Travelogue for a Suitcase: A Weathered Wheel

“I don’t like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and it isn’t of much value. Life hasn’t revealed its beauty to them.”

 – Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

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Justine Leonhardt. Suitcase. 2012. JPEG.

The whole of my hand through to my arm, elbow and shoulder vibrated as I clumsily dragged my bag up the rounded stones of the road. There were no cars in the area, and few pedestrians so early in the morning, but the ricocheting back and forth between the stones, the intense vibration of my bag going forward, made the world seem all-awake. I knew the Alhambra would appear on the hills of Granada soon, and the hostel that couldn’t be more than a few minutes away since I’d been dragging my bag for thirty minutes, but when would this hill end? With the suitcase, I felt like a fool.

When it comes to a trip for a few days or many months, there are few things more taxing – the last nail of duty before the exciting hours – than deciding what to pack. For a weekend, it can be hard enough: what shirt will be missed, what shoes won’t be worn? But when it comes to extended travel across continents and seasons, it almost oversimplifies things to an uncomfortable degree. Instead of contemplating what will be needed, a pair of jeans, runners, a t-shirt and a coat will have to do until everything else can be found on the road.

It might seem shortsighted, but when I went on an extended trip for 7 months, I committed to a suitcase. Despite seeing so many travellers on the road with backpacks, some who were going for much shorter periods of time than myself, it was the illusion of city sophistication that I held onto – a particular vision of the self that still exists today. To me, it seemed like the more likely hallmark of a person who was well traveled, someone who couldn’t be taken so easily. While the suitcase might seem unwieldy to some, and rightfully so, the backpack too can be an example of an already lived-out archetype.

While Pasternak’s words about stumbling were likely not about a suitcase, on the suitcase I could take out my desperation in the odd and strange moments. It could be kicked and slammed, aggressively dragged – a tangible object to direct all of my simmering rage at. Like the awkwardness and naiveté of going out on a journey, having the bag was a real manifestation of all of that inner awkwardness, a means of saying, “I chose a more difficult path, and I can’t even climb up it.” Like being trapped in a rainstorm with no coat and no umbrella, it was a means of getting wet but also feeling the rain, a pathway into a place that could be observed and felt.

Thus, the suitcase became well travelled alongside me. While it was dragged to Australia where it sat in a dark Canberra bedroom for five weeks, it experienced the streets of Italy more than I did, bouncing upon their cobbles with an unmistakable sound. It got to breathe easily in a Paris apartment for a month, emptied out, but in Spain it received its last true tests, the old streets of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, the hills and jarring clatter of Granada’s rising and falling streets. It was here too that I felt the frustration of what it is to travel; to be alone in an unknown place with an inappropriate pair of shoes, a heavy bag and a sense of uncertainty.

After Granada, in the Basque city of Bilbao, I was on my way to the bus to head to the coastal city of San Sebastián. I had already pulled by bag angrily through the cobbled streets, all their ups and downs, and was two blocks away from the station. As I stood waiting at the crosswalk, an old Spanish man walked up to me, speaking earnestly in words I didn’t understand. After a few moments of confusion, he held out the wheel of my suitcase in his hand. I laughed as the light turned green, holding my gift for all the difficulty.

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