‘If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light. Take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears.’ ― Cesare Pavese
Setting: a train station in Basel, Switzerland, 22 years ago. It’s the start of my Eurorailing and my backpack is weighing me down. I take out vitamins, spare socks, old t-shirts, a few books, a pair of sandals. I feel so euphoric that even as I’m exiting the station, I’m still pulling out and discarding items. It’s the first time I realise how liberating it is to travel light.
Setting: On the London tube to Heathrow, seven years ago. I’m flying to Boston to see my sister. My only luggage is a shoulder bag. We stop mid-journey and the driver announces no trains will go to Heathrow due to a security alert. We exit the station in the middle of nowhere and people with large suitcases join a long cab queue. I jump on a bus. They’re paging me on the loudspeakers when I reach the airport as they’re about to close the gate. I run through the terminal and make it to the plane just in time.
Setting: Bombay airport, last month. I’m paying for excess baggage as I check in to fly back to Dhaka.
Wait! How did this happen? All right, so sometimes I become complacent about how I have this whole compact-travelling thing down pat.
As I plan my next trip I want to figure this out for real. And I want to strike the right balance of being streamlined, ecologically sound and stylish in what I take with me.
This sounds like the project triangle of good, cheap and fast (as in: pick two, because you’ll never get all three). But I’d like to think that with a bit of savvy planning, it’s not just possible, but that it is the only way to travel.
- The real stress of carrying too much is significantly worse than the potential stress of wanting something I didn’t pack.
- Easy mobility. I want to be someone who moves through this world without excess baggage, in all senses of the word.
- Travelling for any length of time teaches us how little we need to live well. This practice helps us do the same outside of travel too.
- It sounds like a token gesture given my air miles, but it’s important for me to use products that are fairtrade, cruelty-free and that avoid ingredients from non-renewable sources.
- We buy too much, waste too much, pollute our waters and air, animals die and wages remain too low for the sake of cheap products. Being aware and spending a little more to not participate in the exploitation sounds very fair.
- Environmentally sound products are usually healthier for me too.
- Sometimes when I get only the above two right, I can look too utilitarian and not feel my best – an unnecessary distraction when I want to relax and enjoy travelling.
- People-watching is such a treat, especially in a different country. It’s good to remember that just as much as I am looking at them, they are also looking at me.
- A little artifice – mascara, perfume and favourite earrings – can often make me feel more like myself.
What I’ve learnt not to do:
• Forget to check the weather.
• Carry the niggling burden of a work assignment I didn’t finish before leaving.
• Wear new shoes on holiday.
Sometimes I imagine I might become someone else when I travel; like in Crete I’ll be the kind of person who wears chunky necklaces but no, I really won’t. Any more than I’ll feel like reading War and Peace when I’m in Colombo.
So, what do I pack?
I prefer to not check in any bags. Therefore, what goes into the carry-on requires some prep.
Because of restrictions with liquids and gels, the idea is to go liquid-free where possible. I take a small tube of oil which serves as my cleanser, moisturiser, body moisturiser and hair conditioner. Men can use oil instead of commercial foams for shaving too. Everything else is more or less solid.
Such as: crystal deodorant, tooth powder, shampoo bar that can be used as soap as well, solid perfume, stick foundation (because, of course, Have Foundation, Will Leak).
As dry ingredients, they save significant space and weight from their traditional counterparts. They’re ecological for this reason, as well as usually being made of natural ingredients. The often retro simple packaging makes them a stylish option too.
Our skin is usually either warm-toned or cool-toned. Warm-toned: the veins on our arms will be greenish; we look more yellow than pink; colours like orange make us pop. Cool-toned: the veins are blue-ish; we’re more pink than yellow; colours like purple make us dazzle.
What suits warm-toned skin: gold. What suits cool-toned skin: silver.
There, now we can leave half our jewellery behind.
And if we take a pair of sandals in gold or silver, then not only do they work as a neutral that goes with everything, they’ll look great on us too.
Oh, the trauma. I don’t have an extensive wardrobe at home but somehow I always fret when it comes to packing what I’ll wear. Here’s what I keep telling myself:
- Go mainly with separates. Total always in single digits. And every top has to work with every skirt/pair of trousers.
- Pack more tops (five) than bottoms (three). Braver souls can go for three and two respectively. Or two and one (plus what’s being worn while travelling) for the ultra-courageous.
- Carry layers rather than one heavy cover.
- I won’t need the slinky dress because I really won’t get a last-minute invitation by someone I haven’t yet met to a big party I don’t know about. And therefore I can also not pack the fancy purse or the fancy heels that work only with the slinky dress and nothing else.
I’m going to carry a notebook and pencil instead of my laptop on my next trip and see what happens. If I never post on my blog again, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love you, it just means that I love longhand more.
I am fascinated by what other people pack:
- Nellie Bly, a Victorian-era journalist who set out to travel around the world in 75 days (to beat Verne’s 80), carried everything she needed in one handbag. Her largest item was a jar of cold cream. This is nicely detailed on Brain Pickings.
- Writer Joan Didion also kept her list charmingly brief. Carrying a typewriter and a mohair throw captures the elegance of it all. An updated version of this list is totally worth emulating.
- An illustrated packing list! Artist Adolf Konrad drew his in.
For practical advice and ideas, try:
- onebag.com A rather militant but interesting website about travelling the world with one bag. Many helpful tips, including the bundle method of packing (though I prefer rolling myself).
- The Non-Boring Vacation Packing Guide for Worldwide Travel by Elisabeth Sowerbutts. A short, useful ebook. I especially like what she says about how we overpack from a misplaced sense of fear.
- Illustrated clothes packing lists, complete with combinations worked out for each day by Gwen ‘bugheart’. I am in awe.
I’ve learnt to never underestimate how great it feels to start a trip without the stress of dragging heavy bags or fretting about porters. I have been upgraded by numerous airlines over the years and it’s only happened when I’ve packed light.
Ultimately, what we pack is only there to attend to our basic needs of cleanliness and a bit of comfort and dash. It can be fun to take even less of what we think we need and fill in any gaps with local versions.
Travelling reminds me again and again how lovely it is to focus on experiences. Packing light is an opportunity to focus on the journey and not on the load. It’s also nice to leave space for adventures.
‘Reminds me of my safari in Africa. Somebody forgot the corkscrew and for several days we had to live on nothing but food and water.’ ― W. C. Fields
‘I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more.’ Listen to The Proclaimers sing I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).
Watch Thelma & Louise. They start with huge suitcases then pare down to the basics, eventually bartering jewellery for bandanas and hats. ‘The more they learnt, the less they kept’ is my preferred tagline.