Many of you know that I am an avid proponent of traveling with only a carry on, but I haven’t always been that way. My journey into living and traveling with less was actually forced upon me about three years ago in Bali. Nothing on that trip seemed to go smoothly, except, maybe, the car ride to the airport. On the way, I told my mom I wanted to get rid of all the excess (mainly in my closet) when I came home. I said, “Everything I need fits in this suitcase. If I can live for three weeks without it, I probably don’t need it at all.”
After traveling from Philadelphia to Chicago, Chicago to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Singapore, and Singapore to Bali, I arrived 33 hours later to discover that somewhere along the way my suitcase had missed its connection. “It happens all the time,” shrugged the baggage claim attendant. “It’s probably just in Singapore. If it is, it will likely be here today.”
But it wasn’t. So there I was on the other side of the world without that one suitcase holding “everything I need.” No one could tell me where it was, what country it was in, or if I would ever see it again. Jet-lagged and wearing the same dirty clothes I had left Philly in two days earlier, I spent the day in shock trying to ask waitresses where they buy underwear (it didn’t go over well).
The next night, after no response from the airline, I located a mall in a nearby tourist trap of a town (one that I had no intention of ever visiting) and spent the evening trying to find some cheap clothes that would fit. (People in Bali are tiny, and the underwear sales lady let me know it #TheseHipsDontLie.)
Five minutes after arriving back at the hotel (I hadn’t even opened my shopping bags yet), the clerk arrived with my suitcase. I opened the suitcase and just stared. Even in just this one suitcase, there was SO MUCH stuff. Hair straightener (didn’t use it once), flip flops, sneakers, bathing suits, beach towel, clothes, socks, underwear, pajamas, books, shampoo…
Just a few days prior, I had labeled these items “essential.” Then I spent two days accepting that my bag was lost and none of it was actually essential.
The next night, my friend Ruth and I went to a place on the beach where we could sit at the in-pool bar and watch the sun set over the ocean. Fully confident that I could walk from the edge of the pool to the bar in the center of the pool — cash in my left hand and phone (in a waterproof case) in my right — I I took one step and slipped. I completely submerged myself and my phone. My iPhone. The one I’d had for three years! With sheer panic and embarrassment, I rushed over to the bar for napkins. My phone was in a Lifeproof case, but I knew the case was old and torn and was letting water in. Yet, somehow, everything seemed okay. We ordered a pitcher of sangria, took some pictures of the ocean, and chatted with some other people in the pool.
We soon left in search of rice. Rice, the main staple of Bali. Something I thought would be easy to find. Coming across a Circle K, I went in and asked the girl at the counter, “Do you have rice?” She just shook her head, “I don’t know what it is.” I foolishly tried to describe it, “It’s white and small. You grow it everywhere?” Nope. She just shook her head. So off we went down the road, popping into other convenience stores along the way. Eventually I shouted, “Coco Man!” remembering the strangely named grocery store someone had directed me to for an ATM that morning. I went in, grabbed a bag of the cheapest rice, plopped my phone down into it, and headed to dinner, exhausted.
I’d just gotten my suitcase back and now this? Throughout the night and in the coming days, I’d find myself reaching around for my phantom phone, only to remember it was at the bottom of that bag of rice. After 3 or 4 days, the phone dried out and turned back on. Then it died, never to return again.
After about a week, I quit reaching for it and even started to appreciate not having it. I didn’t have anything to distract me when I went to bed. I couldn’t set an alarm clock. I didn’t know what time it was when I woke up. Sure, I wanted to take pictures, but since I couldn’t, I remained present in the moment. (Thankfully, Ruth was willing to take photos when I absolutely had to have one.)
On the return flight, my suitcase made it home with me. And a few days later, I bought a new phone (the same one I have today). But much more valuable than my stuff is the life lesson that has stuck with me. In Bali, I learned that we are capable of getting by with much less than we think we need; and, more importantly, traveling with less baggage makes both life and travel more enjoyable.