Published: June 13, 2011
So we’re leaving tomorrow, and somehow we have to manage to cram into our duffle bags everything we need for the next six weeks, but our luggage can’t exceed the 44 pound limit for domestic flights in China. Our dining room table is a chaos of stacked baggies filled with instant oatmeal and unscented laundry detergent, of clustered prescription bottles and containers of contact solution and boxes of bandaids and bags of cough drops. For weeks the dining room table has been off limits to anything that’s not going to China. Sophie sets her sweaty soft drink cup on the table, and I say, “Put that there, and it goes to China.” I heave a ten-pound bag of dog food onto the table and Sophie says, “Put that there, and it goes to China.”
Now it’s decision time, and I keep weeding stuff out, putting it back in, adding more, subtracting again. Do we really need all this stuff? Is this really enough for six weeks?
It’s not like we’re going to a remote jungle where nothing is available. Actually, our travel agent tells us that our apartment has a toaster and there’s a Wal-mart across the street, information that has bemused me for days—so does that mean that I can buy bread, not something you see a lot of in China?
And at Wal-mart, is there a passive-aggressive greeter who glares at anyone who doesn’t initiate friendly conversation while obtaining a shopping cart? Do college students entertain themselves by doing cartwheels in the aisles at midnight? Does a dazed elderly man migrate from department to department, muttering to himself and singing opera? If Youtube weren’t blocked in China, would its citizens post videos of the tacky t-shirt slogans and ill-fitting, unflattering clothing of Chinese customers? I know that much of what Wal-mart sells is actually made in China, but I’m curious about how an American phenomenon will translate. I’m also a bit distrustful about finding what we need with a label that I can read.
So I’m packing a baggie of powdered Gatorade, because Sophie once had symptoms of dehydration in Chengdu and I was afraid those symptoms would kick up into an asthma attack and I knew that a drink with electrolytes would probably make the difference. But our travel agency and guides and driver were insistent that we must take her to a hospital for an IV, and I kept saying, “No, I need a sports drink. Please help me find a sports drink.” And finally, after much determined pleading and arguing on my part, a guide and driver helped me scan the shelves of a grocery store until we found some Gatorade, labeled in Chinese but with the familiar lightning bolt logo, and sure enough, Sophie was soon on the mend.
And I’m taking a packet of Chapstick, which won’t take up that much room anyway, because of the Great Chapstick Search in Barcelona, where I couldn’t find lip balm at a grocery store, or at Happy Drugs, which turned out to be a candy store, or at the red cross pharmacies that sold only toiletries, or on the shelves of the green cross pharmacy, which carries actual drugs. The green cross pharmacy did have Chapstick in a top-secret location in a drawer behind the counter, as if lip balms were highly addictive popular street drugs. Or maybe just too big a temptation for shoplifters. Probably the latter, and I absorbed the cost: my long-sought tube of Chapstick was six dollars.
I also have lots of ibuprofen because in China three years ago I could only find the twelve-hour time release capsules, cough drops because I could only locate bitter herbal ones when I had bronchitis, Tylenol because Sophie is allergic to ibuprofen, and unscented laundry detergent because the scented kind gives Sophie hives. Our Kindles are loaded with books, which I bought all at once until my credit card was suspended, because, it turns out, buying multiple books at one time is considered “unusual activity.”
The list goes on and on: a laptop to do my work, pens and paper, chargers, adaptors, and converters, more fun stuff: a few actual books in case of mechanical failure, playing cards, cameras and memory cards, a beanbag panther named Tullah in an evening gown, one of six mascots from the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford traveling around the world with faculty and staff this summer. Oh, and extra pants because I accidentally left all my pants at a hotel laundry in Xi’an and had to wear the same pair for the whole trip last time.
All this stuff: my hedges against inconvenience or expense or boredom or disaster, but more than that, against all the anxiety and uncertainty that goes with stepping into unknown territory. I know that there’s always something you forgot and always something you aren’t prepared for and communication barriers that make you feel like you might as well be an infant again without any language at all. There’s the additional stupidity of sleep deprivation and the weirdness of eating dinner when you usually eat breakfast and the woozy feeling that even gravity is operating differently after you’ve been on a plane for 24 hours.
Packing, I’ve gradually segued from denial and avoidance to manic accumulation to mild panic and self-questioning, to, finally, this zen mood where I’m ready to let go of my attachments to stuff and ditch it all and take my chances. I survey the dining room table calmly and take a deep breath. I doubt that I really need any of this.
Which is why it’s a good thing that I’ve planned so carefully in advance and have a notebook full of checklists and a dining room table covered with stuff. Now I can just mindlessly shovel everything into our duffel bags with reasonable confidence that we’ll mostly have what we need.
So that’s what we’re going to do: toss stuff in, zip up the bags, and go.