WINDHOEK. This is me carrying my backpack down Nelson Mandela Avenue, the dusty main road I walk along to work every morning. In yesterday’s post I linked to a guy who was coming up with smaller and smaller mobile reporting kits - he’s looking for the perfect “no-bag” solution, worrying over cargo pants and jacket pockets, posting galleries with his “body bag,” concerned people won’t take him seriously with such little equipment, and - I know the feeling. When it comes to me and my backpack, I feel like a guy in a stable, long-term marriage who just can’t shake the sense there might be something better out there.
I bought this pack when I was living in Singapore in 2006, and we’ve been inseparable. It’s a beast: A laptop and double-big A3 sketchpad slip inside perfectly, and even though I always cram it way beyond carry-on size when I fly, only one airline ever has thought to call me on it - and it still somehow jams in under the seats. I love that on buses in Brazil, the etiquette isn’t for people to offer you their seat, but to take your bag on their lap (though mostly I’d shyly decline, because my bag stank with the sweat of a half-dozen countries combined), and I love that a homeless man I knew in Salvador showed me how to look like less of a target with it, by slinging it streetwise under one shoulder.
But my eye still wanders. When I haul this enormous ratty thing into government meetings with my laptop and camera inside, it must make me look like a kid, a joke - a tourist. Backpacks are universal shorthand for dilettante travellers. In Brazil it makes me a mochileiro (“backpacker”), in Vietnam a Tây ba lô (“backpack Westerner”): People everywhere know exactly what it means. To feel better about myself I make furtive notes of every local I see wearing any kind of backpack too. Girlfriends make gentle suggestions that maybe I should get a nice case or a messenger bag, like a man with an actual job. I want to protest that I’m not a backpacker, happy just to pass though - I’m a lifehacker, trying to make a new life in a new place, for good. But then you take one look at my back, and there’s a pack on it, and it gives me the lie.
So, I have been tempted by other bags. On my way out of the office on August 8, I noticed an empty laptop bag on top of a filing cabinet and slipped my computer inside that instead. Be a man. My life immediately turned awful. I’ve never been accosted by so many beggars - outlandishly pathetic young boys, violently aggressive young men - as the one night and one morning I spent cheating with that laptop bag. If a backpack on both shoulders makes me a mark, it’s nothing compared to advertising you have a $1,000 computer dangling from your arm.
The main zipper on my pack is finally busted after years of overstuffing it during my travels, with pounds of books and gym gear at university, so I do need to think about some sort of replacement. But there’s no way I’ll get anything but another adolescent, gringo schoolbag, now - for better or for worse.