It didn’t take me long to realise that we had brought too much, although it took until I arrived in Australia in April to lighten the load and find a way to send one bag back home. We hadn’t needed the sleeping bags or the malaria tablets. We could manage with one jumper less. We didn’t need a selection of games, just a pack of cards and the colouring pencils.
The question of what we really need has been a persistent theme of this adventure, right from the early planning to our day to day lives on the road.
I’m not very good at living lightly. I keep all sorts of things for sentimental value or in case they surprise me with a hitherto unthought-of use. It was traumatic to clear out the contents of our house before we left and I found it stressful to pack for a year. I should make it clear that this is not an affliction Michael suffers from. He is ruthless about shedding unnecessary baggage.
I’m surprised (perhaps I shouldn’t be) about how good Ishbel, Neamh and Ruaridh’s choices were about what to bring with them. They restricted themselves to a cuddly toy, a tin of putty and a notebook. They have been content reading and drawing; playing cards; and acting out endless make believe games of “tourist information” or “going to a restaurant”. As I’ve mentioned before, this year’s high value items have been Tic Tac boxes, coins found in the street and plastic cutlery.
While we’ve learnt about what is really necessary to carry with us, we’ve also had to consume less. We’ve lived in simple rooms and had many months with only cold showers. I chuckled when the children and I arrived at my brother’s house, in Brisbane, Australia, after many hours of travelling. Yes, the children could put toilet paper down the toilet! Yes, they could drink the tap water! Yes, the water in the shower was hot! They were delighted with these simple luxuries, which we had learnt not to take for granted during the 7 months in Latin America.
During the three months we spent in Nicaragua in particular, I just didn’t feel as much pressure to buy unnecessary stuff. I wasn’t bombarded by advertising. The majority of clothes on sale were second hand. People made an effort to repair and reuse what they had and what they could find. It was liberating.
Of course, for most Nicaraguans, this is less a lifestyle choice and more a matter of necessity.
It’s a bit of an aside, but the second hand clothes on sale in Nicaragua are the leftovers of the bags we put out for collection in Britain. It may feel like a simple way to pass on our unwanted clothes to people who need them more. But the clothes we leave out for collection are not being freely given to people who need them. They are part of a complex international market, worth billions, most of which goes to middle men, as they are repeatedly sold on to traders in poorer and poorer parts of the world. The real tragedy is that the ready market in our cast offs has scuppered domestic clothes production – which could support many more livelihoods – in those very same countries.
When we get home, I’ll be more particular about where we give our unwanted clothes, as well as repairing and reusing what we can. I’ve looked in amazement at the holes developing in our clothes this year. The few we have brought with us have had so much wear that we have worn them out quicker than we have grown out of or grown bored of them.
Needless to say, the real test will be in being more particular about what we buy in the first place.
Where Nicaragua encouraged me to consume less, Australia and China did the opposite, dazzling me with their glittering displays of what you could buy. This didn’t surprise me in Australia but the sheer size of China’s emerging middle classes, eager to buy, has spawned an equally vast quantity of shopping malls. Without doubt, shopping is the new leisure activity.
I felt an almost physical hunger for all the stuff I could see – luxury food, clothes, cosmetics – which I had lived perfectly happily without for the last few months. The triggers to consume were even more pervasive, burrowing into my head so I felt differently about myself: scruffy, unkempt, ugly, and the only fix was to buy something to sort it out. The power of advertising was doing exactly what it is designed to: creating desire where need doesn’t exist.
Right now we’re tucked away on the very edge of mainland Europe, on the remote Illa de Arousa in north west Spain. Life is simple again, in our miniscule, but perfectly formed, flat, working in the morning and swimming in the afternoon. There’s not much to buy here anyway. I hope to sustain something of this simplicity when we get back home. I just don’t know if I have the willpower to resist the lure to buy what I want instead of only what I need.
- Main image: Shanghai’s waterfront