TANYA LARA:  WHERE DOES LOST LUGGAGE GO?

MANILA, December 2, 2005 (STAR) CRAZY QUILT By Tanya T. Lara - It’s high up there on the list, along with life’s mysteries such as: why do fools fall in love? How do you know when sour cream goes bad? Why is there no synonym for synonym? Why is there an S in lisp? Is it mass murder when a schizophrenic kills himself? Why is "abbreviation" such a long word? What color does a Smurf turn if you choke it?

So, you’re standing in some airport at midnight and you get the sinking feeling that someone screwed up after you checked your luggage because you’re watching the empty carousel go around and around while everybody else has gone through customs. Nobody could have mistaken your balikbayan box for theirs – not when you Penteled your name in 200 points and wrapped it so tight with packing tape that if it were a mummy it would have bolted screaming and embalmed you itself through your nose. Perhaps your baggage decided to go to Vietnam instead of Venice, or perhaps somebody thought it funny that you should be walking around in Hawaiian shirts in Alaska during winter.

Or, you’ve just disembarked from a plane and you realize that you forgot your eyeglasses, or your harmonica, or your hugely inappropriate reading material (Penthouse Letters Vol. 15), your baby’s rattle, or your camera. You decide to let it go. No need to harangue a flight attendant to let you go back on the plane (airline regulations say you can’t anyway, not without proper an escort or authorization – one of those rules to ensure you don’t slip in a bomb and then go safely home).

So where do unclaimed luggage and things go? Is there, as Nora Ephron suggested in her wonderful roman a clef Heartburn (she was married to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein), a heaven for lost things? It turns out there is – at least for lost luggage. It’s a small town in Alabama called Scottsboro, where people’s treasures end up in other people’s homes and the 15,000 population walks in other people’s clothes. It’s a veritable bazaar – international ukay-ukay if you will – offering finds from around the globe. Called the Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC), it relieves airlines from having to store unclaimed things after they’ve made every effort to locate the owners. By the time UBC receives them, three to four months will have passed after the flight.

Just how much luggage are we talking about? Around two billion bags – a number equivalent to a fourth of humanity – are checked every year and out of a thousand bags airlines "mishandle" about five. You do the math and you get an idea just how much luggage ends up here.

"Actually, there is far less lost luggage than you might think," according to the UBC website. "Airlines use sophisticated global tracing systems and only a relatively few bags – less than .005 percent of all bags checked – are permanently lost. But there are far more people traveling today. In the past few years, the airlines have dramatically reduced the number of lost bags. Also, many items are simply lost or left behind without identification, which adds to the unclaimed baggage."

Also known as the Lost Luggage Capital of the World, UBC offers an array of merchandise ranging from clothes to cameras, golf clubs and other sports equipment, musical instruments, artworks, jewelry (including diamond rings, which make you wonder what explanations the passengers offer their loved ones regarding lost engagement rings or wedding bands), best-sellers, eyewear, laptops – everything people bring on a trip. And since people fly from and to all corners of the world, you have the usual exotic suspects like weird décor and thingamajigs.

Of course, not all lost luggage ends up at UBC. On one website (www.lostluggagetales.com), a writer describes his stressful job at London’s Heathrow Airport where a passenger lost the case containing the ashes of his father (it turned up four months later). That you probably won’t find at UBC and not only because it has no commercial value – unless they’re the ashes of some famous person – but because a family member is unlikely to be placated with a free upgrade the next time he flies.

At UBC, clothes are laundered or dry cleaned before they hit the floor, and because the company also handles unclaimed cargo some things are brand new and sold 50 to 80 percent off the retail price. Quality of the merchandise, of course, varies from excellent to junk. Think of the executives who travel business class and think of the backpackers whose idea of impeccable attire is a clean shirt. The company also sends a lot of it to charities.

Oprah Winfrey once called UBC one of America’s "best-kept shopping secrets" with its more than a million new merchandise being processed annually, and the staff bringing in new items more than 20 times a day. No wonder its clientele comes from all over the US and 50 foreign countries. It’s like the Woodbury Commons of ukay-ukay.

The company likens the experience of shopping at UBC to "hunting for lost treasures." The description may be more literal than you think. In a few instances, the store has received really valuable items including rare, signed Salvador Dali prints, a 200-year-old violin, and Egyptian artifacts.

The store’s concept reminds one of an episode of Northern Exposure, the critically acclaimed TV series in the 1980s, where a box mysteriously arrives in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, without an addressee and covered with stamps from around the world. The town decides to open it and discovers it was sent by a boy who couldn’t go with his parents on a trip and so he sent a box to the world, hoping that each town would send it to another part of the world and include a memento inside.

According to UBC president and owner Bryan Owens, the business was started by his father in the 1970s and now occupies 4,650 square metters (50,000 square feet) of retail space. Doyle Owens took the first step by buying the unclaimed luggage from bus stations and then selling them. The things sold overnight and that’s when he knew he had hit upon a previously untapped market.

Today, UBC has exclusive contracts with airlines to buy unclaimed luggage – contents unseen – at a fixed rate, so they never really know what they’re going to get. Shoppers can also shop online (www.unclaimedbaggage.com), but that sort of takes the fun out of the hunt.

Even if you’re not the type to buy second-hand things, the idea of going through stuff owned by other people is enough to pique your curiosity about how they live, what they own, what they deem dispensable enough to just let airlines reimburse them. It’s like going through somebody else’s closets and attaching stories to their things, or reading their diaries.

Now, if we can only answer the question "Where do broken hearts go?"


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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