We carry light, each of us, without a doubt. And, we carry much more, sometimes dark and sometimes heavy.
Slimmed Down and Prepared
The four of us took off for a year of travel on December 25, 2022 with four carry-on suitcases, four hiking backpacks, and four daypacks. If you had asked us then, we absolutely believed that we had winnowed down what we would carry with us as much as humanly possible; in our minds, we barely had what we needed for over 365 days of travel. We saw ourselves as slimmed down and prepared, as least as far as luggage was concerned.
We felt this sense of accomplishment because Sendhil and I had spent the previous six months furiously asking and answering questions that would allow us to leave on this journey, and also fit back into an iteration of our current life in Chicago.
Rent or sell the house? (Short-term rental, AirBnB.) Keep or sell the cars? (Sell one, keep one in storage.) Sell, donate, or throw out all the “stuff” that was in our storage unit (sight unseen) for many years? (A bit of all three, heavy on the donation — as well as taking stuff out of one storage unit and putting in another one. Yes, this is true.) Can half-used notepads be donated? (Yes?) What about half-used watercolor sets? (No.) Can sports bras many sizes too small be donated? (I hope so, because I put them in a bag, put that bag in a blue Goodwill bin, and ran away.)
There were many harder questions. What is the best way to set up long-distance care for our parents with our siblings and other care providers? (No easy answer, reach out if you want to discuss.) How do we homeschool/worldschool our kids? (Helps to have a parent who is a former math teacher, and access to solid group instruction through AoPS.)
Finally, at the bottom, were the hardest questions. What will we do when get back? (. . .) Will I be able to do something important when I come back? Will I be able to be important when I come back? Will I do something that will finally make me famous/notable/known when I come back? (What? Whoa. I don’t have time for these thoughts right now. I’ll think about this when I get back. Need to pack.) I should have known better.
It’s Not Too Much Baggage, Right?
We brought ourselves and our modest 12 pieces of luggage with us. And, for the first many weeks, I remained busy. Landing in Auckland. Jetlag and walking and museum-going. Opening our luggage was more like an explosion than an unfurling. Our tightly contained 12 containers, ripped open, revealing tucked-away stuff sacks and cubes. Amidst the flea market stall of our belongings were the walkie-talkies we brought. Immediately upon seeing them, I knew I should have left them at home. But my ego would not let that thought stand. I said to myself, “yes, we will use these while we are hiking; they will allow us to communicate with Karthik and Meera when they run ahead of us on trails. And they did — when we remembered to bring them, wanted to carry them, had charged them, didn’t encounter too much static, and had turned them on. (You can imagine the likelihood of all of those things happening at the same time.)
Packing again, just four days later, on our way to New Plymouth, NZ, was no small task. And exhausting. Still smitten with the idea of adventure, I ignored feelings that resembled, “Wait, we’ve lugged all this crap all across the ocean. How are we going to move this from place to place?” Part of me was incredulous, how could we have been so wrong, and part of me was determined to prove my former self right. Important insights be damned, we were going to take our twelve pieces of luggage and move forward.
Our New Plymouth house hid our excesses. We settled in for our month-long stay. Hiking, biking, canoeing, wading hip-deep through rivers in caves with glowing maggots above us, my mind was busy with what were we doing, and even more than that, what would be doing next.
Wait, Why Are My Insides Unpacking?
Basking in the realization of a dream I have had for decades, I snuggled into bed every night floating on the light that gratitude brings. Until my insides started to unpack too. My heaviness — the insecurities and fears that have been with me for what seems like my whole existence — started to slowly chip away at the light. My own house, the casing of my mind-body had gotten too full to hide anything else.
I managed to brush aside my fears of irrelevance and insignificance and hoped to remain violently chipper. Before we left New Plymouth, we shipped back a box of clothing to Chicago. Why spend the money to ship it back instead of donating it in New Zealand? Well, I guess, in our most primitive states our identities are our things. And, sadly, I wasn’t ready to unidentified with a great, too-small Athleta jacket that I purchased for half-price. So home it went. Primitive for sure.
In preparation for our campervan journey, we decided to send our four carry-ons to Singapore, where we would pick them up later. (Okay, decided is a lie. We had to get rid of the suitcases because they wouldn’t fit into the campervan. We barely fit into the campervan.). And as the heaviness of what I carried outside lessened, my internal baggage wanted the extra space.
Here I am driving a campervan through the dry, desert-like wine country of Central Otago, pondering where the closest kid-friendly winery might be (in New Zealand there is a category of wineries that are classified as kid-friendly — yet another reason it’s one of Earth’s promised lands), and almost simultaneously wondering why I couldn’t build a career with more influence when I had every privilege and opportunity. What? I was just thinking about where in New Zealand I could find a heavy pinot noir, and now I’m back to my family room in Chicago? I’m back to lying in my bed beating myself up for not being more — more notable, more effective, more productive. My chest is tight and my stomach is knotted.
By the time we were 10 days into our campervan trip, I had no memory of what we actually put into those suitcases. Except for the walkie-talkies, I knew they were in there. Now, it was my inner luggage that opened like an explosion, often in the most beautiful places. An example of my inner monologue during our hike in the astounding Hooker Valley: “I’m losing ground.” “I’m never going to accomplish anything significant.” “Look at this glacier is this grey-blue lake, how can this exist, what a gift, but, more importantly, what am I contributing.” “I know so many people who are noted in their work and fields, that will never be me.” “I’ve never been able to commit to anything long enough to leave a legacy in a field of work.” WTF, brain? Don’t you know we may never be in Hooker Valley again? My brain did not know, and once it did know, it seemingly did not care.
We arrived in Singapore, hesitant to open the four suitcases we had sent there. We hadn’t missed what was gone. Afraid that once we opened them up, our clarity would disappear. I for one knew that once I saw those walkie-talkies I would talk myself into keeping them. And, at the same time, the idea of lugging around all of that baggage for the next 8 months gave me a headache. We opened the suitcases, and almost instantly agreed that the majority of the contents were unnecessary. We packed them and arranged to have them picked up and sent back home. If you’re doing the math, yes, you’re right. We paid to bring all 12 pieces with us from Chicago, and we paid to send approximately 5 carry-ons worth of things back to Chicago from various parts of the world. Shipping items back to the United States was expensive, but it turns out the heaviness was a luxury we couldn’t afford.
The Baggage That Replaced the Luggage
We came to Vietnam with 4 hiking backpacks and 4 daypacks. Things feel easier, moving from one place to another. We are less busy. I’m less occupied with thoughts of how will we pack what we have, what should we leave or keep, and, even, what will we do next.
We are in the rest phase of our year of travel. Now that there is less external clutter, my internal clutter is demanding attention. What I thought I had left at home, the feelings of having failed whatever talent or gifts I might have, or performing below the potential of my credentials, came with me as a stowaway (and, let’s be honest, it always does). My stowaway senses the space I’ve made available; she wants attention. I don’t have any other clutter to push her back into her box.
Letting her walk side by side with me is hard. My stowaway, she’s noisy and wants to talk all the time. She makes it hard to indulge in formerly pleasurable distractions, and she often makes me uncomfortable and afraid. And, yet, now that she is in my sidecar with her hair flowing in the wind and the sun on her face, everything seems more possible. Everything seems lighter, for the first time in a long time.