THE AMERICAN TOURISTER BAG
It was a wonderful bag, really, my friend lent it to me just before my trip out of the country. It had a sturdy strap to sling over my shoulder, three separate spacious compartments which could be opened and closed with zippers, and four additional pockets along the outside that could be sealed with Velcro. It was light so that its own weight was never a factor, but durable enough to fill with a heavy load if desired: I was sure to pick up some books along the way. I do love foreign books, even if I can only half understand them: they seem like gateways to another world, and I always imagine that I will buckle down and study the language they are written in in earnest one day. The bag was splendid, I could bring along my medicines, an extra change of clothes, maps, a water bottle, and still have room for the books.
But there was one major problem with the bag: the label. Of course, it signified a trusted manufacturer of quality products: American Tourister. But in the country I was planning to visit I wondered how the people would take it. We have such an awful reputation abroad: the ugly American, dressed in garish shirts and shorts like a boy, laughing at local customs, flashing money everywhere and trying to buy the whole world as if it were a whore; crude, crass, superficial, without culture or class, shamelessly vacationing in countries shackled to his empire.
Of course, I knew there were a lot of people where I was going who loved Americans and wanted to be just like them, but that wasn’t the point. There were also nationalist intellectuals who despised us, and many locals who resented what they thought was the luxurious and decadent life of American tourists. While they worked hard and sweated underneath the hot sun to eke out a bare living, we drank and joked underneath umbrellas in sidewalk cafes. While they slept in the dark, wondering if they could pay next month’s rent, we danced all night, and our music kept them awake. How awful for a man such as I, a sensitive and politically aware progressive, to be mistaken for a member of the tourist class! I was not a tourist, as were the others, I was an explorer of cultures; I was not an American as were the others, I was a citizen of the world. I just couldn’t go there carrying my American Tourister bag, no matter how well-made it was! No matter how convenient! I could not carry it like a flag of shame, or a red cape, into a land which did not know me, but which might give me a chance if it did not discover who I was.
Not to disappoint my generous friend, I did not tell him that I had decided to leave the bag behind, in my closet, when it came time to board the airplane for my great adventure. Nor did I tell him that my decision not to use the bag did not eliminate my need to have some bag, and so on the last weekend before I left, I went to the fashionable store uptown which never lacks in things to buy and spent several hours shopping for a comparable bag which would equal the American Tourister in convenience, but avoid the social gaffe of broadcasting who I was, and triggering the resentment of the people I wished to blend in with, like one fish in a school, swimming among reefs of coral in the jewel-like sea.
The store had three wide aisles filled with all shapes and sizes of suitcases and bags: hard-shelled ones like exoskeletons for one’s possessions, soft ones which would freely bulge when filled, like the stomach of a python; pieces made of wicker; pieces made of nylon, and of leather. The whole place smelled of leather, which was the strongest odor, just as ours is the strongest country.
After a while, rejecting one bag for its lack of room inside, another for its ostentatious design, another for its loud colors, another because it was not as good as the one I finally chose, I walked up to the cash register with a sturdy, simple bag, somewhat less spacious and somewhat heavier than the Tourister bag, but happily lacking in any labeling, except for an inconspicuous "PT" in one corner, the initials of some up-and-coming Italian designer.
The price on the bag was upsetting, especially for a person of my disposition, whose life priorities are centered on study and art, and not on engorging my bank account. But I could not get by without a bag, and felt that my liberation from the American Tourister bag was an imperative, no matter what the cost.
And then, after the expected hectic night before of packing, rethinking, and repacking, I was off on my adventure, a streamlined traveler and friend of the world. The huge jet which bore me to my destination with its roaring engines seemed out-of-place given my sensibilities, but there was no lighter way to fly through the skies, God had not granted me the favor to be born an albatross.
What a thrill it was to finally see the lights of a city that spoke another language, to see the map that I had looked at in books come to life with buildings rising up to greet our eager faces, pressed against the windows of the plane. The runway stretched out its arms to give us a fraternal hug, and then, after our passports were duly stamped, it was into the taxicabs, and then on to the hotels. I, myself, went to a budget hotel located in a more popular neighborhood, so that I would be less of a stranger – because, in a foreign land, if you feel completely at home, as you do in the great international hotels, you are what you think you are not. When you do not feel like a stranger in a foreign country, you ARE a stranger.
I definitely made the right choice, and I must say that my stay in the country I had decided to visit was highly stimulating and worthwhile. It broadened my horizons and made me, for the first time in my life, I believe, truly cosmopolitan.
However, I must confess that there was one little incident which disturbed me then, and which continues to disturb me now. It was nothing major, nothing spectacular or dramatic, nothing you could make a movie about, or even write a travel article about. It was not shocking like a hurricane, or dangerous like a storm; it was more like cutting yourself on a thorn and getting an infected finger and having to get a shot of penicillin and wear a bandage over your hand. It wasn’t agonizing, but it was discomfiting, and even today, whenever I think of it, I can’t help but feel some kind of irritation, some kind of anger about something in them or something in me, or something that is not between us, like a missing bridge over a river. I am not exactly sure what it’s all about, and that is certainly a part of the irritation…
One day, as I was taking the back way from the Cathedral, which is an impressive architectural structure, to the ruins, which are only about 2 kilometers away, I happened to stumble into a neighborhood that was very poor, even by the standards of the country I had come to visit. I wasn’t in any way frightened, because it happened in broad daylight, and somehow, when the sun is out, it does not seem like anything can go wrong. The light acts as a shield, defending the heart from nightmares, and the mind from reason. Although there was poverty here, there was not open rage; centuries of being poor were in these people’s blood and they preferred to stretch their empty hands out to the conqueror for charity rather than to raise their hands, clutching weapons, against him; after all they had learned from history, they now sought alms, not justice. They were a people afraid of heights, content to stay low. Never again would they try to climb the ladder God had given to them. And so, they did not threaten me, but gathered around me with polite and submissive gestures of need, begging me for a few coins, entreating me, asking me for help, I could tell, though I did not understand the words they said.
I can’t deny that I felt compassion for them, but after I had spread a few coins about to help undo the crimes of others, I felt overwhelmed by their enormous need, which I could not satisfy. More of them kept coming, it was as if one act of generosity had burst the dam behind which these people hide, and the streets were suddenly filling, becoming flooded with the hungry and the destitute, shadows of other people’s victories.
I was attune to all this, but still, it was more than I could deal with. I had to get away! I could not right history by myself. I lowered my head, like a charging bull, and looked at the ground so that I did not have to look at them. With tightened face, and rapid strides, I pushed through them and past them, hurrying towards the ruins in the distance, which were where the rich gathered to marvel at the glory which no longer threatened them.
"Mister! Mister!" a woman, with numerous children clinging to her skirt, called after me in her own language. But I flew past them, like a hat blown off of a head by a sharp gust of wind – and I kept on blowing down the street. "Mister! Mister!" she called again. "Please!" And she said something about "food."
But I had no money to pay them. I was traveling on modest means; anything I could have given them I had already spent in the store so that I would not have to come to their country with the American Tourister bag.
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