Asian Conversations - an online magazine to explore Asia's future

Gorillas in the mist
mean bags of trouble

So how tough are your travel bags? And do you really want to be chased by designer-crazy elephants and apes?

January 2011

How tough is your stuff, unloaded bags and suitcases at El Nido's dusty island landing strip

How tough is your stuff? Luggage queued up at El Nido's delightful island airport in the Philippines. Mark it FRAGILE but good luck. - Photo: Vijay Verghese, DWM

I ONCE SAW an advertisement featuring an elephant stomping on a suitcase. It made a huge impression. Not the elephant. Its happy trampoline romp left nary a dent on the case. I was so impressed I couldn’t get the sight out of my mind. In many ways it was similar to the ad that showed a Volvo car being winched several metres off the ground, turned upside down, and then dropped with a resounding crunch. The car, of course, was always unscathed. No one questioned this routine though it appeared an odd way to drive a luxury car.

Despite the compelling logic of strapping myself into a machine and falling, screaming, upside down, from a huge height every day, I wondered whether Volvos could actually be put to mundane chores like driving the kids to school, getting to the office, or running over the mother-in-law. Ads with gorillas trashing suitcases make an interesting point – about safety. Clearly, if you own a Samsonite it is unsafe to wander near elephants or gorillas, especially those that have seen the commercials and happen to be in a playful mood.

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese

Wearing my dad's old shoes brought tears to my eyes. Just standing up in them, leave alone playing football, made me cry out louder than a Chinese woman with bound feet

Less well understood is the fact that Samsonite bags are durable and tough. Like a Jokkmokk or Lycklig – from IKEA – stress tested over 10,000 times and waiting to fall apart in your home after all that pummelling. “Unbreakable” was a Samsonite catchword well before M Night Shyamalan.

For baby boomers brought up on thrift and stretch, durability was a guiding principle. We picked up things that would last. This applied to everything except girlfriends. When I was a kid my father always bought me shoes three sizes bigger to “grow into”. This had an upside. With shoes that size, no one kicked sand in my face. I never made it to the beach and it was an achievement getting to the front door without tripping.

When I went to boarding school I departed proudly carrying my dad’s very own wizened crud-hardened football shoes with a permanent curl, just the way they’d been packed over 20 years before. Wearing my dad’s old shoes brought tears to my eyes. Just standing up in them made me cry out louder than a Chinese woman with bound feet. It seems odd in this age of obsolescence but, back then, cars, bags, shoes, books, wives and underwear simply chugged on and on and on…

Thus it was when my travels became ever more frenetic I strode to the nearest Samsonite dealer in Hong Kong to buy myself an indestructible bag. Something a herd of elephants could rampage across without ruffling my titanium PowerBook. “I want something unbreakable,” I said to the sales lady. She laughed, puzzled, and shook her head. “Unbreakable,” I said again, pronouncing each syllable with clear operatic inflection. “Sorry, you s-peak s-lowly.” Somewhere between an hour and an eternity I managed to convey my needs without leaping on the display and walked out the proud owner of a practically indestructible contraption with elegant rounded lines, a combination lock and shimmering denier nylon.

There’s nothing quite like the secret thrill of traveller apartheid as your “priority” baggage appears majestically on cue on the turnstile as various deadbeats from earlier flights mope and whine wondering if their stuff has got lost in transit

Shortly after, bag packed to the gills, I set out to discover Asia and my inner child. I have to say, there’s nothing quite like the secret thrill of traveller apartheid as your “priority” baggage appears majestically on cue on the turnstile while, at the other end, various deadbeats from earlier flights mope about wondering if their stuff has got lost in transit. And there she was. Or should I say “he”. Tough, rugged, masculine, with just a hint of supple, steroid, bulge. He was sleek and powerful, and the lock was broken – not forced, but broken. By the time I reached my hotel, the zipper had come apart and my Samsonite had split amoeba-like into two distinct entities – the upper half of the case, and the shamlessly unattached lower half. I marvelled at this and reread the manual. It was some obscure but astonishing feature of design, surely. But Samsonite was a goner.

Paeans have been written about the relationship between bags and their masters. Timbuk2, a San Francisco toughie describes it thus: “We see fierce, emotional attachments form between Timbuk2 customers and their bags all the time.” There is a bond alright. And the best kind is the one that keeps the bag together, in one piece.

Australian Crumpler bags are “almost indestructible” and come in many offbeat colours and shapes almost as Quixotic as their appealingly oddball website humour. My brother reports the canvas messenger bag I gave him years ago is soldiering on. I have meanwhile smashed my way through at least three Samsonites and my new Targus laptop case is about to end its brief career. Indestructible. I shall thoroughly test my next bag before purchase. Unfortunately there are no elephants in Hong Kong. Perhaps I should drop a Volvo on it.

Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines and when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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