, a subconscious grab for survival. At one point an older man asked me why I didn’t put pack on the floor, I think he thought that this would both leave more room for others and give my shoulders a break. I thanked him but said that it was better for me to carry it. See… Putting my pack down would have been wonderful. But then I would have had to pick it up before getting out again. What he didn’t know was that picking it up involved lifting it up with my left hand and then swinging it around to my back with a great deal of force and momentum. I always made sure there was no one around me when I had to do this because the bag would have knocked them aside with its very offensive full body punch. Compound this problem with the fact that I had to be fairly vigilant to not miss my stop and the short window of time for exiting (can be tricky on a full metro even without a bag), and there was absolutely no way I was going to believe that putting my bag down would be okay.

In the early days I resented myself for being the cause of the red welts over my shoulders that occasionally gave way to blood. I further kicked myself for having a bag that made it impossible in many situations to have a rest so long as I had it on me. Typically I’m happy-go-lucky as a solo traveller because I love not having to be anywhere by a certain time; and if I get lost in a new place I don’t feel too bad because it feels more like an opportunity to get to know the area better than a mistake with a cost. Getting lost as you search for your hostel gets much less amusing however when it becomes clearer and clearer each fruitless step that you take that there is simply a massive conspiracy going on between ridiculous oversized object, gravity and the limited, perishable material that makes up human.

Others loved to joke about or cast judgement on my massive pack. The non-insistent joking, the gaping with the mouths and the staring with the googly eyes – that I could dig. Had no problems being a freakshow. On the contrary I was never quite sure why the mere sight of it offended some people, I mean hello, I was the one carrying it! You could almost see their brains ticking over like “Shhhooo, I would never get myself into that situation! I have more self-control! I’m sure she doesn’t need everything that’s in there.” Oh well. Rather than feel embarrassed by their words and stares this kind of attitude helped me to build solidarity with my monster.

It was my monster. I was never in doubt that I completely deserved all the trouble and the pain because it was I who filled it up with items in the first place! Most of the bag space was taken up by clothing, and I reasoned that this was not so unreasonable having anticipated both cold and warm weather. My aim had been to be able to go 2 weeks in either climate without needing to wash my clothes. This was a big help for sure because despite it being such a popular destination for backpackers, it was very difficult to find a laundromat in many places in Western Europe, major cities included. At one point I did start to see the horrible irony that the reason why my clothes got so dirty was because I would sweat so much from walking around laden with bags, but then it was these very same stuffed bags that held the clean clothes to replace the dirty ones. Maybe it would have been smarter to pack hardly anything and then hardly get it dirty. Probably wouldn’t have worked in my case though, if I was lighter I likely would have spent more time running and skipping – finding other ways to get dirty.

At one stage I had two dictionaries in my bag. French & English and Spanish & English. Yes, yes, I know……. and I don’t think it was strictly for practical purposes that I carried them around either…… They’re just such great dictionaries. I felt good having them, looking at them, touching them. Knowing that on any random day I could flick open to a page and learn 3 or 4 similarly spelt words in a row.

Remaining items included a cookbook bought in Italy, a set of pastels from Chur (Schwiiz), and magazines that I had to keep because they can’t be found in NZ.

Everything on my back I put there by myself, and as such I never tried to garner nor roll around in sympathy. I also mostly didn’t let other people carry my bag for me (as several offered at various points) because it was my problem! They didn’t deserve it! I did!

Eventually I made steps towards being proud of the achievement of making it through with this nightmare bag. That I could lift it up with my left hand alone in order to get enough height to be able to slide my right arm through the straps. Initially I had imagined that I was always going to have to sit on the ground to put my arms through the straps, and then heavyweight lifter squat myself upright. I was also immensely proud that I could negotiate my unwieldy set of bags even in toilet stalls. If there were ever a mark of my talent, this is it! It really is no small achievement considering that as someone travelling alone I could never leave any bag unattended.

The bag on its own was a mission, nevermind spending the day moving from station to station and navigating new places. The amazing thing that happened was the transformation from simply living with the burden to being genuinely happy with it. Not needing to complain about it, focusing on what I was going to do and how every step was getting me where I wanted to be rather than on the crushing pain. Being able to focus on progress, and knowing I couldn’t spend too much time on anything other than making progress freed me so that eventually I truly felt no more crushing pain.

Okay, so it’s also possible that that’s because my back and shoulder muscles got stronger and my posture more deformed to accomodate 😛

But really…. it happened so naturally, going from detesting trudging along like a serf confused for a mule, to thoroughly feeling joy in trudging along like a serf confused for a mule. I was free walking around with my world on my back! [and front and hanging off my shoulders] Free in being so far removed from the normal lives of everyone who was staring at me. I would sing as I toddled onwards, tapping out a drumbeat on my front backpack. When I had no seat I would love that I could sit on my backpack.

Another plus was that I became a veritable master at packing. With a regular bag packing had never stressed me because everything would fit in with relative ease. With this pack you really needed to know how to pack it otherwise you’d find yourself left with 2 items still not in the bag at the end and absolutely no way to fit them in. I can tell you that what they say is true, rolling is the key! It’s fantastic. You have so much more space and flexibility when you roll your clothes up. Plus I like how it makes them look like individual little presents, so as you’re unpacking you can exclaim “Oh, another squishy present for me? You shouldn’t have!”, blush and repeat this 2 seconds later.

My backpack along with my auxiliary bags were the most unnatural and inconvenient appendages I could have fixed to myself as I leapt out into the world to assert my freedom…. But what I found was that I could handle all the difficulty. The physical difficulty, the logistical difficulty, the social difficulty.

“Yeah it’s my burden, so what? Yeah you think I’m stupid and crazy, so what? Yeah I’ve got to catch a bus to leave one country, make a phonecall at a payphone, go to the bathroom, walk through a long convoluted metro station filled with people and stairs that go up and down, change lines three times, catch two trains to leave another country and then walk through unknown streets to find my hostel all in the space of one day, so what? I can do it! Ha ha!”

Of course I would be totally screwed by the end of the day. But then that hostel bed was all the more sweet; food and drink of any kind instantly gratifying.

So now we come full circle. To have gone through all that stress and hassle and reward and then finally arrive at my homecoming left literally empty-handed. It was…… It was wrong! It wasn’t just that they had made my things disappear, it was like they had made the last 8 months of my strange yet completely compelling way of life as a wanderer disappear. The identity I had come to love no longer existed.

I still can’t believe I managed to get it back in the end, considering no one could provide me with a straight answer. They didn’t even call when it did arrive, and left it on the doorstep with nary a knock on the door. I’m glad to have it…. but still keen to talk to British Airways. Just to find out how they see things. I know that this lack of transparency and accountability occurs all throughout the airline industry (though I also believe that given Christchurch airport staff’s lack of respect for Menzies and their apparently poor track record over the last two years, there’s something quite wrong going on here) but that doesn’t stop me from finding it appalling. I think people are in general more reasonable that we ever like to make out and that they could handle not having their bags (at least for a while) if they only received better treatment in the process.

I don’t give a crap about your special turny chairs that recline however so far if you can’t get my bags to come along too. It’s the same crap that businesses pull everywhere… like pharmaceutical companies spending more money on marketing and recommending other uses for the same old products rather than on research for drugs for illnesses that are grossly overlooked. Airline companies would rather focus on flashiness than on the security and happiness of their staff, and on designing and implementing a system that helps workers to more efficiently deal with problems when they do arise. They would rather focus on their power and image than on their customer’s welfare. But these are my assumptions. Hence the reason why I will go talk to BA, to try to understand more about the realities of travel today from their perspective. I mean… I don’t know what I’ll be able to really learn from them but it’d be lame to just complain on this blog and then sit here thinking I’m actually doing something useful.

Speaking of those turny chairs, I have to admit that it would make sense that I don’t give a crap about them considering I didn’t get to enjoy them. This did bring to mind the question, has anyone ever looked into the proportion of luggage belonging to first and business class travellers that is lost or delayed compared to that of coach travellers?

So there you have it, the story of my bags. Possibly boring to anyone other than me, but they needed to be paid tribute. Long before I embarked on this stretch of travel I used to sneak looks at backpackers who would roam around New Zealand seemingly overtaken by their large packs and feel sorry for them, thinking “Oh you poor wretches.” Moral of the story today is: next time you stare at that poor wretch, consider the possibility that they have an ego the size of Texas that is enabling them to take pride in their simple act of sadomasochism, and that they’re choosing to see hints to the meaning of life in this rather than how you could probably tip them over with the push of a finger.

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