We’re back on.
We’re back on, Lou- can you hear me?
Check, check, one two three.
I think we’ve got it.
Around the end of each month, students in my study abroad program receive a special monthly offer from the administrative offices. In exchange for your tidy John Hancock, you get a couple crisp, sand-orange bills of legal Jordanian tender slapped into your greedy little fists. Officially speaking, you’re getting a travel stipend, since you’re taking taxis (or maybe even the bus, adventurous student that you are) daily to the university for classes and back again. Really, though, this monthly gift is more than anything else a challenge. You’re going to step out onto the street loaded (like the good American that you are) but sooner or later you’re going to have to deal with the fact that those bills you have are toxic.
You see, you have in your hand there several fine specimens of the fifty-dinar bill, largest printed denomination in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and king fish in the Amman currency pool. In pretty much any everyday scenario, whipping out one of these bad boys is akin to reaching for your checkbook at a neighborhood lemonade stand. While you’ve technically got plenty of credit to cover your little Dixie cup of sugar water, it’s safe to say that young Johnny here isn’t too thrilled to have to schlep on down to Citibank to add your contribution to his jar of quarters.
The engineers who designed Heathrow Airport understood that an efficient airport operates on the same basic principles as a municipal plumbing system. The moment an arriving aircraft’s door opens, passengers begin to flow down long, single-direction pipes. Once they pass through security (presumably to filter out oily septic detritus and 75-year old women in wheelchairs for security checks), connecting passengers end up in a large central basin of linoleum and duty-free chocolate shops. Gates remain closed until a critical mass of travelers is established, and then passengers begin to flow down long, single-direction pipes to holding areas until they can pass through a spigot across the tarmac and pour into another plane. Masses of stagnant travelers with missed connections stick to the coffee shops-cum-bars to the sides and get crusty and smelly as the hours wind on.
And the system works pretty well, even if it requires a little bit of legwork from the traveler. The average intrepid Heathrow connector passes by a security check, two moving sidewalks, a complex network of indoor restaurant patios, seventy-eight emergency exits, and a full mall’s worth of duty-free junk in the glass-coated distance between arrival and departure. So, the simple act of making a Heathrow connection can feel like a bit of a voyage in itself to a weary and unusually thirsty traveler with a 400-lb. backpack, a still-valid plane ticket (with a layover of one hour instead of three), and a pocketful of defunct American small change.
Note: Don’t miss the exciting conclusion, coming soon!
I had lucked into prime aircraft real estate. Aisleside, center column, with my lone companion four seats down across the row. From the looks of it, it seemed like a quiet crowd, too. Mostly couples, in decent shape, with the occasional jetsetting businessman halfway through a shiny new paperback. I still had a bit of a buzz from my preflight lager.
The crew captain started to give his speech over the intercom, and the crew bustled back and forth. The crew was based in London, and the crew captain, who had learned to speak Stateside, was at the first stages of linguistic defection, offering explosively precise ‘t’s in the middle of otherwise languid words. After a short introduction to our flight to the Uni-t-ed Kingdom (we are deligh-t-ed you have chosen to fly with us), our seatbacks were up and our seatbelts were fastened (fas-t-ened?), and our fair 757 jet exploded off the tarmac and into the dark dusk clouds.
Meta-note: This is the first installment of a flurry of posts forthcoming in the next few days.
A big suitcase is an awful temptation. And it was a very big suitcase. Wide, tall, and deep, with one of those zippers on the side to make it even deeper, so that if you wanted, you could pack pretty much any slice of your life into that bag. Any slice of your life, as long as it weighs fifty pounds or less. And that’s where they get you. For an overpacker like me, a suitcase that big is like an invitation, begging to be filled to the brim with everything it can hold. And then, it invites even more than that, since you can stack your items over the zipper line and still manage to zip it closed with a little bit of fight. An overpacker can be incredibly creative, mashing junk into every cubic inch of air until his luggage is one solid cube of fabric, paper, and who knows what else (and even the overpacker might be surprised by some of his bag’s deeper contents, if during the trip he ever manages to plunge that far in).
But airline rules are authoritative and absolute. A bag is 50 pounds and no more, regardless of the deftest legerdemain or most occult manipulations of time and space the most elite overpacker can offer. You need to pack that extra sweatshirt? Want to bring that extra special bilingual dictionary with the 50,000 entries you’ll never, ever use? Tough freakin’ luck, buddy. There are six people in line behind you, and a TSA employee within earshot who does nothing but lift 50-pound (and no more!) bags all day, so you’d better either take a few shirts out or get your ass full-body searched.
So, I strolled into the airport with a bag weighing 49 pounds and seven ounces, and a carry-on bag with seams bulging out its sides, and handed my masterpiece of moderation to the glazy-eyed counter attendant, who would never know what agonizing packing choices I had made to get to that wonderfully light number. By the time I got to the gate I had forgotten altogether what I had left behind. Such is the life of the overpacker.