The History of Stuff

Travel at its truest is thus an ironic experience, and the best travelers […] seem to be those able to hold two or three inconsistent ideas in their minds at the same time, or able to regard themselves as at once serious persons and clowns.
-Paul Fussell

Travellers do not own much stuff. It simply wouldn’t fit in the backpack. There’s still piles of some clothes gathering dust in my wardrobe back in the place I used to call home. But that year when I left to travel the world, all those clothes, books on Celtic studies, novels that were bought but never read, earrings and necklaces that were never worn, they all became an archive of that past life I swore to never return to. Every now and then, when I go back and open that archive, rifle through the pages of those books, I think that I could have a big garage sale and get rid of all that stuff, because now, it is no more than 3-dimensional objects that occupy a lot of space. Not to mention that I could earn some cash to spend it on a good tent, tripod and camping gear. I am always too lazy to organise a garage sale, of course.

I kind of imagine that’s how criminals on the run live, too: always ready to pack up and leave, always ready to discard stuff and move, always on alert to lift off and disappear.

Pretty much all things I own have memories.

That shirt I bought in a vintage store in Finland on the way to Åland Islands. That scarf given to me by a dear friend. That other scarf that I always take on trips to Muslim countries because it is inconspicuous. That favourite scarf of mine, that I bought on New Year’s Eve in Hong Kong – just because I did not have any winter clothes and did not have money for anything more than a scarf. Those horribly baggy jeans I bought in an outlet in Istanbul when I just returned from Africa and needed something warmer than shorts. That old sweater I wore all throughout my life in Ireland – I am surprised how it has not turned into ashes, being that old. That t-shirt I promptly stole from my mum when she came to visit me in Kenya. The retro waistcoat my mum had sewn herself when she was my age. That sunflower shirt I bought in Slovenia when life felt like sunflowers. Those flying extremely wide trousers that I got in Nepal – ages ago.


One good thing about never living in one place – nobody really notices that I’ve been wearing same clothes for the past 5 years! Perhaps just stalkers that look through all my Facebook albums and think: ‘Wait a second… she almost hasn’t changed her outfit at all between 2009 and 2015!’

As we leave for a nomadic life, we are bound to get rid of everything that we cannot carry on our shoulders. Well… unless you travel with 100 slave porters and 500 camels. But funnily enough, from a long journey we sometimes return with our backpacks fuller than they were when we left. People we meet on the road share their life with us, and what for them is just ’stuff’, for us becomes a time capsule.


If you look into my backpack – and I can give you a guided tour with a discount – you will stumble upon most random objects that are about as useful as Russian currency before 1998. While their practical value is questionable, their emotional value for me is impossible to measure in standard units.


I carry a book cover, handcrafted and embroidered with traditional Chuvash patterns by my best mate from university. I carry a necklace he brought for me from there on my birthday a few years ago. I carry a broken tip of an arrow – a memory of shooting practices with my dearest friend from high school. I carry a pocket watch and sonic screwdriver from another dear friend from school – in case of Time War. I carry a jade hairpin from Ma Su – a girl I met in Myanmar who took me to visit her village on a remote island in the middle of Irrawaddy river. I carry a clown nose given to me by Vincenzo with whom I hitchhiked and then stayed in southern Switzerland. I carry an earring made of beer bottle top that says ‘Black sheep’ – a parting gift from my Dublin housemate. I carry a tiny bell that my dad gave me about ten years ago. I have a pair of keychain flags from one of my couchsurfers and a bag of fire-colouring magic powder (wait… is it legal to carry it in my carry-on?) from another couchsurfer. I carry a custom-made stamp with my name and a sheep from my host in Hong Kong, and a flashlight from two people that I met on my hitchhiking trip in Sweden. Every time I dig through my backpack I discover – yes, a lot of sand – and more random objects that construct the entire history of me and my connections.


I am afraid to mention – for the fear of robbers – that my biggest treasure consists of a massive pile of sim cards from around the world, and a few kilos of leftover coins and bills from different countries (if I ever decided to convert them all into one currency it’d probably be around $100 though).


One thing I am sure about: I do not ever want to own stuff. I will be cautious around things that you buy for purely decorative purpose, or because everyone else considers them great. Things that you will never notice missing if somebody breaks in and steals your belongings. Things that will never fit into your backpack – and certainly will never fit into your history.


On the most recent news, I had a mini heart attack the other day when I realised that I now owned a dress. You see, dress is not exactly a travel-friendly piece of clothing. Dresses are extremely uncomfortable when you are crossing the desert. Dresses will precipitate your drowning if you try swimming in them or diving from a cliff. Dresses get tangled in the branches if you try to climb a tree. Finally, try putting your precious ass on the wet sidewalk bench while wearing a dress – or practically barbecue your tender bottom on smoking hot rocks. Owning a dress is like saying to yourself: ‘Okay, I feel pretty and that’s all that matters’.

But I realise that in a few months I will look at this dress and think nostalgically: ‘Hey, look! Remember that time you tried living in one place and pretended you were ready to become someone else?’ And the dress will become just another precious time capsule.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. psychanaut says:

    Yes, collecting memories is best! Hardest thing for me is traveling with instruments, which is to say it can’t be done easily or lightly.

    1. caorarua says:

      I think instruments fall into another category. Like things that might help you earn money, entertain yourself and general public, reach out to your creative self. But again, instruments all originate somewhere too, and my ukulele is kind of a faithful travel companion that I picked up in Taiwan and managed to bring through Asia and Africa without major scratches.

      1. psychanaut says:

        Yes, I mean just in terms of being able to use them while traveling. I’m amazed to think I’ve traveled for long periods of time with a guitar in many places. It was nice but also a huge pain in the ass. Now that I depend on both that and a synthesizer for making my own way I could travel with both in this way!

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