I’m a minimalist. I’ve always travelled as light as possible. But the important thing to emphasise is that bagless travel isn’t a gradual progression. It’s not that it goes lighter, lighter, lighter to … poof. I’ve got nothing. It’s a qualitatively different approach to travelling.
I spend half my year designing rooftop gardens in New York City, and the rest of the time I travel. I started travelling just after 9/11, when the whole flavour of the city changed overnight. I felt that it was the right time for me to leave. A week later I bought a one-way ticket to Zanzibar. That was my base. I worked on safari camps; I worked in a film festival; I played in a basketball team. I then spent the next three years travelling through mainland Africa and the Middle East.
To supplement my income, I started writing guidebooks and travel articles. One day, in 2005, I received an assignment to climb some mountains in the Andes for a men’s magazine. It was a junket. One of these mountain-climbing companies sent me a lot of gear: two huge duffel bags crammed with helmets, crampons, gaiters, ice axes and waterproof space-age fabrics – all the accoutrements of mountain climbing. I had been travelling light up until then and, suddenly, I was weighed down by all this stuff. I hated it.
When we were back in Quito, I gave away all the gear. I felt exuberant about stripping down to the bare essentials, and I guess I got carried away – suddenly I had nothing left. All I kept with me was my credit card, a small amount of cash, my passport and toothbrush tucked in the pockets of my cargo pants. It was bare bones.
Since then, I’ve learnt that when travelling without bags it’s important to dress generically. You want to wear something that will be comfortable on the beach, in the city and still get you seated in a decent restaurant. Something that allows you to hang out with different crowds.
Staying clean is a challenge – dark colours are better as they hide stains. You’re going to get dirty and you can’t wash your clothes every day. You’re lucky if you can wash them once a week, although you can wash your socks and underwear every day, depending on the climate. In a lot of places it doesn’t cost very much for a new shirt. You see socks for sale everywhere. It’s not hard to buy new things, should you need to, and, anyway, most of the stuff people travel with is dispensable.
Of course, you voluntarily cut off some of your safety net. This poses a certain set of challenges. I know that I don’t have all those things from home sitting on the top of the hotel room sideboard. That’s fine, though. I actually enjoy having to figure out where to buy single-use detergent packets and finding a place to dry your clothes. It puts you out there, walking around and talking to people. Mundane things like that can give you a better feel for what it’s like to live in a place than a tourist attraction that’s in your guide book. It is all about defying our western life of convenience and getting a little uncomfortable.
Unique situations arise when you’re luggage-free. At some point, people ask you where your things are, and when you say you don’t have any, they are often charmed. They are prone to inviting you to stay with them. They find it very endearing. They want to introduce you to their friends and family. You’re the guest of honour at a wedding, a birthday, even a funeral. So many times I’ve had locals anonymously pay my restaurant tab – luggagelessness provokes impulses of hospitality.
Travelling without bags is the simplest thing in the world. You can do it right now. You can go to the airport with a passport and toothbrush, and, I promise you, it would be an awesome adventure. Life is full of decisions, and to prefer one thing is to dismiss another – whether it’s what to pack or where to go. The bagless traveller chooses freedom and the pain that comes with it.