The autumn after I graduated high school, I decided to take a semester off and go live in India with my then-boyfriend’s parents. I owned two suitcases: a green carryon and a huge orange roller. My plan, I told my boyfriend, was to take about a week’s worth of clothes in the giant suitcase to wear and wash repeatedly, leaving room to bring back the souvenirs I would surely buy.
“Are you sure that’s enough?” my boyfriend asked. “You’ll be there for three months.” Anxious, I added another week’s worth of clothes. They took up so much space that I decided I should pack my small suitcase inside my big suitcase in order to bring back souvenirs. I also worried that my bag would be over 50 pounds (the allotted weight of a free bag on international flights), though I did get a reprieve when my birthday-gift Kindle arrived in the mail, allowing me to remove a bunch of books I’d packed.
So I lugged my enormous suitcase into the airport in Seattle and dragged it off the belt in Kolkata (Calcutta), more than 30 hours later. My internal clock was messed up, but I didn’t want to sleep yet, so the first thing my hosts did was take me shopping for some Indian clothes. I purchased four beautiful tunics and two pairs of leggings.
I pretty much wore nothing else for the next three months.
See, India is hot. Loose cotton tunics and leggings are significantly more comfortable than form-fitting Western clothes. Additionally, almost no one in Kolkata has a washing machine, preferring to scrub their clothes in the shower and hang them to dry. My laundry never built up; I’d just undress at night, shower, and wash my clothes from the day. Finally, I like to assimilate as quickly as possible and show respect for the customs of whatever country I’m in. The neighborhood delighted in seeing me wear their clothes, eat with my right hand, and start learning Bengali. My American wardrobe had no place there, and it languished in my suitcase.
And people gave me gifts. Oh, did they give me gifts. Statues of Hindu gods, saris, books, jewelry, food…the people in our neighborhood are wonderful and generous. (I ended up with ten saris, having bought only three myself!) I started to stress out about the gifts, though, because my suitcase was already so full of untouched clothing!
In the end, I think I wore about six articles of clothing that I brought from home—and it was only that many because the teenagers I hung out with wanted me to wear an American outfit to one party. The rest was totally unnecessary, thanks to my new tunics and saris. I had great trouble lugging two full suitcases to Bangalore, then back to the U.S. In fact, at the Bangalore airport I had to open both of them up and rearrange things until they fit within the weight limits—I had over 80 pounds of stuff by then, plus the crammed backpack I wore!
It would have been so much easier if I had brought only what I planned to originally—or less. I still would have had more clothes than I needed, but I certainly wouldn’t have needed a second suitcase. I would have been able to gratefully accept the gifts my wonderful neighbors offered me, without a twinge of dread that I would have to figure out how to pack it. I would have been so much more mobile in the airports.
In 2017, my husband and I are going to Greece for two weeks. This time, I’ll be packing in a backpack.