Friday, January 21, 2011

The Toothpick-Thin Line Between Travel Madness and Travel Genius


I was thinking of you all—and especially my friend, Danny—when this morning I was doing something that made me wonder, what would my friends think if they saw me doing this?   I specifically reference Danny here because it was he who once encouraged me to keep a daily journal of my everyday activities for others to read as a source of entertainment.  I suppose it is true that, generally speaking, my routine thoughts and actions tend toward the ridiculous, and that’s why I had a feeling that what I was engaged in doing this morning was precisely the type of thing that Danny would expect to read about in Just Another Day In The Travels Of LC.  But before I tell you what it was that I was doing, a little context is needed. 

As any seasoned backpacker will tell you, when you are halfway around the world hoofing it like a mule with a pack on your back, every last ounce inside that pack must be worth its weight in gold, and no gram or stitch should ever make it among your belongings without a strong, justifiable purpose. 

Of course, traveling light is never an exact science.  Yes, there are certain, tried-and-true rules—my number one being, “Usage Is Key.”  But there will be items for which even “Usage Is Key” must yield to “Just In Case,” as with a back-up pair of eyeglasses for the time when your primary pair gets swept away with the tide into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving you functionally blind and unable to drive your car.   (Yes, it happened once to me.)

It is also important to recognize that one cannot travel for months on end completely bereft of creature comforts.  Especially for the ladies, there will be times when your femininity could use a little boost to counteract the tolls that dirty hostel bathrooms and cold-water showers will inevitably take on your general level of hygiene; thus, nail polish and even perfume can have the strong, justifiable purpose of making that next filthy, squat toilet a bit more tolerable.

With regard to my specific situation, it seems that, as much as I have tried to dispense with the borderline superfluous or unnecessary, my backpack remains too heavy.  Each time I pack up and move cities, I can feel my spine cracking and shifting in painful and alarming ways under the backpack’s weight.  

Kiev, a city chock full of steep hills, inspired me to cut down further.  So I mailed a small package of sentimental and other valuable bits-and-pieces home, and also roamed through Kiev’s metro stations casting off still-good items onto seemingly down-on-their-luck residents.  Yet, even after that effort, my spine still screamed for mercy as I huffed up the hostel stairwell in L’viv.  So yesterday I went through my bags once more and collected a new pile of items for the chopping block.  Among these were:

(1) a silk sleep-sheet carried for when hostels charge for bed linens (it seldom happens, and I’ll just have to pay when it does); or to wrap myself in a clean cocoon on particularly dirty overnight trains (it happens frequently, and I’ll just have to sleep in grime);
(2) a rubber doorstopper for extra security (except for once in Vietnam, which was actually kind of a false alarm, I’ve never really needed it, knock on wood);
(3) a 1-ounce squeeze tube of 30 SPF Banana Boat Sport sunscreen (duh; even if the sun were to peek out, my body has been otherwise hidden beneath several layers of clothing from head to toe);
(4) a too-heavy pen picked up from the Intercontinental Hotel in Kiev following the consumption of an outrageously-priced latte (the biggest heartbreaker, because I love the way it writes); and
(5) the removable padding from inside my Columbia sports bra.

During this latest whittling process, I once again stumbled upon the spool-of-thread problem, which, in itself, has a brief backstory. 

When one wears the same clothing repeatedly the way I do when I live out of a backpack, a small sewing kit decidedly rises to the top of the essential-items list.  Before I left home, I had all my travel supplies spread before me on my brother’s living room floor, including a small pile of travel sewing kits, from which I had intended to select the one that weighed the least.  But, when the time came for sewing in Russia, I discovered that somehow I neglected to pack even one.

I searched around St. Petersburg for a replacement kit and could not find one.  By the time I reached Moscow—19 days in—I had an item of clothing that really needed some mending.  So, on a visit to the local American Express office (on unrelated business), I asked the manager, Galina, if she could please tell me where I could buy a needle and some thread.  She said she knew a place, but it was far and the directions were complicated.  Instead, she reached into her desk drawer and offered me a small wooden spool of dark-colored thread and a needle.  I thanked her profusely and have since made good use of it.

But then, each time I attempted to cut weight from the backpack, that little wooden spool of thread gnawed at me.  Yes, the thread is essential, I would think, but the spool itself is deadweight.  I considered the issue for a long while, and last night, as I was getting to sleep, an idea popped into my head.

I awoke the next morning ready to execute my plan.  First, I turned on my computer and began streaming recent video clips of The Today Show.  I then searched my day bag for a toothpick that I remembered picking up at a restaurant recently.  I sat on my bed with the wooden spool of thread and the toothpick, and carefully began unwinding the thread from the wooden spool and onto the toothpick.

The project was taking a surprisingly long time.  I sat, patiently winding away, passively listening to Andrea Mitchell’s report on Wednesday’s state dinner for China’s president, while my mind wandered between my old life and the new.  I recalled those long-gone days when I would dress to The Today Show and head off to downtown Los Angeles to work on appellate briefs for large, corporate clients.  Now here I was, sitting on a hostel bed in Ukraine, streaming Today Show clips while wrapping thread around a toothpick in order to save a couple of grams’ weight in my backpack.  I’d then spend the balance of my day writing what some would undoubtedly consider gibberish, and wouldn’t earn a dime in the process. 

I spent a few moments calculating how much money those big clients used to pay for the same amount of time it was taking me to wrap this thread around this toothpick, and an audible laugh escaped from within.   I then wondered what Danny—also a lawyer—had on his agenda for today.  Maybe he had a motion to write, or a deposition to take, or a hearing to attend.  Whatever it was, I was certain it would not involve wrapping a long piece of thread around a toothpick. 

By the time I was ready to go out for the day, it was well past 10:00 a.m., and the current Today Show clip had Meredith Vieira interviewing Glenn Beck, who was in turn promoting his new book—something about the seven wonders that will change your life.  I looked down at the thread-wrapped toothpick sitting next to me on the bed and thought; this is why I’m not getting my own book written.  I then got up and placed the toothpick in a small, flowered zippered pouch used just for corralling such things, and left for my morning writing session feeling like I had just wasted precious minutes of a life that seems to be speeding by more quickly each day.

Later, with a second cup of coffee in me, I started to think better of the morning’s events.  In my mind I conducted a sort of mock-examination in my defense, and it went something like this: 

Now, Ms. C., when it comes down to it, the steady multiplication of ounces will eventually add up to pounds, correct?  Yes, that’s correct.

And it’s true, is it not, that the continual lugging of pound-upon-heavy-pound on your back during long searches for hard-to-find hostels in unfamiliar towns could eventually cause your vertebrae to break down and crumble?   Well, I’m not a doctor, but it sure feels like it could happen.

And you would find it difficult to enjoy the fruits of your forthcoming book deal while confined to a bed with a broken back, would you not?  Yes, I would find that very difficult.

So it really wasn’t a colossal waste of time to transfer that thread from the spool to the toothpick this morning, was it, Ms. C?  Actually, no, it wasn't.

So, you see, it really is all a matter of perspective.  Perhaps that little thread-wrapped toothpick represents the fine line between travel genius and travel madness.   I’m sure some would consider the time and effort it took to transfer the thread from spool to toothpick and think:  insane.   But, in the world in which I live, I confess that I look at that toothpick and think:  brilliant. 

And in the end, it really only matters what I think, isn't that right?  (That's right.

And then of course, there’s Danny.