You know that moment, don't you, when all the other passengers on the airplane have left the baggage claim and you are still standing there? That moment when all the bags are gone except one, and it is not yours?
We were in the Shannon airport baggage claim. Tired, slightly ripe from a night crossing the Atlantic in a cramped plane (if I am uncomfortable at 5'2", I know that everyone is uncomfortably squashed). My bag was there looking only slightly worse for the wear. Doug's red bag was not.
Backstory: we had lent StrongOpinions our 24 inch suitcase on her last trip home, so each of us had a roll-aboard size suitcase for a week of hiking and exploring in Ireland. The suitcase would need to hold hiking shoes, rain gear, and layers to deal with the variable weather. For Doug, that meant fitting all his gear that he was not putting in his backpack into the roll-aboard suitcase, and that was a challenge. He does not over-pack for trips, but still he had to sit on the suitcase to zip it shut, even with the expander zippers unzipped and expanded.
At this point, you might ask the question "well, if they were the roll-aboard size bags, why didn't you bring them with you on the plane rather than checking them?" And to answer that question, consider this: everyone tries to bring their suitcases aboard these days, since often one is charged for checked baggage. The overhead bins are usually stuffed beyond capacity and the stowage area by one's feet is usually less than generous. Additionally, it was going to be a long flight, we suspected the seating would be tight (see above), and most important, we had ONE FREE CHECKED BAG PER PERSON! Bliss not to have to worry about the suitcase in JFK, where we transferred to the Shannon flight. So we checked those two roll-aboard suitcases. And like dutiful and experienced travelers, we packed a change of socks and undies, our toiletries and medications, and a book and iPod into our backpacks. Also knitting for me in my pack and the rain jacket for Doug in his.
And now we were at the airport in Ireland missing a bag.
But there was still one bag left on the carousel (such a playful word for the travelers' rack, no torture quite so exquisite as watching, watching, watching for your bag to appear on it). It was red, like Doug's, but it was not Doug's. A clue?
After a bit of searching, we found the baggage agent, not an employee of the airline but of a separate company - outsourcing? Oh the horror! The lovely blonde woman heard the story, noted the red bag - not ours - still circling forlornly on the carousel, and went to work. She tracked Doug's bag - it had arrived at Shannon with us. She looked up the owner of the remaining red bag - its owner had arrived at Shannon as well. It was likely the other gentleman had taken the wrong bag. She said in that bright voice reserved for service professionals who are trying to ward off breakdowns on the part of stressed-out customers, "He'll be noticing soon that he has the wrong bag, and then he'll bring it back, and it will be brought to you. Since he is the one who made the mistake, he will be responsible for getting the bag to you." She tried paging the fellow, in hopes that he was still on the airport property, but there was no response. We had no choice but to leave to meet our driver and hope the bag would get to us somehow, somewhere. We had left my cellphone number and the number of the manager of the cottages where we would stay. We hoped for news, quickly.
When we met our driver, the wonderful Moley, and told him the story, he laughed and said, "Sure they'll find it soon. Not to worry, lads."
Doug wasn't worried - he had his rain jacket, after all, and a change of the necessaries if this dragged on. And so we went off to Ballyvaughan and the tour.
So ended the first day.
On the second afternoon, when we had not yet heard from the airline, we called the airport and were told that they hadn't heard from the gentleman, but had gotten his US contact information from the Delta airlines records and were trying to get in touch with his family to figure out where he was staying in Ireland. All they knew was that he was an elderly Irish-American.
That evening, there was a call to the cottage manager from the Irish sister of the gentleman in question. The manager relayed the bits of the story and gave us a phone number to call to arrange to receive the bag.
That was good news - at least they realized they had the wrong bag and wanted to make things right. We tried calling the number, though, and kept getting a signal indicating that the number was out of service. We called the airline again, and no one was there to answer the call.
So ended the second day.
Meanwhile, Doug was borrowing one of my t-shirts to augment the few items of clothing he had. We bought him a sweater, since it was chilly. We had our morning meeting of the group, and called the airline again. They would try to get us the correct number and call us back. They did not call us back, but while we were out hiking, the sister called the cottage manager again. It turned out the number we had been given was off by one digit.
We finally reached the sister and heard the whole story. The elderly gentleman was returning to Ireland with the ashes of his dead sister, who had passed in America. Her final wish was to be buried back home, in Ballybunion. So he packed her up with his goods and his gear and, greatly upset with his loss, flew into Shannon. Where he picked up the wrong suitcase.
A cousin retrieved him at the airport and just tossed the bag into the car, and off they went to Ballybunion (no, that is really the name of the place). The old man was exhausted by the trip and immediately went to bed. His sister, trying to be helpful, unpacked the ENTIRE suitcase and hung everything up. It was only when he woke up a day later that they discovered what we knew...he had picked up the wrong bag.
The sister said, "Now I want ye to know I've repacked it, every little thing. It's all back in the bag, now."
Doug said, "I imagine that was something of a challenge."
A long pause. "Yes," she said. "I had to sit on it to get it closed. I hope that's alright."
"Of course. I had to do the same thing."
Then came the logistics challenge - the dear lady didn't drive, so a cousin would have to drive the bag back to us. If you look on a map, Ballyvaughan and Ballybunion look pretty close. But since there is no such thing as a straight road in the country, it was quite a jaunt. One of our drivers, Padraig (Irish for Patrick and pronounced "Porrig" which is a story for another day), drove down and met the cousin halfway between the two villages for the hand-off of the well-traveled red bag.
That evening, Padraig handed us the bag as we listened to some wonderful music and recovered from another long hike.
We do not know if the ashes were in the red suitcase on the carousel, if the dear departed had wondered why she was going round and round and round ever so slowly and no one was retrieving her. We do not know if the Irish sister, unpacking the clothes, said "My, now, hasn't Tom gotten awful stylish in his clothing in his old age!" We do not know if they laughed after they cried when they realized what had happened...
...but we did.
It reminded us, once again, of how little we really need when we are on the road, and how strangers can help in the most surprising and marvelous ways. Everyone was willing to lend Doug articles of clothing if he needed them. Padraig was willing to drive to heaven only knows where on a rainy evening to meet the cousin, even though it meant he would miss most of dinner. The little SPAR market had the odds and ends of personal items he needed. And Doug now has a blue and cream Irish sweater which has quite the story attached to it. What was lost was found, in both households.
So ended the third day, and it was good.