Long- term travelers of all kinds will tell you that one of the most important preliminary steps to taking off is The Purge. That period of time that you devote to deciding which material possessions will still be necessary and dear to your heart after traipsing all over the globe in pursuit of clarity, freedom, connection, adventure, and knowledge. Clothing is donated, items are sold to pay for gear, and maybe a tupperware or two are packed to the brim with things you can’t bare to say goodbye to just yet. Everything else, everything that will represent your existence for the time you spend abroad will be packed into a backpack or suitcase, a necessary piece of gear that looked far bigger before you started packing it.
The act of purging everything was a huge undertaking that occupied our minds and our time for months before we left. The fact that we decided to get rid of almost everything helped in that we didn’t have to think much, we just had to get rid of it. Easier said than done.
For the past several years I have considered myself someone who does not really need all that much. Not a minimalist, but certainly not a materialist either. In new York, my husband and I participated in the consumerist culture far less than our teenage foster daughters would have liked. We didn’t eat at McDonald’s; we didn’t believe that we “needed” anything in a commercial with a catchy jingle; we didn’t eat out more than once a week; we bought local whenever possible instead of feeding the corporate machine of mass made goods; we had a family rule that if you were going to bring a new piece of clothing into your wardrobe, you needed to get rid of another piece first. By most accounts, we were doing pretty good at not getting sucked into the consumerist machine.
And yet, as I cleaned out our closets and gathered our things in boxes, I realized just how much stuff we had. How did that happen??
I don’t know about you but I live in one pair of shoes, depending on the season. Fuzzy boots for winter and flip flops for summer. So how the heck had I accumulated over 20 pairs of shoes?! Aaron could wear the same five shirts over and over again without complaint so why in the world did he have bags and bags of t-shirts to give away?!
The more we purged, the more guilt I felt. While it felt great to get rid of so many uneccesary possessions. I couldn’t help but feel this nagging feeling that despite my best efforts, I had still been pulled in by the “just in case” notion that consumerism thrives on. In fact, when I really took stock, more than half of what we owned could fall into the “just in case” category. Why, in New York City, I was so consumed by the notion of “just in case” (without even being aware of it!) is beyond me. If I really needed something I could just go out and buy said item when the need actually arose. I could have even *gasp* asked a neighbor if I could borrow theirs. Instead, I had filled my house with a bunch of stuff I didn’t even need, “just in case”. What a waste!
Adding to my guilt was the realization of just how many things we had been throwing away. Shoes whose soles had worn through, toys that no longer worked, tools with missing pieces had all gone into the garbage and, eventually, into a landfill. As I packed our entire life into backpacks, I realized just how wasteful we had been. Everything I packed had to do at least double duty. Anything that ripped or became worn we would have to try to repair before replacing it due to budget constraints and lack of resources in some areas. It did not bother us to think that we could not easily replace things on the road so why had we been so flippant about throwing things out in New York? We are very aware that much of the rest of the world lives without the ability to throw out and quickly replace anything they desire so how did we get caught up in doing just that?
Without fully realizing it, my husband and I had been participating, more than either of us cared to admit, in the consumerist culture we didn’t endorse. I have come to think that there is no way to completely avoid consumerism when the entire culture around you embraces it. Convenience becomes an easy thing to pay for and, before you know it, you have lots of stuff and lots of waste. There are some tough souls who are able to resist this culture to a very impressive level, no matter their surroundings. We put in a strong effort, but when we really looked at the evidence we had to admit that we just didn’t do as well as we had thought.
Long-term travel is an amazing educator when it comes to sustainability. Cars from the 50′s troll the streets of Mumbai, serviced and repaired beyond what any American would think is “reasonable”. Cobblers make a decent living on streets around the world where throwing out shoes with small holes is inconceivable. Chicken wire is taken down and repurposed over and over again until it finds a home within the walls of a cob house in Guatemala. Baby food jars become perfect containers for homemade salves, creams, and cosmetics in Puerto Viejo. Most of the world survives easily without a constant need for new things.
The initial purge is just phase one in a long journey to recognizing the reality of our personal roles in a consumerist society. The continuing journey can be eye opening in terms of illuminating just how much “need” (I use the term loosely) we really could eliminate just by shifting our thinking away from a mentality based in scarcity and replacing it with one based in abundance.
I no longer by things “just in case”. In fact, we no longer buy anything without checking first to see if we can make it, borrow it, or Macgyver it. I still carry a little but of guilt about how much I use to have (and waste) but then again, once you know better, you do better.
What do you think? Has travel influenced your perception of consumerism or changed how you view your consumption habits?
Hometown: Manila, Philippines
Quote: “I may be young at age but older in hours, because I wasted no time.” –J. Beacon
“Can you bring me home a koala? How about a kangaroo? How many pairs of Uggs do you think you can carry?” These were just some of my former student’s comments the first time they heard I was traveling to Australia.” Of course, it’s easy enough to talk about travel’s take home in material things but what about the intangible? Does different travel ‘give’ you different things? Do you head off in search of something to bring home and find yourself pleasantly surprised of what you wind up with upon your return?
My friend, Jessica, collects postcard stamps. Every time I travel I send her a postcard knowing that’s her ‘take home’ from my trip. My parent’s friend, Alan, collects beer coasters so that’s what we look for on any adventure. Me, I collect refrigerator magnets and do my best to grab one prior to leaving a new destination. And of course, in the early years there were t-shirts for everyone or little trinkets to hang on keys or wrists, but is that really the take home we’re talking about?
With digital archiving of photos taking over paper scrapbooks and Facebook posts and tweets replacing postcards, is there ever really proof of the traveler’s take home? For many, the take home (aside from the magnets for me of course) is internalized. There are new memories made and more stories to retell, but somehow still, after all this time, there are changes that go on that can only be ‘seen’ on the inside.
After we got married, we traveled around the world for a year and spent some time living in Melbourne, Australia (my husband’s home). When we returned, I went straight back to summer camp as a swim director and then school as a teacher and club advisor. Trying to fit in the same boxes when I was no longer the same was suffocating. The take home was growing and forcing me to sit up and take notice. It was more than the new products on the inside of my refrigerator and the newfound comfort treats in my cupboard. It was more than the few new apparel purchases and the favourite shell that I often carried in my pocket. It was more in how my eyes saw the world and what I felt to be important, crucial and significant. And it was even more in how I saw myself.
Time away from the routine of the everyday is vital. Facing new situations and dealing with circumstances that may need problem solving forces you to see what you find important. Learning about what you really need and how you’d like to make a difference in the world or finding perspective-that’s a take home. For some, it takes seeing the difficulties that so many face on a daily basis to remind themselves how truly lucky they are and then there are those who see those difficulties and choose to do what they can to make life easier in some small way.
We are a product of our circumstances. If you’re born into a vagabonding family perhaps you’ll never know the joys or troubles of a stationary life. Born into a land that struggles to have clean water, equitable education and human safeties one might never know the ease of turning on the tap, sitting in class or the simple act walking down the street. Travel provides a birds eye view into a different world-one that in the blink of an eye could have been yours and the effects are often life affirming. If we’re lucky enough to travel and truly take in what we see, sometimes our life is forever changed. The little voice inside of you may now whisper ever more loudly to make a change. The way your mind takes that extra second to rethink a problem and how it would be seen in another location is front and center. The newfound joy you feel in your own skin and the reawakening of you is on your mind often. The intangibles, the sub-conscious and the ever-changing outlooks…these are the ‘take homes’ of travelers.
What’s your take home?
To read more of Stacey’s travel musings, visit her website.
Hometown: Chillicothe, Ohio
Quote: “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist; that is all.” ― Oscar Wilde
I take this quote to heart. Someday when I look back at my life, I want say I lived, not existed. This is a major reason I chose the life of a vagabond.
We found an affordable accommodation about 6 kilometres from central katoomba, The Skyrider Motel. It cost $100 a night a little over our usual expenditure but worth it for the luxury of one of the comfiest beds I think I may have ever slept on.
We searched some of the local bars and restaurants for a good meal, again lossening the belt around our budget. Most meals per person could range from a $15 pub grub special to upwards of $40 for a sit down dining experience.
Describe a typical day:
It felt like a chore getting out of such a beautiful an comfortable bed but we rose nice and early and set out for breakfast.
A small independant cafe in the heart of Katoomba offered a range of breakfast dishes from a bowl of muesli to a full English breakfast. So I opted in for the latter which I washed down with a fresh cappuccino. The cafe had a great vibe, the walls pasted with old rock posters and bank notes from around the world. It was run by what seemed to be fellow travellers, who kept the eatery lively and vibrant. It was Coffee with smile.
Once stuffed on sausage, beans and eggs we went in search of the local tourist center. I weighed up the idea of taking a tour or going it alone. Later choosing to make our own way round the scenic mountainous site.
So we purchased an all day pass for the Scenic World, this allowed us on the several attractions that offered the many views of the valleys and mountains.
A tip for any would be travellers to Katoomba from Sydney, it’s worth buying a 3 day public transport pass. Not only can you use it around Sydney on all public transport but it can take you out to Katoomba by train and allow you to use all public transport here also.
So we hopped on our designated bus and took it to Scenic World’s Skyrail. This is a cable cart with a class bottoms that takes your over the beautiful gorge. Be wary the cue was long for little reward however it did give a perspective of the depth of the gorge below.
Jumping off the other side we chose to walk along the footpath that takes you along the Gorge with a promise of a view of the 3 sisters, A trio of rock spires that stand out from the cliff face. It’s a long walk but many vantage points give a beautiful view of the blue mountains. A tremendous vastness of green forestry, rock faces, all clouded in a blue haze of which the area gained its name.
Once finished a short bus ride took us to another beautiful site, only this time we would have to walk for 45mins down into the gorge. We were making our way down to the Katoomba Falls waterfall. For us we knew this would be a beautiful picturesque platform but what we found was more astonishing than we could have estimated.
The platform was a flat rock that led to a cliff edge. On one side if us was the beautiful cascading waterfall, spin 180 to an amazing panoramic of the blue mountains. Just when we thought we had seen a beautiful view from the top of the gorge, suddenly it felt like we had been transported to a secluded paradise. The long steep boggy walk down made this spot quiet with only a small many sharing the spot with us.
We splashed around the water for a while enjoying the relaxing soothing sounds of the crashing water. We could have stayed here all afternoon but we had to make our way back to the top. We stopped at several lookouts along the route back up. Then finally reaching the the busy road above we set out for a nice eatery.
The bus dropped us outside the old City Bank. This quaint 2 story pub was bustling with travellers and boasted a bohemian atmosphere. Before we stepped through the door we had decided where we would spend the evening. With a little taste of home Guinness flowed from the taps and helped wash down the delicious homemade burger. Bacon Cheese and a 3/4 pound if meat, complimented by the hand cut chips and a touch of BBQ sauce. We drank until the last bus that took me back to the comfort of that beautiful bed.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
The Skyrider Motel was a complete surprise, from the outset it seemed like a pay by the hour Bates motel. However once inside, the room is a cosy well equipped room. The couple that ran the motel are also friendly and very helpful.
The blue mountains and the surrounding areas themselves are a beautiful sight to behold and was worth every cent and every second spent there.
The only downside is the World pass. The glass bottom Skyrail we did on the first day and the Skytrain really aren’t worth the money. Long waits in quiet season for crowded bustling carts gave little reward. Above all of this, once you reach the bottom of the valley you can only walk back up, there is no option to return to back of the cue. As able bodies explorers we were happy to walk back up but for anyone who may be impaired I could imagine this to be a burden.
Describe a challenge you faced: We really underestimated the walking trail to the Waterfall, it is very steep and in some places boggy and flooded. Our real mistake was deciding to wear our flip flops. We struggle more than most but we never gave up and it was worth the struggle
What new lesson did you learn?
Always be prepared, a good pair of walking boots will never fail you no matter how much you like the wind between your toes.
Where next?- It’s magnetic island
I am often asked why I travel. What is the benefit? Is all the work, preparation, and planning worth it? So, I set out to identify what it is I really feel I have gained through travel. While this list may not be the same for everyone (and I expect it wouldn’t be), I bet most travelers can identify with each item on this list. So, here it is…. the top five gifts travel has given me.
5. Patience. Anyone who travels long term will tell you that patience is a major key to making it all work. Waiting for a train in New Delhi, cooking a meal for 4 on a single burner in San Marcos, dodging touts in ChiChi market, crossing the border into Panama, getting pushed around on a NYC subway at rush hour, avoiding eye contact with leering men in Egypt, or trying to coordinate travel plans in a foreign language in Nepal- the longer you travel, the more you value your own ability to call on your patience like a super power. Cultural differences and language barriers make time, space, and dimension very subjective terms. Patience is a virtue that gets practiced and (almost but not really) perfected the longer you travel.
4. Connection. True human connection, that which transcends cultural barriers, is something I value on a very deep level. Traveling allows me to see, smell, touch, taste, feel, and experience what visitors and immigrants to my home country hold in their memories and consciousness. Travel presents the opportunity for me to recognize the common human experience between myself, a circus performer in El Salvador, a business woman headed to work in Switzerland, a genocide survivor in Guatemala, and everyone in between. I get to connect with people all over the world, all the time and experience our shared humanity on a regular basis.
When I attended my friend’s wedding in India, I didn’t need a transistor to explain the side ways smile on her groom’s face as she walked towards him or the joy she radiated when she finally got to see him after a full week of ceremonies and preparations. When her parents visit and I am offered a cup of chai I am reminded of hot, humid, monsoon mornings in Mumbai and I can almost hear the chai wallahs, just like they can. When I beg her to make me mattar paneer and she chides that it’s “not really healthy, you know”, I know that she is smirking because she is (not so secretly) thrilled that I loved an Indian dish so much and that I know exactly how it tastes in her hometown. When she asked my friend and I to be present at her son’s birth, her parents hugged me and told me to take care of her, knowing that only true friends would have traveled to India to see their child get married years ago. My friend is an awesome person and I would be friends whether I had traveled to India to watch her get married or not, but travel has added a richness to our friendship that can’t be replicated. Sometimes I think we over think things and place too much emphasis on cultural differences (as beautiful as they are) and forget to look for the moments that don’t need translation. Do you have to travel to find connection? No. Does travel magically make connections happen? No. But travel has expanded my understanding of what connection can mean, presented opportunity after opportunity to explore human connection, and made my circle wider and deeper than I ever thought it could be. My connection with this friend and every single person who has touched my life along the way, is a gift I carry forever.
3. Clarity. Time spent away from home and all things comfortable has a way of clarifying that which is most important. Trekking from place to place with everything you own strapped to your back will make you think twice about your material “needs”. Watching a mother drop her child off at an orphanage because she doesn’t have the money to feed all three of her children will make you reconsider what “good parenting” means. Working with an NGO in a foreign country will forever make you look more closely at where your donated dollars are going. Visiting Mother Theresa’s homes in Kolkata will make you question the party line about mission work in the third world. Watching the sun cast shadows over ancient Mayan temples will make the history you think you know look dull. Meeting living victims of your country’s foreign policy will make you wonder just what else is being done in your name.
If it sounds like travel raises a whole lot of questions and not a whole lot of clarity, that is only partly true. Travel certainly and inevitably does raise innumerable questions…but the clarity lies within those questions. Clarity does not mean “figuring it all out”. Some questions will be answered, some will not. The very realization that the questions exist is clarity in itself.
2. Empathy. Over the course of this long, continuous journey, I have come to the conclusion that pity and empathy do not look the same. Pity is what I had for people who were “less fortunate” than me back before I had met any of “those people”. Pity allowed me to see myself in some small way as “better than” and in no way did it serve me or those I thought needed me to do something for them. Pity paralyzed and disconnected me.
Empathy is what I hold now that I have helped birth babies, cook meals, and define education with people who would have previously been considered “less fortunate”. The key word in that last sentence is WITH, not FOR. I recognize the core of our shared human experience reflected in circumstances I will never fully understand. I have learned to actively remind myself that poor is not synonymous with “less fortunate” any more than rich is synonymous with “happy”. I still struggle with the “why” of our world’s inequality but I now know that the “how” for doing something about it depends on our ability to empathize, not pity.
1. Perspective. Triumphs and tribulations have a way of seeming really, really big when we have nothing to compare them to. Exploring our vast and varied world has given me the opportunity to step outside of the day to day that we all get caught up in and see the larger picture. Long term travel reminds me regularly that no matter the political, philosophical, or economic agendas being pushed back home, this is the one and only shot we have got at this life. I could spend every day hemming and hawing about the socially acceptable way to live this life (according to my home culture) or I can actually live it. The mundane must still be dealt with and the day to day must still be lived but at the end of my life, I will be damned if I look back and think ” I should have done more”.
What have you gained from travel?
What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened lately?
I’m finally having a baby!! (Our sixth.)
Describe a typical day:
We’re staying in the mountains of the Central Valley, with a gorgeous view of the ocean waaaay off in the distance. Grandma and grandpa have come to visit, in anticipation of the birth of our sixth child. We’ve all been a little antsy just waiting around (which is why we took a trip to the chocolate farm, just an hour from our house, on my due date
But now the day has finally arrived. It’s beautiful, the sun is shining and my labor has started. Our new baby will be joining our family soon!
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
Like: The house where we are living has a beautiful ambience. From the balcony of the master bedroom I can see the Pacific Ocean off in the far distance, surrounded by deep, verdant hills that are often clothed with soft, white clouds. Toucans, green parrots and other exotic birds perch in the trees outside my windows.
I feel loved and supported by my husband and children, as well as my cousin, mother and step-dad and midwife who are all in attendance. Pura vida!
Dislike: The only thing I dislike today are my intensifying contractions… but they will result in a miraculous experience, so they are worth the discomfort.
Describe a challenge you faced:
Deciding to have this baby was a huge challenge for me. My fifth birth was extremely difficult, and although I felt that having another child was the right thing for our family, I was scared to death to give birth again!
Now the day is here, and I’m feeling peaceful, confident and surrounded by love and inner power and strength.
What new lesson did you learn?
I did it! She’s here!
She’s beautiful and perfect, and I was strong.
The birth was perfect, and I feel empowered.
Saige Journee Denning, 9lbs and 21 inches long.
Staying put here and enjoying the ‘babymoon’.
You can read the full birth story here.
It was December of 2004 when I took my first Contiki trip for two weeks in Australia. On the first night I met two girls from Minnesota and that’s where the love affair with the State Fair began. For years Cara has been teaching this New Yorker about all things Minneapolis and although I’ve now been many times I was never able to hit it at the right time to take part in the festivities. It took just about a decade but I finally made it to the Minnesota State Fair.
I learned a lot from Cara. I learned about ‘Minnesota nice’, throwing my hat by the Mary Tyler Moore statue and the structural brilliance that is the Spoon and Cherry. I’ve spent time making s’mores on Lake Superior, walked across the border into Wisconsin and listened to loons at a few of the twelve thousand lakes. There has been fun at the mall, a visit to the Jolly Green Giant, photos at lock and dam number one which was a first for this ocean loving New Yorker and then a return visit for her wonderful wedding. And let’s just talk about the fabulousness that is an ice-house and an ice party-Oofdah! Minnesota is a wonderful place.
We were finally were able to schedule a trip at the end of August 2011. We were even able to catch up with another travel friend (who also lives in Minneapolis) we met two years prior in Europe. When Hurricane Irene hit our Long Beach shores and the ocean waves were quickly encroaching up the beach nearing our car park and sea wall, we were safely ensconced in the twin cities waiting for the day we would get to head to the fair and finally see the truth behind the heads carved out of butter. Ten years ago I heard of these butter heads and couldn’t come close to picturing what it would be like at all. Would I really get to meet a Dairy Princess?
We hopped a bus to the fair, got our tickets and smiled wide as we entered the gates of what could have been many, many football fields worth of fairgrounds. I guess had I been to the New York or any other state fair ever in my life, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as excited, but this was special. My Aussie husband had never been to anything like this either so it was a treat and a half for us both. For Cara, it has been a yearly event for as long as she can remember. When those ten days roll around at the end of August people from all walks of life flood into Minneapolis to take part in, work at, eat at or visit this fabulous spectacle. Concerts take place, competitions are won, farm animals are shown and dairy princesses take center stage in the dog days of summer at the fair. We went, we watched, we ate and we smiled.
First of all, this is one of the best people watching spots I’ve ever seen. Thousands of people wander the roadways and sections and the fashions of decades past forced some of us to raise a quizzical eyebrow-but it was all part of the fair. Our first stop was the Dairy pavilion. Not for my lactose intolerant friends, this is where you can get fresh ice cream & yoghurt, whole milk in abundance and here in all their glory are the butter heads. Children and adults press their faces as close to the panes of glass as possible as if New York City’s Macy’s Christmas windows had come alive. The incredible artist sculptor comes each year to create masterpieces at the fair. She’s an amazing artist and manages to take the exact likeness of these chosen Dairy Princesses and carve their features into blocks of butter. The artist and the princess she’s working on adorn puffy parkas to keep warm in the frozen tundra that encapsulates them so that the butter can stay at a temperature warm enough to carve and cold enough to keep its sculpted form. It’s a huge honour to be crowned a Dairy Princess and after the fair is over the family of the princess gets to keep the butter heads if they choose. We watched in awe of this artistry and marveled at this magical moment that could only happen here in the land of dairy. And then Cara told me that I too could get my head carved out of butter! You should have seen the look on my face! With the help of the Internet, we went to the butter head station, uploaded my photo and within minutes my face appeared as a butter imprint on a pin that I could proudly wear. After years of wondering, I finally got to see a head carved out of butter-this was a huge check off my travel list!
As with any fair, food is a huge attraction. Mat was the first to get a lesson in all food Minnesota State Fair. Cara, being an expert in all things fair steered us to her favourite pronto pup vendor. You should have seen the look on my husband’s face when she said ‘you have to have one of these’! And just like that we learned the difference between a pronto pup and a corn dog and the magical taste sensation that happens when you put anything on a stick! Her reasoning for the pronto pup was that when dipped in pancake batter the hot dog takes on a whole new flair. I photographed, he ate and all was right with the world. Me, I went in the direction of salty and sweet. First there was an oozy and gooey s’more from the S’mores truck that melted in my mouth and fingers. Next, there was the pickle (on a stick of course) that was bigger than Mt. Rushmore. Then when we wanted some French fries we were steered past about fifteen different vendors to the only one Cara said was good enough to try-and again, of course, she was right. Who could say no to a jumbo sized red bucket filled with salty chips?
It’s no surprise that the fair lasts ten days since it would take us that long to be able to see every part. I sat on a tractor at the John Deere section and Mat happily adorned some paper animal hat on our way to the animal pavilion. Visions of Charlotte’s Web and the words to ‘Zuckerman’s Famous Pig’ danced through my head as we ventured into the barns to visit the pigs and goats and watched in amazement as we saw baby ducklings born right in front of us. So far, it has been even better than expected. Passing the prize winning vegetables, more rides and playing our own personal games of Frogger as we weaved in and out of crowds, we even got to have a look in the 4H pavilion taking me back to all of those special summers of my youth spent at 4H Camp in Riverhead, New York.
According to our host, no day at the fair is complete without a taste of her favourite squeaky cheese. What? She hasn’t steered us wrong yet, so with perplexed looks on both of our faces, we followed Cara and her then boyfriend (now husband), Wade, into the only food court that she liked for this mid-west delicacy. For us, this was a first. She ordered. We waited. Within minutes a small basket filled with oodles of fried goodness was upon us. Small dollops of fried cheese awaited and as Cara’s eyes lit up she watched as we took our first bite of these fried cheese curds and we all quietly listened for the squeak….and squeak it did!
We could have stayed forever. There were endless rides, countless pavilions filled with amazing sights, vendor after vendor of fried deliciousness and people as far as the eye could see. Sadly, we only had one day to spend at the Minnesota State Fair, but in that one day it far surpassed all of my expectations that started when I first heard about it on a boat in the Great Barrier Reef all those years ago. For a girl who has smiled every time I’ve landed in the dairy land, the fair was a huge success. For me, the end of the official summer season is always showcased by days at the beach listening to the ocean and saying goodbye to our friendly lifeguards-but, I always look forward to hearing Cara’s stories and reliving those moments when I got to meet a real life Dairy Princess at the Minnesota State Fair.
Have you been to the Minnesota State Fair? What’s your favourite thing about state fairs?
For more of Stacey’s travels check out her website.