The protagonists of my latest novel, The Shade Under the Mango Tree, travel into exotic places. An experience I can easily relate to. Like the hero who backpacked at home and abroad, I remember spending summers as a college student doing some variation of backpacking cross-country.
I exchanged a backpack for a small suitcase, only large enough to lug with ease from bus to bus or bus to a hotel. Packing lightly was essential since I traveled on a Greyhound bus.
Back then, you could get a deal for unlimited travel. You could go any route east to west, north to south, as many times as you wanted. Across the years, the terms on that special changed until it was discontinued.
Packing lightly during that period was easy. My possessions were limited by the leanness of my student budget. As my budget slowly grew, I ventured out of the country and traveled more comfortably. I no longer had to settle for just about any place with clean beds and shared bathrooms.
My suitcase grew larger and heavier, my travel habits a little fancier. Until my husband and I decided to go across Europe on a Eurail pass.
I had a large suitcase, then. I had forgotten the lessons from my summer trips as a student. But heaving a large suitcase into the cramped overhead compartment of a moving train teaches you right away the folly of your ways. And the lesson has stuck and grown into a habit.
I relearned to pack lightly. Even for trips to Paris to stay for months.
Imagine yourself going up three flights of winding, uneven stairs. You’ll feel a bit like Sisyphus as you go up steps that slant every which way, their triangular shape rendering part of each step unusable. Some steps also list precariously towards the concrete ground floor. You wonder if they can pitch you down that floor—your luggage landing on top of you—faster than you can cry, “Help.”
With a 22-inch rolling luggage you allow yourself only what is essential and versatile. For me, that means a skirt and a couple of jeans, one of them nice enough to pair with a fancy shirt and a nice jacket properly accessorized for an evening out at a theater, and four or five shirts I could layer in different ways to produce several outfits. I also bring a daily change of underwear to last a week, a pair of pajamas, and three undershirts that I could also wear to bed.
It does take planning but your reward is no aching muscles, easy movement, and no extra luggage fees. If you’re staying long, you do need to do some washing. We always selected accommodations with washing machines.
It’s amazing when you realize you could live relatively well on a small suitcase of clothes, as we have done, sometimes for as long as six months. When you come home to a house with a a walk-in closet full of clothes, you can’t help asking yourself if you really need so much stuff.
Curious about places we’ve visited? Here’s a good sampling from Austria to Oaxaca and places in-between.