Three days after landing in Japan the cooler (that in brought with me from the US four days ago) was still amazingly cold, as was all of the milk inside, each temperature check showed 37-39 degrees. On day four and I was yet to touch the fridge in the room (which seemed comparably warm and was full of soda). Yet I still felt an obligation to freeze the ice packs solid before the trip home. I keep thinking that if I do not freeze the packs this would mean I took a cooler from Los Angeles to Japan, left it sitting in a hotel room for four days and then carried it back without ever using a fridge or freezer in Japan. Possible?! Insane. Although this did seem entirely feasible given the conditions of my rig and maybe even preferable at that moment because I didn’t want to disassemble this magic cooling box. The temperature had held so well so far. I hated the idea of taking it apart. At the same time I was preparing for a long flight and couldn’t imagine not freezing or refrigerating anything before departure. Simply too big of a risk for what had added up to be a gallon of pumped milk. I had to freeze it just to be sure. But I doubt it had to be frozen.
Heading to the Freezer
In the end I went to the freezer. In order to have a full 24 hours of freezer time before departure I had to give the front desk my milk and ice packs to freeze the last morning of my last full day of work. This way the milk could freeze throughout that work day, over night, and then be picked up the next morning before departure. Unfortunately I did not do this timeline math until way too late. I realized that if I was going to freeze the ice packs I needed to freeze them *that* morning. Of course that particular morning I was already running late for work, trying to squeeze in a shower and a breakfast, never mind a full cooler disassembly, freezer bag assembly, and negotiation with the front desk. Mid morning madness I realized that it was now or never on the cooler decision, so there I was throwing bags of ice around an already scattered hotel room, putting things into bags and then taking them out as I realized which things needed to stay in the hotel vs the freezer vs my bag for work. e.g. Oh shit, if I freeze all of my ice packs I won’t have any for work today, but I can’t carry them on the plane (at all in Japan, but is even true in this case in the US because TSA requires ice packs to be fully frozen which means that working women leaving the hotel in the morning to work all day and then catch a flight at night have no chance of meeting this absurd expectation), so I will need to transfer half frozen packs into the cooler at the last minute and then get fresh ice on the other side of security. Then I decided that I should I just use new lose ice for the next two days since these packs are mostly de-thawed anyway.
Painful as it was I took apart the cooler that was still doing such an amazing job at holding my milk at temp. I was afraid of the milk bags expanding so I filled each vessel to half with bags of milk but no further. I did also wonder if all of these individual bags would cooperate with one another to freeze upwards as a collective mass even though they were currently one unorganized pile of bags at the bottom of the vessel. Seems doubtful that the process of freezing would be this forgiving but I did not have the time to straighten all of the bags of milk within the vessel to make a better frozen mass strategy. I also figured that all of the milk would not freeze solid in time because it would be hard for the cold to truly penetrate the vessel even though the lid was off, so the fewer bags the more likely that any or all of them would freeze.
In the end I kept these things in my room:
- Cooler (full of new lose ice)
- 1 days worth of milk (5 bags) as I was worried about milk in the vessels expanding when frozen so I left a generous amount of space
- Temperature sensor
And I sent these things to the freezer:
- All of the ice packs (large cooler packs and small vessel packs)
- Two half gallon vessels no more than 1/2 full of breastmilk
- Covered the vessels with cloth napkins secured with rubber bands (brought from the US) in case the bag was flipped over at some point. I can easily imagine a duffel bag full of loose milk bags frozen into all sorts of bizarre shapes that won’t fit back together, punctured, leaking, or just squished and empty, somehow two rubber bands made me feel like all of that was less likely.
- Two vessel lids (lose in the bag so that the cold air could get INTO the vessel)
- Temperature sensor
- Explanatory note for the bell hop written in Japanese by a Japanese person
At this point I was too stressed out about how late I was to even look at the clock. Thanks to my Japanese teammate I had an ace up my sleeve, a note written in Japanese explaining what this bag was and why it needed to go into the freezer, not the refrigerator, please! Note: Freezer In I have no idea what it actually says but I appreciate the red highlights and underlined areas. I’ve had a fair number of hotel freezer / refrigerator misunderstandings in the past. When I say the word “milk” it seems most people assume refrigerate even when I literally say the word “freeze.” Understandable though, freezing milk is just not something we normally do.
Within seconds of reading the note the concierge nodded and handed me a slip where the term “FZ” was circled. Assuming that “RF” probably stood for fridge. I felt total confidence that my request had been understood even though not a sentence of language was exchanged between the two of us. I was also astounded to realize that RF and FZ are a common enough requests for luggage that this is a set option on the bell hop baggage ticket. Clearly I’m out of touch with what other sorts of things people are carrying.
A Renewed Cooler in the Room
I decided not to freeze all of the milk. Three reasons, first because the two half gallon jugs were getting full and I was worried about expanding milk exploding into a mess in the vessel, second because I wanted to A/B test my hypothesis that the cooler chilled milk would have made it just fine, third I needed a cold place to put my milk from the last work day since I had just sent all of the ice packs and vessels to the freezer. At the end of my work day I would be rolling in with five bags of milk. So I went to the ice machine and filled 3 gallons of freezer bags with ice to build an ice bath in the now empty cooler for the remaining milk. I felt bad taking so much ice in Japan where the ice machine was a one button press that spit out a perfect cup worth of milk. I sat there and pressed the ice machine button over and over as I remembered all of the ice machines in America I had interacted with where you could just hold up a lever or leave your weight on a button. I have one memory of bin where you could just scoop out shit loads of ice from a massive pile that was getting endlessly refilled. Notable point of contrast.
I poured this ice into the cooler and put a temperature sensor into one milk bag that was headed to the freezer and one milk bag that was staying in the hotel. Let’s call them Freezie and Coolie for their respective states of origin. Then I put Coolie into the ice bath along with the other milk that I planned not to freeze. In order to stay true to the Thermo Rules I rolled up a bath towel and put it on top of the ice before zipping the cooler shut.
The ice bath strategy worked really well overnight from a temperature standpoint but the interaction between the ice and the towel was unimagined and hilarious. I realized in the morning that I had to give the cooler to the front desk when I checked out but I couldn’t/wouldn’t steal a bath towel in the process. Running late (again) I found myself frantically ripping stuck ice off of a towel deeply frustrated that I had not imagined the scenario ahead of time. I then laid down a handful of plastic bags and threw a load of clothes on top. I figured that this might be a mess to content with later but in that moment in time I had few options – either leave the cooler with ice and a lot of air up top which might also be rattled about by the bell hop, or fill the cooler with something of volume that I would also be carrying with me on the plane. Since I had not brought much “filler” with me clothes seemed to be the best (only) option.