How My Travels Changed My Style And, Ultimately, My Sense Of Self

I love a good nosh in an outdoor trattoria as much as the next person. Preferably in a nook somewhere in Italy, where I can sit in a wiry little chair and slowly make the switch from cappuccinos to red wine as I watch the city move in front of me. There are so many cities to visit that my brain can't handle it. I like a good stroll through quaint Austrian towns, through narrow alleyways that make the footsteps of my boots echo as they walk on cobblestones. I like to sit in dimly lit restaurants with white tablecloths and serious-looking men captured with oil paints and gold frames, eating open-faced sandwiches as I try to remember the lines of the Alps like a poem outside the window. I like to sit in balconies in Argentina, my hair swept into a braid as I sip cocoa tea and take in the candy color buildings from my spot above the city.

I love a good travel destination as much as the next person, surrounding myself with movie-perfect scenes. But while charming bistros and staccato balconies are the stuff of romance, that’s not really what I crave when I itch to spend all of rent money on a ticket. What I love to do, instead, is get uncomfortable.

While most are packing sandals and dresses with palm tree prints and May flower patterns, I’m packing baggy shorts and hiking boots. I like to pile myself into packed planes that take 16 hours to get to their destinations, serving things like curry and lentils during snack breaks. I like to run away to India and the mountains in Nepal when it’s time for me to take a break, and not just because of the adventure that awaits me there, but because it brings out a side of me I never really knew I had.

Let’s back up here for a moment. First, let me describe myself. I’m the only girl in a family of boys, which means I get to stay in lounging during a snowstorm while the guys shovel out my car, and I have no idea how to start a mower. Does it have a power switch? Do you plug it in somewhere? Who knows? I wear vintage like I ransacked Lauren Bacall’s estate sale, and while I’m not one to turn up my nose at a two-star establishment, I’ve never really had a reason, or an opportunity, to be uncomfortable.

Which was why I was so shocked when I met myself after a week of sleeping inside mosquito nets and showering with lizards that crawled on my bathroom ceilings.

It was… awesome. I was thirsty. My eyes were hungry to soak up all the colors, to remember all the dizzying traffic on dirt roads and the mayhem of bazaar streets. I wanted to wake up in the middle of the night because it was so hot that the power went out, my Hanes tee sticking to my chest as I heard the Mosque prayers come in through my windowless window. I wanted to wash my hair with a bucket of water while crouching underneath an outdoor faucet, and I didn’t want to know where I was going to sleep next as I hopped onto a train filled with citrus saris and curious brown eyes. Who was this girl?, I would think from time to time. How am I her? Was she always here all along? I was baffled. And more than pleased.

All of a sudden I was this girl who didn’t mind all that much that she couldn’t shower for a couple of days. I was lost in a mountain, hiking through Himalayan villages — finding soap was on the bottom of my list. In all honesty, finding Pringles was above washing hair. Finding Pringles and eating something that wasn’t pickled or curried. I was too busy being offered rice beer and helping chase down rogue goats to ask for a bathroom that actually ran warm water. 

All of a sudden, I didn’t care that I wore the same fraying dress four days in a row, and that I only had a handful of pieces to wear for a full two months. The things rolled into my backpack were the only things I got to style, and most of the time they were dirty or rumpled beyond recognition. As a lover of fashion, I thought that would spin me into a dark place, but it actually sent me in the other direction.

The clothes I put on my back became stories, and the less I had the more special they became. This dress got a rip at the shoulder because I threw up my arms too fast as I clapped at a wedding parade that dance passed my hostel, the groom wearing a veil of flowers looking for his bride. This shirt became all oblong because the village woman who washed it left it hanging for too long. The hem on this skirt is fraying because it was caught by the wind one too many times on ferry boats to and from islands. Each of my pieces had a story attached to it — they found a way to preserve the trip for me when I wasn’t looking. My style wasn't really anymore about trends and what looked good — it was about dressing emotionally.

And when I came home, when I washed the dust and sun off of my face and put my hair back into its usual brushed state, one thing I didn’t lose was my new sense of what it means to own things. Living out of a small backpack for 60 days changes a person. You feel a sense of lightness knowing that you only own a handful of things. You’re not weighed down by the feelings of “want” and “more” because you realize, you have more than enough. Instead, you can focus on wanting more out of your surroundings, out of your experiences, your people. You want to slide into dusty black boots and not worry about your bare, sun-burnt face, and instead sit on the banks of rivers as mosquitoes buzz around you, watching children push banana leaf boats with candles into the water. As I watched their prayers sail away into the river and get lost with the black sky, I forgot to think about what I had, what I owned, and what was waiting for me in my closet and on my shelves. That was the furthest thing from my mind. 

And if I did think about it, it seemed so… insignificant. Silly. Why did I obsess over buying the perfect duvet cover, or why did I just need a second pair of fringe loafers? Why would that matter when there were so many other beautiful things in the world to occupy your eyes with?

When I got back home, I pared my closet down by 75 percent. I didn’t want most of it. I felt heavy with the knowledge that all those options were there. And I felt empty knowing that most of the pieces didn’t have a story to tell, didn’t have a memory to bring back. I didn't want clothes just to get me through a Wednesday or a new dress that would carry me through a date. I wanted pieces that would become part of my life. It felt silly, to want things just for the sake of wanting them. So I chucked it.  

And by becoming lighter, I became fuller.

Images: Author's Own

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