the baggage claim

The first time I watched Jerry Maguire, I was convinced that the baggage claim was a magical place that had the potential for creating hopelessly adorable stories primarily consisting of meet cutes and weepy reunions. I was wrong. I know these things do happen. But for every wonderful memory at baggage claim someone may have, I can probably match it with 3 horror stories about that squeaky carousel that is the bane of my world traveler existence (this comes immediately after bus ride transfers on the tarmac — those buses are the antagonists of my adventure story and I think they need to be banned at airports, but I’ll save that for another time).

This trip to Panama, I flew alone with 5 bags, 3 were checked. One bag is 70 lbs and my carry on is just over 50. None of the bags are your basic suitcase full of clothes and toiletries. Each is carrying equipment, and my ‘personal’ bag still has over 10 lbs of cables that I can’t carry on, so they get thrown in with my clothes. This is pretty standard for most trips. Some trips are lighter. I like those. And some involve multiple 70 lb trunks. I don’t like those.

Traveling nice and light

Unlike the US, luggage carts are free in most countries. Or they require a deposit that’s equal to about 1 US dollar. No big deal. I stupidly forgot that in Panama, none of these situations are the case. Instead, they have guys that tie up all the carts together with rope and as soon as you can provide them with some cash, they will cut one loose for you. I also stupidly had no cash! These are the types of things where I know better, but it was a crazy day. Leave me alone. I managed to ask where an ATM was in Spanish because I was alone with “cinco equipajes!” They pointed me to an area that came after the customs checkpoint. No bueno. Then I attempted my most sad and pathetic glance towards the luggage cart police for just a second hoping he would cave. Nope. At this point the bags are starting to pop out and I know I just need to enter Hercules mode to get through customs. I collected all 5 bags and looked at them for a minute. The 50 lb bag is more stable on top of the 70 lb bag so I stack those and plan to pull 120 lbs on one arm. The backpack is already on me, so two more to go. I can stack those but they aren’t very steady. Oh well! I do it anyway and balance them by holding both handles together with one hand as I pull the bigger load with the other previously designated arm. And we’re off! Except we’re not. In these situations I know that I need to stop about every 8–10 feet to switch arms. Otherwise, I’ll drop everything and my efforts become useless. So I switch hands and we’re off again! I repeat this process about 20 times as I make my way through the hairpin turns to reach the customs agent and feed them all through the scanner. By this point, my legs are bruised from the hard case bags hitting them as I lifted them off of the belt, my palms are all messed up from the pulling the weight, I’ve turned bright red and I’m taking deep breaths. Just think of that beautiful sight every time my life sounds glamorous!

Once through the scanner, I of course get interrogated about the gear I’m carrying because security wants to be sure I’m not smuggling equipment to Central/South America to sell for a profit. “No, no, no it’s all mine and I’m bringing it back to the U.S. in four days — here’s my document to prove it.” Thankfully that worked without further questions this time. Afterward, the man who interrogated me attempted to help me with my largest bag. So kind! Except that he couldn’t lift it off the scanner belt! I tried not to laugh as I heaved it up and off, re-stacked my other four bags on top of each other and continued on single handedly, leaving him embarrassed but all the while commending me in Spanish because, yes, I am freaking HERCULES when I need to be. At that moment, I was beaming with pride even if it did all happen because I was stupid and didn’t have cash.

Whether or not there is cash, luggage carts or assistance involved, this type of spectacle happens a lot. A LOT. And I can assure you — it is definitely a spectacle watching a lanky redhead haul double her weight through airports with the contorted face of an Olympic weight lifting champion. I know because I catch people staring at me with pity and confusion in their eyes. One time in Sydney, I did snag one of the last carts in sight! But I quickly learned that it had a front wheel with a mind of its own, so I had to pull it from the front bar that was 6 inches off the floor in order to make it stop running into walls, causing me to look like a FOOL. Talk about embarrassing! And in front of all the beautiful Australian men, ugh! But it was still easier than pulling that particular load of gear independently. I pulled it like that patiently for 20 minutes to get it about 100 feet to the check in counter where I threw it aside once my bags were checked and condemned that cart to the deepest circle of you know where..I hope it is there now. Although I must give credit to a wonderful Qantas employee who ran to help me half way through this instance. I probably creeped her out with my blubbering gratitude.

The main reason I get maniacal over baggage claim is actually just because it usually involves a long wait at my destination after 20+ hours of traveling, and I’m tired and impatient. Simply put, it gets really frustrating to spend several hours every week waiting on bags. But the baggage claim really has become a bit of a strategy session for me when I am alone and determining the best way to move everything myself. It has become such a strategy that on the rare occasion I fly like a ‘normal person’ going to visit my family back east, I don’t know what to do with myself because it’s as if everything suddenly becomes too easy and there should be more muscle and sweat involved.

In the end, it’s all in a day’s work! Here’s the takeaway: I justify my lack of exercise + excessive chocolate eating with these airport excursions because of how strenuous they can be, and how often I do them. I think that’s fair enough! Ultimately, all the horror of baggage claim is forgotten once I get to park everything in my hotel room and look out the window for the new view I have of somewhere that’s different. Then a few days later on the return trip, I get to do it all over again!