How to be a vagabond

I am definitely not planning a new travel adventure.

I was inspired by this Salon.com article about the craziest OKCupid date ever. SPOILER: 6 weeks after meeting on an online dating site, two (crazy) people took off on a 21-day “date” to Europe with no luggage. He relied on his pockets to carry his passport, cash, and an i-phone, and she had a small purse to carry toothbrush, passport, and an ipad. Aside from securing visas for the countries they wished to visit ahead of time, they made no plans. They couch surfed, hitchhiked, bused, trained, and slept on the occasional park bench all over Eastern Europe.

I think there are two ways to react to this travel agenda: horror and pulse-racing excitement. I feel a little from column A and a little from column B.

I concede that the need for somewhere to store my “stuff” seriously limits my mobility in a city when traveling. I need a hotel room to leave it in, and it’s awkward to board a crowded bus or train with a suitcase. It’s so much easier to just take a taxi. Of course, you don’t meet anyone when you take a taxi. What an incredible freedom it would be to walk out of an airport completely unencumbered by a bag! So what is essential for traveling, really? Once you cross the “nice to haves” off your packing list, what are you really left with?

Funny man George Carlin had a great skit about “stuff” and our relationship to it. Take 5 minutes to have a good laugh:

I’m already good at packing lightly when traveling. Is it really such a jump to cut necessary clothing down to the outfit I’m wearing when I board the plane, or limit cosmetics to a tube of mascara? (Let’s not get crazy here people, I have standards.) So if we’re going to entertain the fantasy of traveling without stuff, why not also consider traveling without reservations or an agenda? Could I, an adamently self-sufficient traveler, rely on the hospitality of strangers?

Couchsurfing.org is built on this very premise. I’ve been thinking about a trip to Southeast Asia for a while now; I want to go to Vietnam, and my travel partner has been itching to explore Thailand. After creating a bare bones account on couchsurfing.org, I was able to browse hosts in Hanoi City, Vietnam, just to see who’s out there…and to my surprise, there are dozens of willing hosts! They range from students who live with their parents offering up a spare room; to a street food enthusiast who doesn’t have a couch to loan out, but is happy to give you a tour of the Hanoi street food scene; to a young business professional that has a floor you’re welcome to. I read a lot of profiles, and not one of them sounds like an ax murderer. They do all sound like people I really want to meet.

My personality seems ill-suited to this experiment. I’m a meticulous planner. I make lodging reservations in advance, make lists of the places I want to visit, read guidebooks, research recommended restaurants and attractions on TripAdvisor, convert currency ahead of time (enough for the first day), reserve a rental car or print out the bus/train schedule (and directions to the station), purchase/print city maps, and make a list of everyone I need to buy a postcard or souvenir for. This information is all tucked into a two-pocket folder that stays with me at all times. 

This travel ethos has served me well; I stay safe, feel relaxed, and experience exactly what I expect to experience. When I return and someone asks me about my trip, you can bet “I had a nice time.” But “nice time” does not make a good story. Good stories happen to you, and they can only happen when you take the risk to forego a map or depend on a stranger.

So the question is: can I travel (a) without the comfort of my “stuff,” and (b) without the comfort of a plan? And if these “withouts” result in discomfort, can I manage to have fun anyway? Only one way to find out… I will not plan a travel adventure. But I might buy a plane ticket.

I don’t want to have a nice time. I want a good story.

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4 thoughts on “How to be a vagabond

  1. Hi Gwen-

    Great post! Since we have been on a minimalist/zero-waste journey I have lightened my packing load drastically. That George Carlin bit gets be EVERY TIME 😉

    I am also an eager travel planner. We aren’t headed anywhere for a while on our end, but looking to December 2014 in the UK. I consider myself an “overplanner”, but perhaps I can not plan every moment out this time–at least a couple day trips 🙂

    • Thanks Krystal! As the adrenaline rush of this travel challenge begins to subside and I temper my image of this trip with a dose of reality, I concede that I’ll have to do SOME planning. At least for the fist couple of nights. And much of the fun of travel for me is reading lots of books beforehand, so I know something about the people and places I’m going to visit. I wouldn’t want to show up in Vietnam and not know anything about currency, customs, and how to get around. I’ll have to find the right mix of planning for safety and common sense, and opening myself to a travel adventure.

  2. Pingback: Not-planning a trip to Vietnam | baD.I.N.K.adink

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