Traveling Light

February 2014

I. Introduction

I have a colleague who, upon going to Paris for thirty days, packed thirty outfits, spread over four suitcases. I will admit that I didn’t start out light either. On my first international trip (three weeks in Beijing and Tibet), I was carrying not one but two duffel bags with me; and not small duffels either. These were Israeli Mossad tactical duffel bags that one could probably fit a body into in a pinch. After this trip, I realized I was carrying too much, so I trimmed down to one body-carrying duffel.

This was before I had ever heard of wash-n-wear or eBooks. In fact, it was my next international trip (two weeks in Peru) where, thanks to my seasoned roommate, I learned about the joys of packing light. He carried a small bag with him, with just the essentials—some toiletries, a few wash-n-wear shirts and pants, a pair of versatile shoes, along with two pairs of wash-n-wear undies. The man had travelled the world this way, with a light, carry-on bag and a few aspirin.

This inspired me, so when I returned I started on the quest for wash-n-wear shirts. They are not cheap, so I waited for sales to acquire my initial collection. I went with long sleeved, figuring I could roll the sleeves up when needed. It also made sense to buy some wash-n-wear pants as well, also on sale, and soon I had myself a small collection of three shirts and three pants. I wasn’t sold on the undies yet, so I waited on those. I was also introduced to a great pair of traveling shoes around this time that had good grip for hiking, but could then be cleaned up and used if going out to a nice dinner.

So, now liberated of my large duffels and over-abundance of clothes, I set off for a few months in Central America, with just a carry-on bag, a small day pack, and my only pair of shoes being the ones I was wearing. I had to learn to make time to wash most every night, and allow for extra time in humid climates. I also still had to look for laundry service for my undies, but they don’t take up a lot of space, so I brought extra. The only problem: upon returning to the states, I was taken aside by a border guard who was very suspicious that I had been on the go, at least according to my passport, for two months and yet I was hardly carrying anything. I took this as a compliment.

There are pros and cons to traveling this light and I have adjusted what I carry over the years. I have now been sold on wash-n-wear undies, after an initial attempt that did not go so well (always good to attempt a trial run before heading out to parts unknown). But, on longer travels, especially when going to varying climates, the old carry-on trick isn’t the most practical. And I’m also finding it better to have at least two pairs of shoes—one that can be thrashed and one for nicer occasions. Now that I’m married, there are nicer occasions.

II. eBooks and eReaders

I love printed books. I love the feel and the smell of them and I like the tactile feel and sound of turning a page, so I don’t give them up lightly. I still carry a printed travel guide with me, which serves as not only a trusty companion but also as a souvenir, with places I’ve been now noted and tagged.  However, as my travels have increasingly grown from a few weeks to a few months, lugging along volumes of printed matter is not the most practical thing one can do.

At first, I figured the solution was to just carry one large book with me, which could last me a while. The problem with this approach is that you now have to carry it on you if you want to read on buses, trains, and planes, which adds weight and takes up space in the daypack or backpack. Large volumes also tend to use thinner paper, which is not ideal for the road.

So a few years ago I finally succumbed and purchase the most basic Kindle, the one that was only $69 if you were willing to have it come with ads (I wasn’t, so I picked up the ad-free version for a bit more). The size and weight was ideal, especially as those seated in front of me on those aforementioned buses, trains, and planes tend to always recline, not allowing for something larger like an iPad. However, I soon discovered one major flaw: you need a light source to read from this type of Kindle, one that is often not found in many rooms around the world, that have replaced the one bulb that was there with an even dimmer compact fluorescent. Good for the environment, bad for the eyes.

This past summer saw both my wife and I working while traveling, and I started to notice the need for us both to have multi-purpose devices. While I didn’t want an iPad due to its size, the iPad mini was something else all together. It has a Kindle reader app, and will let me do many other things the Kindle itself will not (or will, but it’s a pain in the ass). So now I’ve switched to that and am hooked, though I am not pleased with the new iOS 7 interface, but that’s a whole other issue.

The short of it: any sort of eReader now lets you take as many books as you’d like with you, slim or gargantuan. I only keep unread books on mine, but enough to give me variety. If you have a color reader, such as a Nook or Kindle Fire, you also open the door to magazines, some of which are better than others. National Geographic, for instance, is an incredible experience, using the full power of these multi-purpose readers to include audio, video, and a multi-dimensional scrolling experience. Others, like TRVL, are free and offer glimpses around the world with a simple, yet still pleasing, interface.

III. Staying Connected

When I first began to travel, I would essentially go off the grid. No cell phone, no tablet, no laptop. The only electronics I carried were a classic iPod, a watch, and a small alarm clock. I’d pop into the occasional Internet café to send an email to a select few to let them know I was still alive. For special occasions, I could always find a place to make a cheap international call. I still recall the surprise in my father’s voice when I called him from Aguas Calientes, Peru, to wish him a happy birthday.

If you can travel this way, do. It’s a good thing to unplug and disconnect. Everyone knew I would pop up now and again, so there was little worry. It also didn’t hurt that my life back then, before my mother’s cancer and father’s stroke, was far simpler.

As time went on, however, I found myself needing to connect more and more often. I had growing work responsibilities that required me to pop on to my work email from time to time to handle the occasional situation. I’d met the woman who would become my wife, and she wouldn’t let me go more than a day without connecting. It feels good to be needed and to have someone worrying about you; you just have to balance the commitment to connect with the pleasures of disconnecting.

And bring more stuff with you.

The problem with traveling with electronics is not the electronics themselves—a smartphone and netbook don’t take up a lot of space—it’s the chargers that come with them. I now travel with a slim laptop, which has a slightly smaller charger than my day-to-day laptop. It also has two USB ports, so I bring two USB cables to charge my phone and my wife’s tablet. There’s also the set of adaptors for the sockets. I tend to take two of each in case one gets left stuck in a hotel’s wall socket. These don’t take up a lot of room, unless you need one of those massive UK adapters, in which case I only take one and hope for the best.

If I’m traveling for a longer period of time, I still bring my iPod, even though I have songs on my phone. The thing is, I never know what I’ll be in the mood for and my iPod contains my entire music library. But now I have an iPad mini, which uses a different connector than my wife’s iPad and my iPod, so there’s another cable to remember to bring.

If you just want to stay connected, then you can probably get away with just one device. However, if you also need to do some work, which is often the case for me now, you may find the gadgets (and their cables and adapters) adding up. Maybe you really don’t need that jacket.

IV. Souvenirs

I was in Peru during Christmas and New Years many years ago. I was part of a small tour, with a young guide and a seasoned roommate. It was decided that we’d play Secret Santa, with each of us selecting another’s name from a hat. The problem was that my seasoned roommate, who only traveled with a small carry-on strategically packet, was given a rather bulky chess board as his gift. This led him to spending the following night trying to figure out how to rearrange everything so that he could bring it back, along with his other modest possessions. Souvenirs don’t always cooperate with the concept of traveling light.

I never head off with a souvenir in mind; I just see what catches my eye. If nothing does, then I’ll bring home some currency. Early on in a country, I’ll set aside a few striking coins and maybe a few small denomination bills. These bills are subject to use, however. I once gave up a crisp Azerbaijani manat note I’d been saving when the desire for coffee at the airport overpowered my desire to keep a crisp manat note.

I do keep my eye on slim or small items. I find it’s the story behind the item and not its size that matters. Some of my favorites over the years include:

  • A cornhusk flower purchased from a young Honduran girl named Areseli, who tripped and hurt herself while walking beside me and then needed to be convinced that she could accept my US currency.
  • A puzzle statue purchased at a charity shop in Siem Reap, where the owner eagerly showed me how to take it apart and then struggled putting it back together.
  • A singing bowl from Lhasa purchased after being held in place for twenty minutes by not one but three vendors who really wanted me to haggle. (I actually ended up with two bowls and donated the other to a Buddhist center where I used to study meditation.)
  • A weathered temple bell from Thailand that I searched every souvenir stop for, wanting something between the cheap tourist pieces ever present and the authentic bells that should remain in the country.
  • A small silver cup purchased in Telavi, Georgia, after being followed three blocks before the vendor finally drops his price to what I was willing to part with.

Of course, things don’t always go according to plan. For instance, while in a carpet factory in Lhasa, I came across a small prayer rug I wanted to purchase for my mom, that I was hoping to ship back to her. Unfortunately, the salesman informed me that such small rugs often don’t make it to their destinations when shipped and he recommended I carry it on me. I did, tucked into the bottom corner of my duffel bag for over two weeks.

And there was the time my wife insisted on purchasing a silk bedspread in Varanasi on one of the first stops of our seven-week summer trip. The tightly packed bundle resided in her backpack throughout the remaining three countries.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote that, “He who would travel happily must travel light.” While one tries one’s best, exceptions can sometimes be made.

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