This is my backpack


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There is a particularly climactic moment midway through Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic, Full Metal Jacket, in which Private Pyle, the company fuck up and object of significant mental torture at the hands of a sadistic Drill Sergeant (the “steers and queers” guy), maniacally loads his rifle and recites: “This is my rifle, there are many like it but this one is mine. Without me, my rifle is nothing; without my rifle, I am nothing.” (If you don’t know how the scene ends, the movie is great for date night). This “Rifleman’s Creed” is recited by members of the United States Marine Corps to this day (Kubrick’s film takes place during Vietnam) and is intended to instill beyond any doubt that, for the Marine, his (or her) rifle represents survival – indeed, life itself.

Travellers need not be so dramatic about things, but anyone who has pitched, pared, and purged their belongings down to a single bag in preparation for a more lengthy journey will to some extent know what it’s like to think, “shit, this is all I have.”

Kat and I are now nearing the six-month mark of our trip, which puts us approximately three months ahead of my columns for Vagabundo (don’t worry, I take good notes). Having travelled overland through Europe, Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Iran, we made the decision to skip Pakistan (not for lack of interest) and fly from Tehran to Delhi. We spent the month of December in Rajasthan (India’s mid-western and bhang-loving state) and much of the country’s North. As you can likely imagine, winter in the Himalayas is chilly. With no heating on buses or in hotels or in restaurants, we were using every piece of clothing we had to stay warm. The ridiculous thing is that despite all the complaining about how we were unprepared for cold conditions, when we finally did head south to warmer climates, I realized that in the previous three months, exposed as we were to so much cold and damp weather (even in Iraq and Iran) I had thoughtlessly been ridding my pack of superfluous t-shirts and shorts. I now have hardly anything suitable for the warmth either. It is easy, of course, to buy new clothes – or, preferably, get them from a hostel lost-and-found – but this would only defeat the purpose of all that lightening.

The principal reason for my somewhat erratic purging is that our packs are too damn big. This might seem like an easy thing to remedy (don’t bring so much shit!) but the variety of “activities”, landscapes, and climates we have come across, not to mention this pesky writing job, have made it difficult to pare it down and even more difficult to gauge when to purge what. And for some reason, I seem incapable of parting with anything that actually adds weight. For instance, we are still carrying a beautiful, eight-pound tent that we haven’t used since late October, in the hills of Iraqi Kurdistan – and even then, it was only for a night. It was essential in much of Europe but that’s about it. We had a perfect opportunity to send it home free of charge when Kat’s parents paid us a visit in Turkey, but I insisted that we “needed” it. So, we are carting around a tent and poles and sleeping mats, along with an assortment of other trekking gear that has long since ceased to be useful, when we would be fine with a simple sleeping bag.

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Clearly one of the hardest parts of packing for any trip – let alone a long and diverse one – is distinguishing between needs and wants. It is difficult to part with certain comforts, but it is also annoying how often you end up needing what you think you only want (and, needless to say, vice versa). I once treeplanted with a girl who brought along a pair of $380 Oakley sunglasses which, in the bush, is immediately recognizable as a risky decision – and an impractical one, considering no one actually plants trees in sunglasses. But it turned out that her decision had little to do with any practical need. As she once explained, after a long day, hunched over in the dirt, assaulted by mosquitoes and blackflies and horseflies, joints aching and a hot shower perhaps a week away, one sometimes needs to, in the words of Eliza Doolittle, “feel pretty”. The point, I guess, is that impractical-seeming items are not always so. The mental and (dare I go there?) spiritual comforts they provide may make all the difference at the end of a rough day on the road. Fair enough. Incidentally, it seems that I am not the sort of traveller who cherishes such items.

I have chosen to take a break from the political commentary that typically defines my work in order to reflect a bit. Six months will have been the longest period of time for which I have lived a nomadic existence and I am beginning to notice a few changes, as well as a couple of consistencies. Before we left, I didn’t really give a lot of thought to trinkets or comforts or reminders of home (that’s what Facebook is for). Now that we are close to the half-way mark, I’ve started to think a lot about the first part of our trip, what lessons I’ve learned (and refused to learn) and how I feel about the months to come, and have found that I still don’t care for them.

We are currently relaxing with friends on a mini-vacation in famous Goa, and our room is a mess! Our clothes and electronics and bathroom stuff are everywhere. Part of me is irritated that we can’t keep things tidier and I often bitch under my breath that we wouldn’t do such things at home. But when I think about it, we would, and this gives me pause. In fact, it is while on vacation (never vay-kay!) that I tend to keep things in order, unpacking only what I need at any given instance. It is a monumental pain in the ass to repack so much stuff so often, but it is this growing tendency to “move in” to a place, no matter how brief the stay, that for me signals a turn of the tides.

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My backpack has become my home. And it is perhaps for this reason (along with a slight hoarding instinct…thanks, mom!) that I have struggled to part with things in any rational manner. Every house eventually needs a spring cleaning, but if and when we do finally make a significant purge, it will be in exactly this context.

With all the beach time currently at my disposal, I’ve had more time than usual for “pleasure-reading.” I am now most of the way through Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the now-famous story of the vagabond Chris McCandless. And while I have never really ascribed to the anti-modern and anti-society (not to mention anti-sex) leanings of Jack London and Leo Tolstoy (I should clarify that I am not putting these two authors in the same class) for which McCandless had special affinity, his story is a reminder of the freedom of movement and the power of the present moment. Moss may yet gather on this rolling stone, but for now, I have all I need. This is my life, and I am happy to live it.

 

Author: ZachKuehner

Zach Kuehner is a researcher and writer based in Toronto, Canada. After earning a Bachelor of Science from the University of Waterloo, Zach sought to integrate his studies in the health sciences with politics and international relations. He completed a collaborative master of science in health science and international relations at the University of Toronto and has since worked in health systems research, cancer research, and contributed to various magazines as a political commentator. Zach has travelled throughout South America, the United States, and Europe and is currently on a one-year trip with his partner that will take him from Lisbon to Auckland and everywhere in between.

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4 Comments

  1. Loved this one, and I feel you…my parents just visited and parting with my beloved antique map and carved Zanzibari frame was too much to bear – but now I’ve realized I have to backpack overland through Africa with it. Fail.

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  2. Thanks so much for the kind words, Bob. I hope you continue to enjoy. Comments and critiques are always welcome :)

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  3. I just finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (excellent, I recommend it) about her hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and she named her backpack “Monster” and describes several times when she feels like it is her home or even a companion on some days on the trail. I love your usual stuff but this was a nice little change. Congrats on the first six months!
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This is my backpack