Every day we carry things, physical things like our wallet and cell phone and intangible things like our past and relationships with loved ones. Traveling with all my belongings on my back really makes me think about what I choose to carry and what I choose to leave behind. It also makes me contemplate what I ask others to carry for me.
Last week I trekked to a lodge in the mountains of Nepal. We hired porters to carry most of our belongings, something I have done only one other time in my life -- nearly a decade ago when Josh and I trekked to Machu Picchu in Peru on our honeymoon. And just like before I felt oddly conflicted over whether it was right to hire someone to carry my things. At home, I love to backpack and I normally carry everything I need (although Josh often carries more than half our shared gear). So I wondered what about being in another country made it okay to pay a stranger to carry my things?
I'll start by revealing what I didn't let them carry for me, the things I carried myself:
- My first aid kit, a change of bandage for my recently surgeried foot, neosporin to spread on any new wound.
- My purple down jacket and wool beanie to guard against possible foul weather.
- The case to protect my sunglasses and Chapstick for my lips.
- A collapsible dusty blue baseball cap I knew I should wear but couldn't bring myself to do so.
- My passport stuffed with spare Nepali rupees and old airplane ticket stubs.
- My tiny wallet with cash, credit cards and my U.S. driver's license -- never leave home without it.
- Our old point-and-shoot camera in its new Nepali-made fabric case.
- A red water bottle acquired in South Africa nearly a year ago which leaks when I'm not careful and which I've embellished by slapping on a sticker advertising my friends' paragliding tour group in Thailand.
- A map of the area where we are hiking, minus a compass to help me get my bearing. I decide that the GPS on my iPhone will serve that purpose in a pinch.
- My small green headlamp -- ever the Girl Scout, ready for calamity, hopeful for an easy trip.
- A fruit leather and granola bar to alleviate sudden hunger or low blood sugar.
- A pair of purple trekking poles to ease my journey.
- Two little notebooks and a pen for jotting down inspiration.
- My cold, congestion in my sinuses, phlegm in my throat, which I spit out from time to time, lightening my load.
All this was packed into a tiny red waterproof backpack (15). Although my load was light, it was much more than I am used to. Josh has been carrying me in so many ways over the last eight months I've forgotten what it feels like to be self-sufficient without him.
And yet, I am not. The Nepali porters carried my change of clothes, my iPad and its charger, my watercolor paper and paints, my toiletries, vitamins and medications, my flip flops and extra snacks. For this I tipped them $10 US and I felt weird about it. Who am I to burden strangers with my things? And yet I also wondered who I would be to take a stand against porters making a living by carrying things for tourists? This is an important source of income for many Nepalis and my stuff was not particularly heavy. They are fitter for hiking than I am and they wear good shoes, unlike the Peruvian porters that schlepped our stuff up mountains in cheap plastic flip flops. I smiled at the porters and tried not to complain when my still-healing foot was angered by the rugged terrain and my light pack.
I wonder too about the things the porters carry which I cannot see. Do they carry the debt of share cropping? The sorrow of family members without enough to eat? The joy of a new child on the way? The dreams of a better life? Do they carry resentment or gratitude towards foreigners like me? These things I do not know, nor do they know the other hidden things I carry. The titanium plate and seven screws in my right ankle, the first aid kit in my pack, the passport stuffed with money, the heart that misses my husband, the eyes that see sorrow and beauty in the same vista.
For me, traveling creates a space where I can ponder these things. Where I don't have to rush about to catch the bus or crunch one last number before an important meeting. It provides time for me to reflect on the meaning of my life and the possible meanings of other people's lives as we move side-by-side on the same path with different destinations.