I sat watching my boyfriend negotiate prices for mango slices with the woman carrying fruit baskets on the beach. Me drinking a beer, him haggling in that cute, apologetic way of his. I sat back and crossed my ankles, and I almost didn't even register the acid green pants stamped with elephants on my legs — almost. I had gone on a trip with no suitcase, and yes, it went exactly the way you thought it did: A start-to-finish disaster. But even though I was forced to dress like an 18-year-old British boy on "gap year" for the span of two weeks, I wouldn't give up the experience for anything. It finally made me loosen my white-knuckled grip on my careful trip itinerary. It let me just enjoy the adventure.
The decision happened as we were cramped in our shoe box hostel room, playing what felt like a game of Twister as we tried to maneuver around two large backpacks that were taking up the majority of the room. "Why don't we just leave them behind?" my boyfriend asked casually, as if he didn't just say something I thought was crazy.
"Without our bags?" I asked, taking a step back out of self-preservation and simultaneously falling over his pack. But then I started to give it some consideration.
We were currently shacked up in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, and I looked out at the balcony thoughtfully as the rumble of motorbikes and heckle of street food vendors from below came into our room. We were going to go further south to to the Mekong Delta — where we could ride bicycles through jungles and eat mangoes as we rode on motor boats through mud-water streams — a trip that would last about a week. So did we really need to lug two giant bags on something that was essentially a quick jaunt? And really, I thought, if I wanted a change of clothes I could just buy something for a few bucks at the bazaar. I was an under-packer anyway, how bad could it go?
Cut to two weeks later and the answer is bad. Very bad.
Clothes got wrinkled, dresses got sweated through, socks got lost, and our trip only got longer. Rather than just poking around a week through the Delta, we decided to hop on a boat and sail to Phú Quốc — an island that's a quick swim away from Cambodia. And this whole time I was thinking, this is fine, this is manageable. Sure, my dress is fraying at the ends and my neck bandanna smells like it belongs to a mechanic, but this is the vagabond life, right? There are still bazaars, right?
The funny thing about bazaars is that they work a lot like American malls: When you want something, they've got nothing for you. Not realizing I would go to an island, my pretty one-piece suit lay folded in the bottom of my backpack back in Ho Chi Minh, so what I had to do instead was buy a teeny bikini that made me want to look up at the sky and ask whoever lived up there, "Why?"
I walked onto the beach with a swimsuit top so heavily stuffed that it made my modest B cups into middle-school-approved padded Ds. Their best feature was that they would retain water like sponges, only to leak from my boobs for an hour as I tried to enjoy a pineapple smoothie on the sand with dignity.
And it only got worse from there. Out of sheer desperation for a change of clean clothes, I went all-in at the street bazaars and bought whatever was cheapest. I was led from storefronts into tight alleys that opened up into people's apartments, where I'd be ushered into a little old lady's living room. She'd start unwrapping tie-dye pants and elephant stamped dresses out of their plastic wrapping and tossing them to me. On my 5'10 frame the small dresses looked like ice skating outfits, and the pants made me look like that one kid in the dorm hall that had one too many Bob Marley posters up in his living room. But I had no other choice.
And so I sat in misery. I sat in my tie-dye pants and no-longer-white-white-tee on the sand of a beautiful Vietnam island, sulking because I didn't have my favorite dress on. And that's when the light finally flicked on. I was sitting on a beautiful island in Vietnam. Sulking. I was the type of person who liked to have a plan — I'd map out our trips right down to the breakfast places we could hit at six in the morning, ordered in bullet points from cutest to most convenient. I liked to know where exactly to stand to catch our bus, and what are the best sights to see in the two-mile radius I was currently sitting in.
This was why being without my pack for so long was making me so unhappy, so dissatisfied with the trip. But sitting on that beach, I realized that it was also necessary, because finally — finally — I got to let go of control and accept that not everything had to be to my liking or go the way I planned, and I'd still be able to enjoy it.
There's something about an abominable outfit that leaves you saying, "Fine. You know what? I don't give a shit anymore," which gives you permission to let go of the "perfect vacation" in your mind, and instead embrace the flawed but memorable one you're currently on.
Not everything had to be perfect for it to be, well, perfect, and the only way for me to accept that was to go on that trip without a suitcase. And I'd do it again.
Images: @lichipan/Instagram; Marlen Komar (2)