Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Packing Minimalism

November 2004. Marc, James and I stagger through the automatic doors of Heathrow and outside, into the adjoining bus terminal. It's cold, grey and ugly, the clouds sit low above the surrounding buildings forming the roof of the cage. Everyone seems to have bags under their eyes and are smoking like they are midway though a long prison sentence. I can remember thinking two things - firstly, that this is a strange place to escape to. I had lived in the same room for twenty one years, the curtains, installed just before I was born, still had clowns on them. I had assumed that I'd arrive in London to some fanfare not this insipid and pathetic vista. Not even the cold was intense enough to be impressive.

The second thing I thought was how the hell was I going to get this bag to my hotel. Marc and James were in the same situation and as we smoked our duty-free bought cigarettes our massive bags sat in an untidy heap like passed out Australians at Oktoberfest.

I can remember the tube ride from Heathrow to Earls Court. The carriages had seats along each wall, facing the centre of the aisle. They are designed for people, not luggage. We stood there, three boys, each with 100 Litre bags, in everyone's way. Each time the carriage lurched forward or slowed to at a station, the three of us were thrown down the aisle, to be collected at one end or the other, indiscriminately treading on shoe and boot alike. Luckily the people on the tube were more Englanders than Londoners and were to polite to say anything.

Eventually we traversed the six zones and alighted onto the platform. The only way that I could get up the stairway, to street level was to angle myself forward so as to form a counter-weight to my massive bag, hold only the handrail and heave myself up two or three stairs at a time. It was slow going. I can remember a glimmer of something which I now recognise to be the realisation of irony. Here I was - come to be free, tear myself from home turf  and history and weighing me down was this colossus of a bag like some grotesque hump, containing half my history in it.

Luggage invites metaphor - think emotional baggage for example. The actual meaning of these metaphors always hit the same registers - your freedom and movement are restricted by this "baggage" which is entirely superfluous to your needs. Thinking back to what I actually packed for London it was ridiculous. There were suit jackets, rain jackets, multiple pairs of shoes, that, through lack of use, slowly worked their way towards the bottom. By the end I could take a soil sample and tell what I didn't need by what I didn't by its relative position in my pack. As the trip continued and I accumulated various presents and items. I also got as strong as an ox By the end this 100 L albatross was packed to bursting point, weighing 40 kg, with weird protrusions and lumps it looked and felt like 20 cutlery draws had been emptied, then wrapped in a bedsheet.

This time around I am trying something different. I once read somewhere that when travelling to the US bring half the amount of clothes and twice the amount of money. I'd say this holds anywhere except the third world and I want to put it to the test having traded my 100 L Goliath for a more modest 40 L number. Its not enough to just scale down the operation though - it has to be done right. Apply minimalism to packing - reduce to just the necessary elements and derive beauty in function. In keeping with this concept, you bring as little as possible but what you bring has to be versatile, compact and rugged - the premium is on the right stuff not just not much stuff. Consider the bag itself - this time I am going with a hybrid which has both wheels, for pulling on the ground and straps for it to function as a backpack. It weighs just over 2kg and can have a daypack attached to the front.

Once you have the bag there are simple rules for packing:
  1. Forget the formalwear - truth is you're probably not going to get invited to a Raj's weddings and if you do, the stripped back explorer look is going to give you way more cred than a suit that looks like it's been ridden hard and put away wet.
  2. Mention the unmentionables - undies and socks for at least a week. You don't want to be washing the same pair every night and for god's sake spare a thought for them too. Irrespective of the state of your top layers - put on fresh undies and socks and you'll feel like a millionaire.
  3. Digitize - sure it's going to be great to have half the literary canon of western civilization on that long train ride but is it worth having your spine bent into an ampersand? Get a Kindle or better yet audiobooks are awesome and can be listened to with the lights off so you're not going to piss anyone in the dorm off.
  4. Pack for the season - look up the weather conditions of where you are going in advance, the average temperature range and rainfall, and pack for that. Cleave items unsuitable for this range from your packing list. 
  5. Layers - are versatile - thermal underwear can be crammed into a pencil case and when combined with a shirt and a jumper can be just as warm as a big jacket. You don't need a different shirt for the cold as for when it's hot - you need one jumper.
  6. Do a Practice pack - this sounds nerdy but the last thing you want is to be wandering into Sydney airport looking like a bag lady because you got too ambitious on luggage buying day for luggage packing day.
  7. Buy a microfibre travel towel - when I went to London I bought a "bath sheet" from Debenhams which when subjected to geological amounts of pressure could be compressed into the size and density of a bowling ball. Ridiculous. Truth is even most towels will take up more room than their worth and be a sad soggy weight in your sack. 
  8. Tear out relevant sections of Travel guides - your reverence for your books is going to have to play second fiddle to your reverence for your back. Why carry around weight that you're never going to use?
  9. Beauty in function - learn to get off on economy of space. A Swiss army knife or a leather-man is beautiful because it's the product of so much thought, because you can stick them in your pocket and because it sets you free. Unless, of course, you forget to take it out of your carry on luggage.
  10. General rule - when I thought about it, all the extraneous stuff in my luggage was the result of a bunch of "what-if" statements, made at home which never eventuated. Strip this mode of thinking while your working out what to bring. You will be left with what you actually need.

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