LIKE most people, I own lots of things I really don’t need. I’m reminded of this every time I move house and the removal van that looks impossible to fill is gradually stuffed to its gills with cases, crates, boxes and bags. Surely it doesn’t take all this just to keep one man alive?
Once moved, it takes forever to unpack. The bags and boxes sit there sulking for weeks, waiting for me to find them a home. But even once they’ve been safely tucked away, my belongings still torment me. That dusty suitcase, wedged tightly under the bed, its contents still a complete mystery; that festering crate of important yet unanswered letters; that box of spurious knick-knacks bought by misguided loved ones. How I’d love to throw them all into the Thames.
I’ve heard this described as the ‘tyranny of things’, and to me that just about sums it up. I sometimes wonder whether I like travelling simply because it enables me to escape this tyranny, to free myself from the diabolical grip of my life’s sordid clutter.
If this is the case, then it also explains why I’m so obsessed with travelling light. The older I get, the more I seem to resent luggage of any kind. Whenever I set off on a jaunt, I have in mind that classic image of Dick Whittington heading to London, carrying nothing more than a hanky tied to a stick with all of his worldly possessions inside. That’s the type of traveller I want to be — the type of mystery man who wanders into a strange city with nothing but a change of clothes, a rakish hat, a book and a toothbrush.
I suspect that’s how most of us would like to do it, but in reality, travel does strange things to people. When working out what they might need during an all-inclusive week abroad, they lose all rational judgement. I see them at airports, middle-aged men and women hoisting huge rectangular cases from luggage carousels with all the joie de vivre of police frogmen fishing bodies out of a lake.
Backpackers can be just as bad. As a younger man travelling around Thailand I made the unforgivable mistake of sporting a double rucksack — one absolutely enormous one for on my back, and another standard sized one for my front. Not only did I look ridiculous, but I felt it too, as I inched along in the searing Asian sunshine like a broken packhorse.
Last year, in Goa, I spied a couple attempting a doomed ‘triple bag’ manoeuvre involving a backpack, front pack and shoulder bag. I watched them with a combination of pity and disgust as they stumbled over the uneven sand in search of a beach hut, him all stubborn determination, her all resentment and despair. Of course, now I wouldn’t be seen dead rocking a double or triple rucksack, not unless I was going away for several decades.
These days I pack as clinically as I can, but sometimes the world just won’t let you travel light.
Take, for example, when I’m on an aeroplane. With my bag stored overhead, I usually take a book with me to my seat. And maybe a guidebook. Plus my mp3 player and the complimentary copy of the Telegraph the stewardess handed me on the way in. Then there’s the in-flight magazine, and the duty-free guide. Oh, and let’s not forget the two bottles of water I’ve brought (because you’re often left gasping in economy). Then suddenly, I’m being handed a blanket and pair of headphones for the in-flight entertainment system. And a polythene bag with a toothbrush, eye-mask and pair of lifesaving travel socks. Then the meal is brought round. Then it’s eaten. Then its remains are left with me, for the best part of an hour. And there I am, sat waist-deep in a cradle of squalor. And this is the magic of travel?
Now I have a newborn baby daughter, and all the nappies, prams, toys and little outfits that entails, so I suppose any hope I had of becoming the ultimate, carefree, gentleman traveller has been well and truly extinguished. If only I could go back in time. I’d find that clueless young ass with his ridiculous double rucksack, and I’d shake him and say: “If you only knew what your future held son, you’d chuck those bloody bags into the sea and run around with your hands free while you still can!”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got packing to do.
Published in Mar/Apr issue of National Geographic Traveller 2011