You never know when you’ll need two typewriters, a ball gown, or a turtleneck in August.
by Donald Westlake and Abby Adams
Whenever friends see us off on a journey or welcome us home again, they invariably say, with a bit of smirk, “Well, you two sure don’t travel light.” No, we don’t. We travel heavy, and we’re glad of it. One of the great travel myths of our time is that there’s something advantageous, intelligent, even morally good, about traveling light. You probably believe it yourself. Kipling said, “Down to Gehenna or up to the throne,/ He travels fastest who travels alone,” but that isn’t what you mean. There could be 30 in your group, but you are secure in the knowledge that even to a casual observer you are obviously seasoned wanderers, since every last one of you is carrying too little luggage.
We have seen you, you light ones, waltzing across the baggage claim area, past the conveyor belt where we wait for more and more and more of our luggage. But once you get there — just as we stagger, porter less, toward the airport’s taxi rank — what then? After you’ve hung up your wrinkle-proof garments in the closet, emptied your pockets onto the dresser top and laid your folding toothbrush and inadequate toiletries around the sink, whatever will you do? With no book to read, no work to occupy you, no decent clothes to get you out of your room and into a nice restaurant, what will you do tonight? We know what you’ll do tomorrow, because we’ve seen you. You will be in the pharmacy, helplessly trying to explain, with gestures, to the clerk who knows no English, exactly what it was you should have brought. (“How do you say Alka-Seltzer in Walloon?”)
Then there are all those cute little space savers you bought, the things that fold and unfold so cunningly in the shop, that snap together and store just anywhere. Most of them — not all — will still unfold once you get to Rangoon, but very few will shrink back to their original size when you’re ready to check out. That is why, when when we see you on your return trip, you are also carrying a wicker bag with a palm tree on it, which you know is hideous and will go straight to the attic with last year’s wicker bag that has the sunburst on it.
We firmly believe in overpacking. Even sadder than “It might have been,” we believe, are the words, “If only we had brought the… (maps, skis, nail polish remover, antidote).” A corollary is that the sweetest words a married couple can exchange — apart from the actual vows — are: “Did you remember to pack the aspirin, dear?” “Of course, darling.”
Yes, there are disadvantages to traveling heavy. It’s heavy, for one thing. It requires more tipping; it can be trouble to keep track of. And the people in customs have been know to turn odd. But the advantages of having everything you need — or almost everything — far outweigh the disadvantages.
The benefits begin the night before departure. Nervous travelers that we are, we welcome the simple manual labor involved in emptying our closets into our luggage. It keeps us from worrying about whether the plane will stay up or the kids will burn the house down in our absence. Pity the light traveler at the same moment, in agonies of Solomonic decision making: “Which do I need most? The jacket to my blue suit or the pants? If I wash out my shirt every night…” While across town, the Westlakes are still merrily tossing into suitcase after suitcase everything we will need to make a strange place comfortable.
We don’t have a written list, since we take virtually everything. But if we did, it would include:
Clothing: Take no fewer than three complete changes for each day, appropriate to season and occasion, not forgetting belts and neckties, plus extra shoes, in case some break or turn mean. In addition, you should be prepared for surprises, both good and bad. Abby once got chilled far from home, and since then, she never travels, not even in August, without a turtleneck. This summer we both lugged sweaters all over Europe without wearing them once, but we were right to bring them and would do it again — next time, Europe may have put in air conditioning. Besides, if we’d left them behind, the weather would have been bad; as it was, Western Europe enjoyed the warmest summer in memory, thanks to us.
Swimsuits are on the never-leave-home-without list ever since we went to Washington D.C. during a May heat wave a few years ago. Our room was on the hotel’s top floor, just past a door with the enticing sign, “To Rooftop Pool.” After trudging the blistering streets awhile, we wanted nothing more than a swim, but hadn’t brought our suits, so finally we bought some that weren’t too terrible, though we’ve never worn either of them since. (That’s another rule: nothing you buy on the road is as acceptable as what you should have brought from home.)
We always bring along jeans and sneakers, too, because we believe there is always a possibility — even on a cruise — that we will have to go for a hike in the woods, and it would be awful to be overdressed. Being underdressed is even worse; consequently, we would bring our best clothes, even on a camping trip, should we ever go on such a thing. There are two kinds of sympathetic magic at work here: First is the usual rule that if you carry an umbrella it won’t rain. Second is the equally powerful principle that if you pack your party clothes someone may ask you to a party. The two by no means contradict one another; they travel side by side, like sneakers and dancing shoes in a suitcase.
Work: After clothing comes something to occupy your intellect and remind you that you’re still a serious person. Since we’re both writers, this means two typewriters, but for trips shorter than, say, three days, we make do with just one. To this we add pens, pencils and paper, and large manila envelopes crammed with work-in-progress. It’s not to actually do any work; conscience is satisfied by having lugged it along.
Books are very important, and they usually fill the carryon bags that the light brigade uses for drip-dry outfits. A basic wardrobe of books for a one-week trip might include a couple of mysteries for the plane, plus a few good solid works of literature, as remote in subject and setting from the actual journey as possible. We carried Pride and Prejudice to Guatemala, Out of Africa to Paris, The Age of Innocence to Kenya. We also bring quantities of material concerning our destination: maps, guidebooks, phrase books, brochures, every piece of paper on the subject that can be assembled. The traveler, especially in a foreign land, cannot have too much information.
Toiletries: Here we believe in bringing everything in the medicine cabinet. You will get sick, the only question is with what? Bring all remedies. Travel is stressful. Some helpful tension easers are vitamins, perfume and vodka.
Machines: These include shaving machines and hair dryers. We bring everything — plus all the little plugs, adapters and converters — and some of them actually do the job. There’s a lot of frustration involved in plugging our appliances into other nations’ electrical systems, but we persevere. The rule here is that if you haven’t brought at least one machine that won’t work, you haven’t brought enough. Besides, there’s a psychological lift in traveling with a machine that, at home, makes Abby’s hair look nice.
Miscellaneous: This means the usual cutlery — scissors, bottle opener, corkscrew, knife. Also, lot of plastic bags, for everything from laundry and wet bathing suits to muddy shoes and those native handcrafts we bought (nobody’s perfect). We also carry all those disposable items that hotels and airlines give you but that you can’t be sure they will give this time: cunning little jars of hand lotion shampoo; shower caps; slippers. We bring them and usually acquire more, which brings us to the extra suitcase — a collapsible bag, indispensable for the inevitable accumulation of goods during the journey.
Scotch tape: This is a category all by itself. It will do in a pinch to hold up a hem or cover a wound. (Though usually, of course, we have brought both sewing kit and Band-Aids.) It will patch maps that have been folded just once too often. But mainly it affixes to the lampshades all those important little scraps of paper — “L’Archestrate, 84 Rue Varenne, el. Sat=Sun”; “No. 73 bus to Harrod’s”; “flt 123, 4 p.m.” This not only discourages the maid from throwing all the notes away but also makes the room look friendly.
We do draw the line, though, and where we draw it is at umbrellas. An umbrella is one of the few things you can easily buy anywhere in the civilized world, and if you’re not in the civilized world, you shouldn’t go out in the rain. There are other no-nos. We don’t pack a camera any more. It’s easier to buy postcards (and they look better). Abby used to bring her jewelry but, worried about theft, ended up carrying it everywhere in her purse; you can feel silly pulling out a string of pearls every time you reach for a guilder or a handful of lire. And, finally, we do not carry snapshots of our house or our children or our cats — leaving them behind is what travel is all about.