First Person

Supersize me–and my suitcase

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On the road in Ethiopia. Photo by Brett Eloff/Oxfam America
On the road in Ethiopia. Photo by Brett Eloff/Oxfam America

I’m not going to call it a New Year’s resolution—that’s too much pressure. But I’ll make it a goal, or, in Oxfam speak, an objective. The plan is this: pack less.

I travel a fair amount for my job, sometimes for weeks at a time. And I tote loads of stuff—way beyond clean underwear and socks. Some of it is justified like the digital camera, the audio recorder, the video camera, the laptop—all the gizmos I need for reporting—and the battery chargers and adaptors to keep it all juiced. And because I’m old-fashioned, I throw in a stack of notebooks and a bundle of pens. They’re heavy, but worth every ounce of psychological comfort, especially in places where there is no electricity.

But do I really need all the nuts, dried fruit, and power bars I pack as a backup in case the local food looks questionable? Do I need all those extra T-shirts and pants? Won’t one pair of sandals do? Can’t I manage without PJs? And what does lugging all this super-abundance from the western world into poor and tiny villages say about me?

“Why don’t you bring a smaller pack next time?” asked the weary Ethiopian who had served as our interpreter on a five-day field visit last August. He carried only a small satchel and a laptop.

His question was so simple. And so loaded.

And it came rushing back to me to me just after Christmas—our season of excess—when I was reading the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s memorial issue which examines, briefly, the lives of noteworthy people who have died recently. One of them was Alison Des Forges, a human rights activist and the author of “Leave None to Tell the Story,” a definitive book about the genocide in Rwanda.

“She traveled with a tiny bag that held her swimsuit, laptop, a change of shirt and photos of her grandchildren. And that was about it,” said the story.

I can’t pretend ever to match her level of commitment, but surely I can enter the lives of others with a lighter step.

And you? What would you leave behind? Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+