Phoenix, AZ, USA – When I set off as a traveller, I expected that along the way I’d see some spectacular sights, meet some amazing people, and do a few crazy, adrenalin induced activities. When I set out, I don’t think that I expected to come back changed, impacted by what I discovered, but I did. The change is almost imperceptible.Yet, I’ve noticed them as I’ve reintegrated back into ‘life’. Slight alterations on my values, on my outlook on life, on what’s truly important, on what things really are problems. Travelling has made we question my Western way of life. Particularly in the area of stuff and how much we, in our Western and European societies have. How much do we really need anyway?
On a tour around the Gilli Islands – off the of Bali, Indonesia – I was given a small guided tour of a local village. Within the confines of this 1km squared community were the homes and communal areas of approximately 20 families. We went inside the small 17ft by 15ft home of one family. In the middle of the one room home was a charred out stove acting as the kitchen. Running along the walls were four wooden beds, slightly raised off the ground, with only a thin woven mat as a mattress. Stacked on a cabinet were the clothes of the family. It was this pile of rags that caught my eye.
‘How many people live here?”, I asked our young woman guide, who was also a member of the community.
“This home is for a mother and father and their five children. Their oldest son recently got married, and his wife is now living here too,” she replied. “As you can see, there is not much privacy here, so they had to wait until the next morning, after everyone left for work and school to…well, you know.”
“And these clothes, these are all the clothes for a family of 8?,” I asked astonished, staring at a small pile of torn and dirty t-shirts and shorts, barely two feet high.
“Yes. And what they are wearing.”
I stared at the pile and quickly calculated that I, just me, had more clothes in just my backpack for a year of travelling, than what this family of 8 had between them. They couldn’t have had more than two outfits each. It was humbling and shocking all the same time.
Yesterday, I arrived at my brothers in Arizona to live for a few months, to catch up with family before hearing off to a new adventure early next year. I’d brought with me my backpack, of course, and one small carry on suitcase I’d left with a friend to safe guard last year. All my owned possessions. Well, all that I owned that wasn’t in a large storage container in London. And at my mums in Missouri. But essentially, my available belongings. It wasn’t a lot, I guess by Western standards, but it still seemed a lot to me.
To my delight – and horror – my mother had shipped out another carry on sized suitcase full of clothes. She thought I’d might like some different stuff to wear, expecting me to be bored of the small selection I’d had lived with the past year. So, this morning I began the great unpack. It took me less than an hour. First, on the shelves and hangers went my clothes from my last year backpacking and my more special stash I’d left at my friends. Piled high on the shelves and drapping from the hangers, I just kept thinking “Seriously, I have far too many clothes!” And this was before I even unpacked the present suitcase from my mother.
It was a bit like unwrapping packages on Christmas Day, pulling forgotten tops and dresses out of the black parcel. There were cries of “Oh, I’d forgotten I had that!” Along with, “Humm, I doubt I’ll even fit in that now.” And a few “What was I keeping this for?”. Diligently I stacked it all up for now, I’d go through it later, and surveyed the loot. Before me were towering rainbows of colour. Six piles, each higher than the one a whole family had in the Gillis. Complete with 22 tank tops, 12 sports tops, 7 sports bottoms, 15 dresses, 6 cardigans, 23 tops, 4 skirts, 3 shorts, 3 pairs of jeans, 5 sleep outfits, 3 bathing suits, and countless sets of matching bra and knicker sets.
My mother had kindly added two ‘new’ sets in the bag she sent. A set being a bra, a thong, and a brief all of co-ordinating colours. Included was a bright coral Calvin Klein number, which I only had a vague recollection of, and a muted purple set. “Well that will be a nice change,” I thought “But I was coping alright with my 3 sets I’d been using in a London these past few months.”
Just then, my mind drifted back to Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa, if not the world. Our tour group held a fancy dress party at one campsite there. We purchased our clothes from a local market, most of which was unwanted items from Westerners that had been shipped over at some stage. We draw a name out of the hat and had to spend US$5 on a silly costume for the person whose name we had drawn. Enrique, an English/Mexican in our group, was given a stunning ladies outfit that had a bra, fish net crop top, hipster long skirt and a fetching white jeweled handbag. At some point in the night, after lots of our homemade punch, I showed Enrique how to take his bra off without removing his shirt first. I demonstrated and then he followed, twrilling it around his head and flinging it off into the night, and sand beach below.
The next morning, a small group of us headed out of the camp for a village tour. At the gates we were stopped by the laundry lady. She held up Enriques bedraggled bra, soaking wet from who knows what, and looking a dirty grey, the way whites go after years of washing. She asked if it was mine. I replied, with a yes, no head bob any Indian would have been proud of and made some foment to the likes of, but we don’t want it. Her eyes lite up. Without a moments hesitation she excitedly asked if she could have it. I looked at her wondering why on earth would she want such a discusting piece of clothing that clearly looked two sizes too small. As if reading my thoughts she replied, “I’ve never owned a bra before.”
I couldn’t help but think of this as I held my coral bra in my hand. That, plus the matching pair of knickers, cost me the equivalent of what the Malwaian laundry lady would have earned in two months of work. That was just for one set. I had five such sets with me at my brothers and who knows how many more in storage.
It just feels wrong somehow now to own so many items of clothing – particularly so many of the same type of one thing- now that I’ve seen those with so much less. I feel a pull of emotions from wanting to get rid of all but my favourite items, of struggling to let go of any of it in case I might need it one day, and of the desire to buy new unworn things. How much did I need? How much is enough?
I know this for sure. Before the next adventure I will have to force myself to do a cull. At least send to the charity shop those items that either no longer fit or are outdated or aren’t in my top five favourites of that item. Who knows. Maybe they’ll end up in a market in Malawi, and one day will get bought by the next traveller heading off to a fancy dress party.