I’m approaching That Time again: the seasonal shift or moon cycle or Chinese New Year when my partner and I pack up all of our belongings into a couple backpacks and say ADIOS.
A shot from our move from Lima to Cusco, November 2014. The third backpack had household goods, like cheap pots and cutting boards, things we had purchased in Lima and carried with us to Cusco — not your typical backpack contents!
We leave Peru on May 1st, where we’ll head to Argentina to spend a month visiting Jorge’s family (the yearly visit where we lounge in the rolling, rural climes and soak in every manner of melodic Argentine Spanish, cookouts, and way better bread options). The first two weeks of June we’ll be in Chile, visiting friends and that house we founded together, yet another very important stop on our Farewell, South America! Tour of 2015. I’ll be working on the road, as always, struggling to fit in my hours and convince my editors/bosses I’m serious about what I’m doing. And then…it’s the USA, baby!
I’ll be honest: there’s a lot of cool things about my lifestyle. As slow travelers, we get to experience new places in a way that isn’t jam-packed with sightseeing, tourist prices, and frenetic bus schedules that would make even the most hardy traveler weep with sorrow and exhaustion.
But for all the cool things, there are some downsides as well.
I’ll save all the downsides for a different post. But one of the most irritating, and tiring, downsides, is that of carrying your life’s possessions on your back. We both have home bases in the sense that we have a childhood home to return to. But other than that? Everything we need, in any moment, in any part of the world, is WITH us.
This reality of slow travel is made harder for me by the fact that A.) I like to travel with a literal library of books (I’M A READER AND WRITER, WHAT) and B.) I am what could be called a struggling minimalist.
Some people might look at Jorge and I and say, “Oh please, I couldn’t fit my possessions into two bags if you paid me in gold doubloons and ancient Incan pottery.”
And yes, true. I’ve been in that boat. While I couldn’t fit all the possessions that remain in Ohio in two backpacks, you COULD pay me in doubloons or pottery to accomplish it.
Prior to moving abroad in 2012, I had a month-long garage sale to shave off unnecessary shit that had been accumulating in a spare room in my childhood home for years, like an unwieldy and completely useless appendage that nobody ever looked at or needed.
What’s worse is that every year when I go home to visit, I spend at least a week paring down those remaining objects MORE.
I have inherited PACKRAT genes, and I am aware of it. That’s what counseling is for, right? Why do we SAVE so much STUFF? (That answer might be for another post, as well!)
At any rate, the packrat effect has subsided in recent history. My travel endeavors are a direct result of my attempts at non-attachment to physical items.
I realized, in my mid-20’s, that I had a lot of REALLY strong emotional attachments to a lot of really PHYSICAL objects. And that these emotional attachments were not something that had sprung up, unbidden, in my adult years, but rather it was a slow simmer of a companion, something that had grown and evolved alongside me since my formative years.
Scraps of paper, gifts, old clothes, you name it. I was afraid of getting rid of these things because I felt that, somehow, in ridding myself of the object that I would rid myself of the memory. Of the pleasant feelings. Of the better times.
That’s completely untrue, I came to find out, once I started a little task called ‘throwing things in the garbage’. Not only did I not lose my memories, or my childhood, or my school years, or any manner of personality aspects, I felt considerably BETTER.
Lighter. Freer. Able to breathe a little easier, in fact. I hadn’t realized the sheer weight of the memories I surrounded myself with, the chokehold these scraps of the past could wield.
Trying to detach and otherwise disassociate from my emotional connection to things doesn’t mean it’s a perfected art or that I’m any sort of guru. But rather, it’s a journey. Attempts, often laden with failures.
But I keep trying.
And I keep losing more and more weight.
(In my backpack, that is. I’m not physically whittling away to nothing, don’t worry.)
Our slow travel lifestyle helps me take stock of my possessions, anywhere from once a year to every couple of months. And though it can be a drag, literally, to divorce myself from my City Of The Moment, to sell off my belongings, to skim the chaff of my worldly possessions…it’s also a helpful, centering practice.
To take a hard look at what I have in my personal space and then, by default, my MENTAL space…that’s pretty important to keeping a clear head and light innards. And by innards, I mean guts and also the heart space.
Things come and go. Cars, furniture, houses, neighborhoods, clothing, books…they’re all neutral objects that can leave our lives as quickly and easily as they appear. Some are necessary, for at least a period of time. And that’s okay. The problem is not in having things, but rather, the sometimes sickly relationship we maintain with them.
The things are not me any more than I am my things. But I spent many years placing a lot of emotional stock in my possessions.
(FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m still a little reluctant for my dad to get rid of the couch in his house, even though he’s been ready for a full five years to haul it to the dump. Why? Because I grew up with that couch, and it’s insanely comfortable, and MEMORIES! But alas, Astromaid…it is just an object.)
So, as we face yet another tide change, another country hop, another cultural shift, I look around my mini-apartment and my backpack and imagine the improbable yet inevitable ways in which these two halves will form a cohesive equation.
It starts with questions.
Do I really need to keep these 5 books I read already but didn’t really like? No. It’s okay to give them away (even though I sort of have a strict “Keep Every Book You Ever Touch” policy….I’M WORKING ON IT).
Do I really need the various Cusco advertisements and street offers that somehow remind me of living here, and I intended to paste into my journal but still haven’t, even though I am surrounded by ample amounts of evidence that I have lived here? NO. Please god, let’s just throw these away right now.
Do I need the clothes I picked up somewhere along the way but am hesitant to get rid of just in case I might need a pair of hot pink shorts? No. Give them away.
Do I really need the six pairs of leggings? …Well…I’ll get back to you on this one.
Some long-term travelers do it way skimpier than I do. And that’s okay. They might be happy with their laptop, a phone charger, two pairs of pants, three pairs of underwear and a water bottle (AND THAT’S IT). While I will forever envy their ultra-tiny backpack and the way they never have to check a bag ever again or trudge 2 miles in the highlands of Bolivia in the freezing cold with a backpack the weight of a dead man…I also know that I am striking the best balance I can.
At the end of the day, I can fit all my things into a backpack, and still have my worldly comforts, like a small library of emerging American fiction writers at my fingertips.
Otherwise it just wouldn’t be my life, no matter where in the world, no matter how many things on my back. The important part is in remembering that I can also survive without whatever is in my backpack.