After five years of traveling and living in other people’s homes, I’m shifting into stick-around mode. My name’s on a lease. I love my bed. I have no plans to leave the country for…well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I live in Los Angeles; Mexico is practically down the street.
The transition from nomad to permanent dweller means owning more stuff. Marie-Kondo-joy-sparking stuff.
For the past five years I’ve owned very little, and I can report back that everything people say about having less is true. It’s liberating. It’s empowering. It’s stress-reducing. Cliché after cliché after cliché were all, in my case, true, true, true.
My own clichéd journey to owning less started in India.
Actually, let’s back it up a bit. I didn’t know it at the time, but owning less began with a breakup, one of life’s greatest reset buttons. I put roughly half of the contents of a one-bedroom apartment in storage and moved into a tiny room in a cottage by the beach. That was Phase 1: Living With Less.
Next was Phase 2: Meeting A Guy Who Owned Pretty Much Nothing. Some tools, a couple of bikes, the same three T-shirts, and a truck that would fit it all when he was ready to do whatever he wanted to do next. Very sexy.
Phase 3: Going To India was where it all came together. I bought a one-way ticket to New Delhi and packed a couple pairs of leggings, some T-shirts, and a bunch of canned sardines (laugh now, but they came in handy later) in a borrowed backpack.
I zigzagged around India and South East Asia for six months. I wore holes and sweat stains into what I’d brought, got hand-me-downs from other travelers, and sink-washed whatever I had until I couldn’t wear it anymore.
It’s worth mentioning that in the years leading up to Phase 1, essentially all of my twenties, I’d been living in New York and working as a fashion journalist. It was my job to measure the worth and ingenuity of clothes, bags, and bling. I had a walk-in closet’s worth of loot in my Brooklyn apartment: pieces by the designers I admired and couldn’t really afford; glittery tops and sequin-studded pants I’d gotten for free; shoes, shoes, shoes; and Fashion Week outfits that occasionally merited a flurry of photos by a street-style photographer or two. (Bill Cunningham took my picture once. He never published it. That was my apex.)
I liked things for a living.
So I had expected to want things in India. Shiny bangles. Kaleidoscope textiles. Silken garments. Lounge-y pants. Earrings that looked like chandeliers. Beautiful things for cheap. I didn’t go to India to go shopping, but I certainly expected to go shopping in India.
It never happened. No bangles. No textiles. No icon statues or bad street art or gifts. I just wasn’t interested.
I realized that back in New York, living in my routine, having something new had satisfied my need to do something new. Buying things, or coveting them, had been a form of travel, a quick fix for wanderlust.
In India I’d felt no need to buy something I’d have to carry around for months to one day put in a house I didn’t have. I was experience sated. I had motorbikes to drive, sunrises to watch, holy mountains to climb, slow-moving cows to avoid on those motorbikes, and rice to eat with my hands off of banana leaves.
Experiences > Things.
That was then. Now, living in a home I do have, with a closet that’s bigger than a backpack, the siren song of Things is like, “Hello, you want meeee!”
Seduction at its finest.
Most of the time I catch myself. I don’t need anything. But I’ve definitely broken one of my rules inspired by Phases 2 and 3: Only own as much as you can carry or fit in your car. Rules are made to be broken, and I don’t berate myself for owning a mattress or buying a kitchen table from Ikea. A girl’s gotta sleep and eat.
Yet sometimes at night, when I’m bored or it strikes me that my room looks the same as it did last month and that the clothes I’ll wear tomorrow are the same ones I wore last week, the experience-hungry, new-vista-craving gypsy in me wonders: If the landscape around me isn’t changing, perhaps I could change the outfits I wear in it?
It’s a push and a pull. I know in my bones that home is not a place or the stuff I put inside it. But the longer I ground into this home, the more I want to fill it with pretty things.
Part of the deal I’ve made with myself as a consumer is to be a responsible one. In India the reality was that I could only have as much as I could carry. Living in L.A. this idea became a metaphor. My new rule is: Only own as much as I’m willing to take responsibility for.
None of these things own me. If I have to change course—courtesy of an amazing opportunity or major curveball—I want to be able to make the necessary moves without feeling hamstrung by my possessions. I would take responsibility for putting my belongings into new homes, but I would not let myself blink for even a second about letting them go.
I recognize the privilege of this position. Part of why it may be easy for me to travel lightly and adopt this philosophy is that I’ve always had enough of what I’ve needed. For some, ownership is freedom and safety. For me, living with less is a privilege I get to choose.
I am humbled by that. I really am.
Less and more look different to different people. Security and freedom are personal. The guy from Phase 2 and I have long since gone our separate ways, but we did meet up during my travels. I was four months in and had pretty much nothing to my name; he was on a trip of his own and had even less. He sized up my backpack and smirked, “So that’s how much stuff you need to travel through India, huh?”
At the time, it cut like a knife (clichés, man). My less was still too much. I muttered something about layers and a laptop, but I should have put him in his place. Big, small, whatever size it was, I’d carried that bag from hostels to ashrams, over borders, onto rickshaws, into tippy canoes, into rooms where I didn’t know a soul, up mountains, onto the top bunks of overnight trains, and to strange places that had eventually felt like home. Not once did my baggage, physical or otherwise, ever keep me from doing what I wanted to do.
You want to talk about what’s needed to travel solo through India? Let’s talk about that.