Rollie backpack: nerd
Monogramed luggage: princess
REI pack: American
Jack Wolfskin: German
Black suitcase: vacationer
55L rucksack: low-budget traveler
Stereotyping sucks, but all of us do it — from the trust-fund jerk to the buddhist.
Yes, the beauty of traveling comes from meeting people who are nothing like you and realizing how alike you really are — then appreciating the differences over and over again.
But when it’s raining, you’re stranded and a strange figure has been shadowing you for hours, chances are you’ll reach for something or someone familiar.
She has a yoga mat sticking out of her pack. Maybe I should ask her to trek with me? Theirs have UCLA name tags. I’ll catch a ride with them. They’re laughable, these simplistic generalizations, but after the adventurous spirit has checked in for the night, replaced by fatigue and a tinge of loneliness, we start scanning for likeness.
Needless to say, this method does not always work because profiling is flawed (I’ll save the progressive, heartfelt, political tangent for another time), but is it completely unfounded to judge someone by the 20 items they’ve deemed important enough to carry for six months?
Like ‘assemblage artists’ of the sea — marine snails that attach the rocks, shells and objects they find to their own shells, carrying them for life — the longer you live out of your backpack, the more it becomes you. It’s the same mysterious law that makes partners in a relationship resemble one another after enough time together.
What’s more revealing than the canvas vessels themselves, are the prized possessions within. Dare we presume that the items we bring reflect our views of the world: what we expect, what we hope for and what we’re afraid of; how we plan to connect with others and how we want them to reciprocate.
Pepper spray or gifts for locals?
Five-pound camera or colored pencils?
Bandaids or full-blown first-aid kit?
Map or guidebook?
Computer or notebook?
Bible or sudoku?
All of the above?
Musical instruments are popular on the road, for personal amusement or, and I suspect mostly, for community building.
On his year-long trip, Boris brought all of his favorite clothes. I brought my most tattered, expecting to ruin them, lose them or give them away — a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, he brought a store of pills, bandages and syringes. I brought bug spray and bandaids.
Neither of us left home without playing cards.
He came with an SLR Nikon in tow. I had a battery-powered point and shoot that managed to squeeze six photos out of those knock-off Chinese batteries.
After a month on the road, his side pocket was full of the prettiest rocks he’d collected along the way. Mine hid granola bars. Plastic bags separated his pants from shirts and socks from shoes. Fishing through my backpack was a 45-minute exercise in patience and flexibility.
After visiting each new country, we enthusiastically sewed national flag patches onto our bags. Although colorful and hugely effective conversation starters, maybe they were also the beginnings of status symbols sneaking onto the open road, like brands, tattoos and jewelry.
I’m not sure there are any grand conclusions to be drawn, but I’m fascinated by the possibility that there might be — that what we carry on our backs is an extension of the chips we carry on our shoulders or the prejudices we hold in our hearts.
Once an inseparable extension of you, at home that bag transforms once again, becoming a time capsule, encrusted in salt, grime and magical Gobi dust.
A glimpse into a bag may not be a glimpse into one’s soul or a look back in time, but it’s a reminder that our perspectives and intentions are as different as what’s in our luggage.