By Marcy Gordon
Travel starts with an empty bag. Before we arrive at our destination, we give thought to what we should bring or leave behind. We all have our weird preferences when it comes to packing our necessities and travel talismans. For some it’s a lucky hat, a fresh journal or, in the case of one friend, a stuffed plush toy (a Japanese cartoon character named Domokun) that she poses and takes pictures of in front of landmarks around the world.
As a kid it was ingrained into me to always travel with crackers, chewing gum and tissues. When I was sent off flying solo at nine years old to New York, my mother handed me a small bag with Dentyne gum, Kleenex, and those orange-color Lance Toastchee peanut butter crackers.
For years I followed my mother’s advice and carried crackers out of loyalty to the family tradition. Then one day, I stopped. I didn’t tell my mom. I felt I had betrayed her by abandoning crackers, but it allowed me to explore new snack vistas. Crackers are not practical for longdistance travel, unless of course you are the type who enjoys snorting pulverized dust out of a cellophane sleeve. Instead, I began to bring crush-proof snacks, like cans of Pringles and mini M&Ms in little plastic tubes. But I could barely make it past the pre-boarding announcement without opening the Pringles and eating the entire can. Then once on board, I’d have to break open the M&Ms to counteract all the salt ingested from the Pringles. If the need for emergency food ever did arrive, my supply would be depleted before the plane ever left the gate. I realized an emergency food supply should be just that, something for an emergency— not tasty, but sturdy.
Magazines, newspapers and, especially, travel websites are always offering up advice on packing by “experienced travelers.” But the articles about people who smuggle live animals taped to their body intrigue me. Creatures, like budgies, snakes, monkeys, spiders, hamsters and, yes, iguanas. Who better to give packing tips than someone who can fly eight hours with a python in their pants or a baby lemur in their bra? I can’t imagine getting by security with a corkscrew, much less a seal pup in my parka.
Our baggage usually contains material items to make our journey more comfortable, or safer, or in some cases less lonely. But the real travel essentials are stories— the tales we bring with us, and the stories we take back home. When I was twelve I went on a whirlwind tour of Europe with my parents. At a tiny hotel in Genoa, Italy, we found a violin had been left behind in the room. My dad took it down to the front desk where by some massive misunderstanding he thought they wanted him to play it. So he took the thing out of its case and gave it a go. As he was coaxing the most God-awful and torturous sounds from the instrument, the actual owner of the violin walked in to see if it had turned up. Oops.
We took that story home with us and laughed about the incident for years. It became part of our canon of travel experiences. But as I got older I began to wonder about the story the violin owner might have told his friends and family: “. . . and then I walked in and saw this crazy Americano playing my violin!”
More recently, while waiting for a flight home from Croatia with some fellow travel writers, I told the story of how I once took a lengthy entrance exam as part of an apprenticeship program in the film industry. One section of the test had a list of everyday objects such as a hairbrush, a brick, a tea cup, and a 3×5 card— and asked for five alternative uses for each item other than its intended purpose.
Under Name 5 alternative uses for a brick, I wrote down: paperweight, pestle, doorstop, hammer and weapon. For the 3×5 card I listed: shim, blotter, ruler, funnel and weapon. On hairbrush I came up with a backscratcher, strainer or colander, foot massager, soil aerator and, once again, a weapon. Somehow I’d latched on to the idea that, in the right hands, anything could be used as a weapon.
At the gate we were called together as a group and asked several security questions. Had anyone approached us to carry anything on the plane? Where were we going? Where had we been? What was the reason for our trip? Then the agent said: “Is there anything in your bag that looks like a weapon or could be used as a weapon?” I stole a quick glance at my friends and saw they each had identical purse-lipped cat-who-ate-the-canary looks. Oh please don’t let them start laughing, I thought to myself. Or worse, offer up that I’d passed a test by describing objects as inherently dangerous. The airline employee looked directly at me, awaiting an answer. I wanted to reply that EVERYTHING in my bag could be deadly. But I thought better of it and said no. “Nothing weapon-like in my bag.”
The most dangerous thing I had was my story.
In this collection you’ll find stories of regret for things packed, such as Jill Paris and her red push-up bra, or Suzanne LaFetra with too much arctic clothing, and in the case of Kristy Leissle, a first-aid kit without enough bandages. There are also stories about letting go of mental and emotional baggage, such Laura Deutsch’s corporate mask, Kimberley Lovato’s sense of propriety, Josey Miller’s fear of heights or Lori Robinson’s rigid relationship to her father. And then we have stories of things that were left behind but might have come in handy, as in Nico Crisafulli’s sobriety, Jill Robinson’s morals, and Katie Eigel’s guilty conscience, which luckily reappears in the nick of time.
These stories were selected not only for their comedic value, but also for how they provide a deeper examination of the human condition when parsed with wit, intelligence and hilarity. Each story reminds us that the most essential thing to bring when you travel is a wash-andwear sense of humor. In the words of Karl Malden: “Don’t leave home without it!”
Next time you pack I invite you to lighten up, let go of unnecessary baggage and, most of all, disregard conventional wisdom and advice. I encourage you to leave the lipstick and takethe iguana. It might make things more interesting and I can’t wait to hear about it.
The Horse Whisperess
Appendix Over and Out
I Had A Passion for the Christ
Giving Dad the Bird
South Africa / Botswana
Easter Island and the Chilean with the Brazilian
Why You Worry?
Thunda Chicken Blong Jesus Christ
An Indian Wedding Nothing Like the Movies
Any Bears Around Today?
Packaged in Puerto
Monkeying around in Paris
Going to the Dogs with My Mother
The Spice is Right
Karma at the Colombo Airport
Naked with a Passport
Allison J. Stien
The Nakuru Scam
Embedded in the Boot
Advice for Closet Cougars
Mt. Fuji in a Trash Bag
Flashed in Fallouja
Ditching First Impressions
Wasted in Margaritaville
Jill K. Robinson
Sometimes a Language Barrier Isn’t
Pricier than Prada
Peggy Exton Jaffe
Thank the Good Lord for Duct Tape
The Horse Whisperess
A frazzled lawyer discovers the business end of horsemanship.
Here in Marin County, home to the hot tub and peacock feather, I thought I knew the alphabet of self-realization, abs to Zen. But I would have to travel to the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains to become enlightened by the Equine Experience.
My gears were grinding in overdrive from my work as a law firm marketing consultant. Desperate for a tune-up, I dialed 1-800-SPAFINDER.
When I explained my situation, the spa specialist didn’t hesitate. “Miraval. They cater to people like you.” She moved on before I could ask what she meant. “And they offer a fantastic workshop, where you attain enlightenment by grooming a horse.”
“Don’t laugh.” She sounded offended. “It’s profound. You learn a lot about yourself.”
With a Ph.D. from the Woody Allen School of Obsessive Introspection, I was skeptical. My psyche has been plowed, fertilized and tilled, and I hoped there wasn’t too much more to unearth. But this travel agent, whom I imagined in a warren of cubicles at some isolated outpost with an 800 number, had passion for her horse experience. I was intrigued.
Six months later, I ended up at Miraval, less than an hour from Tucson. My plan was to sleep, do yoga, and get a massage every day. Practicing mindfulness on vacation, once I arrive at mindlessness, I figure I’m there.
As a former lawyer, cross-examining other guests on activities they’d enjoyed to date came as second nature. Workaholic lawyers from New York gave two thumbs down to workshops where they were told to write about their work, then make believe they were their work.
“Are you from New York or California?” one asked. “California? You’ll like it.”
But even the most corporate, Ivy League, untherapized among them touted the Equine Experience.
It sounded simple. First you groom a horse. Then you get it to walk, trot, and canter, using nonverbal cues. Thinking I should do something beyond the vege, I signed up. There were just two of us, me and Val, a buoyant real estate broker. Wyatt, the therapist cowboy, would shepherd us through the experience.
We sat on bales of hay and got some basic facts. To the horse, you are a predator. But the horse is more powerful than you are. Horses don’t understand words including “whoa” and “giddyap.” They do understand body language. They pick up on threats and fear, and they will react.
Moving into the ring, Wyatt demonstrated how to groom Monsoon, a two-story ton of horse with a ticklish spot. He taught us how to approach the horse and where to touch him to establish rapport.
The first task was to clean Monsoon’s hooves. When Wyatt pinched the tendons of Monsoon’s foreleg, the horse raised his hoof and dropped it into the cowboy’s hand. Sometimes. Wyatt cupped the hoof in his hand and cleaned out the dry, caked mud with a sharp hook. On to the next hoof. Then, Lordy Lordy, he turned the horse around to get to the other side, by placing the side of his rib cage against Monsoon’s. Keeping a hand on the horse’s back, he walked around Monsoon’s rump, never losing contact.
When a horse feels fear, I’ve been told, it may kick out its hind legs and run. A comforting thought as I imagined sashaying around the beast.
Then Wyatt curried and buffed Monsoon, brushed his face, combed his black forelock, mane and tail. Piece of cake. Suddenly Val’s elbow was piercing my ribs, her eyes riveted to the vicinity between Monsoon’s rear legs.
Wyatt was on top of things. “What do you notice?” he asked. Briefed by yesterday’s participants, I went to the head of the class.
“His male organ is extended.”
We learned this is a good thing.
“That means he’s relaxed,” Wyatt commented. Very relaxed, I thought. And not Jewish.
Wyatt anticipated our every thought. “Don’t worry, he won’t urinate on you.” Well, almost every thought.
“Okay, choose your horses,” he said. “Who wants Monsoon?” Neither of us moved.
“What about Si Si?” he asked, indicating a horse half Monsoon’s size, a speckled gray. I paused.
“Maybe you don’t feel affinity for either horse,” suggested Wyatt.
Yeah, right. I don’t feel affinity for a horse named Monsoon who’s two stories high, has a ticklish spot you’d better avoid, won’t lift his hoof even for the master horseman, and when he’s groomed elongates his gelded organ so fully you could use it to measure hectares.
Val volunteered to take Si Si. I was led back to the barn. I chose a brown gelding, an Arabian beauty, tall, dark and handsome, reaffirming the wisdom that women are attracted to animals who look like them.
His name was Adieu. Perfect, given my state of relationships.
Time to groom. Now picture this. I’m standing in the middle of the ring, afraid to get near the horse. I’m a successful business owner, a mature executive at the top of my field, and I begin to cry. Fearful he’ll kick me in the face or pick up his hoof and slam it into my delicate hands.
“What’s your fear level on a scale of one to ten?” asked Wyatt.
“Six,” I said. Liar, liar.
“What’s it about?” Power, authority, the obvious answers. The people who kick you in the face, metaphorically. I couldn’t admit I knew it would ruin my manicure. “That’s good,” said Wyatt. “He knows you’re afraid; now he doesn’t feel threatened. Back up and approach again. With confidence.”
I backed up, approached, retreated. Three times: marched forward, touched Adieu’s shoulder, pinched his foreleg, ran away. If there had been a larger group that day, watching, I might have maintained my composure, kept the armor on. But there was relief in letting a four-legged, non-English speaker trigger a release of fear and stress deeply buried under archaeological layers of business success.
Finally, I got the hoof in my hand. Now I was afraid I was going to hurt the horse. I imagined soft little doggy paws, as I prepared to dig in the sharp hook.
Wyatt took the hoof and dug deep, fast, and hard. Thwack, whomp. I stood amazed. “It’s as hard as ram’s horn,” he told me.
I cleaned two hooves, turned the rump around, and cleaned the other two. When Adieu tried to pull his hoof away, Wyatt showed me how to pull it back. Apparently a horse responds to boundaries. What a concept.
Then I curried, buffed and combed, now totally in love with this beautiful, cooperative horse.
As Wyatt led Adieu to another ring, Val confessed she was jealous that I could cry. Her fear, she allowed, was a nine out of ten.
Adieu was free to run. “When you meet a new horse, observe. Let it run out pent-up energy first,” Wyatt advised. A good policy beyond the horse.
He showed us how to move Adieu around the rim of the arena. Standing 45 degrees behind the horse, Wyatt’s body faced the animal squarely. The horse was motionless until Wyatt started to walk. Adieu picked up his pace as Wyatt picked up his, occasionally flicking the whip behind the horse, but not touching him. Through body movement he got the horse to walk, trot, canter, and stop. He showed us how to turn the horse around by repositioning ourselves.
Val did it. I did it. There was a certain thrill, though I was still skeptical, believing that the horse was trained, merely going through his paces. “If you think that, take a breath and pause,” said Wyatt. I did. Adieu stopped. “Now make him canter.” I sped up my pace and Adieu responded.
I felt powerful, though Wyatt was quick to point out that the horse could pulverize me if he chose to.
Back on the bales of hay, Wyatt described the typical response of corporate types who do this for team building. Some root for their colleagues to succeed. Some hope that they will fail. The most common fear of CEOs is that their covers will be blown. Underlings will see that they are shams, Wizards of Oz who have tricked others into thinking they are competent, powerful human beings.
At the spa that night, I soaked in the hot tub with the workaholic lawyers from New York.
“What did you learn?” one asked.
“Horse sense,” I replied. Reminders important for work and love. That how you hold and use your body communicates more than words. Pick up on the energy. Boundaries are appreciated. An animal that doesn’t speak can express more affection than many humans. When you want to get someone big and powerful turned around, put your rib cage against his and walk slowly around his rump.
* * *Laura Deutsch’s personal essays, features and travel adventures have entertained readers of the
Los Angeles Times, San Francisco magazine,
Psychology Today,and many other publications. Her essay on surviving Tuscany appeared in
Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, and her piece on surviving a hip New York hotel was anthologized in
I Should Have Stayed Home. Laura’s book,
Writing From the Senses, will soon be published by Shambhala, and she is currently writing an irreverent memoir about her spiritual journey around the world. Laura leads writing retreats from Tassajara to Tuscany. For more information, visit her web site at www.lauradeutsch.com.
Marcy Gordon has laughed her way through 27 countries, many of them before the age of fourteen in the company of her travel-writing mother. She lived in Italy and worked for The Touring Club of Italy, as contributing editor and co-designer of the Authentic Italy guidebook series. Her narrative writing has been featured on-line and in print in many Travelers’ Tales anthologies including Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 & 2011 More Sand in My Bra, 30 Days in Italy, and The Thong Also Rises. She writes a popular blog about wine and wine tourism called Come for the Wine (www.comeforthewine.com) and is the founder of Writing Between the Vines—Vineyard Retreats for Writers, an artist–in–residence program on vineyard estates around the world (www.writingbetweenthevines.org). She is a graduate of the University of Florida, College of Journalism and Communications.