Tuesday, December 22, 2015

NO BAGGAGE :: Clara Bensen

"How well can you know someone you just met on the internet?"

An interesting question, though perhaps not quite as interesting as this one: "Would you travel the world with little more than the clothes on your back accompanied only by someone you recently met on the internet?"

The seemingly simple premise of No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering, traveling with no luggage, was enough to pique my curiosity, but the story is much deeper than that. A mere four weeks after meeting through online dating site OkCupid, Clara ("a reclusive tech writer from a big family of dyed-in-the-wood introverts" with "more houseplants than friends") and Jeff ("a mad scientist who delighted in creating a spectacle for the crowd"who "had never met a stranger in his life") buy a pair of one-way tickets to Istanbul with return flights from London. How they get from one place to the other is completely up in the air.

Adding more layers to the yin and yang of their new romance, Clara is on the mend from a "two-year mental breakdown" and Jeff is in a confirmed "no strings" state after his recent divorce. But in an effort to start living life to the fullest, Clara agrees to throw caution to the wind and travel Jeff's way: flying from country to country with no hotel reservations and no itineraries, generally starting the journey with nothing but a credit card, a phone charger, a passport, and the outfit he sets out in.

A ballsy thing to do under any circumstances, but I had a ton of respect for Clara for jumping in with both feet, leaving all of her literal baggage behind and putting herself in a position that forced her to deal with the metaphorical baggage of life that isn't as easily left behind. No Baggage has as much or more to do with the latter than the former.

Indeed, if it's a strict travelogue you're after, No Baggage likely isn't going to fit the bill. Of course Clara provides details of her and Jeff's journey across eight continents over three weeks, but it's the journey she takes as a person that pulled me in. She allowed herself to be vulnerable, both as a traveler and a human being, a position difficult enough in normal circumstances, only heightened by her circumstances:

Standing in an airport with no baggage is a lot like the dream where you show up to a party and you're the only one who forgot to get dressed. I felt naked. Unmoored. Weightless. I have nothing. We have nothing. My head was light with the nothingness. Without a suitcase to hold me down, I felt dangerously at risk of floating up and and away towards the skylights of Terminal D - like the buoyant Mary Poppins (sans her magic satchel).

Despite her unease and the issues she is just putting behind her, Clara decides to push herself, to be vulnerable, to "allow [herself] to be temporarily lost, exhausted, and roofless, to test the very worst that might happen." She is tested in many ways on the trip, and it was a fun and fascinating journey to share with her. I really enjoyed watching her change and grow over the course of the pair's travels.

I also admired Clara's perspective about the trip; that while for her it was a huge, boundary-pushing undertaking, in the grand scheme of things she still had a choice:
We weren't exactly reinventing the wheel as middle-class white Americans intentionally choosing to test the unknown with nothing but the clothes on our backs. Large swathes of the global population had nothingness and uncertainty thrust upon them - not as a deliberate and temporary choice, but as a lifelong fact of their existence.  

Jeff is another story. Playing by his rules, flying in his comfort zone, he was for the most part a supportive partner. But I also found him to be a bit reckless at times. Once, before the trip, he put Clara in a position I thought rather dangerous, all seemingly for the sake of a thrill. After that moment, he didn't hold the same allure or shine for me. Maybe I'm just older and more curmudgeonly than I thought.

To be fair, some of the more memorable moments of the trip arose because of Jeff's persona. He is the epitome of the idea that wonder is married to risk and "the really magical stuff tends to show up when you have no idea what's going to happen next." He helps Clara live in the moment, less weighed down by the stresses that haunt her. I'm really curious to know how and where their relationship stands today. Despite their seeming differences, I wouldn't be surprised to find them still inextricably linked in wonder.

STREET SENSE: Part travel journal, part personal journey, No Baggage is both a deep and light trip with two fascinating and diametrically opposed people, each struggling to find his or her place in the world while traveling through it aimlessly. I quite enjoyed it and recommend it for those of you interested in travel, the challenges of baggage-less journeys, and the insight and personal growth both might bring to bear.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: The etymology of the word "travel" can be traced back to the word "travail," which brings to mind the sorts of arduous journeys that blister your ankles, burn your calves, and provide a melange of reasons to wish you had never left home at all. The reality is that every good and wonderful thing tends to be accompanied by some degree of travail.

Desire was an insatiable consumer beast. Yet by eliminating the possibility of new acquisitions from the outset, I had moved into a surprising state of satisfaction with the basics: food and shelter shared with someone who made my heart beat a little faster. In a way, it was an alchemic process - by dropping desire, a cheap paper cup of Nescafe, a crocheted blanker on a stranger's couch, and a clean pair of underwear suddenly transformed into tiny, generous miracles.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I don't think the cover above is the cover I first saw for this book. I don't remember much about the one I saw, but enough to know I prefer it. Nothing about the current cover speaks to me; the faded images would not scream out at me from a table or shelf to pick the book up. I do like the font and how the title and author are presented, but together it doesn't have any draw or wow factor for me.

P.S. I did a Google search and found the below image, which I think is the one I first saw. I like it much better. Is it just me? I'd be curious to know the strategy behind the switch. The first image does make it clearer that a man and a woman are traveling together, so perhaps the change was to highlight the fact that this book isn't strictly about travel or a single woman taking on the 'no baggage' premise. The image below certainly evokes the "woman conquering the world alone" feeling for me. Thoughts?

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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