I’ve avoided writing about this for some time because I fear it exposes my ineptness as a world traveller and an aspiring good person who is clouded by materialism. I am clumsy-minded, prone to inner torment and attached insensibly to things that have very little value in my goal towards being a more spiritual person. But here goes…
Whenever I set off somewhere after resting my ass a little while I go through an initial bit of excitement as I begin the packing process. And then I start to panic. Questions about what to bring, safety, and existence crowd my brain and remind me of everything that is not romantic about the kind of travelling I’m doing, namely the kind that is supposed to provide me with answers to those questions: How will I get by without my favourite shampoo? What if I get robbed again? What the fuck am I doing with my life?
When I first prepared to travel many moons ago I littered my bed with my absolute necessary items and not even half of them fit in my backpack. Shit. Raw, crunchy peanut butter, an electric toothbrush and a lifetime supply of expensive hair goop were things I had a hard time imagining life without. I knew I wouldn’t find the super-thin, slim-fit sanitary napkins over there or the right kind of mascara. Place likes Europe certainly wouldn’t have the exact socks I like to wear. So it all had to come with me, including replacements. My bag of toiletries was bigger than one of those party-sized bag of chips (sold only in North America I believe). Of course it wouldn’t all fit, I was packing Security and that by no means fits into a 60-litre backpack. This time around I’m wiser. I know that what I choose to bring will have to either stay with me, on my back for at least the next year, or it gets tossed. So if I can’t stand the idea of tossing it then it must stay behind.
What started out as Security in my backpack was quickly replaced with Practicality. Ages ago during my travels in Croatia I met a very well-to-do woman who asked about the contents of my backpack. I told her: a few t-shirts and tank tops, a couple pairs of shorts, a pair of long pants (trousers to you British folks), a rain jacket, a pack towel, a sleeping bag, and a bag of toiletries. “What about shoes?” she asked as she lay stretched out on a white wicker lounge chair in her Louis Vuitton bikini. “Well I have my hiking boots and my flip flops,” I explained. Her chin dropped from behind her glossy magazine. Her mouth opened and her expensive sunglasses slipped down her nose to reveal an incredulous stare. “What?! That’s incredible! I don’t even understand that! Why would you want to do that?!” I giggled. Paris Hilton vs. the Backpacker. Would Jimmy Choos complement my cutoffs and tie-dye well anyways? There are two types of people in the world: those who like to backpack and those who like shoes. And they are completely incompatible people.
To be fair, I upsized my pack this time around to a 65-litre with the help of my parents who love to explain to nearly everyone they come into contact with how they bought my new home for me. If four years ago I was packing Security, this time around I packed Self-Improvement and evidently, that takes up a lot of space. Half the volume of my backpack is taken by my personal journals, paper-back books, and a massive textbook on the foundations of Thai massage. I brought along clothes that will hide the inevitable return of my potbelly, a consequence of travelling that has nothing to do with beer and street food consumption, or lack of exercise. (Interesting fact: it is common for men to lose weight when they travel and women to gain… naturally). And–shock, gasp!–I also brought along my vibrator to avoid self-directed harangues about choosing the wrong men. A definite step forward on the road to self improvement.
You can tell a lot about a person by what they pack when they travel. When I was in Laos six months ago I did a bit of gentle, marijauna-induced research on travellers’ backpack inventory. I met Gordon, an “ex-CIA agent”-turned hippie who whittles away his days in Southern Laos talking world politics and dropping acid. “What’s in your pack?” I asked him one night as we sat having a beer on a concrete patio next to the Mekong River. Mosquitoes clustered around a single lightbulb hung from the awning and crickets trilled in the distance. As he began to list items I realised quickly that Gordon was not your common backpacker and so I recorded his words.
“A camp stove and a little pot with a lid. Oh, and two insulated travel mugs, one of which is also a French press. And I bring my own sweeteners because you never know what crap you’ll find over here. (Sugar perhaps?) I have a small djembe”–he smirked at my expression, like the average person knows what a djembe is–“it’s an African drum and I have a full goat skin to re-skin it if it breaks.” What?! I encouraged him to continue.
“I have six paperback books”–“Titles?” I asked him. “Um, let’s see. Shantaram, The Odyssey, and Grimms Fairy Tales…” Geez, no Charlotte’s Web or See Spot Run? “I have a hammock with ropes to string it up, a pillow, extension cords and a lightbulb socket extension.” He stopped and took a sip of his beer.
“Well aside from a hardware store and a library, do you happen to pack extra clothing besides what you’re wearing? Or really practical things like a toothbrush?” I asked. Not to suggest that a place to sleep and light to see aren’t practical inclusions.
“Oh yeah, I’ve got shampoo, razors, soap, two pairs of shorts, one pair of jeans, three shirts and a pair of sandals. Tools and motorbike gloves oh, and a non-smart phone.”
So what does the contents of Gordon’s pack reveal about him? Perhaps he likes coffee and a good beat and is impartial about animals’ rights? He enjoys reading the same books over and over? And being a former CIA guy does he really need a smart phone?
I used to think that people who choose to live with very little don’t place a lot of value on material items like clothes and books, and that those with a house full of stuff find importance in such objects. Over the course of four years I went from a four bedroom house full of things I looked at a lot but rarely used to a 65-litre backpack thinking I was shirking materialism and learning about non-attachment. But now I wonder if that is the case. The less I have the more significant those things become in my life. As I rooted through my few worldly possessions in preparation for another indefinite adventure, I assigned a value to each thing. Each item had a measure of security in some form, whether it be emotional/sentimental or practical. They are tangible representations of my life and my anchors to sanity and so must be chosen with care. They are my attachments. Who am I without things if I’m already without a job and a home and a life partner? My opinions? My abilities? The less I need as sustenance for survival, the more I need the few things I do have. I really do need that one shirt if it’s the only one I have.
And as for the questions about safety and existence, they are all a way in which I continue to dance with the proverbial devil’s advocate, contributing to my fickleness and unrest but upholding my sensible self. Will I get robbed again? and, what am I doing with my life? are questions that plague me daily. They are my die-hard attachments to my familiar self when my becoming self is some strange girl on a motorbike with a penchant for whiskey, fast friendships, bearded men and battery-operated devices.
Peanut butter, fancy shampoo and pretty dresses don’t make the girl or a life and they take up way too much space anyways. But there’s that electric toothbrush I can’t seem to part with. After a $657 dollar dentist bill and no insurance, I’ll hang that damn thing around my neck and lock it in the hostel’s safe along with my cash and passport. Perhaps security in life just comes down to a few nylon bristles.