The Myth Of Traveling Light

Packing the bare minimum has always made leaving and coming back seem easier. But the older I get, the more I feel the weight of the miles between me and everyone I love.

My church is the church of traveling light.

It isn't much of a life philosophy, but it seems to be one of mine, in that way in which you can say something jokingly, only to discover yourself defending it ferociously in the next breath. The belief that the best way to see the world is while carrying as little as possible — that most of the things I really need will fit into a carry-on, and that anything else can be picked up on the road — has stuck with me longer than any dalliances with faith of a more involved sort.

It's a practice I first fell into back when the idea that I could set off to somewhere of my own choosing was just dawning on me as a possibility (when I owned so little that deciding what to pack wasn’t an issue), and it's become an art I’ve refined over the years. To travel light is, on a basic level, to commit yourself to the idea that you don't need to be prepared for every contingency or possible emergency. It is to assume that you can muddle through as you go.

When you travel light, it’s so much easier to run for a train that's about to pull out of the station, or opt to hoof it when a bus fails to materialize, or pick up and go when the Airbnb you booked turns out to have all sorts of alarming qualities that weren't included in the listing. It means you're less likely to pay for the privilege of having your suitcase devoured by an airline's labyrinthine bag-check system. It means you can breeze right off a plane and out into the world, one of life's unsung small pleasures.

Traveling light frees you up in small ways, like letting you wander into a pretty neighborhood and decide that, actually, that's where you want to stay that night. It also makes you more nimble in bigger ways, like switching your final destination from Saigon to Hong Kong, while your connecting flight is already boarding in New York. I did that once, laptop propped up on my rolling suitcase, when the family members I was meeting up with Skyped me in a panic to say they'd run into visa issues. And, of course, traveling light allows you to sanctimoniously drone on about the benefits of traveling light, as though it's an indication of character strength instead of a personal choice — as though being willing to wear the same shirt for days without washing it is something to be smug about. It lets you indulge in a performance, whether true or not, of effortlessness, of being low-maintenance and worldly at once.

My formative experiences with travel were the opposite of light. More often they were literally heavy, testing airline weight limits — an approach to transit that's familiar to plenty of fellow immigrants possessed of the twin privileges of being able to afford and being allowed to go back and forth across borders freely. You are a personal moving service and import/export exchange, as well as a visitor, toting precious aspects of a former home back with you over the years. I remember my parents hauling suitcases swollen with jars of mint sauce, foil packets of Typhoo, Enid Blyton novels, laksa paste, batik fabric, and the occasional box of bright yellow 24-karat gold jewelry — all in addition to the things required to keep a family of five clothed and entertained for trips that could span weeks — treasures hauled thousands of miles, heaved onto the floor of our California living room to be stored and doled out throughout the year.

My parents grew up on different sides of the planet, so travel was part and parcel of growing up for me and my sister and brother. My mother is Singaporean-Chinese, her parents having lit out from Guangdong for a country that had not yet become independent when she was a little girl. My father is English, hailing from generations of South Londoners. After we moved to the US in the ’80s, we embarked on a regular rotation of visiting and receiving visitors from both Singapore and the UK. So did a lot of the friends I grew up with in our Bay Area suburb, a town whose sprawling new developments brimmed with other first-generation families working in tech, although the destinations — Taiwan, India, Iran, Peru — varied.

We were the Americanized children of parents trying to stitch the world closer together through travel and instill some sense of their own formative experiences in their offspring. I took these trips for granted, watching my parents trying to transport parts of themselves and their pasts back to the US through luggage crammed with keepsakes, gifts, bargains, and things you could (or should) only buy abroad. I understood what they were trying to do, but not the emotions behind it.

The arduousness of it all was an inextricable part of the process. These visits were work, not just in the preparation and the loading up of luggage, but in the awareness of just how much distance there was to be traveled, enough that if you were going to make that crossing, you might as well stay for a while. My mother once braved the 20-plus-hour trip to Singapore with three children in tow, all under the age of 10, and without my father, who followed a week or two later when he was able to get off of work — a travel feat that's nearly unimaginable to me, even though I was obviously one of that trio, and was probably behaving monstrously.

We skipped across the cool floors of Narita International Airport, my sister and I, the two of us whiling away a layover with the help of the jump rope my mother magically produced from one of the many bags of child care supplies she was hauling around. There's definitely no traveling light with kids, who require snacks and strollers, distractions and diapers — or if there is, it requires a militancy or bravado beyond my limited comprehension.

But then traveling light is, at heart, about going solo. What's the point of winnowing your stuff down to something you can sling over your shoulder if you have to wait around for someone else to gather their stuff at baggage claim? It was an unsettling realization, the first few times I traveled by myself — ventures that felt so far from my experiences growing up as to almost require their own vocabulary — that it could be so blissfully easy. It felt like shirking responsibilities that hadn't actually been assigned to me. For so long, travel had been all about strengthening ties; to feel like there were no strings on me gave me a sense of guilty exhilaration.

You can find hundreds of guides to packing light online. It is a genre of service journalism that, depending on the source, can blur into something more abstract, a kind of Marie Kondo exercise driven by necessity rather than joy. There are diagrams demonstrating how to best Tetris things into a case, suggestions to roll your clothes rather than fold them. Older instructionals tend to stress the importance of wearing layers and opting for neutral separates that can be combined into an array of modular outfits. Newer ones are more likely to recommend that you purchase your way to minimalism with special microfiber towels and vacuum bags, multipurpose jackets and stretchy pants with hidden pockets, none of which are necessary, but most of which are fun.

Often, the tips you get from fellow travelers are either painfully obvious or too individually specific, as is always the case when deciding what you actually need. Like: Wear your coat and your bulkiest pair of shoes on the plane rather than pack them — obvious. Or: Always bring a bathing suit, because you seem to find yourself in the water even when you're heading somewhere snowy — weirdly personal (and yet, true).

The prospect of impulse-buying tolerable swimwear while on the road is beyond anything I'd willingly attempt. But accepting that you can buy almost anything you forget is the best way to ward off packing anxiety; it’s one of those realizations, like the fact that you can wash your clothes, that can fundamentally alter the way you think about packing. Drug stores and supermarkets and laundromats can be the unheralded highlights of traveling, places where you can glimpse what it might be like to live somewhere instead of just visiting it.

All of these bits of advice are fine. But the real trick to traveling light is more simple than any of that. It requires only that you accustom yourself to leaving things behind — things that you bought because you thought you needed them, but now know you can get by without. Eventually, you start to think that you could, if you had to, throw a few carefully chosen items in a bag and go forever, striding across continents, bringing with you only what you've opted to carry.

When I was 18, I fell in love with a college, flinging myself across the country to a New England school whose Gothic architecture and entrenched English literature department fit my fuzzy ideas of what cultural seriousness looked like. Years later, watching Lady Bird would give me the most horrified pang of recognition, but at the time, part of the appeal stemmed from being able to show how readily I could leave home, blithely bouncing across the continent — only to curl up, poleaxed with homesickness, on a crackling, plastic-coated mattress missing the cover of the sheets I hadn't packed.

I made up for the distance by acting like it wasn’t there. I headed back to my parents’ house for the holidays with barely more than what I was wearing, as if I still lived there, as if I were crossing 2,600 miles just to stop by and do a load of laundry. Travel had been so involved when I was growing up that to treat it casually felt like getting away with something. It was a feeling I took to heart.

Rather than go home on other breaks, I spent them rattling around England or Spain on discount flights, wearing the same battered pair of jeans that stretched out with wear until I had to cinch them with a shoelace. I took a summer job in a suburb of Taipei working for a questionable textbook company that paid in travelers checks, sharing a combination apartment and office with classmates and supplementing my slim wardrobe with bootleg T-shirts from street vendors that dissolved after a few washes. I saved up enough for a stretch of backpacking with my best friend — grubby, gloriously unscripted travel during which we never bothered to book ahead, picking our destinations based as much on what bands were playing there as what sights we could see.

The looseness of it felt so indulgent, though it was done with the safety-netted thriftiness of kids who are broke but whose parents (conveniently) are not. It felt like playing at being a whole other type of person — a person who could just pick up and go, who could shed the weight of two continents’ worth of familial expectations and sacrifice.

That’s the type of person I'm not, and those strings are always there, pulling my mind back in ways that have become essential to me as a thirtysomething who has now spent most of her life away from home. But that’s the kind of traveling light I stayed in love with, even as I grew up and got jobs and started focusing on how to tease a fortnight's worth of semi-professional outfits out of a carry-on instead. I still like to pretend I can cross the distance between the person I was and the person I became lightly, like it's nothing at all, even though I feel it more than ever.

Traveling light is its own kind of luxury. The psychological cushion of having enough money to bail you out of minor emergencies, and having someone to call on who could bail you out of bigger ones, makes minimalist travel infinitely more comfortable. And even for the most bare-bones traveler, presuming that your needs can be straightforwardly met wherever you go, that you don't require special food or sizing or accommodation, is its own kind of privilege. It's the privilege of assuming that you're welcome wherever it is you're going — that you'll be at least tolerated, if not indulged, in your outsiderness.

My parents had their own stints of traveling light, back before they had to heft the load of three children. In the the '70s, my father puttered around Europe with his pals in a tiny car that struggled to handle the inclines of the Alps; my mother left Singapore for a vacation in England and never went back. That story is the stuff of family lore: When she was in her early twenties, working as a punch card programmer at a computer company, she saved up enough time off to travel the 6,000-plus miles to London and then just stayed, finding a job in the UK offices of the same business, befriending fellow immigrants at the YMCA where she lived, and eventually meeting my dad and getting married.

It was a fantasy of leaping halfway around the globe in a single bound so potent that I didn't think to question the details until I was well into adulthood myself, and had met, on trips, some of the friends my parents made during that period and still keep in touch with. When I did finally ask my mom more about her jump into the unknown, the full story, of course, involved complications the short version didn't. She, the oldest of four, went to England with the idea of finding work, renting a room in a bed and breakfast across the street from her company's London office. She half bluffed and half bulldozed her way into a meeting there by brandishing a business card and acting official, and it happened that there was an open position at the company that came with a visa. She got the job on her first day in a strange city, such a long way from home, woozy with jet lag. She never did actually get a holiday.

Learning these details made me wonder about how we'd always preferred to tell the story, as if it were no big deal, emphasizing the ease and the impulsivity, rather than the planning and the work. Traveling light had always appealed to me as the flipside of those long trips hauling heavy suitcases over oceans to visit friends and family. But maybe it's really just another way to downplay the miles between you and wherever you're going, between you and wherever you're from. One of these approaches to travel involves trying to bring your home with you, and the other involves pretending you don't need any part of it, because it's always just a quick flight, or drive, or train ride away.

My parents may have once left their homes in the spirit of the latter, crossing oceans easily in search of independence and different possibilities, but by the time I was born they'd given in to the pull of the former. So of course their children scattered themselves in turn, me to the East Coast, my sister fluttering off for years to China, and my brother following in my footsteps to New York, three subway stops away but in his own universe. As I get older, the feeling of distance sometimes forms a pit in my stomach, because crossing it is never actually effortless, no matter how light your suitcase.

The travel industry is moving in a direction that tries to make light packers of us all, with fees for everything extra and discount flights that dare you to whittle yourself down to something that will fit under your seat. The omnipresent offerings of internet shopping and cheap shipping have stripped away a lot of the specialness of buying things abroad, and the Bay Area has changed enough since I left that my mom, on the phone recounting what she used to carry back, laughed that she can now buy almost everything at the 99 Ranch that sprung up down the road a few years ago.

But the emotions carried in that heavy suitcase remain — the desire to bring something of your life to a new place and to take something similar back. I'll always be a devotee of the small bag, but the more the years pass, the less it seems like the gesture of freedom it used to, and the more I feel a weight that can't be shrugged off: that of the miles between me and those I love. The world will never be as small as we like to say that technology and travel have made it, but it's still a comfort to pretend that it is, that crossing continents is barely more than crossing a room. ●

This essay is the first in a series of stories about travel that will run from March 25 through April 1, 2018.

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