Underwear, Chapstick, Passport: The Long Journey to Travel Minimalism

All ready for the weekend trip!

All ready for the weekend trip!

My backpack was slowly boring a hole into my coccyx.

I was nineteen and had borrowed a 50 litre green Osprey from my uncle to prepare for my Eurotrip. I stitched a Canadian patch across the crest for everyone to see, as seemed necessary at the time. I purchased a compass and some maps and an industrial-sized container of sun-screen. I looked upon my rental pack, considered its dimensions, and decided that its depth and girth were challenges issued to me by the universe. Could I fill it to the brim and manage to cart it around most of western Europe with me?

In hindsight I probably didn’t need all of the button-down shirts, nor the full bottle of shampoo, nor the half-dozen books, nor the array of sweaters, nor the comically large number of socks. The bottle of Windex was probably a little overzealous. The full Dutch-Mandarin dictionary may have been ancillary. Several dozen packets of clean, type B positive blood in vacuum sealed were probably unnecessary preparation for a trip that was very unlikely to include grievous bodily wounds nor encounters with eastern European vampires.

I was young and had never travelled alone before. Previously accompanied by parents, there was always an advisor looming over my suitcase, scrutinizing my choices and declaring when I had packed enough. I would stand before my trunk, stuffing shirts and underwear and socks and books and toothbrushes and then packets of saltines and X-Men action figures and 1980s commemorative mugs featuring Peanuts characters until an adult would tell me to stop. Someone would seal my bag with a travel lock, remove the key from sight, and cart my possessions around for me.

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The Boomerang Tourist: Walking Old Roads With Eyes Wide Open

Palace patterns

Wait, there’s cool stuff over here?

“Have you ever been to the famous Korean palace Gyeongbokgung?” asked our tour guide. She was in her work-mandated pink and white hanbok, delicate and gloved, her voice amplified by a microphone pack hooked to her hip. A gesture, a reference to the architecture, describing the similarities and differences between the current palace in which we wandered and its more famous cousin. Autumnal leaves trembling on the branches, attempting to shed their verdant green, preparing to make these palaces look their best, gearing up to turn this tour into something amazing. People oohed and aahed at gazebos, at purple and green cornices, at gardens and trees.

I scoffed—of course I had been to Gyeongbokgung. I had lived here before, or at least off in a neighbouring metropolis.  In some primal, needy way, the way I often need other people to be aware of how smart and capable I am, I wanted the tour guide and most of the strangers around me to know this factoid. I wanted them all aware of my fascinating and worldly life. We may all have been equal in our unfamiliarity with Changdeokgung, but I was practically from here. Did they want to hear me speak my meagre and rapidly deteriorating Korean? Watch me order and devour some bibimbap? Handily navigate the mostly-easy subway?

Of course, much as I felt vastly pleased with myself, self-satisfied and redolent in my previous experience in this nation, there wasn’t a whole lot of justification. I had certainly been to the main palace, years earlier, in those fresh, wide-eyed early days of semi-tourism. In the days when I had felt a guest, before residency quashed my acquisitive, travel-hungry desires; before familiarity had silenced the wanderlust, when working rendered me more local than traveller. I had explored the palaces and the museums and the monuments in the long long ago, before a journey to Seoul necessarily included finding somewhere that made a good taco and a venue hosting an English-language rock band.

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A Month Without Sundays

The Backwaters

This looks like a good place to stop and never leave.

The pact was this: four months was not, actually, that long. Our time in Thailand was but a blip, our sojourn in Laos but a fraction of a blip. Two months in India sounded long on paper. On the ground, however, when the scale on the map lengthens before you, when centimetres become tens of thousands of kilometres, two months seems paltry and insignificant, barely enough time to pick up your backpack, see a Ganesh statue and eat a bowl of curry before you have to move on. We needed to move. We needed to go.

And so we went.

We had been riding hard. When we weren’t waking up in darkness to catch a train sputtering into the dawn, we were breaking free of our mosquito nets and jumping right into a hike. Faith gained the nickname “Walking Distance” as we suddenly took on hours-long slogs with our backpacks in the midday sun when she decided our hostels were close enough and when the prices for local transportation were just too expensive. We had stomach bugs that we were ignoring, mosquito bites so infected and grotesque that we were fielding offers from haunted houses to act as leprous zombies. We had long since abandoned shoes, our feet developing the hardened carapaces of crab pincers, the shape and texture and colour of a bull’s rear hooves. We ate and slept and drank and ran and danced and walked and hiked and moved and moved and moved.

We were frenetic and incapable of pacing ourselves. Every second that we weren’t going somewhere or eating something new felt wasted, a boon handed down from above that we were casting aside and neglecting like soiled Kleenex. This was our opportunity, and we didn’t know if we would ever return, so it was important to harvest as much as we could. We needed to absorb India, we needed to absorb all of Asia, as completely as we could. This was our lemon, and we were all squeeze.

It was exhilarating.

It was exhausting.

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