The traveler’s tale of detachment

The Great WallOn the road I have met many longtime travelers. All were keen on sharing stories about their life but also about their relationship towards stuff. Some haven’t had a home for years and stay alive with odd jobs or online services. Others get back to make some money and then quickly take a plane to start new adventures. They share an attitude of detachment, lust for freedom and pretty low standards.

Julie from France phrased it like this: ‘If I have a roof over my head, some food and good company, I am pretty happy. I don’t need more’. That might sound very alien or extreme but I think it has to do with the nature of traveling itself. An Austrian woman told me that she decided to walk across Europe. She put her belongings in a storage, left her apartment and took off. Because she had to carry her things she started giving them away. Almost everything she needed was provided for by the people she stayed at. After three months her bag was half empty. When she got home and took her belongings out of the storage it was strange. She felt smothered by them. So overpowering and so many impressions. More travelers share this tale. Except for the physical weight people talk about the freedom that comes with letting go of your possessions.

John is my host in Beijing and he has been a nomad for fifteen years. He started with volunteers work in Mexico and was so happy to live a free and rootless life that he has been moving around the world ever since. He told me that lots of people stole small things from him. Often when he hung out clothes to dry one or two items would disappear.  It helped him to become detached from his things. In the end he only possessed a few sets of clothes, a few devices like his laptop, a guitar and his photo camera. ‘I do not pack my home in an hour but in twenty minutes’ he said and showed his suitcase that could hold all his things except for his guitar, one of the many he has had in those years. The bag restricts the amount of things he has. If it does not fit he will give it away.

Actually he gets rid of everything that he is overly attached to. He does enjoy things when they are there. He can appreciate craftsmanship in his guitar and the comforts of a good working shower. For years he owned a beautiful camera with which he made portraits of people he met all over the world. Some day he woke op and sold it. His heart still hurts when he thinks about it ‘but it was time for new adventures’. Keeping the thing would hold him back in reinventing himself. For this reason he cuts off his hair whenever it has been long for a while. He does not want to be defined by the things he owns. More travelers say the same: it is fine to own things, as long as they do not own you. And traveling helps to let go.

If John does not have personal belongings, how does he feel at home? How is he anchored where he lives? He is happy with who he is. He has stopped caring about what people think of him. It is not easy but as a result he is at home with himself. It is similar to what Dutch artist Rene said: ‘I live where I am’. But John does have a small ritual to help him. It is not a thing that gives him roots but a sensation. Where ever John is he burns some incense and lights a few tea-lights. They create the atmosphere in which he feels at home.
He is also very alert to his mood. If he does not want to be somewhere he leaves. This means that he sometimes took the painful decision to say goodbye to someone. But since he started moving he does not question his instincts. They always feel right in hindsight. For the first time in years John rents an apartment because he has a year contract as a teacher. He is very happy to have a house of his own, a quiet place to retreat in a crazy city. One of the biggest benefits for him is that he has space to host travelers.

To be able to live with almost nothing you need an infrastructure in which others share their facilities. John needs little because he rents a furnished apartment, and I in turn sleep on his temporary couch. With sites like it has become increasingly easy to stay with like minded people who can share their knowledge about the place they live in.
Public facilities are important too. In Beijing there are free public toilets and there are food stalls with cheap good food that makes it easier to live on the road. People sleep in the park during the day but I have also seen a group of friends on a trip staying over on a bench. In Japan homeless people are part of the city life and are accepted by the authorities if they follow certain rules. They keep their belongings in neat cases or have a cardboard shelter that they fold away during the day when they go to their office job.
An infrastructure that covers the basic human needs does not always have to be organized by humans. Herders mainly live of natural resources through their animals. But except for a few survival experts, even the most independent herders need other humans to sell their products to in order to buy other necessities.

So the ‘roof over head’ that Julie talked about has to be provided by someone or something. I wonder, how many wandering roofless people can a society handle? The great wall was not built over an ordinary neighborhood quarrel. I think it was in essence a big fence to keep the sheep off the vegetable patch. Nomads do not own a piece land or invest in a property to have a soft cushion in harder times. They deal with problems when they come, with the available resources at that time. Nomads need the commons: land and resources owned by no-one or shared by others. If nomads overuse those resources problems emerge. John is very aware not to disturb the balance in giving and taking. When he can do something for his host within his means he will. But it is not just about giving back directly. As Julie said ‘You can pay it sideways’. When you live in better times you can help someone as others have helped you.

I think that there is plenty, not just a fixed amount to weigh and exchange. Just as your electronic drill is gathering dust in the toolbox desperately waiting to be used by someone, there are street vendors happily selling food to travelers, hosts waiting for someone to fill an empty bed and to exchange their stories, and nomads who give back by doing projects in unlikely places. There is unused space that can be filled by wandering poets, bums and whoever needs the freedom to live every other day in a different environment.

For two years Froit lived in a former mobile supermarket or SRV-wagen as it is called in Dutch. No two following nights on the same spot. He said something very poetic and true: ‘A nomad takes up a space, but also leaves space behind’. I think that the space can be larger than before. Nomads can spark new ideas in a sedentary society. Of course this only works if a nomad is conscious of his or her environment. They live of the fat of the land and overgrazing puts an end to their wandering tales. But as long as they walk on the borders of our society, they can open up new roads. They can show us again and again how you can live a life that is stripped from the weight of our material wealth but full of encounters and adventure.

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  1. Prachtige beschouwing Loes, goede tijd verder! Christianne

  2. Dankjewel Christianne.

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