Americans are not a patient people.
Amazon is piloting a two-hour delivery period in San Francisco and New York–a stop-gap measure until its drones are approved for faster delivery. Then there’s one of my most dreaded tasks back home: standing in a line that barely crawls at the U.S. Post Office, while customers mutter profanities and I inevitably (and embarrassingly) hear echoing in my head, It’s like a developing country in here. You don’t find us Americans willing to wait countless eons, trudging through innumerable lifetimes to achieve enlightenment. And you won’t find us, after waiting all this time, under a Bodhi tree, ready to sit still for as long as it takes.
So when our family finally arrived in Bangkok Tuesday night, bleary-eyed and disoriented, nearly twenty-four hours after leaving home, it wasn’t easy watching everyone else’s bags snaking their way along the conveyor belt. When the belt finally stopped, the message “Last Bag” pulsed ominously overhead. Not one of our bags had made it to Thailand.The man at Thai Airways baggage service smiled graciously, as Thais tend to do. Our bags hadn’t quite made the connection from Beijing, he explained, but we could rest assured that they’d be on the next flight to Bangkok and would be delivered to our guest house before we even awoke. Easy peasy.
To clarify, for the duration of this eight-month trip, we four are backpackers. Before departing, each of us loaded our possessions into a single bag–a fancy rip-stop hybrid that packs as well as it wheels. The bags don’t hold much, and it took weeks of planning to pare down to the very bare essentials that we wouldn’t be able to live without this year.
We reached the hotel and crashed in our little beds, then woke at 8 am, eager to pick up our belongings. But when we checked at the front desk, still no bags.
I consider myself a jedi master of logistical planning. The bags we chose could cover any conceivable terrain, handle any imaginable scenario. But suddenly we had no essentials at all. As the day wore on and the bags still failed to materialize, nerves in some corners of the family began to fray. This was only the first stop–there were ten countries and eight months to go, and we had nothing.
Late in the day, we reached Thai Airways by phone.
“Sir, I am happy to tell you that your bags have been found. Both bags will be delivered tomorrow.” I paused to process this. “But we had three bags.” “Sir, I am sharing good news. You see, before you had three missing bags. Now only one is missing.” That bag turned out to be mine.
The next couple of days were likely as emotionally challenging for the poor customer service agents at Thai Airways as they were for us. The boys were amazed that I didn’t start yelling during any of my bi-hourly phone calls. They know me well. The thing is, Southeast Asia is different–you don’t get anywhere by yelling. You don’t get anywhere by losing your patience.
“But all of our medications are in that bag, and our electronics cables, and every article of clothing that I need for eight months.” “I’m so sorry, sir,” said the supervisor to whom I’d escalated our case. “Beijing loses thousands of bags each day. But I have a good feeling that your bag will still be found one day.” This was not terribly reassuring.
Five days later and still nothing. The bag could have made the trip by foot by now. But something had started to happen without my realizing it: I stopped being concerned. We were doing just fine. We were healthy, and happy, and sharing the adventure of our lives together. All without any of the essential stuff that had been lost. My calls to Thai Airways became largely ceremonial. I bought a pair of shorts at the local market, and a couple t-shirts, and a single pair of underwear that I later became convinced was designed for Thai women. There was nothing that I needed to haul around with me. There was nothing left to be worried about losing, and a lightness settled in that I hadn’t expected.
Saturday morning, shortly before we were to leave Bangkok for the island of Ko Samet, I made my ritual stop at the front desk of the guest house. This time, rather than express his regret, the sweet Thai gentleman who worked there cocked his head, ducked under the counter and came up with a huge smile..and my bag. “Five days!” he said. “You very patient man.”
It took some time to register. I hadn’t expected to see the bag again. And now I didn’t rush to open it. Instead, I sat down for breakfast with Emily and the boys at our little guest house, where golden spires peeked over the roofs of massage parlors and late-night bars, and a million temple bells chimed in the morning breeze. Papaya and pineapple, buffalo yogurt, fried egg noodles, and hot tea. The start of another day in Thailand. I thought about what we mean by “essentials” and what it really means to need. And how we attach ourselves to our possessions as if they’re a physical extension of us, as if our lives literally depend on them. And I thought about how much more I can do without.