I am My Own Sherpa, Among Other Things

When it comes to travel, I’m not a total loser. I have two travel-related talents:

1) I pack light.

I hate to brag, but I’m great at this. Tell me we’re leaving for a week and I’ll show up with an overnight case. This is partly because I am my own sherpa and partly because I often travel with my husband a/k/a the Travel Nazi. The Travel Nazi fervently believes that the mark of a travel amateur is someone who overpacks, then — horror of horrors! — checks his bags.

In the year 2000, I took a trip to Cape Cod with some friends and blithely checked my bag. I still remember seeing it disappear on the carousel, since that was the last time I ever saw it. It was forever lost in the great travel beyond, flown to — who knows? — the great malls of Dubai or Rapid City.

I haggled with the airline, I borrowed clothes, I bought new and crappy airline-replacement clothes, and worst of all, I reported the series of tragic incidents to the Travel Nazi. He didn’t say much, but I’ve been married to him for a long time and can read his mind on such occasions. He was thinking it was my own damned fault for checking my bag. For obvious reasons, I haven’t checked a bag in the past 11 years.

2) I am also unusually adept at the passive-aggressive art of keeping and improving my place in line. I take this quite seriously. I am usually a pacifist and coward, but I will not let you or a even a creep with a machine gun usurp my place in line. According to my sister, I was the fastest person she had ever seen make it to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; I take that as a compliment.

OK, so I bring these bona fide talents to travel — along with an ability to become very passive and pliable and immerse myself in a book when everything is chaotic and running behind schedule. But after my plane trip back from New York yesterday, I am convinced that is not enough.

I sat — passively, pliantly — in my aisle seat, reading, waiting for the plane to leave. Twice, three times, a hundred — oh, what does it matter, since it could have killed me? — I almost got bonked on the head by a bulging suitcase being stuffed and pounded and shamed into an overhead bin. (If I prefer to sit in an aisle seat, maybe I should get a fucking helmet. Why do I prefer to sit in an aisle seat? Because I am a menopausal woman, that’s why. Next question?)

The aisles teemed with passengers and their carry-on bags, desperately seeking a bin, any bin, anywhere. They sputtered to a halt. I got bonked, this time, by a backpack. I know I should love humanity, but I was beginning to loathe humanity. I tried to remind myself I should hate the airline, instead. I felt like an extra in Casablanca (where “they wait … and they wait … and they wait … “). Where was Bogart when I needed him the most?

Finally, everyone and everything found a place and the plane took off and the attendants did not serve lunch to those of us in coach. Next time, I am checking my suitcase and stuffing myself into it. It can’t be any worse.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about learning the story when you don’t speak the language

15 comments… add one
  • I don’t know how you do it. Your husband would hate me and the way I pack.

  • The trials and tribulations of modern air travel. But if we want to get from point A to point B there is little choice. Maybe the airlines should hand everyone a strong tranquilizer before boarding so we just won’t care…

  • I travel lightly, very lightly. I can pack an entire week of clothing for my family of four into one suitcase, and I take great pride in this. But, I check it, every time. Because while I pack lightly in the big bag, the thing I carry on the plane is huge. It hurts my shoulder, it creates a snail like bend to my back and the contents occupy my children, husband and me for the entire flight. I do my best to hold it low in front of me so as to knock bonk others on my way back, way back. I’ve been bonked too many times before.

  • I’m an underpacker married to an overpacker. We’ve learned to compromise tho–airline travel we try to carry-on, car travel and it’s load everything and anything in. Remind me never to try to get in front of you in a line…

  • b condra Link

    I can totally relate. Arrived this AM in Albuq. from Midland. Horror #1. Baby, although cute…was still a baby, across the aisle. Carry on contained crap as I’m sure I can buy something here equally crappy. And when I come back…I can check the bag (with newly purchased crap and most assuredly heavier) as the Plane stopr there. At least it’s supposed to. And not go on to Dubai or Rapid City, although both vacation spots on my bucket list. I sat in the back near the bloody Mary’s and the window, out of which I took photos of the tarmack when my body would be splattered in the event….well, you know the drill.

    PS…somehow a bag of Animal Crackers snuck through security next to my laptop. I think I may have been tagged.

  • b condra Link

    PPS I can’t spell. Jet lag.

  • That is a good idea– carrying a helmet aboard to wear when choosing an aisle seat. Of course, allow for extra time at the security checkpoint. Surely a helmet will be examined and x-rayed thoroughly.

    But, please don’t check any luggage that you’ve stuffed yourself into. You’ll have a whole lot of ‘splaining to do. And I don’t mean to airport security– to the Travel Nazi who will have to bail you out!

  • The passive-aggressive art of keeping and improving your place in line — I love the description. I do this so well that I embarrass my husband (or anyone I’m with). I have no mercy to mothers with babies or handicapped folks. Someone with a service dog may have a chance since I am a sucker for puppy dog eyes but that’s about it. I am a bulldog and proud of it!
    I hate flying. I am waiting until I can say, “beam me up, Scotty!”

  • I can do up to 4 days, including travel days in a small carry on, but beyond that, I have to go to the bigger carry-on that will NOT fit under my seat and has to go in the bin … which means having to ask someone for help because I’m short. I’ve been traveling more with one client, so I’ve had to get better at this so that I don’t hold up the team and look like an amateur.

    Often we end up taking tiny commuter planes, where they take your luggage for you on the gangway. Or, we are in such a late boarding group that the bins are full, and they take your bag before you get on the plane. That’s not such a bad deal … you get to check your bag without paying any fees, and you get it back right away when you land.

  • M.K. Link

    Who would have thought that the common human experience which most ties our culture together in the 21st century is hatred of air travel?

    And yes, my husband and I, too, can read each other’s mind. We can have whole arguments in silence.

    Great column; so funny.

  • Oh, it’s always better not to check bags. My worst experience was years ago when I worked in Germany. On my way to my mother’s in California for Christmas I had a connecting flight in Frankfurt where there was fog for hours. When my flight from Bremen finally landed in Frankfurt the airport was a zoo with thousands of stranded passengers crowding baggage delivery points. My connecting flight had long since departed and when I located my bag I was told it had been put in the “bomb cellar” for 10 days since this was the time when the Bader-Meinhoff gang was active. I wore my mother’s clothes over the holidays and finally got my bag the day before returning to Germany.

  • I just checked Baader-Meinhof and see that there are 2 a’s and 1 f. I know it was wrong when I wrote it.

  • Sheryl Link

    I am like you, must have the aisle and am forever getting bonked. Will we ever learn? I could use a lesson from the travel Nazi on how to pack reasonably, though. I covet carry-on, yet never seem to manage it.

  • Cindy A Link

    I have never thought about lost luggage the same since my writer friend penned a short story about someone who had a criminal obsession with hanging out at baggage claim and stealing random suitcases off the carousel. Couldn’t help thinking: So THAT’S what happens!

  • Are you for hire? Just packed my sister off — back to Sydney — and she needed to borrow a second, rather large, suitcase to get all the stuff she’d purchased back home.

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