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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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March 2010 Archives

What Fits in a Suitcase

One of the things I love about travel is the way it shrinks your worries down to what fits in a suitcase. Sometimes it shrinks them a lot more, as I recently had to re-learn.

My pre-trip lists of concerns - "pick up last prescription," "buy extra sox,'' "call the cops and let them know,'' "cancel newspapers," "take one more t-shirt?'' - evaporate as soon as I get on the plane.

That first step into the jetway makes them irrelevant: By then, I have either done those tasks, or staunched those worries, or they involve things I can't do anything about now, anyway.

And I am forced to do what mental-health counselors always recommend: Let go. Be in the moment. Open my soul to the good old here and now.

Trips always do that, though they seldom turn out the way I expect. If they did, there'd be no point in going.

One of my traveling friends takes that idea farther: She says that if a trip runs too smoothly, there's something wrong - "smooth'' and "normal'' not being the same at all.

Right now, I'm readjusting to being home after five weeks in the South Pacific: Two as a volunteer in a library on Rarotonga; another week in New Zealand; another doing research in Australia, and the final one in Samoa.

Everything went fine - which I wouldn't have believed each time it threatened not to.

But the continuing novelty of travel is that the things I worried about before I left home weren't the things that really threatened. They never are.

Before the trip, I had been worried about whether I was setting my new camera correctly - not about whether I'd accidentally leave the precious thing at a hotel I'd just checked out of, on my way to a different island.

For a photojournalist, forgetting a camera is like forgetting your right arm. But the hotel kindly sent it to the airport in a taxi, and both camera and I made the flight.

Before the trip, I had been worried about whether I had packed the right shoes for all contingencies - not about whether I'd be in the path of a hurricane.

But Minnesota's winter is cyclone season in the South Pacific, and a week into the journey, a Category 3 bee-lined straight for Rarotonga, where I was staying. At the ultimate hour, the hurricane veered away, and life in paradise mercifully went on as usual.

Before the trip, I had worried about whether I was packing enough medications and enough clothes. A trans-Pacific tsunami warning never crossed my mind.

But one followed the tragic earthquake in Chile. It meant that residents and tourists all over the region - including Samoa, where I was by then - had to flee to higher ground. That meant leaving our heavy luggage behind at our hotels.

All my pre-trip lists and worries had funneled down to the contents of one embarrassingly ponderous black duffel bag. By the time I got to Samoa, I had dragged it around for weeks, and it felt strange to abandon it now, like leaving an old friend to drown.

When the tsunami failed to materialize - "cancelled for lack of interest!'' a jovial Australian said, back at my hotel - I found my duffel just where I left it, unscathed.

But by then, its contents didn't matter anymore. The vagaries of travel had just freed me from its burdens and shown me how little I really needed to survive.