Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Underpants

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published May 17, 2012] © 2012

With the summer travel season upon us, a person’s thoughts just naturally turn to…underwear.

 My many friends who travel a lot have been lamenting for some time that they just can’t seem to resolve the underwear problem, especially if they’re going to be staying at a different place every night.  You wash out your dainties but depending on the climate, they never quite dry before you have to pack them up and move on.  My friend Gina says she toured Scotland and Ireland for seventeen days with a plastic baggie of clean but soggy unmentionables that were never truly dry until she got home and put them in her dryer. 

 The nightly washing ritual has a number of other downsides, not the least of which is having one’s undies draped all over one’s hotel bath, particularly if you’re staying in the $1,000 a night Scottish castle-cum-golf resort.  It just looks so, well, low class.  And might explain why those Scots don’t wear anything under their kilts.  They could just never get it to dry in that damp climate either.

 The main issue, of course, is that underwear just takes up so much room in your suitcase.  Room you’d rather have for souvenirs.  So several of my friends, including Gina, have been test driving other solutions including disposable underwear specifically meant for traveling.  Wear it once and toss it. 

Apparently, it is much more comfortable than one might imagine for cheap underwear, and thus begs the question as to why one would ever buy expensive underwear if the cheap disposable stuff is just as comfy.  But ours is not to reason why.  Another friend says that she has tried saving up all her old ratty underwear to bring with her to just throw away each night.  Yet another says she hits up the Dollar Store and buys a three-pack for $1.00.

 But here’s the problem:  while the plan is excellent, the execution has turned out to be less so.  At the moment of truth, they can’t quite bear to throw perfectly good underwear away.  Or even serviceable if elastically-challenged lingerie.  It just seems so wasteful. 

 The ratty underwear solution is even more problematic.  You’ve left a nice tip for the maid at the pricey French chateau so do you really want her to find your shabby dainties in the trash?  One can almost hear her mumbling under her breath, Merci, mais il vaut mieux peut-etre que vous gardiez votre argent pour vous offrir du linge moins fatigués.  (“Thanks, but maybe you should keep the money and buy yourself some new underwear.”)   The French can be so sarcastic.

 On a more fundamental basis, wearing ratty underwear also goes against everything that is holey, er holy.  Didn’t your mother always exhort you to wear good underwear in case you were in an accident?  Do you really want to end up in the Cap Ferrat Urgent Care in tattered u-trou?

Yet another friend says she is planning to solve the problem by buying the super-lightweight travel underwear that is guaranteed to dry within hours even in Indian monsoons.  The problem is, it is seriously expensive:  $20-$30 a pair, with men’s T-shirts running nearly $40.  Of course, if it truly dries that fast, you wouldn’t need very many pairs.  But if that monsoon thing was a bit of advertising hyperbole, you could be spending your trip feeling like a human terrarium. 

Stories of depending on a hotel laundry service are legion and usually involve sagas of a three week trip with one’s clean underwear doggedly following two days behind.  My husband, who travels a lot on business, knows well the perils of depending on a hotel laundry, especially in out-of-the-way places.  Olof tells the story of traveling to Indonesia and after a certain period of time, needing to get his laundry done.  His underwear had obviously enjoyed the pampered life of a U.S. washing machine but when he got it back from his Yogyakarta hotel, it was clear that it had undergone a far more vigorous manner of washing.  Best case, it had been beaten with rocks.  More likely, it had been subjected to a local cleansing method involving stampeding water buffalo.  Suffice to say, it was full of holes.  On the rest of his travels in Asia, he didn’t dare send his underwear out again, not only out of the sheer embarrassment that a “rich American” would have such shredded skivvies, but his wholehearted conviction that it would never survive a second experience.

 Weighing all the options, there’s really only one obvious conclusion.   If you really want to travel light, you’re just going to have to go commando.

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