Leave the Lipstick, Take the Iguana - Introduction

By Marcy Gordon

Sebastopol, California

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 3x5 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 3x5 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 take the iguana. It might make things more interesting and I can’t wait to hear about it.

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