Cartagena centro

I love heels: confessions of a materialistic traveller

How losing all my things (again) made me more—and also less—of a material girl.

Sometimes, I can be awfully stupid.

A month ago, I left Montreal for a three-month trip to Colombia. My flight was at 5am, and I made the mistake of having a little bit (see: “rather a lot”) of wine before I headed to the airport. By the the time I came to my senses, I was standing outside Pearson, smoking a cigarette, and my carry-on bag was nowhere to be seen.

Unfortunately, that carry-on contained two pairs of subscription glasses, my flat iron, my portable speaker, an assortment of “just in case” malaria tablets, the overwhelming majority of my clothing, all of my beloved girly things that prevent me from being a snarling untamed beast, and various charging cords.

I landed in Bogotá six hours later, hung over, tired as hell, and desperately wishing I owned a toothbrush. It took a few days to get myself sorted out so that I looked human again and could charge my phone. Assembling what approximates a sensible array of clothing took still more time. (Although the latter point was not helped much by moving through a variety of different climates in short succession.)

Cartagena centro
These guys are better equipped to walk the streets of this city than I was when I first got here. I’ve since bought a pair of jeans (too hot for Cartagena most days, the only acceptable attire in Bogotá) and a few more dresses now, but I still have brutal blisters from my footwear.

It’s not the first time I’ve lost important things while travelling. I lost my iPhone my first ten minutes in Argentina. Bangkok and Phnom Pehn claimed two of my purses, one containing only a knife and a phone charger, the other containing a phone, money, and one of my passports. I left yet another iPhone in a bus station in the south of Spain, and then had almost all of my electronics stolen in Lisbon a few weeks later.

As a result, I’m pretty aware of how vital an item really is to me. Computer: vital. Phone: pretty damned important, especially when in transit. Charging cords: awful to be without, especially in places where replacements are hard to find. Hair straightener: technically not the end of the world. I’ve been known to hide my laptop under couch cushions and mattresses in relatively safe places, just in case.

Colombia hasn’t been what I’d call easy to me thus far. I later lost a sweater and my Kindle to Medellín, and chose to fly to Cartagena so I wouldn’t go insane on a twelve-hour bus with no reading material. I landed in Cartagena late at night, went to my previously-arranged hostel, and was rudely informed they were completely full. I ended up wandering the streets for a few hours, knocking on every hostel’s door only to be rejected by them all. I contemplated sleeping on the beach or in a park for a while, before I finally found a hotel in a different neighbourhood. I did eventually sort out an apartment for myself, but it’s a bit less fancy than I’m often accustomed to. There are no screens on my window and no air-con, so closing the window is out of the question and I get eaten alive by mosquitoes at night. At one point there was no running water for over twenty-four hours, and it never comes out of the tap hot (or cold) anyway. There’s no fridge in my kitchen, so I’m intimately aware of how quickly certain foods go bad in tropical heat. The heat and my tiny, uncomfortable bed have teamed up to make it extremely difficult for me to get to sleep like a normal human.

Cartagena balcony
Even in the historical centre, Cartagena can be a bit shabby. I have to be really careful walking or running through the streets. Especially in my part of town, there are huge holes in the sidewalks, big enough for me to fall into, and filled with trash and stagnant water.

But mostly, I’ve adjusted. As much as I don’t need all those things, I also don’t really require that many creature comforts. It feels like a facile statement, and it’s one that’s often made by people who don’t really understand its full implications. The thing is, it’s a lot easier to have nothing when you have money. It’s a really weird inverse relationship, because most people tend to associate the collection of material goods with financial wellness, and most often, they’re linked. But it’s easier to live with less stuff if you have more money. It means you can rent things you need. Go out for dinner six times a week. Pay for yoga classes instead of owning a mat. Wash your clothing at a laundromat every week.

Travelling long-term, stuff becomes important. I think about stuff a lot. What did I forget to bring that I wish I had, what do I wish I hadn’t brought? Ultimately, what I do bring gets smaller with every trip. Sometimes that’s just a matter of condensing many cheap things into one expensive thing—a Kindle, or these shoes. Sometimes it’s a matter of culling what you bring down to the bare essentials.

But while there’s a growing trend of travellers pushing toward ultra-minimalism, I’m just not there. I could travel with only travel-store pants that zip off into shorts, a pair of hiking sandals, and a bar of soap, but my comforts are important to me. A pretty dress, a tube of eyeliner, and a hair straightener makes me feel more like myself, and that’s worth the extra weight when I’m traipsing around the world, by myself, often lost, lonely, and adrift. Does that make me shallow and materialistic?

Ábaco y libros
My book collection doesn’t rival this, but it’s trying. If I were a “good” minimalist, I’m sure I’d get rid of the ten or so boxes of books I own, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Those books are a part of me, and eventually I’ll own an apartment and some bookshelves again.
This is a coffeeshop-cum-bookstore in Cartagena. It would be the best place in the planet to work if it didn’t have ceiling fans mounted beneath the lights. I feel as though I’m going to have a seizure.)

I’d like to think not. I expect there will be people who will judge me for being high-maintenance. For not being as thoroughly invested in travel as I should be. For focusing on material things that are ultimately unimportant.

But I think it’s about balance. And ultimately, travelling is as much about understanding yourself as it is about understanding other places, and about finding your own balance when the world around you is constantly changing. My entire world changes every few months. Very little remains the same, and sometimes I need things that tie me to my sense of self.

So if I need a flat iron and a pair of killer heels to feel like I’m at home? That’s fine. My back can handle the extra weight, and I won’t be seeing any less of the world because of it.

Like this post? Hate this post? Let’s talk about it.