Spectator: The art of travelling light

Lucy Baring waves goodbye again.

Tickets money, passport: that’s the pre-travel mantra and one I repeated often last night. Exactly a year to the day after Olive’s departure for six months abroad, Will had the same backpack strapped to his back, the same look of excitement mixed with terror. As did I.

Preparations this time around had been rather different, not least because Will is known in the family for being an efficient man. He noticed that his bank card will expire in two months’ time and suggested we apply for a new one, he suggested setting up a standing order from his savings account to his current account so that if he’s mugged, they can’t take the whole lot. He discovered he needed a yellow fever immunisation certificate. He found the volunteering organisation. He booked his flights and sorted his insurance out. I didn’t even know which countries he was planning to visit in South America until a few hours ago.

I bought him a couple of first-aid items, a travel-sized tube of toothpaste (for the flight) and a guidebook. He made photocopies of his passport and driving licence, his flight itinerary and contact details. We went to the bank, where an unhelpful woman told us that he couldn’t set up a standing order and he couldn’t apply for a new bank card.

Olive told him to take duct tape (for sticking broken zips and ripped clothes together, for attaching mosquito nets), a bar —not a bottle—of shampoo (too late to source this) and a travel adaptor. Zam went to a junk shop and bought him an old-style 35mm film camera, complete with instructions, for £42.

Check-in for his flight would have meant leaving the house at 3am, so it was decided that he and Zam would spend the night in the airport Travelodge. He spent all day putting music on his iPod as we spent it wandering around behind him, trying not to look freaked out. He packed in half an hour, fishing rod in first. He tried on the backpack. We took photos. And then they were off.

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After 20 yards, Zam stopped the car to repeat the mantra one more time: tickets, money, passport. Check. Halfway to Heathrow, Will rang to say that he’d left his beloved iPod behind—was it on the sofa? I said I’d post it, but I had no idea if that would be possible. I asked Zam to ring me as our son went through security. By 5am, I’d had enough of the sleepless night and rang them. They were wondering whether to order Eggs Benedict at the airport cafe. At 6am, the phone rang: ‘I’ve left my yellow fever certificate behind.’ I said I’d photograph it and send that to his phone, reassuring him (although I had no idea) that this would suffice. He was flying to Madrid, where he had 45 minutes to make the connection to Rio. Another hour, another text: ‘Still at Heathrow. Fog.’

I gave up on sleep and looked up countries that require yellow fever certificates. This made me look at the South American continent in some detail and I discovered that, if he goes down the right-hand side and up the left, he may not need the certificate until he reaches Peru and Bolivia. I discover that Brazil’s first human case of West Nile virus was discovered earlier that month, but decide not to add it to my worries. I’ve seen City of God. I’ve seen Romancing the Stone. I’ve got worries enough.

I’m staring at the duct tape and travel adaptor still here on the table when the next call confirms that he’s missed the Rio flight and must stay in Madrid for 24 hours. I wonder whether to fly out with the missing items. Seriously. I forward his text summation to a couple of friends: ‘Left iPod at home, left vaccinations at home, left camera at Heathrow, flight from England delayed, missed flight to Rio, in Madrid for 24 hours, am having lunch with new-found friends. Great start.’

The response to this is unexpected and unanimous: ‘Oh My God. He left his IPOD behind.’