More to Traveling Light Than Just Traveling With Less Stuff

Recently, Piers Morgan (who replaced Larry King when he retired from his “Larry King Live” show on CNN in 2010), interviewed actor-turned-travel-writer Andrew McCarthy on his show. In the interview, McCarthy said he thought Americans had an aversion to traveling overseas primarily due to fear. Specifically, he said:

“I think Americans don’t travel because they are afraid,” he said. “I think America is a great country…but we’re a very fearful country. I think most of our political decisions are all based in fear. And I think if Americans traveled, they would see that the world is a much different place than they’re led to believe it is, and that they think it is, and we’re very insular.”

I don’t think that’s the only reason Americans don’t travel abroad. In fact, CNN ran an article just last year, in which it identified three primary reasons Americans don’t travel overseas:

  • The United States’ own rich cultural and geographic diversity
  • An American skepticism and/or ignorance about international destinations
  • A work culture that prevents Americans from taking long vacations abroad and the prohibitive cost and logistics of going overseas

Although the CNN article uses a more tactful phrase, you can probably read “American skepticism and/or ignorance about international destinations” to mean “Americans avoid things/places they don’t know about.”

Perhaps I’m fortunate in that I was born in Japan, and was raised there as a child. I attended both an international school (that was British-based) as well as an American school while there, which exposed me to different peoples and cultures very early on in my life. The concept of travel, or of people from different faraway lands, was neither a fearful nor strange concept for me, and I have carried that love of travel and trying things from different cultures into my adulthood.

Although my overseas travel is relatively limited compared to the adventurous globetrotter (specifically because of reason #3 and my inability to take copious amounts of vacation time off), the thought of traveling overseas always makes me feel excited. But I can see how the idea of traveling someplace completely foreign—with strange customs, an incomprehensible language, and weird dishes—could render some people to be very anxious in an unpleasant way. Think of the experience of riding a roller coaster: The physical ride itself may be identical for two people, but for one person, the adrenaline is exciting and fun, a chance to let the inner kid out for some real joy. This same ride could fill a second person also with adrenaline, but of the type associated with dread, disorientation, and nausea.

So how does all this tie into traveling light? Oh sure, there are the logistical advantages. You don’t have to worry about lost or stolen check-in luggage, and so on. But I think a lot of the benefits of traveling light are much deeper than that. Let’s take a look:

  • You don’t have to worry about lost or stolen luggage – when you travel light, you’re exposing less of yourself to vulnerability, and having others take advantage of you.
  • You aren’t encumbered by a lot of unnecessary weight from your luggage – this is symbolic of a travel philosophy that says you don’t have to explore the world with the weight of your life on your shoulders. If you travel with a lot of preconceived notions about other people or cultures, you’re less likely to learn from them, and more likely to apply the weight of your own assumptions on your host country and its people. Perhaps this is one factor that gave rise to the “ugly American” label.
  • You’re much more independent by not having to rely on others to help you carry/hold/move your luggage – when you read about the independent traveler, it’s not just the person who ventures off to forge their own path; it’s also the person who doesn’t need a lot of other people carrying their load for them. If you expect other people at your travel destination to know what you want because you’re “the American” and you think they should cater to your whims, that probably would not make you a good independent traveler.
  • You don’t have to pay as much money to check in your luggage – putting the recession we’re slowly digging ourselves out of aside, travelers who spend their travel dollars tipping other people to hold onto their luggage could make better use of their money by using it to try new dishes or experiencing something new.
  • You are free to change your plans on the fly without worrying about where your luggage will wind up – another benefit of an independent traveler is the ability to quickly change plans; something that’s much harder to do when your luggage is already checked into a flight, or you can’t easily change lodging from the big chain hotel to the local family-owned inn in the village.

What it all boils down to, is learning to travel with a very small comfort zone. Comedian George Carlin had a hilarious sketch called “Stuff,” where he talked about the importance of your possessions. Halfway into his sketch, he talks about traveling with your stuff:

Sometimes you leave your house to go on vacation. And you gotta take some of your stuff with you. Gotta take about two big suitcases full of stuff, when you go on vacation. You gotta take a smaller version of your house. It’s the second version of your stuff. And you’re gonna fly all the way to Honolulu. Gonna go across the continent, across half an ocean to Honolulu. You get down to the hotel room in Honolulu and you open up your suitcase and you put away all your stuff. “Here’s a place here, put a little bit of stuff there, put some stuff here, put some stuff—you put your stuff there, I’ll put some stuff—here’s another place for stuff, look at this, I’ll put some stuff here…” And even though you’re far away from home, you start to get used to it, you start to feel okay, because after all, you do have some of your stuff with you. That’s when your friend calls up from Maui, and says, “Hey, why don’tcha come over to Maui for the weekend and spend a couple of nights over here.”

Oh, no! Now what do I pack? Right, you’ve gotta pack an even smaller version of your stuff. The third version of your house. Just enough stuff to take to Maui for a coupla days. You get over to Maui—I mean you’re really getting extended now, when you think about it. You got stuff all the way back on the mainland, you got stuff on another island, you got stuff on this island. I mean, supply lines are getting longer and harder to maintain. You get over to your friend’s house on Maui and he gives you a little place to sleep, a little bed right next to his windowsill or something. You put some of your stuff up there. You put your stuff up there. You got your Visine, you got your nail clippers, and you put everything up. It takes about an hour and a half, but after a while you finally feel okay, say, “All right, I got my nail clippers, I must be okay.” That’s when your friend says, “Aaay, I think tonight we’ll go over the other side of the island, visit a pal of mine and maybe stay over.”

Aww, no. now what do you pack? Right–you gotta pack an even smaller version of your stuff. The fourth version of your house. Only the stuff you know you’re gonna need. Money, keys, comb, wallet, lighter, hanky, pen, smokes, rubber and change. Well, only the stuff you hope you’re gonna need.

So maybe we don’t need to limit ourselves to the “fourth version” of our house when we travel overseas, but he makes some great points. I don’t think you need the second version of your house to travel. Think about it; your carrying  that much stuff is basically you carrying a smaller version of your house. You really don’t need to be encumbered and weighed down.

In fact, version 3 may be the best combination of “stuff” and mobility—maybe then, you can still be comfortable with what “stuff” you bring, but can be free from carrying the weight of your world when you travel.

Traveling light doesn’t just mean taking less luggage. It means being unencumbered, being open to exploration and adventure. So what if they don’t speak English? You can get by with just a couple of phrases just to break the ice (“hello,” “thank you” and “bathroom” are helpful), then you can get by with a lot of hand gestures and smiles. Don’t be afraid!


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