No-baggage field report: Week two
September 6, 2010 by Rolf Potts
Two weeks into the journey, the no-baggage aspect continues to go remarkably smoothly: My sojourn through North Africa has been fascinating, and (as was the case with the Western Europe leg of the journey) I’m not up at night wishing I’d brought a shoe horn, a ukulele, or another pair of socks. The few things I’ve brought in my pockets have been suiting me fine — and in fact I might begin to jettison some items I haven’t been using so much (stay tuned on that).
On climate and culture
The biggest changes since my first week on the road have come in the form of climate and culture. The North African heat has at times been brutal, maxing out at 42 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Moroccan mountain town of Chefchaouen. The five-hour Chefchaouen-to-Fes bus was absolutely stifling — enough to make Justin and I shell out an extra US$5 each for an air-conditioned first-class car on the Fes-Casablanca train a few days later. I’ve definitely gotten sweaty in my sleeveless SeV Tropical Jacket on hot transit days — but far less sweaty, I might add, than if I’d had a backpack strapped to my body in a similar situation (I just keep the vest unzipped when the weather gets hot).
Quite by accident I’ve landed in the Muslim world during Ramadan, which (since this festival involves a strict fast during daylight hours) means restaurant-food and cafe-beverages have been hard to come by while the sun is still up. Groceries and drinks are sold during the day, however, so I’ve been buying bread and water in the market and eating/drinking it in private (so as not to tempt or distract my hungry Muslim neighbors). I miss the teashop social-culture that made my afternoons in Egypt so enjoyable when I was in this part of the world ten years ago — but the festive vibe at night (when Muslims can finally hit the streets to eat and drink during the month of Ramadan) has more than made up for it.
On clothing and gear
Clothing-wise, a couple of items have proven more useful than I’d originally predicted: my ScotteVest performance t-shirts, and my SeV prototype boxer shorts. Back before I began the journey, when I was making a video about the kinds of clothes I was bringing, I expressed ambivalence about the zip-pockets in the hip and shoulder of the SeV performance tees. As it turns out, I’ve been consistently using both of those pockets (the hip pocket for money; the shoulder pocket for easy access to ticket stubs while I’m sitting on trains and buses). I was also a tad ambivalent about the boxer shorts at the outset of the trip, since briefs are more my style (and they pack smaller). ScotteVest sent me boxers because that’s the only style they make at the moment — but the boxers have actually served my needs better than a jockey-short equivalent. Whereas I might feel ridiculous consulting on Justin’s video edits in briefs while my pants dry, my boxers wear like a pair of running shorts. They’re even long enough that I can go swimming in them without feeling like I’m cavorting around in my underwear (even though I am).
I continue to shower twice a day — and I’ve taken to bringing my dirty clothes into the shower with me each night and washing them as I wash myself. This makes my laundry routine seem less like work, and my clothes are coming out just as clean as when I wash them in the sink.
In general, I’m surprised how easy it has been to stay clean and odor-free while traveling without luggage. When standing in line for train tickets with a group of European backpackers in Fes the other day, I was intrigued at how unkempt my fellow vagabonders looked. Even with their rucksacks full of spare gear, they looked as if they hadn’t washed any of their clothes in over a week. I felt like I had just scrubbed up for a job interview by comparison.
I mention this not to disparage the backpackers (I’ve traveled in that manner myself for most of the past decade), but to note that basic hygiene on the road is less a matter of how much you pack than how diligent you are about keeping yourself (and your gear) clean. If cleanliness is a personal priority, it’s easy to stay clean, luggage or no.
On a related topic, those of you who tuned in to the Fes chapter of my journey know that I’m now carrying a small mineral-salt stone to keep my armpits well-scoured and free of bacteria. This alternative to deodorant was actually suggested to me early on by readers of this site, as well as commenters on Tim Ferriss’s blog. It’s still a little strange to rub my pits with a translucent rock after I shower — but if it works at keeping body-odor at bay, I might just toss out my store-bought deodorant stick.
On speed and connectivity
I’ll reiterate this week that the strangest part of this journey comes not from its lack of luggage, but from its relentless pace (I’m accustomed to covering less ground in this amount of time), and its emphasis on video dispatches. These two factors actually influence each other, since a fast-paced journey lends itself more to televisual narrative (which is great at conveying quick encounters) than written narrative (which benefits from slower, more patient experiences and reportage).
Amid this newfound role as travel-video writer-director, I’ve found myself staring longingly at Justin’s laptop as he produces, edits, and uploads the videos. By the rules of the journey, I don’t have access to any of his gear. This hasn’t affected the travel portion of the journey all that much — but it does mean I’m a lot slower and less efficient when it comes to researching online information with my iPod, writing dispatches on my tiny bluetooth keyboard, and clicking through to check comments and respond to readers on this website. (If you were wondering why Justin has been more active in the comments than me the past couple weeks, now you know why!)
Finally, since video files require a reliable internet connection to upload properly (and since Justin requires a good deal of connectivity to keep my content up to date and looking good), we’ve ended up staying in a lot of business hotels since we arrived in North Africa. Business hotels are comfortable, of course, but they tend to be expensive and a bit cut-off from the host culture. For example, I am writing this dispatch from the Marriott Hotel in Cairo’s upscale Zamalek district. We got a complimentary stay here, and I can say with all objectivity that this is a terrific facility in terms of comfort and amenities. The hotel building is historical (it used to be a Napoleonic-era palace), the food is great, and our stay here has been very restful. Still, staying at this Cairo Marriott is like living in a pleasant little bubble, cut off from the teeming, intriguing city I experienced when I visited here ten years ago. (Moreover, in spite of the comp, this place is loaded with incidental expenses. Does a five-star hotel business center really need to be charging $25 an hour for drop-in internet access in the year 2010? Justin has it slightly better, at $16 a day for laptop cable-access in his room, but that still feels a tad excessive. I don’t begrudge business travelers their comforts — and the Cairo Marriott is as comfortable as any hotel I’ve stayed in — but luxury hotels can at times feel like a dubious value if you are more more interested in cultural experiences than away-from-home amenities.)
All that said, I have only just arrived in Cairo — and it’s never all that hard to hike into a more interesting area of a given destination. I look forward to exploring Cairo’s farther flung neighborhoods tomorrow, to see what the city has to offer!