Rich spent 20 years bringing up the loony idea of luggage-free travel, but it was Clara Bensen who finally convinced me to try it. She and her not-yet-officially-a-boyfriend Jeff explored the parameters of their unconventional relationship during three weeks of Couchsurfing around Europe with nothing but the clothes on their backs and, in Clara’s case, a small purse with a few necessities. Reading her insightful, beautifully written article about their madcap adventure convinced me to try my own luggage-free journey, although — call us a bit less crazy — Rich and I stayed in hotels and took the train instead of hitchhiking. Clara's article went viral and grew into a book called No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering. The book came out on Tuesday and I'm just finishing the last chapter; it's been a hell of a ride. I’m not surprised there’s a movie deal in the works.
I was lucky enough to arrange an interview with Clara so I could find out more about her story.
Traveling without luggage, what did you miss most?
People are often incredulous when I say I didn’t miss much of anything — I was incredulous too! I walked into the airport mentally prepared to be uncomfortable for the next 21 days. As it turned out, the things I missed were minor or abstract: convenience (washing clothes in the sink every night requires time and a bit of foresight) and certainty (I wasn’t always sure where I’d be sleeping or when I’d next have a chance to get cleaned up). I didn’t bring toothpaste, thinking it would be readily available — that was definitely a mistake.
Your no-baggage journey took place after your “quarter-life meltdown.” How did the journey help you heal?
I spent the two years before the No Baggage trip in a state of severe clinical anxiety. Prior to my recovery, there’s no way I could have handled the psychological uncertainty of traveling with no baggage or plans (and some wildcard guy I hardly knew). Agreeing to the journey was, in many ways, a celebration of how far I’d come. It wasn’t that I no longer experienced anxiety — I did and still do — it was more that I was confident I could have a meaningful, adventurous life in spite of fear.
You and Jeff have taken five No Baggage-style trips. How do you meet people? How have you dealt with any safety/security issues?
We talk to whoever is around. On our second No Baggage trip to South America, we hit it off with the Ecuadorian guy sitting next to us on the plane. It was Christmas Eve and when our flight was delayed he insisted on taking us back to his family home for the night. We ended up spending Christmas morning in Quito, drinking homemade fruit smoothies with a big family we’d never met
Of course, we don’t blindly accept all invitations. Both Jeff and I are skilled at reading people and environments. If something feels off, we leave. Gut and intuition go a long way in gauging safety — so does local knowledge. Last year we traveled to visit Mesopotamian ruins in south-central Turkey. We were only an hour or two from a Syrian border town under ISIS siege. At each stop we consulted with locals and online message boards about what was going on and where it was safe to head next. Our trips convey a sense of daring, but behind the scenes we’re evaluating risk just like other experienced travelers.
I have this saying: “When we set out in search of adventure, what we really discover is ourselves.” What did you discover about yourself during the trip?
I love your quote! I agree that the challenge of adventure is one of the quickest ways to find out about yourself and whomever you’re traveling with. The disorientation of a new place has a way of stripping you down to your raw, unedited self.
Setting out on the No Baggage trip taught me that I am capable of flowing with the moment and finding my way in situations with low levels of certainty. And of course, you always hear anecdotes about how it’s experience — not consumerism — that matters, but those 21 days illuminated that truth in a really tangible way.
On our first trip, Jeff and I wrestled with the balance between commitment and freedom, and three years later our views on the subject are still evolving. It helps that we’re both comfortable with paradox. We’re able to express deep and consistent support towards each other while also expressing the knowledge that life is complicated and people change (whether they’re wearing rings or not). The perceived uncertainty can be frightening but it also infuses our relationship with a constant influx of fresh energy. We never take each other for granted and it shows.
How did Jeff living in the dumpster affect your relationship?
Jeff lived in a dumpster for a year (we live together at the moment). It was an adjustment at first (ie. swinging like a chimpanzee through his “front door”), but it’s funny how quickly the human mind can adapt to an unusual situation. After a few months we both referred to the dumpster as his “house.”
I’m really into surrealism, so — aside from a few inconveniences — I found the whole experiment stimulating and funny.
How are you feeling about a movie being made about your No Baggage trip? What actor would you like cast as Jeff?
The public response to our trip has been so surprising. I didn’t have any intention to write about the experience. The idea didn’t occur to me until Jeff casually mentioned it six months after the trip. I pitched an article to Salon, they published it, the story went viral, and my life changed overnight. The book deal, the film screenplay, standing in an elevator with Barbara Walters…it mostly doesn’t seem real.
In the interest of staying sane I don’t usually let myself think about who should play Jeff (or myself). He always says Denzel Washington.
What are you working on now?
Now that No Baggage is launching into the world, I’m breaking ground on a new tongue-in-cheek memoir about growing up as a homeschooled kid in a fringe Christian evangelical movement. I’m really excited to delve into this sub-section of American culture to try to understand its psychological appeal.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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