Category Archives: Essays

Essays

A Single Bag…

Well, almost. It’s hard to believe I routinely traveled with little more than a half-full rucksack when I was a Peace Corps volunteer. Now, five years later, paring down my possessions to fit a full-on internal frame pack was a challenge.

With the hope of getting on an earlier flight to Dublin once we arrive in London, we carried on. The gate agent apparently didn’t notice me staggering toward the jet way under the burden of a load complete with rain gear for Ireland, a tent for southern France, and my winter sleeping bag for the Sahara.

Somehow, when I’m toting a roll-aboard suitcase, I tend to attract a suspicious glance or two from airline agents, especially when checking a bag costs as much as a parking ticket with most airlines. That’s often because, with a suitcase, I’ve somehow convinced myself that I have a Mary Poppins-like ability to fit everything I use while I’m at home, and oftentimes, a good deal I don’t. Three pairs of shoes for a weekend trip? Sounds practical. A hardbound complete anthology of James Joyce’s works? Throw it in there, I’ll have loads of time on the plane. It all adds up to a piece of luggage, seams stretched to capacity, the odd sharp bulge threatening the integrity of the ballistic fabric, that betrays my apparent fondness for traveling heavy to anyone with a discerning eye.

“That’ll have to be checked, Sir.”

“What, this?” I feign amazement.

“We can do it right here for you.”

“But I won’t have to pay for it, will I?” I ask, politely as possible.

“No sir,” she says.

Funny how these little plays in real life can make respectable runs. Airlines charge for checked luggage, causing folks like me not to pack lighter, but to stuff the same amount of stuff in a smaller space, which leads to passengers hoofing their dubiously designated carry-on luggage through security and to the gate. The climax arrives when the gate agent, by now old hat in the role of unwitting enabler, offers to check the bag for free at the gate. Not exactly riveting theater, but the seats facing the ticket counter where this all goes down are cheap. I’ve attended quite a few performances in the past year or so, and I’m always left wondering, do the airlines see the fact that you got your bag a little closer to the plane as worth $25 in the gas and labor it would have taken one of their people to get it there? Are they worried that pulling out the measuring tape and verifying that, yes indeed, Sir, you’ve exceeded our size requirements by a full 20 inches, might incite already-grumpy travelers to rally around the discriminatory “baggist” views of the airline?

I’m a proponent of the former. Call me an optimist, but in an industry replete with nonsensical fees and arbitrary safety and security rules (I seriously doubt we’ve foiled the plans of those terrorists who need 4 ounces of liquid for their diabolical plots – “Why did it have to be 3? they say. “With just 1 more ounce, we’d bring America to its knees.”), perhaps the airlines have finally conceded defeat to a flying public willing to take them to the mat in terms of ridiculousness. If you’re willing to carry it through increasingly labyrinthine airports to avoid the levied fees, they seem to be saying, well then, you’ve earned a free spot for your stuff.

Maybe that’s why the gate agent let me on today with my swollen pack.

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Off we go…

Amid calls to credit card companies and trips to the travel clinic for a few vaccinations, I’m finally sitting down to start this blog. I’ve never been a particularly fruitful blogger, but I figured a two-and-a-half-month trip through Europe and Africa might spur me into action.

With the exception of our Peace Corps service, this trip is more about meeting people than any we (my girlfriend Anne-Claire and I) have taken. We’ll check out a few museums, churches and castles, especially early on in Ireland and France as we make our way to Morocco. The depth of history of these sites is too much to pass up.

But as we move south through the Sahara to West Africa, the people more than anything else harbor their countries’ history. Etched on their faces are ancient memories stretching back thousands of years – memories of living at the edge of existence, of coaxing crops from dry sandy soil, of the vital importance of their communities to survival in the Sahel.

In a way, we’ll be looking for that same history in the people we meet in Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal. Anne-Claire has several host families she lived with while studying in France, so we’ll see them. But we’re also taking the opportunity to stay with people kind enough to open their homes to us along the way. In part this helps make several months of traveling financially feasible. But we also thought, what better way to learn about a place and its people? We hope to move across the insular border that isolated hotel rooms can sometimes create.

Our plan is to literally cross a few borders as well. After a few hops on planes and trains to southern Spain, we’ll head through Mauritania to Senegal, across to Mali and into Niger. It’ll be the first time since we left 5 years ago that we’ll see the friends and family that made Peace Corps such a terrific experience.

I’m probably most excited about traveling overland extensively in this part of the world for the first time in my life. Apart from a short trip to Benin from Niger, I don’t have any African border crossings under my belt. Even the trip to Benin was enlightening, crossing from one of the poorest countries (Niger) to one 30-some spots higher on the to the UNDP Human Development Index (Benin). Just filling out the declaration form on the Niger side was difficult, as the customs officials didn’t have enough pens to go around. In Benin, every house in the villages along the road seemed to have a tin roof. Most huts outside the main cities in Niger had roofs of straw or (like mine) mud packed between timber crossbeams that melted in the tumultuous storms of the short summer rainy season.

Tin roofs. And pigs. Goats and sheep were everywhere in Niger – free-range livestock for a Muslim country. But just across the river in Benin, it was like walking into a porcine refuge. Perhaps it’s those stark contrasts writer Paul Theroux says are so “revealing.” In an interview for A Sense of Place, Theroux said, “The border is drama, misery, real life, strangeness, and the actual site line of the dotted line one sees on a map.” He goes on: “The international airport in the capital is the place to avoid if you want to know how the country works.”

So I suppose this first post is a rambling attempt to suss out what we hope to get out of this trip and what this blog will become. On extended trips, I usually like to send e-mail updates, but in an effort to avoid cluttering the mailboxes of friends and family, I’ll post here periodically about what we’re up to, where we are, and who we’re meeting.