Tales of unexpected meetings

Coincidences are a part of travel. Today we are so mobile that there's a good chance we will bump into our neighbours while scaling Ayers Rock or trekking the Inca Trail. While travelling through the turbulent landscapes of Mexico's Copper Canyon, I bumped into John and Rachel, who live six doors down from me at home.

Some time earlier, my delight at encountering Jim as I boarded a plane at Manchester airport was tempered by the fact that I was, to my shame, travelling on a ticket in the name of another friend, Lawrence. On this current trip, I have not been impersonating anyone - and the number of chance encounters on my voyage is spookily high.

At Heathrow, the official who checked my passport told me we shared a birthday (though he looked in better condition for his, sorry our age). On the flight to Miami, I was asked to move so that a family could sit together and found myself adjacent to a close friend's nephew. And on the beach, I bumped into a travel agent who, 12 years ago, had sold me a flight ticket. Oddly, we could both remember the routing (Heathrow-Sofia-Larnaca return), the airline (Balkan Bulgarian) and the fare (£249).

Strangest of all, at one of those Latin American frontier posts where everything moves so slowly that you wonder if you have strayed into a region of suspended animation, I met Mr Nomad.

Mr Nomad's real name is Paul Goodyer. He gets his nickname not from his global perambulations, but because he is the founder of the Nomad chain of travel medicine and equipment stores.

After the initial pleasantries, the conversation turned to baggage. Whenever he goes anywhere he tests out new equipment, and Paul told me that we will all soon be wheelie-packers.

Originally the world had two types of luggage. At one extreme were devices that were not meant to be carried more than a few paces, at least not by their owners - the trunks beloved of Grand Tourists. They began as one up from the tea-chest, but evolved into the modern suitcase - a sleeker but still solid box. Unfortunately, most travellers still need a porter to carry them.

The other extreme is the backpack, the design of which has a couple of fundamental flaws for 21st-century travellers: retrieving that missing sock from the bottom usually involves evicting the contents first; and the multiplicity of straps inevitably tangle with airport baggage systems.

There is one other consideration, according to Mr Goodyer - cost. After spending a couple of hundred pounds on a pack, he says, people want to use them for shorter journeys. As a result, a combined backpack and suitcase was developed. It opened like a suitcase, the straps could be zipped safely away, and you could get away with walking into the Crillon or the Gritti Palace without disparaging looks. Apparently: "You don't want to look like a backpacker when you go to Paris or Milan."

Meanwhile, in Suitcaseland, the problem of handling solid lumps of luggage was solved by the addition of a pair of wheels and an extendable handle. Soon half the travelling world was doing a convincing impression of cabin crew en route to the departure gate. Which is fine, until you want to climb a mountain - or a flight of stairs.

As the immigration officials prepared to give us the third degree, Mr Nomad explained that the frontier between suitcase and backpacks has been torn down - thanks to the wheelie-pack. This is a backpack that thinks it's a suitcase and has sprouted a pair of wheels. They are rolling out of Nomad stores as fast as the proprietor can procure them.

The best is an Eagle Creek device that sells for around £250. Many of his customers are travellers who, 20 years ago, would have been happy with an army-surplus rucksack, but who now want something sleeker.

The customs men are showing an unhealthy interest in his backpack, but so far they have detected no wheels. Is he planning to switch to a wheelie-pack? "Maybe when I'm 80," says the 48-year-old Mr Nomad.

LOST IN TRANSLATION...

Perfect information: this is what today's travellers enjoy. The internet allows us to find ferries, flights or trains anywhere in the world, and to read about other travellers' tales in their weblogs. Thanks to the miracle of computer translation, you don't even need to speak the same language.

My colleague, Mike McCarthy, tracked down this tale of a German party that flew on British Airways via Heathrow to South Africa, as translated by Google.

"Fast give up to luggage off, with all by the luggage and passport check and into the takeoff area. To some time of waiting then the call comes to go on board so that we come finally into the flier and it make us comfortable in the seats. Briefly before the start the next fright: since Heathrow is overcrowded, our start retards around 40 minutes. But against 18.30 o'clock we roll finally to the runway and off geht's to London!

"On the flight there is then somewhat to meals and to drinking and naturally each quantity of enthusiasm for flies, particularly with those, which were the first time in air. Owing to few Gewackel and Geschaukel we leave the flier thus well gelaunt."

With travel literature like this, do we really need luggage?

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