I travel often enough these days to be very conscious about what I am carrying. Lessons learned by the inconvenience of a heavy bag, taught me to travel light, and always remember when I am packing my bag – less is more. I remember traveling in Europe a few years ago watching three American couples, who obviously were traveling together, attempt to board a train in Amsterdam with a set of enormous duffle bags. They were packed to the point of bulging and we stood by as they were straining to lift these heavy bags up the steps of the coach. The conductor was growing increasingly irritated. I suppose I felt a little smug stepping around them with my small, lightweight, efficient bag. Arrogance is short-lived in travel, however. We all remember times when we wished we prepared differently for circumstances we didn’t fully understand.
That situation reminded me of a book I read years ago, Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life (1996). It’s a fun read offered by Richard Leider and David Shapiro. Leider tells a story I have remembered to this day. Its image is a powerful one. Leider had some years earlier ventured off on a backpacking trek through the Serengeti Plains in East Africa. His group was led by a Maasai guide named Koyie, who had been educated in a missionary school and was a leader among his people. Leider notes he had purchased a quite impressive backpack for the trip with every feature one could imagine. He writes:
As we walk along, Koyie keeps glancing at my pack. Time and again, I see him mentally comparing the heavy load I carry with his own, which consists of nothing more than a spear and a stick used for cattle tending. Eventually we get to talking about my backpack, and he expresses his fascination with seeing its contents. Pleased at how impressed he appears to be, I offer to show him my stuff. I look forward to letting him see how carefully I’ve prepared for our journey and how ready I am for anything.
The opportunity presents itself late that afternoon as we are setting up camp near another “boma” (a collection of small huts). Proudly, I commence to lay out for him everything in my pack. I unsnap snaps, unzip zippers, and un-Velco Velcro. From pouches, pockets, and compartments I produce all sorts of strange and wonderful items. Eating utensils, cutting devices, digging tools. Direction finders, star gazers, map readers. Things to write with and on. Various garments in various sizes for various functions. Medical supplies, remedies and cures. Little bottles inside little bottles inside little bottles. Waterproof bags for everything. Amazing stuff!
At length, I have all the gear spread out. It looks like that photo they always have in the centerfold of the great explorer article that shows everything necessary for a successful trip to the farthest reaches of the planet. Needless to say, I’m pretty satisfied with my collection.
I look over at Koyie to gauge his reaction. He seems amused, but silent. I understand. Surveying the items arrayed about us, I don’t know quite what to say, either.
Finally, after several minutes of just gazing at everything, Koyie turns to me and asks very simply, but with great intensity:
“Does all this make you happy?”
We all reach certain points in life when we take an inventory. It’s the equivalent of unpacking the heavy backpack to see what we are really carrying. Often we are surprised by what we see. There are things we should have left behind long ago. There are things not as important as we once imagined. More importantly, we ask ourselves what we really should be carrying for the rest of the journey.
Perhaps the most meaningful discovery is that through the course of life we need bags of varying size to meet our needs at particular times. The demands of college, early career, growing family, late career and retirement each imply the need for a different bag. I have to admit that sometimes the simplicity of a spear and a stick sounds really appealing. Yet, it may be more important to have the right bag for the right season of life. The key is to never overpack.