Finally got around to editing and posting this. It was written in the last weeks of my travels, in Varanasi, around the 7th of May 2010. I had sunk into a deep melancholy and disciplinary dissolution in woebegone anticipation of my epic journey’s drawing to a close and sought solace in reflection and hashish.
For seven weeks now I’ve been on the road in India, and the only luggage I have with me is a shoulder bag. A large, deep and wide shoulder bag, little more than a voluminous day pack. I would hasten to dismiss your fears for me having made terrible sacrifices, and be quick to add that on only a very few occasions have I found myself wanting. Very few.
One great advantage of having very few things is that there is less to be lost, and less to worry about. I can unpack my bag every time I enter a new hotel room and fit everything on a chair or small table. It is far easier to find things and keep track of them. I haven’t managed to lose anything yet and I certainly hope not to do so in my final weeks. Packing is also very quick. I have done it so many times I’m like an assassin stripping a gun blindfolded. I can be ready in a very short time, unencumbered because everything is on my back in an unobtrusive, ten kilogram bundle, though I usually choose to carry my camera.
Travelling light is an interesting experience, philosophically; a situation that demands contemplation of one’s relationship with one’s possessions. How much do you actually need on a day-to-day basis? How many clothes do you really need? How many pairs of shoes? How many gadgets? These are fundamental questions we often fail to ask ourselves. Why do we really buy things? What are we trying to fulfill? Is it purely acquisitiveness? If so, is that a desire we ought really to satisfy?
The love of possessing things also faces practical obstacles whilst on the road. If one has no space in which to carry anything, can one really afford to buy something, on account of the inconvenience? If you travel with the idea firmly in mind that you will buy nothing whatsoever, then you will feel less troubled about refusing offers and missing opportunities to buy souvenirs. I tell everyone that I will buy nothing and I mean it, so I am not troubled by desire. I must appear sincere because they rarely press the case very far at all. I don’t really feel I’m missing out at all, and anyway, is not a collection of photographs sufficient?
Not only is the absence of things beneficial to understanding that they are not necessary, but also the presence of certain possessions establishes very special relationships with them. The things that you shepherd with you everyday; the things you must look out for every time you pack your bag; the things you must remember having and must occasionally check upon; the things you have with you always, for security; the things you use all day; the things that are of most importance – the passport; the whereabouts of which you must always be aware of. These are rare relationships with things, capable of breeding great sentimentality and care.
If one combines the respect for and appreciation of one’s useful belongings with awareness of the minimalism with which one is able to live happily and comfortably, then we would have a much more environmentally friendly planet, inhabited by people with a natural distaste for greed and excess.
When you consider how many clothes you have in your closet and how many of them are actually worn, then consider the energy, water, labour and resulting pollution that went into their manufacture and distribution, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that if everyone in the world bought half as many clothes, it would make a very significant impact on the environmental consequences of our overconsumption. I have very few clothes compared to most people I know, yet even still that extends to something like ten pairs of trousers and jeans combined, thirty-odd tee-shirts, twenty-odd collared shirts, perhaps ten pairs of shoes. Do I really, honestly, need that much? Most weeks I wear about three or four combinations at best, totalling around 12 staple items. Sure, keep something for a special occasion, but is the rest really necessary?
No one wants to live in a world, as predicted by so many awful old science fiction movies, where everyone wears the same type of robe. Yet we can still retain some individualism, look cool and own half as many clothes. The problem is that there is no sensible understanding of quotas or limits. How would one determine where to draw the line? I guess a simple rule of don’t buy it unless you actually need it might be a good starting point.
I have come to take great pride in all my possessions and look out for them at all times. The trusty notebook PC, the ever-reliable camcorder, the digital SLR, the clothes, the diary, the toothbrush, the guidebook, the heavy, A4 day-to-a-page diary. Some of these things I have come to know so intimately they have nicknames. My five tee-shirts have already been dubbed “The heroes” for enduring so many long, sweaty wears and being misshapen by my backpack. Two pairs of my already fatigued boxer shorts lost their elasticity, so I finally had the chance to make use of my miniature sewing kit. I folded the elasticated waist into a pleat and triple-stitched it to ensure it was sturdy. They have thus found a second life and I have obviated the need for replacing something on the road. A needless expense, and also, a needless early disposal of something still perfectly useful.
I know that travelling light is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s certainly easier in hotter climates. I have one pair of shoes – a cheap pair of durable, Chinese flip-flops. I have one pair of long, light cotton pants and a short-sleeved collared shirt in case I have to look at least slightly less ragged. I can’t really hit the high end of town, but then, I didn’t come here for that and couldn’t afford it anyway. Whilst in the mountains, in Darjeeling, McLeod Ganj and Manali, I did at times feel cold and long for a warmer top – still, I was able to avoid discomfort by wearing three tee-shirts. Layers are the next best thing, but of course this wouldn’t suffice in wintry conditions.
Still, in any climate, I highly recommend travelling with as little as possible. I took the very same bag on many trips around Europe in winter, with an equally small number of possessions. Only once when a freak cold spell caught me in Belgium, did I suffer for lack of a sturdier coat. Even then, however, buying a new coat did not require changing the size or portability of my luggage. If everything can be fit into a carry-on sized bag, especially one you can carry on your back, then there are significant advantages. It never needs to be checked for flights and thus is never lost – you can march straight out of the airport and be on your way. It never needs to go in the belly of the bus, thus alleviating anxiety over its being stolen by another passenger when the bus unloads somewhere along the route. You can move unencumbered. You can walk all day with your baggage with relatively little discomfort. You can take your baggage to the bathroom if you are travelling alone and never need to leave it anywhere – on a train; in a restaurant; in a bar – it will always be with you, and, wherever you are, you will always be ready to get back on the road, where you belong.