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Published: March 23rd 2005
I fly to Paris on April 21. This will begin the first part of a zigzag round-the-world-adventure that I've had on my mind for years. I will explore Europe for six months. For two weeks I will immerse myself in Paris for the second time in my life (a young man goes to Paris, an old man returns to Paris--aren't these lyrics from a old Kingston Trio song?).
After Paris, I plan to wander through the Balkans for a couple of months. Beginning in July, I will do four weeks of Italian language lessons in Rome. During the months of autumn, I intend to climb in Romania's Carpathians, attend a wedding of friends-in-love in Ireland's County Kerry and cross Russia on a Trans-Siberian train.
Along the way I will reunite with Dutch, German and Slovakian friends I've made in previous travels. Part I will conclude with a boat ride from Russia to Japan and reunions with precious Japanese friends. I used to live and teach there. Will I have found what I'm searching for? I don't know yet.
Anyway, with less than a month to go before takeoff, I have packing on my mind. It's never too early to get your gear in order. I never check luggage at the airport. My complete go-anywhere-travel-kit goes on board with me, stuffed inside the Black Maximum (my nickname for this pack)--my faithful rucksack/backpack--a jet black and purportedly the maximum-sized bag allowed as carry-on by airlines. However, I have never mustered enough nerve to wedge it into that aluminum test basket at the check-in counter: “if your bag won’t fit in this space, forget about carrying it on board.”
When I purchased this pack a few years ago at my local backpacking supply store, the young rock-climber salesgirl swore on a stack of freeze-dried food packets that it would fit under the seats or in the overhead bins of any commercial airliner on earth. So far, her declaration has held true. I have never been hassled about this bag, even though I overload it at times. It bulges so sometimes that it needs an extra push to force it under the seat or jam it into an overhead bin.
The Black Maximum is actually two bags in one. The main bag is the size of a small suitcase; a daypack piggybacks the larger bag, attached by a sturdy zipper. The bag’s nylon material can be stretched the size of a sumo wrestler’s belly. And I stretch it to the max.
A couple of days before a departure, I start filling the Black Maximum. Essentials go in first: toothbrush, vitamins, Tiger Balm, razor, digital camera and a treasured bar of Kirk’s Coco Hardwater Castile soap.
I pack only three each of T-shirts, underwear and socks. Three, not four. While living in Japan, I picked up a superstition about the number “four." In Japanese the words “four” and “death” are pronounced exactly the same. An extra pair of slacks, walking shorts, swimsuit, beach/bath sandals and a light jacket complete my "out there" packed wardrobe. I wear the rest.
Next I stow my travel toys. All of them essential (to me) gadgets that fit easily into the Black Maximum. My indispensable Grundig short-wave radio goes in first. Short-wave radio stations broadcasting from all over the globe keep me abreast of all the latest world happenings. And sometimes, if I'm lucky, I'm able to pick up Vietnamese folk music from the Voice of Vietnam, or even a discussion about stem cell research from Radio Netherlands.
I once learned how to make Yorkshire pudding from a BBC broadcast while I weathered a typhoon at Cape Sata on the southernmost tip of Japan. I remember sitting on the floor of a wind and rain battered youth hostel copying down every word of that recipe as if the world were coming to an end, and Yorkshire pudding would be my only salvation.
The world's stray dogs can be hazardous to a traveler on foot. Nowadays I wouldn’t nose around any country’s backstreets without my high frequency dog whistle. After being attacked by a pack of snarling beasts several years ago in Hua Hin, Thailand while on my way at three in the morning to watch the fishing fleet come in, I decided to arm myself.
My dog-stopper is gray, the size and shape of a cell phone. Wherever I roam, it hangs from my belt, ready to draw if "man's best friend" threatens me. If you point it at a menacing canine and depress the button, it emits a high-pitched, but harmless, irritating sound that dogs can't stand. We humans can’t even hear it. My little "best friend" bewilders and convinces even the meanest and most fearless dog to turn tail and scram. Into the Black Maximum it goes.
My writing journal, guidebooks, maps, foreign language dictionaries, a couple of travel narratives full of place plus a few spicy novels for personal reading fill in the empty spaces of my expanding pack.
For my European wanderings I'm packing: Colin Thubron's In Siberia, Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey plus Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, Graham Greene's Orient Express and Bram Stoker's Dracula.
That's about it for the Maximum. My passport, a snapshot of Marilyn, an international driver's license, air tickets, traveler's checks, ATM cards--all the really important stuff goes under my clothes in a money belt.
I haven't packed yet--just thinking about it. But time will pass soon enough and the Black Maximum and I will board the Paris flight at Detroit's Metro Airport and start the journey. I hope that you will follow us as our adventure unfolds.
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