The Jedi & the Fool
After four decades of professional world-wandering, I was a travel Jedi. Every step in the process—pack, check in, fly, arrive, unpack—had become so precisely calculated and intimately familiar that I could do it in my sleep.
Then the pandemic came, grounding me for 24 months. When I finally returned to international travel last November, I learned just how thoroughly two years at home could undo what 40 years had done.
Preparing for my flight to Mexico City, I knew I would be carrying four critical things—my passport, wallet, cell phone, and boarding pass. I also would have my ever-present red bandana-handkerchief and my glasses.
How could I ensure I wouldn’t lose any of these? I devised a breathtakingly simple plan: I would keep one item in each pocket.
I extricated my five-pocket cargo pants from the deep storage where they’d languished since my last flight in November 2019. Then, after much deliberation, I determined my travel formation: passport in the right front cargo pocket, cell phone in the right front pocket, wallet in the left front pocket, boarding pass in the left back pocket, handkerchief in the right back pocket, and glasses in my shirt pocket. Perfect.
At San Francisco International Airport, everything felt unfamiliar, foreign. When the ticket agent asked for my passport, I couldn’t remember which pocket I’d put it in. When I exchanged dollars for pesos, I almost left my passport on the currency exchange counter. As I walked through the terminal, I kept patting my pockets to make sure everything was still there: Passport, check. Wallet, check. Boarding pass, check. Cell phone, check. Glasses, where are my glasses? Ah, on my head.
I felt like a traveling fool.
My foolishness culminated when I got to the TSA security checkpoint. At the baggage check, I laboriously hefted my bags onto the conveyer belt.
“Do you have any electronics in your bags?” the agent asked.
“Oh, yes, my laptop,” I said, fumbling it out of my backpack and into a bin.
The agent looked at my feet. “Your shoes, sir,” he said.
“Right,” I said, with a rueful smile. “I haven’t flown in two years,” I added, hoping to somehow convey, “I’m not normally such a klutz. I used to be a travel Jedi.”
I placed my shoes on the conveyor and began to walk into the scanner.
“Your coat, sir,” the agent said.
“Ah, right,” I said, with a little laugh. Silly me. So forgetful.
I walked into the scanner and raised my hands over my head.
“Do you have anything in your pockets?” agent #2 asked.
“Oh!” I said. “I have a handkerchief in my back pocket.” I reached my right hand into my pocket, grabbed the handkerchief, and raised it, clutched in my hand, over my head.
“Do you have anything else in your pockets?”
“Oh my gosh,” I said. “I still have my wallet.”
I reached my left hand into my left front pocket, took out my wallet, and lifted it over my head.
“OK. Anything else in your pockets?” the agent asked, his voice straining slightly.
“Ack! I’m so sorry! I still have my passport.”
The agent winced as I wrapped my passport inside my handkerchief and lifted them above my head.
“OK,” the agent said, with a little hesitation. “Anything else?”
“Oh my god, this is so embarrassing. I forgot I have my boarding pass!”
The agent sighed and rolled his eyes. I folded the boarding pass inside my wallet and lifted my arms again.
“OK,” he said, hesitating. “Anything else?”
“Oh shoot!” I said, and the agent’s jaw dropped.
“Something else?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
I lifted my cell phone out of my right pocket and squeezed it next to the handkerchief-passport combo in my right hand.
I looked at him with a mixture of pleading and apology. “I used to be a travel Jedi,” I wanted to tell him. “Really. I’m a travel writer. I do this for a living . . . .”
Instead, I had become the Fool I used to silently fume about. I didn’t dare to look at the ever-growing line of people waiting to step into the scanner.
I raised my overflowing hands one last time.
The agent looked at me with a small sigh. OK, I could hear him thinking, we can finally do this.
Then he stopped and peered at me more closely. “Uh, sir, what’s that in your shirt pocket?”
I wanted to disappear, just vanish, leaving my little pile of personal effects behind.
“Sir,” I said, “I don’t know what to say.”
He looked at me with a gimlet eye. “Just tell me you don’t have any more pockets,” he replied.
I nodded and lifted my hands to the sky.
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Do you have a humorous tale about your return to the world of international travel? We’d love to hear it! Please share your experience in the comments section below. Thank you!