“Do you think I should bring my wallet along, or use this passport cover as my wallet?” I asked my wife. I spent the next 30 minutes agonizing over the minutiae of my packing. “If I’m just going to bring what my pockets can carry, I better choose wisely!”
So I went to Malacca with nothing except what my pockets could carry. No bags, no burdens. Hands-free travel. Freedom from stuff. A minimalist approach to life and lifestyle had always been something I aspired towards. Owning less, carrying less material possessions was something of a spiritual pursuit for me too. I wanted to try and see what I can learn from this. I remembered when I read this article about this couple’s crazy travel minimalist experiment travelling through 8 countries in 21 days with no luggage , I was like “game on!” So maybe I can cut my teeth on a short weekend trip, see what it feels like to travel ultra-minimalist style before venturing further and longer.
Malacca it is. *gulp
So here’s what I carried in my pockets:
- iPhone 6+
- Apple earphones
- Charging cable with both micro-USB and lightning ports
- Xiaomi 12000mAh power pack
- Credit card
- Travel pass for bus and train in Singapore
- Passport cover doubling up as wallet
And what I wore:
- Black tee
- Cargo berms with side pockets
- Black jacket for the air con cold on the coach bus and hotel room
First, a disclaimer. No-stuff travelling is all fine and worthwhile, but I don’t actually plan on sacrificing comfort. I’m on a holiday after all! Suffering’s no fun. So how might we travel without baggage AND without discomfort?
The only criteria that my wife insisted on: that I don’t stink. I laughed. Sure! Malacca ain’t no wildlife safari, and soap is freely available. I didn’t even need to buy it – just using the single-use soap given by the hotel was enough. I never really cared for those hotel freebies…until now. In case you are wondering about toothbrush and toothpaste, yes I used the hotel ones too. Not too shabby, seriously. If not, set aside a necessities fund for such purchases upon arrival. In cities, it’s fairly easy to maintain hygiene and comfort even with nothing.
Washing what I wore everyday made sure that I had fresh clothes everyday. I had no detergent, so bathing soap had to do. And it did. I had to contend with varying states of undress around the room while the clothes are in the wash, but nothing a towel or a bathrobe couldn’t solve. It would get harder to do this if I’m sharing a room with friends, or living in a dorm, but not impossible. And that mild social anxiety about being recognised for wearing the same thing everyday? Really, nobody notices that, not even the hotel staff. No knowing smirks detected. Or hushed whispers whenever I walk past. Nope none at all. We are more paranoid about how we think others see us than how others really don’t see us, in reality. Keep saying that.
What I enjoyed about travelling light is how I had to use some ingenuity and creativity for packing and using what’s available where you find yourself. A scavenging, reusing mindset. And you did have to be extra mindful of what you really need. Even down to whether I needed to bring along a single bus travel card! Being mindful also meant questioning if I really needed to buy something. Good luck carrying something around without a bag…which happened to me when I bought a paper calendar from a letterpress print shop. Loved the calendar. But not so fun carrying a floppy piece of paper around.
The power pack for my iPhone weighed down in my pockets like a brick, but I brought it anyway since I expected that I will need to juice up my iPhone pretty often from all the photos and videos I took. I would charge my iPhone using my power pack, and then charge my power pack using USB port on the TV overnight. Most flat screen TVs these days have a USB port, so just plug in your power pack, turn on the TV and charge away. No more bulky Apple chargers! Most power packs need a USB-microUSB port cable while charging your iPhone needed a lightning-USB port cable, so my dual adapter cable shaved down the cables I needed to carry from a grand total of two to one. Earphones for music are useful on our coach ride to Malacca. And our coach had on-board entertainment where we had to use our own earphones, so bringing it along served its purpose twice over!
#1 You don’t notice what you don’t carry
It’s strange how I didn’t notice much my state of being unburdened and free. I had traveled around before carrying just a light shoulder bag, but after a day, you start to feel the strain of the straps on your shoulders: even something light starts to feel heavy. I had imagined that I would feel so boundless and free when I had nothing on me. But it didn’t. It doesn’t make me visibly happier, just less strain. Less pain does not equal more joy, it seems. I don’t even notice that the pains and aches weren’t there. No heat or sweat from carrying bags all day.
Makes me wonder about a lot of things in life. How we spend so much energy trying to comfortable. Making things more convenient, less hassle, more efficient. But how it probably – and ultimately – doesn’t create appreciably more happiness. Just less stress. Less frustration. I guess that’s good enough for most of us. But it’s just interesting to observe my reactions to this. Maybe incremental optimisation isn’t so important after all, to our overall sense of well being and happiness. Maybe doing important, meaningful things and accepting that hassles will be there, does. It’s still a hypothesis, but worth a thought…
#2 Being unburdened means others too will benefit
Somewhere along the trip, I had to carry my wife’s backpack because it looks like both our stuff were in one backpack and I would look like the evil husband who made his wife carry BOTH our stuff. I did it grudgingly, initially. It felt like the whole point of being unburdened by bags got cut short. But after a while, it felt nice to do that for her because she also got to relax and enjoy the benefits of being unburdened. We BOTH felt lighter.
The fact that I was free meant I had capacity to help someone else do so too, at least for a while. And it feels good, because the sum total of our lightness is greater than that I could ever feel, alone.
#3 Having less doesn’t mean less anxiety
Tech substitutes for a lot of the stuff we used to carry for travel – maps, tickets, booking receipts, guidebooks, phone numbers, camera, notebook, laptop. Once we can start paying for purchases and public transport with a mobile wallet, or even get through customs with it, I can even drop half of the things I brought along. It’s both an exciting and scary prospect. Exciting because travelling light becomes even easier. Scary because everything now stands on your mobile phone. It’s a single point of failure, if you ever lose it. There’s no redundancy built into this system. A determined hacker or thief could get everything in one fell swoop. At least in the past there’s less chances that you will lose everything in a go, with everything scattered around your bags, backpack, luggage. Now, you lose the phone, it’ll ALL be gone. Even to pass my phone to a stranger for help to take a photo feels risky. The anxiety of owning something and NOT losing it never felt stronger.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt you had so little of something that you can’t afford to lose it? When we pin our hopes and dreams on that one single point, object, person or future event but is disappointed? I think an illusion about living a minimalist lifestyle is that we will be more at peace and contented when we have less. The hidden problem might be that we were just transferring our need to possess things to a smaller number of objects, but the attachment to things – that white-fisted grip on stuff, people, future events – is not any lesser. Makes me reflect a lot on the possible irony of this whole minimalist movement, of my own efforts, and how easy we can be trapped in thinking that we are more free with less stuff. I’m not saying that going minimalist doesn’t bring happiness. I think what I’m learning from this is that freedom is more a state of mind than a state of stuff. I can have stuff but still be free from it. It’s all in the mind, having stuff or not, even if having less helps, for a start.
So what, now?
To be honest, it didn’t feel that scary setting out on a trip with nothing. Not at all crazy either, on hindsight. I think I can pare it down even more: drop my jacket, my travel pass, bring a smaller power pack. Easily done for short weekend trips. But what about longer trips? Or trips to colder climates? I’m eager to push the limits further, and see what else I can learn from this.