In some nomadic cultures, packing up one’s livelihood is second-nature, simply a part of life. You wrap your items in a blanket, strap your baby in a papoose, put your yurt in your oxcart and off you go. I know I’m mixing up my indigenous cultures and their traveling styles, but that’s kind of the point. Modern packing and traveling has become an actual business. Take Space Bags. When the infomercials first came out, I thought, “Who has so much crap they need to deflate it to fit it in the closet?” Now, I’m reading mixed reviews of these As Seen on TV icons and, in lieu of an alternative, have ordered some to reduce our mountains of crap into manageable piles. Packing is the unavoidable part of traveling that most people tend to abhor, but can be seen as a semi-fun project. In the recent film “Up in the Air,” George Clooney discusses the skills of the World’s most efficient businessman as he maneuvers his way through TSA checkpoints and nameless, faceless hotel chains with his perfectly packed wheelie bag. Generally he avoids getting behind families with children in lines, as they are considered major roadblocks to traveler efficiency. The lifestyle of today’s modern family doesn’t exactly equate to light travel. Babies are encumbered by strollers, car seats, diaper bags, Porta-Cribs, numerous bottles, toys and things to stuff in their mouths to make them quiet. Teenagers must bring 67 outfits for one week in Florida. Toddlers need numerous activity books and mind-numbing electronics to keep them from banging “chopsticks” on the back of the airplane seat of the old man in front of them. As a result, suitcases get larger, luggage racks get overloaded, and eyes roll in the heads of all who see the family coming. (The Space Bag people really saw dollar signs here.) Is it really possible to travel lightly with kids? I’m hoping to gain some more insight on our upcoming adventure.
Personally, I have always prided myself in my abilities to pack efficiently. Provided I am not rushed, I can pack a small amount of things that go a long way, being sure to include multi-use items and leaving out anything cumbersome or overly situation-specific. My ingrained skills as a grocery store checkout girl/bagger come back into play as I neatly arrange everything in the suitcase or car. Large, square items on the bottom, en route entertainment or emergency items easily accessible, etc. etc. I was thoroughly satisfied with the efficiency of my own packing and traveling skills when I married a minimalist Australian backpacker who was perfectly comfortable to be away from home for a year with half a bar of soap and one change of undies (Who am I kidding? The bar of soap is optional). This type of extremism is sometimes difficult for me to handle. My loving husband is fashion-deficient and usually trusts me to pack the suitcases, since I’m so particular. Everything must adhere to the rules mentioned above. After ten years and one child, every conversation prior to any sort of trip begins like this:
Him: Why are you bringing so much stuff?
Me: This is just enough stuff for (insert number of days) days.
Him: You only need one little bag. We’re only gone for (one/three/twelve) days
Me: All our stuff won’t fit in one little bag.
Him: What is all that crap you’re bringing? You have to carry everything in one trip.
Me: We need most of this. Let me know what you need exactly and I won’t bring anything extra
Him: Just bring whatever.
So I reevaluate a little and compromise by removing a few non-essential items. Rarely does it all fit in “one little bag” but the conversation occurs anyway.
2-6 hours later, upon arrival at destination:
Him: Where’s my (razor, pajamas, dress shoes, mandolin strings)?
Me: You didn’t tell me to bring that. I just packed what fit in that bag.
Him: Why do I only have half a bar of soap and one change of undies?
Me: You went around the world with that. Use the baby soap.
Him: Why did you bring three pairs of flip-flops?
Me: They’re different colors.
So this conversation, in some form, inevitably occurs at various intervals on every trip we take. (I am sure that when our daughter Lily becomes old enough to have opinions on her own packing situation, even more drama will be thrown into the mix.) For now, I am beginning to foresee what might happen when, in a few short days, we have two hours to put all our worldly belongings onto a 20-foot container bound for Australia. Some careful culling of unworthy items has already occurred in the form of a weekend yard sale and several posts on Craigslist, and we are beginning to put things in boxes, measure and weigh, go through an obscene amount of newspaper and bubble wrap, (and perhaps Space Bags) and stack things on the sun porch, in preparation for the mad assemblage that must occur when the truck arrives with our container. Small items go in boxes, but large items like furniture, strollers, and bicycles must be carefully cleaned, wrapped and taped, and the whole lot must be meticulously arranged as to allow for minimal internal shifting en route. Once packed and sealed, the container is whisked off to Port Elizabeth, NJ, where it will be stacked onto a ship (amazingly even today, 90% of world freight still travels by sea) and maneuvered down the Eastern seaboard, across the Caribbean and through the Panama Canal to the Pacific, taking the trade routes sailors have used ever since the first navigators figured out the pattern of global wind systems, and eventually winding up in the freight harbor in Melbourne, Australia. It will then be pulled from the ship and delivered to my mother-in- law’s house in the little town of Benalla, the entire trip taking approximately 12 weeks. Due to the intricacy of the situation, I can only imagine the conversations my husband and I will have on container-packing day:
Him: What’s this thing? I thought you sold that at the yard sale.
Me: That’s a family heirloom and we’re taking it.
Him: Why do we have seven boxes of winter clothes?
Me: Option A: The Space Bags were crap. I threw them out. You’ll complain when we get there and I have to buy all new clothes.
Me: Option B: The Space Bags were great! We’d have twelve boxes of winter clothes otherwise. You’ll complain when we get there and I have to buy all new clothes.
Him: Why is there so much stuff? I feel encumbered by the materialism of modern society.
Me: Why is there so much stuff? I wish I had more Space Bags that worked.
Anything not packed in this shipping container must be part of our travels for the next 12 weeks, or is left behind. My husband, true to form, only wants to have one bag each for the entire summer. He has one rule: everything must be movable in one trip, no exceptions. I envision bedraggled, mismatched outfits and stopping at a Laundromat every other day. On the other hand, I don’t want to be one of those families at the airport struggling with luggage carts, strollers, and needing a porter to transport their crap through the terminal either. We usually try to dispel the slow, struggling family assumption at airports by being as prepared and streamlined as possible. We’ve had plenty of practice, myself having traveled through several domestic airports alone with Lily and as a family of three through various international terminals. We have found that having a baby often elicits some sympathy and maybe even a good-humored comment from scary TSA agents, who may, if you are incredibly lucky, even usher you and your bundle through to the front of the line. The key is to be prepared and smile, but really don’t have more stuff than you can manage. It’s sometimes hard to not take your metric-imperial conversion scale, that third backup outfit, or a huge bag of toys for your toddler, (all they want to do is climb on the airport seats and watch planes anyway) but I have found that you generally don’t need as much stuff as you originally thought, and being unencumbered is monumental in keeping with ease of movement. Don’t tell my husband that though, or he won’t let me bring my pink flip-flops.