Leaving Asia: A short history of my clothing

In a matter of days, I will move out of my south Thailand apartment, pack up all my belongings (which I hope to fit into two check-in bags), and — after seven years of traveling and living on or near this grand continent — leave Asia. I’ll share details of my new travels in time, but for now I want to reflect on what it’s like to sort through your belongings on the eve of a big move, making tough judgments on what you will keep and what you will throw away. In particular I’m thinking about clothes.

Some comedian (I think it was Jerry Seinfeld) once remarked that men have an odd, sentimental relationship with their clothes. We might go through dozens of girlfriends in the course of five years, but we have trouble parting with, say, a trusty old pair of five-year-old underwear that is only being held together by a few “underwear molecules”. In that spirit, I would like to eulogize a few items of clothing that have served me well in the last two-to-twelve years — items that evoke vivid memories even as I gently place them in the rubbish bin. (Click links for pop-up picture of item in question; WARNING: This promises to be my most self-indulgent post since my sentimental ode to Jane’s Addiction earlier this summer.)

Beloved clothing items that I am throwing away:

  • Cambodia souvenir t-shirt
    I’ve traveled through nearly 40 countries over the last five years, successfully fending off countless souvenir t-shirt vendors — but once, near Angkor Wat in March of 1999, I gave in to a very cute and persistent Cambodian 6 year-old and bought a gray t-shirt that bore a picture of the Cambodian flag. It cost me about $2, it fit perfectly, and I’ve worn it about once a week for four solid years. Unfortunately, it now smells like four years of sweat that even the toughest detergent can’t defeat, and it will have to go.
  • Tan (formerly gray) Gramicci shorts (picture N/A)
    Gramicci makes wonderfully functional rock-climbing shorts, and this tan pair actually dates back to a gray pair I wore in college, which blew a seam when I worked as a landscaper in Seattle in the summer of ’93. Since Gramicci stands by their product, I traded the gray pair for a tan pair, which I wore constantly during an 8-month van trip around the USA in ’94. By ’96 they were frayed and worn out, so I retired them to a drawer in Kansas. I brought them out of retirement in ’02, and I slept in them here in Thailand until the waistband-cinch blew out some weeks ago.
  • Aigle cargo pants that were turned into shorts
    Like the Gramicci shorts above, my Aigle pants are the legacy of a pair of khaki pants that served me well for years, until coming apart at the seams during an expedition in Laos in ’00. I was on assignment for a Conde Nast article at the time, and Knut Bry (see pop-up picture above), the photographer, give me his spare cargo pants. They were lightweight and full of pockets, and they fit me perfectly. Unfortunately, six months later in India, I was attacked by a dog in Himachal Pradesh, and one leg of the pants was torn to shreds. Later, in Pushkar, I had them sewn into shorts, and these shorts worked splendidly until about one month ago, when I overloaded the cargo pockets and tore the cloth open.
  • $1.35 Wal-Mart faux Swiss Army knife (picture N/A)
    Not clothing, technically, but an interesting story. Just prior to the Laos expedition in ’00, I was home visiting my family in Kansas, so I decided to stock up on gifts for Laotian villagers. I bought a bunch of cheap wristwatches and pocketknives from a Vietnam vet Wal-Mart employee who — when I told him where I was headed — regaled me for thirty minutes with harrowing stories of his time in Laos 30 years earlier. Later, in the Hin Boun basin of central Laos, the backcountry villagers loved the wristwatches (which they wore to show status and sophistication), but had no use for the cheap pocketknives (which were useless in an area where tools are used daily and must be durable). Hence, I used the pocketknives myself over the next two years, throwing them away when they gave out (and they gave out fast). This knife was the last of the half-dozen I’d originally bought, and it’s hopelessly bent out of shape — mainly from opening beers.

Worn-out clothing items that, in my weakness, I could not bear to throw away:

  • North Face safari shirt
    I inherited this shirt from Tom Bourguignon in Cairo’s mighty Sultan Hotel back in ’00. Tom claimed to have originally stolen it from his roommate in New York, but it turned out to be too small for him, so he gave it to me once night when I needed a collared shirt to attend the Cairo Opera. I later wore it in the Libyan Desert, during my hike across Israel, and while bicycling down the Irrawaddy basin in Myanmar (among other places). Unfortunately, I washed it with a pair of black pants I’d had made for me in India, and the dye turned the North Face shirt to a really ugly bluish-tan color. I haven’t worn it much since — but, as I was about to toss it out the other day, I noticed that it’s still in good, functional shape. Plus I’m wearing it on the cover of my book
  • Gray (formerly tan) Gramicci shorts
    I purchased these on a return to the USA in ’00, and they’ve proven wonderfully useful and durable. Originally tan, they turned gray during the same load of laundry that defiled my North Face shirt (above). The left cuff-seam blew out in ’02, and Max Arcangeloni‘s wife sewed it up for me; the right cuff-seam blew this year and I had it sewn in the Ranong market for 5 baht. These shorts are beginning to fray and very well could be retired, but they’re wonderfully comfortable, and I’m wagering on getting another good year out of them.
  • Josef Seibel shoes (picture N/A)
    I originally got these sturdy brown brogans on a pro-deal while working at an outdoor store in ’95. I later wore them every day for two years while teaching English in Korea (’96-’97), and the heels wore out. I retired them on return to Kansas, but I had my parents bring them to China with them in ’01, and I got them resoled on Khao San Road in Bangkok for 400 baht. I’ve worn them since at everything from Bangkok’s St. Andrew’s Ball to my classes at the Paris American Academy. They’re looking battered at this point, but they’re too dependable to toss out just yet.
  • George Fox cross-country t-shirt
    This t-shirt is one of the finest items of clothing I’ve ever owned. Originally issued my when I was running cross-country for George Fox in the fall of ’91, it’s been everywhere with me: performing with Swizzlefish at Portland’s legendary X-Ray Caf

Posted by | Comments (3)  | August 26, 2003
Category: Rolf's News and Updates

3 Responses to “Leaving Asia: A short history of my clothing”

  1. paul Says:

    hey rolf,

    been here from time to time from bootsnall.

    this entry is hilarious! and feels so true!

    its probably gonna feel so weird being back in the states after 7 years.

  2. Jeff Coleman Says:

    I didn’t notice an actual Swizzlefish shirt on the list. Do you still have yours? I wear mine when I want to see my wife roll her eyes at me. It usuall works, especially if I do a little living-room mosh while sporting the ragged remnant.

    Welcome back!

  3. Rolf Says:

    Yes, Jeff, I still have the Swizzlefish shirt, but I never took it overseas with me. It’s somewhere in Kansas, and I wear it whenever I visit there. I haven’t moshed in it in years, tho!