Everything seemed so organised and sensible in the Scandinavian countries. For someone like me with a Vitamin Logic deficiency, all I could do was press my nose to the bus window and marvel at it all.
First up in Copenhagen I loved the bike lanes. You have the road for the cars, the footpath for the pedestrians, then a whole separate two-lane deal for the cyclists. They even had their own traffic lights. What a masterpiece of urban planning! And then on the drive from Helsinborg to Stockholm, while possibly The Most Boring Drive On Earth, was another dazzling example of cleanliness and organisation. Windfarms everywhere, row upon row of manicured forests. Even the wildflowers exploding along the road were all cylindrical and spiky like toilet brushes. The innocent eye may have thought they were plain old wildflowers, but I know they were thinking about cleaning; wishing they really were toilet brushes, aching to help keep Sweden clean.
The only thing more logical and organised than Scandinavia was my sister. Rhiannon quickly established a reputation on tour for being the Master of the Backpack. We were staying in a poky little campsite out of Stockholm, four people wedged into each cabin, not big enough to swing a bed bug. On our last morning Rhi and I sat calmly on the porch, the Swedish sunlight squeezing through the trees, feeling rather smug as we watched our cabinmates frantically packing their bags.
"How come you two are always so bloody organised?"
"Ahh. I have a system," Rhiannon said sagely.
"And I copy off her."
Granted, we didn't have as much luggage as our comrades. The night before the trip I had what one might call a Spaz Attack, in which we couldn't find the bathroom scales therefore had to guesstimate the weight of our bags. I became convinced we were over the 20 kilo limit and sqwarked and panicked and convinced Rhi to throw out half our stuff, including the Travel Vegemite that we would really fucking miss when malnourished in Russia. Our bags ended up being only 8.9 and 9.2 kilos respectively. Whoops.
Anyway, Rhiannon's System was so beautifully simple. "It's all about containerizing," she would tell our tour mates as they stood enthralled, watching her in action. When living out of a backpack for three weeks, it's easy to become confused – a new home every couple of nights, trying to separate skanky clothes from clean, the ever-growing stash of souvenirs. Rhiannon controlled the chaos with an assortment of plastic shopping bags. She simply divided up her stuff – a different coloured bag for underwear, another for t-shirts, one each for dirty clothes, shoes, toiletries, towel, snacks and Miscellaneous (phone charger, toilet paper, film), and so on.
Of course you have spare bags, you never know when you'll need to add another category. One for dirty clothes. One for souvenirs. One bag for The Shower Run. This is when you put your Toiletry bag inside a bigger bag that contains your Towel bag, a change of clothes and a pre-purchased shower token, so in the morning you can spring out of your uncomfortable bed, grab the Shower Run bag, slide into your shoes that are strategically placed at the foot of the bed and RUN RUN RUN for the showers. This may seem anally retentive but you have to remember one is competing with 40 other Contiki-ers plus dozens of golden Swedes on summer holiday. It is rather satisfying to be bathed and all ready for the day while everyone else is still scrambling for shower token change.
So, once everything is neatly containerized it must be placed into the backpack in the right order. Shoes are heaviest so naturally they're at the bottom. Everything else goes in from least likely to be needed to most likely, so at the top there'll be your toiletries and food. Then in the front pocket of the backpack you can put in essential items that you frequently need to access without having to deal with the main body of the pack. I must admit I didn't not notice there even was a front pocket until Rhiannon pointed it out, nor did I realise the backpack had THINGIES that slide down the straps so they stay flat and don't flap around while you walk. Incredible. Anyway, the front pocket is for the essential stuff – usually your jacket and travel guides. And maybe more food.
The travel guides were my humble contribution to The System. I tightarse-dly photocopied relevant pages from Lonely Planet's Europe On A Shoestring and made a file on each country we visited. Why pay £20 to lug around a weighty tome when you can copy the bits you need for free? Thank you, unnamed employer. Whenever we reached a new city I would whip out the new information and transfer it to my day bag. Before long, confused friends would shout down the bus aisle and say, "What's the population of Finland?" or "How do I order a beer in Russian?" and I could roll my eyes and be smug yet informative.
Anyway, I felt so relaxed and on top of things in Scandinavia. We obsessively kept track of every kroner spent in our Moleskines, averaging our daily spend and preparing budget forecasts and pie charts for the remainder of the trip. It was so liberating to be organised for once in my life, Rhi's system really worked and I was considering dying my hair blonde and applying for a Norwegian Working Holiday Visa.
But alas, The System only works if you have the discipline to stay on top of it. My problem was I would leave my Backpack Maintained to the late evening when I was too tired to be arsed putting things in the right place. Dirty socks starting mingling with the clean, my souvenirs got mixed up with my shoes, half a pack of almonds slowly dispersed throughout the undie bag.
This culminated in a Helsinki hissy fit. The problem with chucking a tantrum in a hostel dorm is that you have to wait until the room is cleared until you start screaming, because you don't want anyone on the tour to think you're a psycho (Rhi excluded, she already knew). Our two roomies were rather posh and not your usual grotty backpacker types, so I desperately wanted to create the illusion of calm and class so I had to do time my ranting and shoe-throwing between their trips to the hostel laundry.
"I've lost my bloody tickets."
"My PLANE tickets, hello! What OTHER bloody tickets?"
"I CAN'T CALM D– Oh hi there girls. How's the washing machines in this place?"
[Two minutes pass]
"As I was saying. I've looked EVERYWHERE!"
"Did you look in your designated Travel Document Bag?"
"YES I LOOKED – Oh hi again. You forgot your socks? Bugger! [Dum de dah] Now I will have to go through all these FUCKING bags AGAIN! How can I afford to get new tickets? They're non refundable! Non refundable, I tell you! And this has to happen right before we go to Russia, THE CRAZIEST COUNTRY ON EARTH!"
Of course three hours later, after I have hyperventilated my way through dinner, I sheepishly retrieve the Travel Document Bag from behind the bed where I must have tossed it in the frenzy to reach find a clean pair of undies.
So yes, The System is valuable, The System works. But you must rule the plastic bags – don't let them rule you.