To ‘travel light’- to travel with very little luggage (British English) or baggage (American English).
The other useful words, phrases and expressions are in bold so as you read the story you can try to guess what they mean before ‘all is revealed’ (if you choose to then check the meanings) . A general piece of advice for learning new vocabulary is to guess meanings from the context of a text rather not immediately running to a dictionary for a translation. Another thing to know is that in general, idioms and expressions often do not follow logical grammar rules, and so, as is the case with phrasal verbs, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the meaning from the individual words.
Anyway, ‘here goes’…
When I was in my mid-20s, I decided it was finally time to belatedly ‘spread my wings’ and try to ‘broaden my horizons’ so I saved up some money and went backpacking round the world for a year. The ‘core differences’ between backpacking and holidaymaking are basically that you use a backpack instead of suitcases, you live on a modest budget which enables you to travel for sometimes far longer than the requisite two weeks, you try to be spontaneous and integrate with the local culture rather than experiencing a comfortable ‘home-away-from-home’, you try to avoid ‘tourist traps’ and instead seek out places that are ‘off the beaten track’, and you travel light with the bare minimum of stuff to weigh you down. I certainly satisfied some of these criteria but in my preparation I failed miserably on the final point mentioned.
I’d read a ‘Before You Go’ book, which was very informative in a lot of areas but seemed to have been written with the presumption that every backpacker was travelling to very remote areas. The ‘upshot’ was that I arrived in my first stop in South-East Asia with a backpack so ‘crammed’ full of apparently vital objects (note the sarcasm) that my fragile back could scarcely support it. It had a handle on the side so I ended up, with quite delicious irony, carrying it in the manner of a suitcase. When I arrived in Thailand, my first destination, and discovered that I could easily buy most of what I needed there, I managed to discard a few items out of my pack. I mean, did I really need 8 pairs of socks in a country where the temperature is virtually guaranteed to be 30 degrees every day and, believe it or not, the shops actually sell socks?!
Deep down, the Englishman brought up on a history of the celebration of colonialism and the glorious British Empire (they didn’t teach us the bad bits in history class!) can never quite believe that those in the Third World can supply him with what he needs in as efficient a manner as back home in the mother country. It’s not genuine racism, just a conditioned sense of superiority that’s hard to ‘shake off’. It’s true that it’s harder to shop in a country you don’t know but you can find some real bargains in the old-fashioned markets and I ended up buying 2 t-shirts that cost the equivalent of £1 each and lasted me over 10 years. I decided that an overland circular tour starting and finishing in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, and taking in various towns and cities in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos along the way would be ‘just the ticket’ since I would avoid the airport process, which always increases my stress levels. So, ‘putting my best foot forward’, I embarked on what became a wonderful trip, whose moments of discomfort were anticipated and in fact almost encouraged, and did indeed increase my tolerance and resourcefulness as I’d hoped they would.
The many highlights of the trip included an 8-hour journey in Cambodia on the back of a pick-up truck without benches. Next to me was a large tyre, presumably being transported from one place to another, and as we hit a large crater in the uneven dirt road at speed, the tyre was ‘jolted’ directly into my ribs. With something between a smile and a grimace, I continued the journey without complaint. Later, I pulled out my guitar and an American friend and I serenaded the locals in the truck with a ‘smorgasbord’ of 90s rock hits, including our speciality, ‘Aeroplane’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In Vietnam, I ‘gritted my teeth’ through a 14-hour overnight bus trip, the insufficient space between seats meaning that I was forced to sit ‘bolt upright’ on the hard seats with little chance of substantial sleep, on sometimes ‘treacherous’ mountain roads.
I’d like to mention at this point that these kind of conditions were not always ‘the norm’ and this story is not presented in a spirit detrimental to the locals. This was their land and I accepted my humble status of temporary visitor with appropriate respect. Having said all that, the main event of this tale involves some confusion on a trip along the Mekong Delta in South-west Vietnam. The tour involved a combination of bus and boat travel, and ‘to cut a long story short’ some of the bags somehow got loaded onto the wrong boat belonging to a completely different company. We didn’t find out until the boats were ‘long gone’, the chances of their recovery being almost nil and involving a potential wait of many hours or even days. My large backpack and smaller daypack were gone, and all I was left with was my small ‘bumbag’, which mercifully contained my money, passport, travellers’ cheques and copies of important documentation.
My immediate reaction was ‘desolation’ at the loss of all my travel possessions, which included clothes, books, fake CDs, a music player, all manner of ‘trinkets’ and also my as-yet-unused water purification tablets. I fell ‘head in hands’ thinking about the loss of these items and the subsequent stress, hassle and inconvenience that would surely be involved in replacing them. I had been lucky to have met a very nice group of backpackers, with whom I’d had a lot of fun and some great conversations, including one about how comical our huge and densely-loaded backpacks looked as we were supposing to be embarking on glorious trips of freedom without the need for possessions. From the group came the helpful remark, ‘Well, you DID want to travel light, Antony.’
And suddenly ‘it hit me’. I was indeed now travelling light, lighter than I ever could have imagined or would have dared! I was free! I had nothing to carry and nothing to defend. My new friends immediately offered to lend me clothes and let me borrow their music equipment and some CDs (yes, this was the ‘bygone era’ where ‘physical products were King’, and all manner of consolation and friendly offers came in my direction. What’s more, I was finally living in the moment, ‘thinking on my feet’ and reacting spontaneously instead of making provisions for every eventuality. From memory, I think I rebought some of the items but I did manage to maintain the philosophy of travelling light ‘from there on in’.
The moral of this story? Sometimes our goals are achieved in spite of ourselves and our actions. The moment is there to be ‘enjoyed to the full’, and while planning for the future is a good thing it can often blind us from present opportunities and (sometimes literally, in the case of overstuffed backpacks) ‘weigh us down’.