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The Art of Packing

I consider packing to be an art. Not necessarily as high an art as modern dance or poetry, but certainly up there with basketmaking. In my professional career, I often have opportunity to practice my art, and I consider myself a reasonably accomplished practicioner.

As evidence of my skill, I present the following photograph. The three bags below are all I took to Ghana, Switzerland and the UK to clothe, entertain and medicate myself for 17 days in two radically different climates. The middle bag is a video projector I left in Ghana, so really only the outside bags are the ones I packed for myself. My green hat, atop the biggest bag, helps give a sense for scale.

While I take a certain pride in packing for an epic trip in two carry-on bags (yes, the black bag usually gets on as a carry-on, as long as no-one tries to lift it. Today, it weighs 23 kilos…), I’m beginning to see the downsides of this form of artistic expression.

As I previously reported, all my toiletries disappeared somewhere between Ghana and Switzerland. Initially, I blamed baggage thieves in Ghana. But, as of this morning, I’ve revised my opinion.

I got stopped for a “routine screening” at Heathrow this morning. (I’m noticing I seem to get “routinely screened” more than almost anyone I know of. Maybe it really is time to cut off my hair…) I was hopeful that the screening would involve only poking and prodding of the bag, which is soft-sided. It did, for the side pockets. But then the baggage screener made a fatal mistake. He opened the top compartment.

As he reached for the zipper, I gently warned, “You’re never going to be able to get that to close again.” He responded, “Don’t worry, sir. I won’t take too many things out.” Which wasn’t what I was trying to warn him. I was trying to warn him that the way I pack this particular bag was analagous to the way Pilsbury packs biscuit dough into those little silvery tubes. Once you open it, there’s no going back.

He pulled the zipper without difficultly, but jumped back as my clothes exploded out of the top. He lifted a few shirts out, poked around a bit, and then began trying to put things back. He wasn’t even close – he simply restacked a pile of clothes that had been painstakingly rolled tight, wedged under pressure, and then squeezed into place with a technique that requires straddling the bag, squeezing it with one’s thighs and a two-handed zippering procedure that will be the centerpiece of my Olympic routine once packing is recognized as a competitive sport.

The screener called over his partner, who tried to help him squeeze the clothing back in. I offered a few hints to making the puzzle work – fitting the jacket lengthwise, not horizontally, using the arching top to squeeze in small, rolled items, etc. Working together, they didn’t make much progress. So finally, the first screener said – “Okay, sir, why don’t you put it back together?”

It wasn’t a challenge, more a cry for help. I sprung into action and was three items away from closure when his supervisor showed up. “Gentlemen, you know the procedure. Passengers are not allowed to touch their baggage during the screening process.” So I backed off, and the two screeners frantically tried to pull the zipper shut, despite the fact they were in danger of ripping my good sportcoat.

Here I made a tactical error. I asked, quietly, but probably somewhat nastily, their supervisor whether I should write to American Airlines or to the British screening company for compensation when they ripped my jacket, which they were on the verge of. “They haven’t ripped it yet, sir.” “Yes, but they’re going to if they keep forcing it, as well as breaking the bag’s zipper.” So she stormed off to get her supervisor, who, I figure, might well decide I was a danger to American national security and detain me in Britain for some unspecified amount of time.

The second screener quickly moves to my right, blocking the screening area from view. The first one says, “Quickly, sir, close the bag, before she comes back!” So I adjust two items and zip the bag shut. He quickly yanks the bag off the table, leads me directly to the check-in desk, looking over his shoulder the whole way for the evil supervisor.

As I’m pulling out my ticket, he says, “You should be our supervisor.” “Really,” I say. “Do you think I’d be good at it?” He says, “We had a problem that she couldn’t solve. You solved it. So yes, you would be a big improvement.” Heh. I should have told him that he was the one who actually solved it, by ignoring protocol and letting me solve a problem only I was going to be able to solve.

So here’s what I think happened in Ghana or London. Someone decided to screen the Pillsbury bag. After it exploded all over the room, they discovered they couldn’t get everything back into the main compartment. Hoping to make room in the side compartment, they took out my toiletry kit and squeezed the excess stuff into the remaining space. Then they either forgot about the toiletries, or put it in a bin, hoping I’d somehow think to look for it at luggage claim. Perhaps, if BA is really good, they’ve sent it home to me.

One way or another, I think I’m taking three bags to Burma. It’s hard to go for a work that features high compression when you’re travelling to a military dictatorship obsessed with the smuggling of contraband. I’m planning a loose, flexible work, designed for easy rifling with a minimum of wrinkling, perhaps something based around a rollerbag with a duffel complement. Or maybe something compartmentalized, with lots of small bags within two larger bags. The possibilities are endless. I’ll keep you posted.

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