Photograph by Brendan Ó Sé
From the June/July 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Twelve years later, the memory of that day in Miami remains with me, tender as an old wound. Sometimes I enter a hotel room, and it sneaks up and surprises me, like the sudden stab of pain when a massage therapist digs in too deep. First comes the shock of the broken door lock, the empty closet. Followed by the aches of longing: For the pink cotton dress I bargained like crazy to buy in Ubud, its batik soft as velvet after dozens of hand washings; the clunky, well-worn sandals, entrusted to the shoe minders at so many Indian Hindu temples; my passport, with its two page inserts stamped and scribbled on by eight years of globe-trotting.
Lost, all of it, forever.
Looking back now, I see I did all the things a smart traveler isn’t supposed to do. My traveler’s radar was off because I wasn’t, by my definition, traveling. This was a weekend in Florida, not three weeks in Florence. I was surrounded by old friends; I was practically home. Any remaining trace of caution I threw into the Windex-blue sea and the warm Miami winds that stirred the dry palm trees and tickled the hair on my arms.
As I said, I’d dropped my guard. I hadn’t registered the flimsy lock on my door, or other warning signs that would have, in a more foreign locale, made me wary—neglected, mildew-stained walls, spotted carpets bubbling up in the halls. The two policemen who took my theft report shrugged. This hotel had just been sold, they told me, and the staff cut back. Perhaps there were disgruntled ex-employees. Or ones who felt they had nothing to lose by looking the other way. In any case, by gathering my things so I could make a fast getaway, I’d made one easy for the thief, too.
It wasn’t the first time I’d had things I cared about taken from me. I’ve lived in New York City for years and been burgled, had my wallet lifted from my bag, and had my purse snatched twice. Yet nothing compares to the punched-in-the-gut feeling that overwhelmed me in that hotel room: It was all gone. Everything.
The “everything” I lost that morning, amounted to, exactly, one carry-on bag filled with clothes, a pair of shoes, my passport, and a computer. If somebody had robbed these things from my home, I probably would have been relieved that it wasn’t worse. But when we travel, the scale of things shifts. We’re no longer the center of gravity in our small, cozy universe; instead we float without tether in a vast, unfamiliar one. We may travel light, but the things we carry become heavier, infused with the emotional heft of who we are and where we come from. Our possessions become home. I don’t think of myself as a materialist, but the exaggerated importance I invest in my stuff when I’m on the road can be embarrassing. Once, I kept a group of people on a Havana tour waiting 15 minutes in the bus while I frantically ran back up to the hotel room to retrieve the ratty, damp swimsuit I’d forgotten on the hook behind the bathroom door.
One summer, I had to fly from New York to Kolkata on a day when airport security at JFK had ramped up so high that passengers weren’t allowed to carry anything with them on the plane except what could fit into a small plastic bag; everything else had to be checked in. “Now the worst thing that can happen,” I quipped to a fellow passenger, “is that the airline loses all our luggage.” Somewhere between New York and the stopover in Heathrow, it did. Eight thousand miles and 28 hours later, this bedraggled traveler staggered into the lobby of Kolkata’s Oberoi Grand Hotel like a prisoner just released from lockup, with nothing but the clothes on my back and a Ziploc bag containing my passport, wallet, and toothbrush.
You’re probably thinking this story will end with a sudden epiphany—om shanti!—about the unimportance of material things and the liberation that traveling unencumbered by possessions brings. But no. What happened is this: I had the concierge summon a tailor while I ran around to the bazaar and bought armloads of exquisitely hand-printed Indian cotton fabrics and shawls, along with sundries, new leather sandals, costume jewelry, and a fat duffel bag in which to lug all of my newly acquired material goods. Thus reencumbered, I carried on with my travels through East India.
By the time the airline phoned, ten days later, and told me it had found my luggage, I had almost forgotten I’d lost it. It surprised me a lot that I rebounded so quickly. Like gas filling a balloon, all the items I collected in Kolkata expanded to fill my empty traveler’s bag, and heart. That’s when it hit me: The ache I feel for things that have gone missing while traveling isn’t completely about the things themselves. Lurking within that pain is a darker shadow of sadness, the realization that eventually life’s losses will amount to far more than Balinese summer dresses and beloved clunky sandals.
The anguish of losing something small when we travel makes us tougher, better able to handle the next unexpected loss down the road. I still feel a sore spot in my soul when I think of that long-gone passport with the amazing visas. Still, I am grateful to that Miami thief, and to travel, for the rehearsals.