Polly Wants a Porter

Whenever I start out on a trip, there comes to mind the picture of a skinny, embarrassed teenager carrying a birdcage covered with a towel through the cavernous train station in Buffalo. It was my chore to take the birdcage every time my siblings, my mother and I went off on vacation to my uncle's farm.

That there would always be the equivalent of a birdcage in my travels was something I discovered on my honeymoon. In his suitcase my husband, an amateur ornithologist, had packed two pairs of binoculars, a camera, endless film, guidebooks, notebooks, flashlights, batteries. Not many more trips passed before my vanity case was commandeered for extra lenses and camera supplies, and a wardrobe suitcase, left over from train travel, to hold a telescope.

Since the haunts we visited were all in the countryside or on beaches, our trips were great for children. Soon our young son, Alan, and daughter, Tenney, were traveling with us. The children added extra gear: stuffed animals, two more snorkels, flippers, masks and water-ski belts. For traveling, the belts were tied around the outside of the suitcase that held the telescope, making that piece of luggage look like an accident victim.

Alan soon became a butterfly-and-beetle expert, and his hobby required nets, more guidebooks, specimen boxes and a black light used for night-flying insects. In East Africa, we also carried a bait can to attract butterflies — with bait made up of overripe bananas, beer and dung, which "improved" with age. Tenney's travel gear was relatively simple. One notebook listed the animals we saw on daily safaris. Another listed the number of individual species spotted in any one destination. Still another contained extraneous animal records — the names of all the paintings with dogs in them at the National Museum of Fine Art in Oslo, for instance.

That all our gear would exceed the baggage allowance was a fact calmly accepted by my husband. "Just the cost of traveling," he would say.

Having learned over time to travel with this cavalier attitude, I was quite astonished to find that most people we knew regarded the baggage allowance as something sacrosanct. During an island stop on an Indian Ocean cruise, I purchased a souvenir for a fellow passenger who at the last minute had decided to stay aboard that day. When I presented the woman with an envelope holding a single dried vanilla pod, she politely shook her head. "No thank you," she said. "My baggage is already overweight."

After returning from a trip to Saint Vincent in the Caribbean one winter, my husband and I attended a dinner of the Linnean Society at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Before we were seated, I spotted a woman who had stayed at the same island hotel as we and who had helped us load our baggage into the taxi for the ride to the airport. As I approached my friend and the group of people she was talking to, I heard our name mentioned. "Have you ever seen the way the Mudges travel?" she said. The horror in her voice made me stop in my tracks. Suddenly, despite a certain savoir faire acquired through age, experience and much globe-trotting, I was right back in that Buffalo train station, sheepishly carrying a birdcage covered with a towel.

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