This past week I received an email from a new reader to my blog that said she loved my blog and loved what I was doing (Ahem, I believe this is what us hotshot bloggers like to call “fan mail.” Of course, it’s not the first fan mail I’ve received — heck no! I’m getting emails all the time from people all over the world who say they love me… and want to show me their love by depositing $50,000 of their deceased father’s money into my bank account as soon as I send them all my bank account details and a copy of my birth certificate… Ahh, fans! Aren’t they the greatest?!).
The email went on to ask me how I had reduced my life down to one piece of luggage and if I had any tips on how she could attempt the same feat. After blasting off an email to her with some of my sage advice (including “keep only the stuff you really, really need and not the cheap, crappy stuff” — yes, yes, I know, genius!), she listed me on her blog as inspiration towards her plan to adopt a more minimalist approach to life. I was, of course, pleased and honored… and more than a bit worried that she might have confused me with a different blogger… you know, one of those bloggers that is actually a minimalist.
After all, I can’t even keep my words to a minimum, let alone my belongings. Seeing as my average blog post is roughly the same length as a Tolstoy novel, you can imagine the average length of my shopping list! Not only do I like to buy stuff, I tend to buy stuff in bulk as if I’m living in constant fear of tornadoes or a crippling plague of locusts or, say, an onslaught of eighty unexpected house guests. Instead of buying one tube of toothpaste, I usually buy twelve (and not the normal sized tubes or even the “family size”, but the Mega-Mormon-Family-of-Twenty-Five sized tubes!). I’ve never met a twelve-for-the-price-of-eleven-value pack that I didn’t like. If I find one pair of pants that fit, I end up coming home with two of them… or five (Hey, you never know when your unexpected house guests might need some pants… or toothpaste… or twelve pairs of athletic socks!).
This is not to say I don’t have my bouts of minimalism. In fact, I’d say I enjoy getting rid of stuff almost as much as I enjoy getting the stuff. As exhilarating as it is to find a pair of pants that fit in a size I deem acceptable (and not in some size that has a lot of X’s in front of it), there is something equally exhilarating and liberating about getting rid of them. (Just remember not to do this while you’re wearing them in public… as that fun sense of liberation will only last until you’re arrested for indecent exposure and forced to wear pants again… most likely of the prison-issue variety, which I can guarantee you will not be in a size to your liking). Usually this pants-purging episode is followed by some form of purger’s remorse during which I obsess about the pants that got away and go on a shopping quest to find an equally pleasing pair of size-acceptable slacks… which I subsequently get rid of.
And so the cycle continues.
I attribute my bouts of obsessive pack rat followed by bouts of obsessive pants-purging (and subsequent fits of regret) to my parents. (Hi, Mom and Dad! Yes, that’s right — it’s your fault that your basement is currently riddled with boxes of my stuff. When I get home, I promise to clear it all out. And when I accidentally throw out Great Grandma’s collection of antique hand-blown glass, that’s going to be your fault, as well. Isn’t parenting fantastic?!). My mother, an avid collector, has collections of everything from chicken knick-knacks to actual, real-live chickens. My dad, on the other hand, is an avid thrower-outer. His motto has always been that if an object is not nailed down and is not currently helping to hold together the house, than it must be trash. Growing up, my siblings and I had to be careful that we didn’t leave our shoes unattended for too long for fear that we might never see them again.
Throughout my childhood, I alternated between collecting (my collections included Strawberry Shortcake dolls, doll houses, guinea pigs, hair scrunchies and, most regrettably, stirrup pants) and attempting to throw everything I owned out (while the stirrup pants didn’t give up much of a fuss, let’s just say, the guinea pigs were none to pleased about this). As an adult, I’ve wavered between wanting things (especially if those things happened to be covered in sequins and cute as a guinea pig) and wanting to reduce my belongings down to the contents of a cardboard box (which works quite nicely with my current retirement plan… which also happens to feature a cardboard box).
Given my penchant for regularly ousting my possessions, I can’t say getting my belongings down to one suitcase in preparation for this trip was all that hard. In fact, it was rather fun! The months before I left my apartment in Japan prior to starting my trip, I gleefully handed off my things to anyone who made the mistake of stopping by my place. Heck, I would have tried to ply the pizza delivery man with a pile of my old pants in exchange for the pizza if I thought he would have taken me up on the offer (And if I thought he wore my size — regrettably, he looked to be about a size six… a size I haven’t seen since I was about six).
It was easy-peasy to reduce my worldly possessions to a pile only big enough to fit into a twenty-two-inch carry-on size bag (with detachable day pack… and straps that prevent the much dreaded “clothing migration”). What has been difficult has been curbing any spending sprees to keep my belongings to that twenty-two-inch size pile. In order to make sure I’m not spilling out of my suitcase (even if I’m spilling out of my pants– thanks to two fattening, rice-eating months spent working on the rice farm), I have made up a few rules for myself to keep both my purchases and my baggage in check.
Use It Or Lose It
Every couple months, usually before packing up and moving on to my next destination, I review the contents of my bag, assess each item and decide whether or not I really need it. If I haven’t used it in over a month and can’t foresee myself using it in the next couple months, it gets the boot. Of course, the future can be hard to predict (especially when your future holds jobs like “rice farming” and “boat building”… not only am I never quite sure what I’m going to be doing on these jobs, I’m also never quite sure what I’m going to need. While there are plenty of websites out there offering advice on what to pack for your average backpacking trip; as far as I know, my blog is the only blog out there covering essential topics like what to wear while building a boat).
One item that I recently booted was, in fact, my boots. Prior to leaving on my trip, I debated between bringing my running shoes or a pair of low-top hiking boots. While my regular day-to-day life involved lots of running but very little hiking (in fact, prior to leaving Japan I owned two pairs of hiking boots — one pair for each time I had actually gone on a hike), I was convinced that my new traveling life would be different. My new traveling life wouldn’t include mundane activities like jogging around the block. Oh no, my new traveling life would be jam-packed with mountain top jaunts and jungle treks. My new traveling life would require a more rugged attire, better suited for all the rigorous activities I would, no doubt, be asked to participate in — like single-handedly saving villages from avalanches and scaling glaciers in search of endangered mountain goats.
After four months of my new traveling life, I had cracked out my hiking boots only twice (once to go on a walk and once to kill a cockroach that came skittering in under my bedroom door). Instead of being used to climb mountains and tromp through the jungle, my boots were primarily being used to collect dust and house ant nests.
I sent the boots home a couple weeks ago in a box with my video camera — another item I had hoped would get a lot of use in my new traveling life. Prior to starting my trip, I had great visions of myself creating fascinating films of my journeys, all featuring my insightful commentary… that is until I filmed a short clip of myself speaking into the camera and remembered the reason why I have never pursued a career in film before (aside from, you know, my lack of talent… and, umm, lack of ankles). You see, I have this voice. My voice has a tone and pitch that has been known to attract wild dogs from miles away. While it’s definitely distinctive, I can’t say it’s particularly pleasing to listen to, especially on film — unless you like the feeling of your ears bleeding.
After listening to a couple minutes of my incessant, incoherent screeching, I gave up all hopes of my becoming the next Anthony Bourdain and sent the camera home (to reside in my parent’s basement… where I’m sure it will be perfectly happy with my Strawberry Shortcake collection and that cardboard box that I’m planning to retire in when I get older).
Reduce… and Replace!
Should you be one of those people who breaks out in a cold sweat at the thought of getting rid of all your nice things, not to worry! Sure, you will still have to get rid of the stuff you’re not using, but you get to replace it with new stuff (Yeah! New stuff is always much more fun than old stuff — even if the old stuff was in perfect condition as you only ever used it to kill cockroaches).
I have made a deal with myself that for each item I get rid of (or break or accidentally leave on a bus), I can replace it with another item of equal or similar value. So when I sent my hiking boots home the other week, I replaced them with a pair of running shoes (which I have actually used to go running in… and not just to kill cockroaches).
This principle also works in reverse — if I purchase something I desperately think I need, I must then get rid of something of equal or similar value to make room for my new purchase. A couple months ago, I purchased a new navy blue skirt which was a bit more practical than the floaty, floral number I had originally packed in my luggage. Of course, after purchasing the new skirt, I realized that this meant I had to sacrifice the old skirt. This was not easy. That old skirt was like an old friend. Even if it was rumpled and pitted with chocolate stains and sporting a broken zipper, I felt like a jerk for throwing it out just because a newer, unstained skirt had caught my eye. For a week after throwing out the old skirt, I felt the familiar pangs of purger’s regret… that is, until I sent away the video camera. That video camera has to be worth at least twenty or thirty new skirts, right?! I think I feel a spending spree coming on!
Keep Off the Beaten Track
One advantage of staying in places well off the tourist track is that there aren’t too many souvenir shops on the rice farm or in the boatyard enticing you to throw off your budget and baggage weight limit with witty sloganed t-shirts and commemorative beer cozies. Sure, I’d love a t-shirt that says “I spent two months weeding rice paddies and all I got was this nasty rash”, but, I have yet to find a vendor that sells such a find (unless you’d like to start selling that t-shirt… and give me fifty percent of the profits of the sales of that t-shirt seeing as it was my genius idea and all).
While working on the rice farm, the only possible souvenir I could have picked up for the people back home was a two-kilo bag of rice. This seemed a bit, well, unwieldy (if not unwelcome… after two months of listening to my tales of rice paddy muck, I doubt the people back home would have wanted anything to do with that bag of rice!). My current place of residence, Kuala Terengganu, is famous for its traditional boat-building and deep-fried fish sausages. Again, neither of these items seem very, ummm, packable.
Rock the Boat… or at Least Live in It
Living on a boat is a lot like living in your car. There’s not a whole lot of space on board for things like knick-knacks or lawn furniture or your sequined shoe collection. Instead you really have to pare down your possessions to those things that are absolutely necessary — like clothes, toiletries and a Mega-Mormon-Family-of-Twenty-Five-Value-Pack of bandages to cover up all your sanding wounds.
Also, since the majority of my coworkers on the boat are men (and not men I feel I need to particularly impress with anything aside from my innate sanding abilities), I’ve adopted a more minimalist approach to my general appearance and hygiene that always seems to come more naturally to men. Before I might have balked at the thought of wearing the same pair of pants for two weeks straight, but men don’t seem to mind doing this kind of thing, so why should I? I used to own an assortment of hair care products and, in fact, care about things like my hair. But if men can limit their grooming products to shampoo and toothpaste, why can’t I? My new approach may not attract any suitors (although, I do have to say it’s attracting more than a few flies!), but it is certainly a lot easier to maintain and has cut down on my dependence on all my stuff. I can see this approach will come in handy even after I move out of the boat (and into that cardboard box).