I’ve never been one for travelling light. On my trips to date, I’ve been known to ‘be packing’ up to 2 large cases, one hand luggage case, plus rucksack, laptop bag and handbag! Don’t believe me? Check out my photos at the bottom of this post 😆
But let me explain..
Because I combine work trips with travelling solo to far flung places for up to 2 months at a time, and have eclectic tastes in the kind of travel experiences I go for, it often means I have to carry a lot of ‘stuff’. However, Recently I’ve begun to see just how much excess baggage I carry around, in more ways than one. My most difficult trip to pack for so far was a 6 week jaunt of unpaid leave, centred around some keynote speaking in NZ, covering Japan (summer, exploring cities and mountains by bullet train), New Zealand (winter, a week of work, road tripping the South Island, and snowboarding) and Indonesia (Summer, beaches, Horse trekking and diving) with a couple of nights lay over in Hong Kong on the way there and Kuala Lumpur on the way home (both summer in the city, all about exploring, food focussed and humid!)
So on this trip my packing list included:
- My work wardrobe. x5 Karen Millen dresses, with x3 pair of coordinating heels in black, nude and orange, x2 smart Jackets, a long line classic black Reiss coat, the full hair salon of hairdryer, straighteners, curling tongs and associated full sized hair products to tame my unruly red curls.
- My snowboarding gear. Boots, helmet, ski jacket, ski pants, goggles, gloves, thermals etc. (Because I always disliked the concept of renting when I have my own). I made the sensible decision leave my snowboard at home.. although that was forced upon me by airline baggage policies.
- My horse riding gear. Helmet, jodhpurs, boots, sports bra, gloves, chaps, horse-riding tops. (Yes, this is a thing, and they are different to other tops, as they have horsey branded logos on them 😆)
- My Tech. x2 laptops x2 phones (2 of each as I was still working in corporate then and couldn’t switch off I told myself, just in case my team needed me) GoPro and full set of x16 diving and sports accessories, portable speaker, x12 cables/adapters, spare cables and adaptors, SLR camera and lens kit, headphones, spare headphones etc.
- My holiday clothes including x11 dresses, x9 bikinis, x6 pairs of shorts, x20 tops, x10 assorted trousers, a couple of swanky going out-out outfits, high wedge shoes for best, x3 flats, Toms (and my gym gear and fave Nike trainers).
- My extensive make up collection. Not limited to but including all 14 MAC lipstick shades, x3 eyeshadow pallets and full set of brushes. L
- The usual travel essentials, like a giant size Bushman’s bug spray, full first aid kit (boxed) factor 50, 30 and 20, travel pillow, travel trousers, travel socks, eye masks x3, travel earplugs, range of small handbags for work, beach, bush and boogying.
- Passport, cards, driving licence, money and documents. Notice how they came last on the list? 🙈
Yep, I really didn’t have a clue. On each big trip since, I have tried to downsize bit by bit, but still hadn’t been able to let go of the ‘just in case’ approach to packing. It wasn’t until I went on my first group trip to Malawi this year, with my friends awesome boutique travel start-up Faraway, that I met other solo travellers and realised that my methodology wasn’t exactly normal (unless you’re an oligarch or celebrity). They were all well seasoned travellers, arriving with backpacks, or reasonably sized bags. My giant yellow beast of a case dwarfed their luggage.
I was slightly heartened when a new girl, Lizzie arrived (who later became my travel bestie and room mate) with something bright red and similar in size. But my sense of solidarity soon shattered when I discovered she had just returned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and had a full kit of expedition gear in there.
It really hit home, when Charles, our driver, tried to lift my bags through the window, into the awkward small storage space at the back of the bus. And subsequently more so, when the local African women who worked at our lodges, were tasked with carrying our bags up and down steep stairs…. on their heads! Safe to say I felt guilty for my extravagance, and if I’m brutally honest, ashamed.
I also had the privilege of meeting a travel expert on this journey, in the form of a travel journalist, Anna, who was joining us to write a piece, ironically for magazine called Suitcase. Anna had also recently published her first book ‘Departures’ and as we chatted about it on the slightly hungover boat ride between islands on Lake Malawi (where we all bonded over Malawian G&T’s, skinny dipping and African dancing) she told me her book was written for budding adventurous female travellers like me.
As soon as I had WiFi after a week of enforced digital detox (there’s no WiFi available in most of Malawi) I downloaded the book on Audible and began to take note. Anna’s collection of travel memoirs from 7 trips that changed her life, was exactly the kind of inspo I needed for a future combining work and travel. I read it for the first time after Malawi, when I was solo again, in Tanzania, and picked up all sorts of advice for adventure (and life more broadly) including how to pack light for a more liberated travel experience. (Awesome book by the way, I read it three times in the end.. and I’d recommend it to any intrepid lady solo travellers out there contemplating a life changing trip of their own).
Reading that chapter of the book, helped me see that carrying around all of the shit you think you might need is also often a metaphor for your own existence. Emotional, like physical baggage weighs you down, adds no value to your life and if anything, causes unnecessary pain and suffering. If I could manage to leave it all behind I thought, how much easier would my journey be?.
By the end of my two month African adventure which also included Mozambique, and seeing how people in two of the poorest countries in the world had so little materially, and were still happy, I resented the amount of stuff I was carrying around with me, and when I got home, started to feel incredibly stressed out with the amount of crap keep in my life (especially the myriad of things that live in cupboards and under my bed and are never seen unless I’m moving house). After Africa, I made myself a promise to live without excess baggage in every sense of the word, and thought a good place to start could be travelling lighter on this new adventure.
With my new found self awareness that started a few years ago but had accelerated massively of late (in line with quitting the job I was no longer happy in) I have also been working on the other kind of baggage, learning about who I really am and my values, what my strengths are and what drives me, with my Exec Coach Claire, and very importantly (with the help of some great audio books), the art of surrendering and letting go. I’ve realised developing this kind of mental strength and resilience is key to happiness, starting and making a success of your own business and is also a huge asset for solo travel.
My main tips for the latter are:
- Quickly recognise and let go of negative (and transitory) feelings and emotions that don’t serve you. They will pass, so the sooner you choose to let go, the faster you can get on with life as your best, happiest self.
- Consciously observe how you talk to yourself and nip that ‘inner bitch’ voice that criticises you at every opportunity, right in the bud before she goes causing mischief. It’s true, without control of this voice, you are your own worst enemy, judge and critic.
- Be clear about what you want, set positive intentions, don’t get attached to the outcome. I’m creative have made a mood board style vision board for the life I want to lead, but I’m practicing being ok if the things on there happen, or if they don’t, and have been pleasantly surprised by how easily good things have come my way of late without me having to chase them down.
- And finally, just generally go with the flow of life with a sense of self belief that everything will right itself and no matter what. You are/ will be OK! There’s something about walking around with that level of relentless optimism and positivity that has been revolutionary for me. It’s made my decisions easier to make, things that aren’t perfect much more enjoyable, and when something really shitty happens, I can think about what lessons the experience will teach me and lead me to rather than fighting what’s happening to the death or letting it overwhelm me.
For me, practicing positive mind talk in response to my inner bitch, was like going to the mind-gym. It takes time, practice, and dedication, but you get fitter, fast, and before you know it, squatting your own body weight or running 10k with ease (and looking hotter in a bikini). This kind of mental fitness has delivered benefits in all areas of my life!
So on this maiden voyage of mine as a digital nomad, backpacking in Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines and Singapore over the next 6 weeks, I went for it on the minimal baggage front, pulled out my back pack (previously only used as hand luggage), limited myself to 4 ‘packing cubes’ of clothes, 1 small hangable beauty bag, essential tech only, and my day to day make-up. And a small shoulder bag and rucksack that could pack inside one another for hand luggage.
I realised I still hadn’t got it right, when I got to the airport weighed-in a combined load of 30kgs 🤦♀️ . And this time it was MY back was going to be taking the weight. (Good job spent the last year hitting the gym x3 per week lifting heavy weights and getting stronger physically too) Again, I felt a pang of guilt for failing to ‘leave it all behind’, but kept that thought in check with some self compassion.
Arriving in Moscow, -10 degrees centigrade and after midnight, it transpired that very few people speak English, and my small collection of ‘hello, yes, no, please, thanks’ type phrases didn’t extend to asking about transport. And, to top it all off.. all the signs are written in Russian, which to me is an illegible set of symbols that could be Alien for all I know, so I needed some help from the apps to get back on track… Nope not Tinder! Google Translate and City Mapper.
My backpack already felt wrong, uncomfortable and heavy AF. The straps bit into my shoulders with the weight, causing me to loose circulation, which coupled with the cold, gave me horrible pins and needles in my fingers. (I later discovered I’d had the adjustable height section at the back set to 6ft plus, oops).
Due to a combination of user error and inability to speak Russian, I left the airport, found the train station, took a wrong turn somewhere…and unwittingly ended up back in the airport. This included having to take my back pack off, put it through the x-ray machine and as the belt was so low, I couldn’t get it back on again. (Russian customer service culture didn’t see the staff springing up to help me either!) I used the translation app and when I asked for the train, a women pointed vaguely towards an escalator… one that when I reached the top I realised took me back to Departures. Perhaps she was trying to tell me something? But she literally watched me go up and didn’t say anything, and looked quite amused when I came back down.
After a wasted hour or so, I finally found and took the Aero-express.. surprising myself at being able to use the self service kiosk to buy tickets (in Russian) using pure guess work! (Now that’s a sign of a good UX 😉 )
By this point red-faced, exhausted, sweating from running around in doors in my snow coat and beat down by the combination of a stressful no-frills flight (see last post) and now this debacle, I felt that sense of failure that historically always appeared when I don’t do a job perfectly.
My inner voice criticised, saying ‘you can’t even get through Day 1, this is not going to work, digital nomad? You may as well just go home, in fact.. go back to work for corporate, you’re useless at everything, and you’ll fail if you keep trying’ but I managed to silence it, with that kinder voice I’ve developed of late, and her words of self reassurance. (She speaks like Michelle Obama btw, no idea why, but there you go).
I helped quiet my thinking some more, by giving myself something to do.. repacking more efficiently on the hour-long train ride into the City. I was struggling with my hand luggage, so had the creative bright idea of fashioning an outside back pack add-on using the elastic strings that tighten your back pack and a plastic bag, (Engineering at its finest) to attach the wash bag to the outside. So I could load up the hand luggage weight into my backpack. I felt pretty darn proud of my creation, initially.
Two of the worlds greatest inventions for modern travel have to be City Mapper (for the big cities) and Rome to Rio. They can help you find the most efficient way to plan travel and get around when you can’t ask for directions). So after arriving at Kyevskaya (the most stunning station I’ve ever seen) And pulling on my now even heavier, nemesis onto my back, had to get myself to Smollenskaya to find my hostel. Arriving somewhere new late at night is never easy, and frankly a terrible idea if you can avoid it, but again I impressed myself with using the Metro (their much prettier, and more efficient version of London Underground) kiosk (in Russian, again) to buy myself a ticket to ride. With my newly engineered backpack solution, I had effectively added the best part of 10kg to my already straining back, and had to lean really far forward to feel in any way counter balanced. The longer I was under the weight of it all, the pins and needles got worse, and the struggle to remain positive, harder. But I kept going.
I was thinking, ‘I’m almost home and dry’ when I found the right exit. Just one more set of steps to climb, and I’d reach the summit. (Yes I am prone to being a little dramatic at times), so in this moment, I felt like this is what it must have felt like for Lizzie (owner of the big red case) to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro! Every step up took summoning all the energy I had left, I felt the burn in my legs, glutes and even my core as two girls around 18, trotted gracefully upward, ahead the last two steps to where they met the exit door on the left which was located particularly close to the verge of the steps (pic below to help you visualise).
The thing about Moscow Metro station exit doors, it transpired, is that they are made from very heavy oak, and swing both ways. So with a combination of the wind outside causing some kind of vacuum and the two giggly girls dashing through, what happened next came as a big surprise.
I stepped up onto the narrow platform, facing the door head on now, and as I reached for it, the wind caught it before me, and it swung towards me violently, almost hitting my face, and causing me to stagger back one step, two steps… Gone was my balanced lean forward position. And there on it’s place was my self conceived 30kg over load, balanced precariously somewhere dangerously below my centre of gravity. I felt it pull me down, in what felt like slow motion. Backwards with such force my feet disappeared beneath me, back towards the cold concrete stair case… sending the contents of my handbag flying into the air and across the anti-chamber of the station, and me in the direction of danger.
I landed on my backpack first, my legs ricocheting in the air, cartoon style, half on the top step, half over the edge and as my left leg hit the floor I felt my weight roll side to side, teetering on the verge like a marble about to roll off the table, with gravity conspiring to pull me down the stairs.
An image flashed in front of my eyes, of me continuing to fall down, down, down.. face first, limbs everywhere. Of smashing teeth, breaking bones and being found some time later in the dead of night, on the concrete slab like floor, bleeding and frozen.
The adrenaline kicked in, as my heart beat at a million miles and hour and this sense of abject panic took over. So I froze, prone, like a tortoise turned on its shell.
When I realised I wasn’t dead or dying, clarity returned and I managed to wriggle and shift my weight away from the ledge, until I felt secure. I lay there for a moment, grateful that I was safe, and then tried to sit up. Unsuccessfully. I was effectively trying to do a sit up with another half (ish) of my body weight weighing me down. I felt stuck, vulnerable and helpless.
The girls mustn’t have seen what happened and with no other passengers in sight, something odd happened. I felt a surge, like a hot wave of anger come over me at being in this position. It wasn’t directed at myself for a change, but at the world and I somehow summoned the power, (and muscle memory of one too many snowboarding fails on steep terrain) to use my core to lift and roll over rather ungracefully. I pushed myself up on my hands and knees, pushed my upper body upright to kneeling position, and then with the determination of an Olympic weightlifter going for gold, summoned strength from a hidden reserve (no doubt gained from all the recent leg days with my PT, Scott) onto one knee and pushed up with essentially one all mighty split squat, until I was back on my feet. I fell backwards again, but this time there was a wall to meet me and I remained thankfully, vertical, and resumed the forward position.
In that moment, all of the anxiety, stress and frustration I’d felt not only that day, but over the previous few weeks of shitty things happening all came flooding out. (Like my tennant who rents my house out giving me a paltry months notice just before I left for this 6 week trip) I just stood there against the wall and let myself emote. A few good unattractive but massively needed sobs and the release of tears let it all my frustration come up and out and I felt it physically leave my body.
Incredibly, after about 30 seconds of release I felt instantly better, and instead of being upset with myself, how the old me would have felt, I felt like I had succeeded, in mentally and physically getting myself out of a frightening and dangerous situation. The pain of falling then was noticeable. And feeling returned to the rest of my tired aching body and my next thoughts were awe of the body’s ability to shut down all but the essential faculties needed in dangerous moments.
I took off the backpack to go collect my passport, bank cards and cash that had been strewn on the floor, and collected myself at the same time. Just in time for several bemused Russians to come off the next train and up to the exit.
I removed the self-engineered instrument of my accident back pack add-on, and went back to carrying the heavy hand luggage awkwardly in front. Thus restoring my balance (I was already thinking about possible new solutions) But had learned a valuable lesson about not overfilling backpacks, and a stark reminder of the laws of physics.
Strangely nobody asked if I was ok, or needed help as I tearily struggled to get my back pack back on (had to sit on the top step in the end), They just observed me and carried on. It’s good job I could be there for myself, make a mistake, get back up again, fix the problem and move on.
I didn’t know where this post was going when I began writing it or that it would become so personaIly cathartic. I knew a heavy rucksack was a metaphor for emotional baggage, but this writing this story at creating my own metaphors have really reminded me how far I’ve come in a relatively short space of time in dropping mine, and replacing it with some highly effective behaviours.
My fall is the real life parable for the effect that not letting go of painful feelings, your past and transitory emotions can have on your life and your success. Dragging you backwards and down unless you can summon the strength to get back on your feet, often despite the snottiness of the situation and difficulty in doing so.
There’s plenty of metaphor in my earlier journey too.. Using apps to help me find my way when I got lost could signify getting help with something you’re struggling with, and showed that even without major difficulty, can help make new journeys much easier to navigate.
My final thoughts:
Solo travel is as much of an inward journey as it is an outward one and perhaps this trip has more to teach me than I thought. There’ no coincidence that I’ve grown hugely in line with becoming a more adventurous and confident traveller, and if you haven’t read my first couple of posts you won’t know that the mega trip of the mega baggage was actually the one when sat watching the sun go down with salty hair and bare feet, I decided that something had to change in my life, and led me to quit my job.
I summoned the bravery to stop trying to fix what was broken, face what was making me unhappy despite feeling scared of loosing my security and quit my job. After that, I got up off the floor and started my own company, learning from mistakes every day, and enjoying the ride. I’m constantly working on myself with a mix of coaching and audio book, and despite set backs I’ve travelled 20/52 weeks am now on this adventure, as the architect of my dream digital nomad lifestyle, who can unlike a few years ago, speak kindly to myself, and be my own cheerleader, no in fact my own squad.
In my next posts, I’ll tell you about my experience on my first ever nights in a hostel dorm room, what it’s like to be a single, white female solo traveller and more about service culture in Russia compared to where I am now in Vietnam. But now I’m feeling more comfortable, will keep sharing the more personal aspects and reflections with you.
So glad I’m not really alone on this solo journey, sharing it on my blog feels like I’m sharing it with others who might have felt or feel the same too, so thanks for joining me!