Lists: they are a constant on paper, but then fester in in the folds of the mind from the moment you choose to leave. You begin to fall asleep to them, checking or unchecking, adding or subtracting with each toss and turn. Things to pack, things to do, things to get done before leaving, things to carry on the plane, things to do on the plane, things to do when you get there, things to research, and on and on ad nauseum. Inevitably, though we put much faith in them, though they are the first thing we pack with us, lists are the first thing to leave you when you go. You can look at the stupid lists you made after a trip is complete and laugh because what you actually ended up doing or taking was infinitely better than you could have imagined, but you still make them anyway.
Out of the fifteen things I packed and planned (in a list, of course) to do on the plane, I mainly do the three basics: eat, read and sleep. Out of the three, I only truly enjoy one due to the diminishing quality of in-flight airline food and proximity to the bathroom’s main traffic area making it difficult to get more than a five minute nap without an accidental bump or shuffle from those waiting in the queue. I find that in the absence of anything at all else to do, you can read anything and be truly interested. If you’re an anxious flyer, this is doubly true. So I read the airline safety card (realizing now why they ask several times if you’re capable of sitting in the emergency exit seat), the travel guidebook in its entirety, young adult fiction trilogies I won’t admit to having read, SkyMall Magazine one and a half times, and cards given to us on our wedding day a time or two.
We arrive, in a way, both faster and slower than I imagined we would. I realize quickly that I will be gone a long time and have only one suitcase, one backpack and one portfolio (which I begged the flight attendant on each flight to guard with his/her life and then watched as they handled it until I was sure it would be safe). I am not scared. I’ve traveled with little many times. By now, I know that the things you pack are not the things you keep.
The things you keep are not the clothes, toiletries and electronics stowed away in bulging duffel bags and bloated leather suitcases. However, I will admit that a unique and particular appreciation for the things you did end up taking out does come to pass. By the end of a trip, I can name every outfit and every item I packed because for once, I’m using my possessions with regularity because I don’t have much and that’s a welcome change. I begin to hate and cherish that one shirt with the stripes or the few practical pairs of shoes I’ve worn out on walking tours. Finally, I begin to unpack and set up your things the way I like (even if I only spend a night or two in a hotel room) because routines like this can make any place feel like it’s yours. It doesn’t matter anyway, I could pack my bag with eyes closed and in ten minutes flat at this point with a practiced hand having packed and unpacked again and again.
No, the things you keep are different. Not so cliche as to say, “It’s the memories you keep!” because in fact, memories are stories you share upon arrival, they’re not yours alone and they’re easy to recall. The things you keep are more subtle and hard to define. You can’t always point your finger on exactly what it is you kept in each place you’ve been but they’re there. They’re the maps you’ve worn creases into and dotted with tiny little pen marks barely indicating your presence here or there at one point or another, the paper napkins or menus from restaurants you had the best “this” or the best “that at, the photographs you took that actually have you in it at some place amazing doing something amazing, the one picture you took that could very well be in a magazine, the phrases you pick up: please, thank you, how much?, numbers and hellos and goodbyes in a language you would otherwise never know, the journal entries you couldn’t go to sleep without writing because you wanted to remember what was said or done that day, the sounds and sights you actually hear and see because you’re not checking your phone every five minutes, and the experiences of drinking the best glass of wine, eating the most amazing hummus you’ve ever had or seeing the most surprising or amazing sight you’ve ever seen.
You know what you’ve kept when you leave and all of a sudden a time of day, a particular rainstorm, the smell of a freshly lit cigarette in the morning, a cappuccino that’s actually made well, the spicy smell of decomposing leaves on the ground, a song you heard in a taxi or bus going somewhere special, the smell of salt mingling with fried food on the beach or a certain shade of sky or clouds bring you back there. It doesn’t take much, but you’re there. You try to tell the people around you, “HEY! I’m back there! I’m in that amazing, spectacular dreamworld that is the places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen!!” but they weren’t there, so how could they understand? You can’t properly articulate a moment, a shadow of a feeling or a smell that brings a memory so clear you could taste it. It’s personal, it’s yours, you’ve bought it with your soul simply by being there and kept it.
Last night after a few weeks here feeling it out, it begins to feel familiar, easier to digest which also means, unfortunately, easier to take for granted. As it stands, we can turn back towards the air conditioned room after our last happy hour drink or we can walk instead to the shore. We almost miss it because a full belly paired with hot air and exhaustion tends to pull one towards comfort and coolness, but something magical happens: when you’re married and you’re honeymooning- the person you decided to spend your whole eternity with wants to do the same exact thing you want to at the same exact moment (or rather pretends to for your sake because they love you that much).
So we turn right at the “pink hearts.” It’s a sign we’ve used as a landmark, though we have no clue as to the actual reason for it’s existence other than to tell us where to find the crosswalk to the beach promenade. The sun sets slow and turquoise waters veined white with foam roil over man-made rock walls set deep in the ocean. For a moment I think it’s only one or two chance waves crashing over, but again and again the waters crash right over the rocks intended expressly to block them day to day.
Steamy and salty, the ocean breathes her lusty breath smelling of living things and dying things onto us. A rare cloud covers the sun for a moment and something inside of us is moved. A heavy shift of other things to make room for something new. For me, it is a remembrance of so many moments spent alone at the shore analyzing the many different aquamarine shades of the many different types of churning breakers and an appreciation that this time, I am not alone and this is good. For him, I don’t know, perhaps it’s the spark of a lifelong appreciation for the ocean I’ve loved for so long. Or maybe, hopefully, we’ll go back there someday together wherever we are, because it is a moment he is packing away for us to keep.