Anyone who's ever read "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" knows the importance of a traveler's towel. It is, according to Douglas Adams, "about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have," and travelers, interstellar or not, develop very special relationships with their towels.
Mine came from my parents' supply, an old shriveled thing they didn't mind parting with. It accompanied me to my first foreign hostel, a dumpy place full of men in my co-ed dorm and water on the dirty bathroom floors, a place I nevertheless ended up loving. It followed me through over twenty countries, saw hundreds of hostels and cheap hotels which didn't provide towels, hundreds of strange showers, from clean ones with mosaic walls to grimy stalls of the cement-and-mold variety, from big private bathrooms with warmed tile floors to dark gym-style cubbies off courtyards where hippies gathered around their guitars. Wherever I traveled, my towel was there.
I loved it, guarded it jealously, took it to the beach, to the pool, used it as a rag, a yoga mat, a curtain, a pillow, a teddy bear. I wrapped my dirty laundry in it, padded delicate items with it. It became a blanket when I was cold, a wet cloth to lie under when I was hot. I mistreated it sometimes, used it to wipe off my feet when I crept to the hostel bathroom in the middle of the night without my sandals and came back black-footed.
Then one day I left it hanging helpless on the bed of the Black Cat Hostel in Antigua, Guatemala. I wasn't even in a hurry. It wasn't dark in the room while I packed, or so early that sleep fogged my brain. There was no excuse. And it wasn't until five arduous travel hours later, in another town from which I would not return to Antigua, that I realized what I'd done. I tore through my backpack like a madman, hoping I was wrong. But for the first time, I didn't know where my towel was. I felt ridiculously sad. Just a few hours before, careening around hairpin turns in a shuttle van, luggage strapped precariously on top, I'd thought: Wow! It's amazing I'm still in one piece, all my stuff safely with me. Nothing stolen. Nothing lost. Ah, sweet ignorance.
It was tannish-orange, a bland sort of non-color that may ultimately have led to its tragic end on the foot of a wooden bed that camouflaged its presence. Smaller than a bath towel, larger than a hand towel, it was the perfect size. Thin and worn, it dried fairly fast, though in rainy season in Central America, in winter in Europe, it often carried with it the musty smell a backpacker eventually gets used to. I loved it anyway. It folded small, weighed little, nestled comfortably in my backpack.
It was one of the things that never changed, no matter where I was or what language they were speaking around me or what my crazy hostel roommates did. When I missed my family, my home, it reminded me of them. It was always there, a security blanket, a friend. And then suddenly it was gone.
Really, I was lucky to have it as long as I did. I remembered to pack it hundreds of times, even at 4am to catch a bus, or when I'd hung it outside in the sun. No one ever kidnapped it from a dorm. The laundry service never ate it. It never fell out of my pack, never ripped when I yanked it off a rusty nail, never lost itself at home. I always knew where it was.
When I lost my towel, I felt helpless and alone, unprepared to face the rigors of travel. Perhaps it was healthy. A dose of humility. A nasty shake-up for my complacency. A chance to move on, find a new relationship. But even if I buy one of those micro-fiber quick-dry backpacker fancies, it will never replace my first towel.
I hope someone finds it and cares for it. May its cloth, faded and stretched, serve another master as well as it served me. May this new owner take it to Indonesia or Japan, to New Zealand or Zaire, somewhere it's never been. And may my towel find space in its warm fuzzy heart to forgive me for abandoning it in a hostel in Guatemala.
>> From Gerri Kope: This article was so well written. I loved it. I ended with a tear in my eye. How silly, for a towel. It was great!