Bullish: How to Travel Like a Gentlewoman

Travel writer Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, has just finished traveling around the world for six weeks without a single piece of luggage. His trip is being sponsored by … a company that makes vests with lots and lots of pockets, so you can look like either a fisherman or a terrorist. These are not the “lovely lady lumps” Fergie had in mind.

Potts claims that his travels are “a field-test for a more philosophical idea — that what we experience in life is more important than what we bring with us.”

That statement possesses a certain verisimilitude, no? Of course our experiences are more important than our possessions! What are you, some kind of gold-digger, mining life itself for designer goods?!

Except, actually, it’s really hard to have a good “experience in life” when you didn’t pack tampons and you honestly can’t figure out what women in Morocco do when they’re bleeding through the Levi’s they’ve been wearing since the Newark airport.

Remember all those nightmares about arriving for school naked? Ditto. It’s hard to think about learning when you are dressed inappropriately and everyone’s looking at you, plus you are cold. (Did you know that, at nudist colonies, you have to carry around a towel to sit on, for hygiene reasons? Hmm, you know what would be more convenient? Something like a towel that is attached to your body so you don’t have to carry it around all the time and wonder which side would be the best one to park your junk on! Wait, I think we call that clothes!)

Same goes for aspirin, toothbrushes, lotion, reading material, clean shirts, underwires, whatever you use to keep your skin from looking greasy, and whatever else you feel uncomfortable or self-conscious without. Bringing enough stuff allows you to not have to think about your stuff.

I wrote in a previous Bullish column, How to Dress for Battle, about the glory of a well-fitted blazer. Every time I go on vacation with “vacation clothes,” I realize that a vacation is no fun at all if I don’t feel like myself, or if I look like someone who is not fully capable of calculating how many rupees an autorickshaw ride to the Bull Temple ought to cost, thankyouverymuch. I then hightail it to the local Zara and spend $100 on something with well-defined shoulders.

I readily admit that traveling habits are a matter of taste. And probably, at least a little bit, a matter of gender (or, you know, culturally-influenced gender roles). While many intrepid women have backpacked through dangerous terrain, having packed only a toothbrush and a bandana in their high-performance sportsbras, I can’t help but think that an obsession with ultra-tiny gadgets and space-age quick-dry underwear is a little dude-like.

In 2008, I was inspired by Tim Ferris’s The Four-Hour Workweek to decamp to South America for a month, and I was also inspired by this post to pack as light as possible. Except that, once I got to Argentina, I realized that I like to read English-language books in cafes and also go shopping looking like someone who should be allowed into nice stores, and that my idea of a good vacation doesn’t involve hand-washing my underwear in the sink.

You know what doesn’t actually take up that much space in your luggage? 30 days’ worth of ladies’ underwear. I packed about 10, figuring that I’d figure something out. When it came down to it, Argentine laundromats were a little more complicated than I’d bargained for, and I ended up buying three-packs of cotton bikini briefs at the drugstore. Some of them had those little cartoon pictures of high heels and lipstick. That is not traveling like a gentlewoman.

No-luggage traveler Potts reports in his travel journal that despite many questions about t-shirt odor, his all-polyester travel gear does not smell at all. He also writes, “Given that I wear cargo pants, a travel vest, socks, underwear, and a short-sleeved t-shirt under a long-sleeved shirt on a typical day of my trip, I keep one spare t-shirt, two extra pairs of socks, and two extra pairs of underwear in my pockets.” I have to say: if your pockets are full of underpants, or you have to take special pains to assure people that you don’t smell, then you have suffered a serious drop in gravitas.

I don’t know about you, but when I travel, I want to live well, and to camouflage my tourism at all costs. Maybe this is a result of having grown up in Virginia Beach, and then lived near Times Square: both places where tourists are viewed with much disdain. What’s the point of seeing all the monuments if I can’t sit in the cafes and eat the local delicacies and drink the local beers and act like I belong there? When I’m in Europe, I want to look like I might actually be local; when I’m someplace where I’m obviously not local, such as India, I want to look like I might be there to do business, or study, or teach. Traveling doesn’t have to mean tourism.

And finally, packing ultra-light — and thereby looking like you are on safari — can, in many contexts, just make you look like an arrogant American. It says “I think your country is like a campsite.” I wouldn’t try to go into a nice restaurant in New York looking like I was ready for Mt. Kilimanjaro; why would I do such a thing in someone else’s country? From Culture Smart India: A Quick Guide to Customs & Etiquette:

“The Indians are quite conservative in their dress, and expect you to dress neatly and modestly. What passes for casual in the West is often too casual in India, and may be considered unkempt. Many Indians are shocked and embarrassed to be faced with a backpacker in jeans and a tee shirt.”

If I’m the only American someone is going to meet today, I’d like that person to come away from the encounter having perceived me as a competent and respectful adult, not as a greasy street urchin. In a country in which women tend to wear a lot of jewelry and take it seriously, I find that you get treated a little bit better when you’re a little bit sparkly. People appreciate when you make an effort.

That said, if you like to travel for long periods of time on little money, there are natural limitations, and some people have far more rugged travel preferences than others. (A relationship of mine once ended in large part because my boyfriend wanted to go to Asia, and I made the mistake of saying that, if I ever got the chance to go abroad, I would want the experience to be “mostly pleasant.” Oh, shock and vexation! I am, of course, still a fan of mostly-pleasant travel: that breakup was for the best).

But if you are interested in traveling like a gentlewoman (by which I mean a bit like James Bond), here are some principles.

* A gentlewoman who travels alone is never dragged away from her second glass of wine at a sidewalk cafe. Don’t be pushed into seeing five monuments per day on foot. Who says you can’t spend a week in Mexico City just feeling what it’s like for someone who lives in Mexico City to have a really good week off? I spent six days in Stockholm, and pretty much stayed in the neighborhood of Södermalm. Nothing is blurred in my head: I’ll actually remember where everything is when I go back. (Cool fact: all the public staircases have ramps with tracks for your stroller wheels).

* A friend of mine said she never goes anywhere because she can never arrange a time when her friends are also free. Traveling in packs just makes you look like a tourist; whatever conspicuous American behavior you might be prone to display will only compound once there are several of you. It’s easy to travel alone; you can go on Orbitz or Expedia, buy a plane/hotel package, and leave practically the next day. The solo traveler is more free by an order of magnitude, at least. How can you be lonely with a whole country ahead of you, and the internet available nearly anywhere?

* If you travel with a man, many people will assume that he is in charge (see previous column on learning to read maps). If you travel with anyone at all, you will spend time talking to someone you already know. There is an opportunity cost: all the time you spend talking to people you already know is time you could’ve spent talking to new people, noticing all the little things that are different about wherever you are, or just enjoying what it feels like to finish a Scottish breakfast while it’s chilly outside, in August.

* No one is giving you a grade on seeing all the important sites. You know what I didn’t see in India? The Taj Mahal. Because it’s really far away from anything else, takes a whole day, and is full of tourists. You know what I did do in India? Enjoy the hell out of regular things, which are not at all like the regular things in New York. That’s a perfectly valid trip, if that’s the kind of trip you want.

* If you are going to be staying in one place, you don’t really need to economize on what you pack. Am I really improving my trip by deciding that I can go without foundation for awhile? It turns out, foundation isn’t that heavy, and I like vacations better if I don’t feel less attractive than usual. It’s easy to look up the regulations for the particular airline you’ll be traveling — if the first bag can weigh 50 lbs, feel free to take 50 lbs of useful implements. No one wants to waste half a day looking for some two-ounce object that would’ve taken you two seconds to pack. (Again, tampons, which are uncommon in many countries. This post suggests a menstrual cup for lengthy travels). Also, it was on my third week in South America when I considered digging into a biography of Alan Greenspan that I realized: you really don’t want to get stuck reading the kinds of books that other Americans have left behind. (The jury is still out on the Kindle. Extremely practical for bringing a lot of books to a foreign country, but in a lot of places, sitting around reading from a Kindle is as conspicuous as zooming around on a Segway.)

* If you are traveling to a developed nation, you really don’t need to plan much. ATMs give you local currency everywhere you go. English is becoming more and more universal. Nothing in the developed world is really all that mysterious (pedicures in Buenos Aires involve a tiny private booth where, if you pick an imprudent nail polish color from the 6-8 available, the aesthetician will overrule you, because she obviously knows better. But seriously, you find a salon, you pay the money, you get a pedicure — it’s not National Geographic). Just throw all the stuff you need in your regular life into a suitcase, and try to go about your regular life the next day in, for instance, Bruges, and now you’re having an adventure! You can tell your friends and family that you’re in Belgium when you get off the plane. I have a habit of buying TimeOut travel guides and then not reading them until airborne. This does mean that I forgo vaccinations, but it makes for a better adventure.

Here are some links to get started: Budget Travel Costs of 94 Cities around the World, and The Endless Summer: How to “Winter” Like Old Money.

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    • Ellen W.

      I love your advice. Ten years ago, my sister and I traveled around Europe for a month. We were very serious tourists and went to oodles of museums. What I remember are the afternoons we sat in charming coffeeshops eating delicious dessert-y items with lovely coffee and talked to eachother like adults for the first time. And giggled like maniacs. The historic things I remember seeing were the ones I was excited to see and we didn’t bother with anything if the only reason to go was because we “ought” to.

    • porkchop

      These are words to live by! My best travel memories involve being on my own and/or wearing cute clothes and/or not doing a whole lot.

    • Bob V

      “That statement possesses a certain verisimilitude, no? Of course our experiences are more important than our possessions!”

      Thank you for pointing that out! It’s always bugged me because I find it difficult to identify any possessions we might be interested in acquiring that aren’t somehow affiliated with some sort of experience.

      When I listen to my iPod, am I experiencing an audiobook or am I indulging in a possession?

    • Annanotherthing

      This post so perfectly sums up my approach to travel that I feel bereft of the opportunity to write it myself.
      On my trip to New York in Dec ’09, I seem to have missed the Empire State Building, any museums, Ground Zero, pretty much everything! I did however, get completely lost on the LES, and get very drunk in a midtown dive- a fake English pub where I found myself explaining the rules of cricket to a bunch of bewildered bar flies.

    • Karen

      I think the author would agree that in order to fully answer the question of “how to travel,” we should first answer the question of WHY one travels. For a change of scenery? To “experience a different culture,” however that may look? To represent Americans well? To brag to your family & friends that you are being a world traveler? Once you answer that question, it’s much easier to plan your travels accordingly. I’m not sure I agree with all those potential reasons above, but hey, to each her own.