Elsa recently posted about her desires to travel light and then left to do just that. While she is gone, I’d like to reflect a bit on my own recent travels, the people I’ve meet, and thoughts on materialism and the joys of having nothing but a backpack and your passport.
I love to travel. I’ve spoken in the past about my trips to [ The Grand Canyon ] and [ Israel ]. In total, I’ve been to about 26 different countries for varying amounts of time. Of course, traveling is amazing for the beautiful places you see and the cultures and differences you are exposed to. But for me, backpacking is as much about the local people, the fellow backpackers, and the feelings of minimalism that I get when I arrive in a hostel with nothing but my 50 liter Gregory pack.
Meeting locals takes skill and luck and willingness to leave your comfort zone. It can be near impossible in countries where the locals don’t speak your language and dangerous (especially as an American woman) in certain countries. But when I look back on my trips, some of my most salient memories are of conversations and experiences with locals. In Sapa, Vietnam, I arranged a two day trek through a local female-owned and run company that has local women escort tourists through their towns. These women became fast friends as we talked about different cultural norms about femininity, marriage, and dating as well as the portrayal of “America” in their community.
In Cape Town, South Africa, we met local college students in a bar that ended up becoming friends I keep in touch with to this very day. A few were from Johannesburg and when we flew there later in our trip, they picked us up from the airport and had a full day planned to show us everything they loved about their city, from the touristic (Nelson Mandela’s home) to the not-so-touristic (their favorite fro-yo place in town). Recently in Morocco, we chanced upon meeting a Moroccan-Canadian who spent two full days showing us his city and introducing us to his neighbors and friends.
I’ve learned far more about other cultures and cities from locals than from any other experiences in my life. Navigating differences in culture and language and learning from one another, we all left with amazing feelings of how both similar and different we all truly are.
I also have a soft spot for fellow backpackers. The types of people who venture out of their home countries to travel for months or years are generally more open-minded, friendly, and interesting than most people I’ve met in life. They also have plenty to share about and from their home countries, and at this point I have an international group of friends that I would not trade for anything. From a psychology perspective, there is something extraordinarily bonding about having new, exhilarating experiences with someone. I’ve become friends with people from very different walks of life that I likely would never encounter or think I could have something in common with had we both been in NYC. I’ve also learned from my fellow travelers who often have different values and philosophies on life than my own.
After a month backpacking Europe with WAY too much stuff, I’ve been packing increasingly less stuff each time I go somewhere. THIS is a post from my 2012 Southeast Asia trip where I listed everything I decided to bring. I don’t have a more recent packing list, but I definitely packed almost half of that for my recent month in Portugal and Morocco.
I’ll admit that I am far more materialistic than I’d like to be. I love my apartment and all of the things that I’ve accumulated over the years that adorn it. Many of these items are attached to important memories, others I enjoy for aesthetic or functional purposes. That being said, there is something indescribably freeing about venturing into the world with so few possessions. A lighter backpack makes my burden feel literally lighter. I feel reduced down to the core of who I am. It’s also very liberating and satisfying to live successfully with so few items and to realize how little we actually need to thrive and function in everyday life.
In response to Elsa’s query about how others live with the contradictions and tensions of materialism and minimalism, my answer is that I do both. I come home to my possessions but I leave with very little on my back. I prefer to alternate between these lifestyles and am thankful that I am currently able to.
Relating this back to rethinkED, I believe that travel is an integral part of my personal growth and wonder. Without these journeys outside of my everyday life, I would not be able to appreciate and enjoy the daily grind that I return to. Meeting new people reinvigorates my interests in human behavior, seeing those less fortunate reaffirms my decision to work in education research, and thrusting myself into new and sometimes scarily foreign environments forces me to rethink my values, my strengths, and myself.