Thanks to Samy Amanatullah, for this great guest post!
“How much does your life weigh?” is the staple question of George Clooney’s motivational speech in Up in the Air. It’s a springboard for inviting his audience of slack-jawed hangers-on to try and fit all their STUFF–their possessions, their fixtures, their relationships—into a backpack. And its end result is the condemnation of long-term relationships (girlfriends, mortgages) and, for our purposes, STUFF.
Go look in the mirror, take a look that can be short but make it hard. There is either some part of you that agrees with this statement, that has contemplated dumping everything, walking away, or you just don’t dig it. Anyone who’s been backpacking has answered this question at some point, even if they don’t realize it. STUFF, if we’re being honest, is a pain in the ass. When I said goodbye to South Korea (as well as the lovely and gorgeous host of this blog) to travel around Southeast Asia, everything I thought I’d need had been (over)stuffed into a bag.
My plan was to travel for a little, celebrate the solar new year, then look for work in Cambodia, maybe Thailand, possibly Laos—someplace where snow wouldn’t be an issue and I could get a decent sandwich (Full disclosure: this plan was amended from an earlier plan). Everything went into that travel bag—warm weather clothes, two sweatshirts, two flasks, underwear abundant, socks, clothes that could be worn for job business, a pair of sports shoes—clunky clunky sports shoes. This thing was overpacked, bursting. I got it closed, but opening it again, as the dicks at airport security made me do was the least pleasant thing in the world. Turning up nothing of concern and seeing that they’d opened a storm, security personnel pushed the bag towards me and looked towards the line that wasn’t behind me or anywhere. Deal with it.
The next day, I bought a $7 backpack off the street to split the load. I still felt conspicuous. Jam-packed, but with what? I described my load earlier, and I’m still not sure. So it was that as I got further from my plan, I shed.
In Up in the Air, Clooney is a frequent flying loaner, gleefully forsaking conventional relationships to jet set around America, proudly living out of a backpack the whole while. Desert island questions (as in, If you were stuck on a desert island and could only take 5 books/items/etc…) are designed to gauge one’s personality via their possessions. Forsaking the comfort of STUFF, paring down your possessions, evokes a simplicity associated with Buddhism or Zen.
At the very least, it impresses people. “I quite admirable that he travel with simple luggage,” my couchsurfing host in Taipei wrote of me (this was much later). A Swedish guy I met in Myanmar remarked at how little my friend and I were carrying. His pack had room for a midget and a half, and when it unzipped, spilling out over the usual suspects was the useless—a mug, a cup, a bottle of whiskey nearly empty but tiny enough to leave a titmouse or Mormon sober, a sleeping bag and a hammock, a drum, a book (Burmese Days) among many others that he bought not out of interest but because that’s what people read when they go to the country formerly known as Burma. It sometimes becomes a thing to judge people by what they’re unwilling to do without. We are what we think we need.
It was before dawn on the Mekong. At one of those stops that exist only to sell foreigners crap breakfast while the border opens, the bus from Bangkok to Vientiane unloaded its cargo (older men getting away from their Thai “wives”, itinerant trekkers going north, farangs working in Thailand on visa runs, backpackers, tubers-in-waiting and a small group looking for work at the tubing bars, Travelers i.e. people for whom travel has ceased to be a vacation and is now a way of life) who then lined up for coffee and toast.
Between wafts of cigarette smoke, steam pouring off coffee, and the hazing pre-dawn, they compared bags. An older English guy who’d traveled Laos before and with whom I’d end up spending much of my time there carried with him a square pack, adorned with patches of countries visited, consisting of about four shirts, two shorts, a pair of trousers, underwear (‘pants’ as the English say,), and shoes on his feet. Books weren’t an issue because he had an iphone with the Millennium Trilogy on audio. No jacket. No sweatshirt taking up half his bag. When people asked what he did on bus rides when the air-condition blasted, his response was, “Oh, it’s not that cold.” His country count was in the fifties.
A middle-aged Irishman showed off his bag, also with flag patches and not much bigger than my laptop. By his standards, that bag was large. His friend, he said, who’d made a mission of going to every country or territory and had pretty much succeeded had two shirts, two pants, a pair of shoes, socks, and no underwear. Later, when I told a travel companion about that last bit, he took it to heart and went commando, an unfortunate move as the waistband to his shorts bulged in the back, leaving a view to his crack. I was taller than he, so I made a point of not walking behind him.
As they talked, I thought of my bags. I was glad that they weren’t with me at the time, but I didn’t feel self-conscious anymore. Yeah, they were clunky mothers—the red mingled with dirt that would cling to my black, the strip of blue drooped over my shoulder making every narrow crossing a bit awkward. They were more than I needed. But I wondered why it was that these older people could get by with less while these teenagers and twentysomethings lug 50 or 70 pounds behind them. What’s the point? What’re we preparing for? When we think travel, we tend to think of freedom, the open road, adventure, but when I see travelers I think turtle, snail, crustacean laboring over the dunes, trying in vain to keep its home on its back. We are what we think we need? Maybe.
“It’s hard for girls. Girls are expected to dress for every occasion,” says a Belgian woman as we discussed this very topic at a bar overlooking the river. And it’s true, especially in the age of social networking, traveling is so many things—tourism, party, adventure, cultural exchange, culture shock, status update, profile picture—that we get caught up in being prepared for anything instead of what we’re facing.
No one wants to find themselves at the top of the mountain with a dead camera, or in an excrement-floored squat bursting out the behind and suddenly without toilet paper. On the other end, you don’t need a cocktail dress to go out for drinks. A hammock and a sleeping bag is probably over-doing it. It’s easy to judge, so I had to wise up. That’s why in some bungalow on the 4,000 Islands, there’s a blue travel bag filled with all the STUFF (shoes, socks, pants, dead camera, wires, water bottles warm and plastic-tasting) I didn’t need.
That’s why 2 months later wandering round Taipei, my STUFF collection was a passport, carton of Bamar (i.e. Burmese) cigarettes, a fifth of apple vodka, two MP3 players, 4 books (3 for trading, 1 used tour guide), three pairs of pants (one of which was always worn), 5 shirts doing double duty as towels, board shorts, a lucky pair of Obama socks that I’d kept because they were a gift (from the lovely and gorgeous host of this blog) and because wearing them at night stopped me from scratching the mosquito feeding farm, and sweatshirt that took up half my bag, because my Southern Californian ass doesn’t handle the cold well. Also, toilet paper, though that had also been a gift from a Bamar guesthouse. My STUFF was like my trip—random, disorganized, endearingly chaotic, and indulgent.
But most importantly, my STUFF was disposable. I could dump it wherever. I’ve left and lost and broke things in every country to which I’ve been. If you look in Janet’s apartment, you’ll find the random remainders of my life in Korea. Some Thai guesthouse has that lime orange sweatshirt that made me stick out wherever I went. In Laos, there’s a pair of shoes that climbed mountains, hiked jungles, forests, and walked through some of the biggest cities on either side of the world. The time came for my grey cargo pants twice burnt-on-the-crotch and mysteriously stained with Full Moon party paint to make someone else look like a chic hobo.
My relationship with STUFF has always been strained as an adult. Moving from house to house every year in university, I came to hate it. STUFF was a symbol of oppression, of being unable to just get up and go, of being tied to one place or thing. The people I lived with swore by STUFF in one way or another. But it’s different when you’re traveling, the temptation for STUFF comes in many forms, but souvenirs are the best way to hemorrhage space and money. Obviously, what we need is defined by where we’re to end up and how long we have till we get there, but souvenirs are for Mantle Place People, folk who have a mantle on which to put their souvenirs. I met one person whose philosophy towards souvenirs was the most agreeable I’d heard. He went by a get one/toss one rule. Every time he bought a t-shirt, he threw one out.
“How did you know you didn’t need a bigger bag?” a travel companion asked me. He wasn’t a Mantle Place Person either, maybe less of one than I am. When we met up in Bangkok, he looked at my knock-off Lowe Alpine bag, limit 50 pounds. How did I know? I didn’t. I assumed my life would shrink or grow with the backpack, kind of like a goldfish. How much does your life weigh? It doesn’t. It depends.