Confronting my Baggage in India

I was a fifteen year old bridesmaid at my cousins Robin and Jeff’s wedding. A skinny teenager in a chocolate velvet and satin gown with a sweetheart neckline that hid my flat chest. The newlyweds took six months off and packed their backpacks – off to India. They explored the subcontinent and took striking photos that still hang on their walls today – nearly twenty years later, as the eldest of their three boys prepares for his Bar Mitzvah.

A few years later, ready to bust out of my awkward teenage life and see the world, I headed to Costa Rica on my first backpacking adventure. Robin lent me her backpack for the trip –  a green canvas Serratus front-zip with two side pockets and smaller zip sections on the front. Fifteen years and dozens of adventures later, I am still carrying Robin’s pack. She has travelled the world with me and has seen me outgrow my awkwardness and become a confident, mature woman. It’s time to bring my baggage back to the motherland: back to India. I feel as though I am taking an elder statesman on a final tour of duty.

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Robin’s pack has held my stuff in diffefent climates and continents. We have hiked in Australia and hitchhiked in Iceland together. Travel buddies and boyfriends have come and gone, but she has been my constant companion. In 2002, fragile and worn out in a Genoa train station at 3AM, I huddled behind her bulk while a man raced down the platform pursued by fierce police dogs.

Twice she has been lost in transit. In 2008, Robin’s bag arrived two days late in Lisbon, and I spent the afternoon in H&M acquiring a new wardrobe courtesy of Air Canada.

In 2004, she disappeared en route to Belize. I whiled away a long Caribbean day with some smiling Rastas who worked for the airport hotel, listening to music and acclimating to the lilting patois in their tin roofed shanty. Meanwhile, my mother frantically called the aiport and airlines.  She located Robin’s bag at Pearson, never having taken off because the baggage tag had been zipped inside the flap that covers the straps to prevent them from getting caught in the conveyor belt.  I had to head upriver the next morning, having arranged to WWOOF for a month at Maya Mountain Research Farm near Punta Gorda. Luckily a previous volunteer had abandoned most of her torn & filthy wardrobe in the bedroom above the open-air kitchen. A week or so later, Robin’s backpack arrived in a dugout canoe, pushed upriver by our Mayan neighbours.

But the backpack is no stranger to canoes. Summer after summer, I paddle and portage her around Algonquin Park, then hang her in the Canadian summer sun to to air out the smell of campfire and damp.

She has scars and stitches, missing buckles, and a few mysterious stains. In New Zealand in 2011, I stored peanuts and muesli bars in the side pockets. While I slept in my tent on the Abel Tasman trek, hungry birds pecked through the heavy canvas for a midnight snack. This past year in Bali, she hung in the closet of my bamboo house at Green School growing mould.

In January, I left Bali with my partner Scotty Ze to take this journey to Australia, Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal and, at last, India.

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I nearly parted with Robin’s pack when I bought a knockoff Northface 75L in the market in Phnom Penh. The new bag looked flash, but the straps dug, the material was thin, the frame buckled in the hollow of my back. So I reloaded old Serratus, with everything in its right place. Books and rarely accessed items at the bottom. Ziplocs full of clothes next. Shoes in one side pocket, toiletries in the other, and various sundry items (leatherman, headlamp, tampons, sewing kit, chargers) in the small front sections. And I checked her in for the flight to Chennai.

I know it’s just a thing. A dirty old bag with a blue ribbon on its handle and a pink fake flower safety pinned to its lapel like a rumpled old dandy. Stitched, faded, worn and stained – a deterrent to thieves on Indian sleeper cars. But while I have lived in Toronto, DC, Byron Bay, Montreal and Bali, Robin’s Bag has been a constant home. My hermit crab shell when the ocean of the world swells around me. Offering logic, comfort, a place to sit and rest on a dirty sidewalk.

So almost twenty years after she took her maiden voyage, the old dame is back in India. Maybe I should abandon her to float down the Ganges, toward some life beyond this corporeal existence of endless lugging and straining. Or maybe Robin’s backpack still has one more canoe trip in her…

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A toast to Backpacker Chic - in South Beach for a wedding after a flight from Manila via Beijing

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