My Guest Post at BootsnAll

Hi everyone!

I just wanted to let you know that I’ve written a guest post over at BootsnAll, the fabulous independent traveler site:

No Extra Baggage: How Traveling Lightly Changed My Life

The post bridges my two favorite topics: minimalism and travel. I hope you’ll check it out, and leave a comment on it if you’re so inclined. If enough people like it, perhaps they’ll invite me back again. :)

If you’re planning a getaway this summer (or just enjoy some armchair traveling), I encourage you to browse through the site while you’re there. I have to warn you, though: your feet might start itching to hit the road!

Minimalist Inspiration from Istanbul

A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Istanbul – a gorgeous city, though not one you’d ever describe as “minimalist.” In contrast to the cool, refined grandeur of many Northern European cities, Istanbul is colorful and exotic, full of history, intrigue, and arabesques. (And all the more beautiful for it.)

Yet even in such lush and embellished surrounds, I managed to dig out a few minimalist nuggets for your appreciation. When I travel, I enjoy soaking up the décor and cuisine and traditions of other cultures, and pondering how I might incorporate some tidbits into my own lifestyle. Here’s what inspired me in Istanbul:

1. Divans. While in Istanbul, I toured the Harem of Topkapi Palace (former residence of the Sultan’s wives and concubines). The architecture, the tilework, the stained glass, and the décor are stunning beyond words; and yet I found myself snapping photo after photo of the divans. I love the idea of a long, low couch that stretches along one (or more) sides of a room – particularly because of its built-in, rather than stand-alone, quality. Better yet, it looks pretty easy to DIY: simply construct a long wooden platform, cover with padding and fabric, and add cushions. I’ve already warned my husband he’ll be building one the next time we “settle down.” I think a modern version (with clean lines, and in a textured, natural fabric like nubby wool) would look fabulous in a minimalist home. I may begin a campaign to revive this ancient furnishing…

Divan in Topkapi Palace

Divan in Topkapi Palace

2. Decorative tile. From the Palace to private homes, vibrant decorative tile is a recurring design element in Istanbul’s buildings. Color-starved minimalists take note: it’s a great way to add pizzazz to a room without adding stuff. If I owned a place, I’d be tempted to experiment with tilework in a bathroom or backsplash – though my personal preference is for tiny, colored glass tiles, as shown on the right.

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Left: Tile in Topkapi Palace, Right: Modern tile by Hakatai

3. Light. Whether shining through stained glass windows, pouring through skylights, or flickering in lanterns, light made Istanbul’s interiors come alive. I was particularly taken with the swirls of hanging glass lanterns in Suleymaniye Mosque, which gave the whole place a magical, jewel-like glow. As far as design goes, you can’t get much more minimalist than using light.

Lanterns in Suleymaniye Mosque

Lanterns in Suleymaniye Mosque

4. Domes. As a high-ceiling aficionado, I have a special fondness for domed buildings. Domes are a marvelous way to create a feeling of expansiveness and space — and perfectly suited for minimalist, open-plan living. I started to wonder whether anyone (save Eskimos and Buckminster Fuller) used such construction for residential spaces –- and lo and behold, came across an article on Treehugger about small dome homes. Admittedly, I was fantasizing about something a little more grandiose; but these would no doubt be more practical (and affordable).

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Left: Dome of Blue Mosque, Right: Modern dome home via Treehugger

5. Shoelessness. I love the fact that mosques are strictly shoeless zones. Not only is such a practice more hygienic, it imparts a quiet, meditative feel to a space. I’ve kept a shoeless home my entire adult life, and think it complements a minimalist lifestyle quite well – the more living you do on or close to the floor, the cleaner you want it to be!

Well, that concludes this edition of Around the World with Miss Minimalist. I’m pretty confident I’m the first (and will likely be the last) blogger to infuse minimalism with the intrigues of the Ottoman Empire. However, I love sharing my travels with you, and thought it’d be nice to spice things up a bit.

I often hear the criticism that “minimalism is boring,” the aesthetic equivalent of living in an empty white box. Au contraire! Minimalism is what you make it, and a minimalist life can be beautiful, interesting, enchanting, and yes, even exotic. Minimalism is not about stripping away all the dazzling things in life – but rather clearing out the clutter so they shine even brighter.

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

Extreme Minimalist Travel: No Luggage

suitcase-no(Photo: stacy michelle)

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I like to travel light. I take a small carry-on bag for long trips, and nothing but a large purse for anything under a week.

Author and “vagabonder” Rolf Potts, however, has me beat. He’s traveling the world for six weeks without a single piece of luggage: no suitcase, no day bag, not even a fanny pack!

The only items he’s taking are those that fit in the pockets of his Scott eVest: a handful of toiletries, a few electronic devices, and a couple of miscellaneous items like earplugs, sunglasses, safety pins, and a notebook. He’s also managed to fit some spare socks, t-shirts, and underwear in there. You can see his complete packing list here.

The funny thing is, my husband, brother, and I (all extremely light travelers) have been joking about doing this for years. Of course, our “no luggage” plans are usually hatched late at night in a bar, after one too many beers – and quickly dismissed the following morning. :-)

Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure I could do this. The Scott eVest has 18 generous pockets that could easily accommodate my toiletries, cell phone, iPod touch, and an extra pair of socks and underwear. The large, zippered pocket across the back of the jacket looks roomy enough for one or two articles of clothing, as well as a few maps.

I think it would be fun to do once, just for the sake of doing it. However, I probably wouldn’t travel this way on a regular basis, for the following reasons:

1. Comfort. It’s too hot to wear a jacket or vest in the summer, or in overheated museums, stores, restaurants, planes, and trains in the winter. I’d end up carrying it, which would be more awkward than carrying a bag.

2. Security. When/if I do take it off, I’m almost certain to leave it on the back of a chair or a bus. In contrast, my cross-body bag is attached to me at all times (even when sitting).

3. Vanity. At the risk of sounding too vain, I’d rather not add excessive lumps or bulges to my figure. ;-) To be fair, the Scott eVest website says that the pockets are specially constructed so as not to bulge – but I’d have to see this to believe it!

4. Convenience. I like to carry some emergency items (like Advil, Imodium, etc) to avoid hunting down their equivalents in a foreign country (been there, done that). It’s easy to buy toothpaste in Tokyo or Thailand, but securing medications can be more of a hassle. Also, while I don’t mind doing laundry a few times during a trip, I’m not sure I want to do it everyday.

5. Hydration. When I’m traveling, I usually carry a water bottle with me. By filling it up in the hotel room each morning, I avoid buying drinks (or using dodgy water fountains) while out and about. While this slips easily into my bag, I’m not sure if it would fit comfortably into the eVest. It does have a bottle holder (an elastic band) in one of the pockets, but I’d have to see about the weight/bulge factor.

That said, while the jacket may not replace my travel bag, I think it might be well-suited to my everyday needs (at least in cooler weather, as I’m not really a vest person). It holds much more than my current coat, and would certainly eliminate the need for a purse.

I applaud Rolf for pushing the boundaries of light travel, and look forward to following his journey. I can’t wait to pick up some new tips (and inspiration) for lightening my load even more!

{If you’d like to read more about minimalist living, please consider buying my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

Minimalist Architecture – Helsinki and Tallinn

When my husband and I travel, we love to walk the streets of foreign cities and admire the architecture. We’ve seen it all: from the Art Nouveau apartment houses of Prague, to the neon skyscrapers in Hong Kong, to the Gothic cathedrals in almost every European country. What we don’t see very often: minimalist buildings.

Therefore, I was delighted to encounter some lovely examples on a recent trip to Helsinki and Tallinn (a 2-hour ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland). After spending the last several months gazing at elaborate turrets, intricate stonework, and churches carved with every manner of saint, sinner, and gargoyle, the Scandinavian architecture was a breath of fresh air. The white stucco, simple silhouettes, and unadorned facades of these buildings made my minimalist heart sing!

So today, I’d simply like to share some snaps from my trip. I hope you enjoy the minimalist eye candy, and perhaps be inspired to visit these beautiful cities!

minarch

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Extreme Light Travel

extlighttravel

My new, super-light luggage!

A few months ago, I wrote about the contents of my carry-on (Minimalist Travel: What’s in My Suitcase). This is the only bag I travel with, whether I’m going away for one week or three months. You can read about it in detail in my earlier post, but generally it contains a packing cube of clothing, a toiletry bag, and odds and ends like guidebooks, energy bars, camera, iPod Touch, umbrella, etc. in the pockets. After years of overseas travel, I had this system down to a science.

Now that I live in England, however, I’ve been spending a lot of long weekends visiting European cities. And truth be told, my little carry-on is simply too big for these quick jaunts!

In order to maximize our travel time, my husband and I usually book a very early flight the day we arrive, and a very late flight the day we leave. Therefore, we often wind up carrying our bags for much of the first and last days. (Sure, we could leave them at the hotel, but we don’t like to “waste” time going back to get them if we have a full schedule.)

My objective, then, was to pare down my luggage to the size of a large purse. That way, I could enjoy sites, shops, restaurants, and walks without the carry-on on my back.

[EDIT: For those who have asked about my new bag (pictured above), it’s available on Amazon (affiliate link).]

My strategy: for a 2-day trip, I don’t pack a change of clothes; for 3 days, it depends on the itinerary; for 4-5 days, one change. This system might not be for everyone, but it works for me. (I have no problem doing laundry in the hotel sink if necessary.)

Therefore, my packing cube contains (at most) one pair of pants, one top, pajamas, underwear, and socks. For 2-3 day trips, I skip the cube altogether, and stuff the pajamas, underwear, and socks in a large ziplock bag.

I never worry about packing shoes, since I only travel with the ones on my feet.

The contents of my toiletry bag remained much the same; however, I’ve been able to reduce it to half the size by “miniaturizing” as much as possible. I never take soap, shampoo, or conditioner, and I use travel or sample sizes of everything else.

When I arrive at the hotel, I dump the toiletry bag and clothes, and use the bag as a purse (eliminating the need to pack an additional “day” bag).

I’ve tested my new system of “extreme light travel” on a few trips now; and I’m happy to say, it’s worked like a dream!

It’s amazing how lightly you can travel if you want to. Now, if I could only pare down to what fits in my coat pockets… :-)

{If you’d like to read more about minimalist living, please consider subscribing to my RSS feed, or signing up to receive new articles by email.}

Minimalist Entertainment: Watching Sheep

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time watching sheep. I know that sounds strange, so let me explain…

I’ve always been a city girl at heart. I love the people, the buildings, the culture, the vibe; going to bars, cafes, and restaurants; and attending the opera, the orchestra, and the ballet.

Recently, however, my husband and I have discovered a wonderful new pastime: walking the public footpaths of the English countryside. As an American accustomed to fences, private property, and “no trespassing” signs, I was completely taken aback by the concept of the public footpath—in essence, it’s a right-of-way that lets you stroll through the fields, pastures, and meadows that belong to someone else (how amazing is that?).

The paths are so numerous (and extensive) that books and websites feature scores of walking routes on them, in virtually every part of the country. I imagine one could traverse most of England via footpaths, bridleways, and country lanes.

Anyway, back to the sheep…These footpaths often take you through the very pastures where sheep or cows are grazing. Until a few weeks ago, I’d never been on the same side of the fence as a farm animal, so it’s been quite a novelty to “hang out” with them. In fact, until a few weeks ago, I’d never had the opportunity to ramble through farmland, skip through meadows, or lounge in wide, grassy fields enjoying picturesque views over rivers and valleys.

I’m still a city girl, but one who’s falling in love with the peace, quiet, and idyllic atmosphere of the country…

This past weekend, my husband and I drove out to Cornwall in Southwest Britain. We hiked along dramatic seaside cliffs, picnicked in gorgeous spots overlooking the Atlantic, discovered secluded beaches, explored ancient ruins, encountered wild ponies, and yes, spent a good amount of time watching sheep. It’s my new favorite minimalist activity.

ukwalks

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Minimalism of Royal Proportions

In a previous post, I confessed my love of grand, empty spaces (Minimalist Confession: I’m an Empty Space Junkie). Unfortunately, while visiting European castles over the last few months, I’ve discovered that grand spaces are rarely empty. On the contrary, they’re usually stuffed with paintings, tapestries, gold gilt decor, and enough furniture to stock a showroom. Royal families have a unique way of making a football-field sized room feel claustrophobic.

Imagine my delight, then, when I recently stepped into Vladislav Hall in Prague Castle (pictured below). I couldn’t believe my eyes: soaring ceilings, unadorned stone walls, bare floors, and enormous windows. The decor consisted of little more than some rustic chandeliers. It was my minimalist dream come true! While other visitors shuffled quickly through in search of something more “interesting,” I stood there entranced by the emptiness — imagining how it would look when I cleared out those red benches and moved in my futon and coffee table.

I just wanted to share this minimalist eye candy with you, and let you know I’ve found the cavernous space of my dreams. I may not be the wisest, wittiest, or most prolific blogger around, but you can’t say I don’t take you interesting places. ;-)

praguecastle-c

When we visited, the hall was set up with red benches for some kind of event. Here’s a photo from Flickr, showing how gorgeous it is without them:

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Minimalist Living & Spirituality

Wisdom Path, Hong Kong

Wisdom Path, Hong Kong

On my recent trip to Hong Kong, I visited the Wisdom Path on Lantau Island. This outdoor “sculpture” consists of thirty-eight wooden columns inscribed with the Heart Sutra, a text treasured by Confucians, Buddhists, and Taoists.

The columns, each about 10 meters (~30 feet) in height, are arranged in a figure-eight infinity symbol; they stand on a steep hill, in a serene, natural setting overlooking Lantau Peak.

In short, the Heart Sutra espouses the doctrine of “emptiness.” One of its famous lines teaches that “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

Such emptiness is not to be interpreted in a nihilistic, nothing-exists sense. Rather, it means that nothing is absolute—everything is relative and impermanent, and in a constant state of change. Therefore, there is no point in becoming irrationally attached to things.

I couldn’t help but think how beautifully this coincides with minimalism, and living as non-attached to material things as possible. I feel that embracing “emptiness,” rather than clinging to the material aspects of existence, opens us to a more direct, genuine, and fulfilling experience of life.

Although I haven’t taken any Buddhist vows, I agree with (and live according to) many aspects of Zen philosophy. I don’t know whether my minimalism has led me to embrace Zen Buddhism, or vice versa—but the two seem to complement each other very well.

Does anyone else feel a tie between their spiritual beliefs and minimalist lifestyle?

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A Little Travel Talk

Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, at night

Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, at night

Since I mentioned my recent trip to Southeast Asia in my last post, I’ve received several requests for more details about the experience. Although the topic of travel is only tangentially related to minimalism (in so far as keeping a minimal itinerary and luggage), it’s near and dear to my heart—and as such, I never turn down an invitation to talk about it. :-)

I do realize, however, that most of you come here to read about minimalism, not travel, so I will do my best to keep it short and sweet. Instead of writing a full travelogue, I’ll simply touch on the highlights of our trip:

Hong Kong:

* Wandering through the Mong Kok district, and experiencing its vibrant street life and traditional markets (selling everything from food to clothing to electronics to jade)

* Taking a breathtaking cable car ride to Lantau Island (photo)

* Climbing up the 268 steps to the Tian Tan Buddha (photo), and having a delicious vegetarian lunch at the adjacent Po Lin Monastery

* Spending an afternoon riding the Mid-Levels escalators (a giant outdoor escalator system on the steep slope of Hong Kong Island), and jumping on and off to explore the neighborhoods through which it passed

* Enjoying vegetarian dim sum in a traditional Hong Kong tea house

* Having a picnic dinner along the Victoria Harbour waterfront, while admiring the brilliantly-lit Hong Kong skyline (photo)

Singapore:

* Awakening to the sound of tropical birds every morning, even though we stayed in the heart of the city

* Sampling the amazing array of cuisine (Singapore is a food lover’s dream). We ate everything from Peranakan (a blend of Chinese and Malay) to Indonesian to Japanese

* Discovering old Colonial buildings among the skyscrapers (photo)

* Spending a warm and lazy afternoon strolling through the lush Singapore Botanic Gardens (including the gorgeous National Orchid Garden)

* Stumbling upon a crowded and colorful Chinese New Year market late one night on an after-dinner walk

Kuala Lumpur:

* Sharing a bottle of wine (literally—we had no glasses) with my husband in our incredibly-small and somewhat-grimy sleeping compartment on the overnight train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur (an adventure in itself!)

* Seeing forests of palm trees en route across Malaysia (photo)

* Staying at the very posh Shangri-La hotel (Luxury hotels are surprisingly affordable in KL, and it was a welcome treat after our train accommodations!)

* Marveling at the contrast between old and new, traditional and modern, gritty and clean while wandering the streets

* Eating wonderful Malaysian food!

* Going to the top of the KL tower for magnificent views of the city (photo)

Several of you also asked how we could possibly travel with just carry-on bags, given the restrictions on hand luggage. To be honest, we find it very easy! We bring whatever liquids we need in small bottles, and generally have enough to cover the trip; if we run out, we simply buy more at a local store. I don’t even bother to bring soap, shampoo, conditioner, or lotion as the hotels we stay in usually provide nicer products than I have at home. :-) To minimize the amount of clothes needed, we take a few travel packets of laundry detergent and wash our stuff once or twice (in our hotel sink) during the trip. If you’d like a peek inside my carry-on, please see my previous post Minimalist Travel: What’s in My Suitcase. I can’t emphasize how wonderful it is to travel with the lightest load possible!

Well, I hope today’s post answers some questions, and doesn’t upset anyone with its off-topic nature. I promise next week to return to our usual minimalist programming!

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To Drift Like Clouds and Flow Like Water

Tian Tan Buddha, Hong Kong

Tian Tan Buddha, Hong Kong

My husband and I spent the last ten days traveling through Southeast Asia, spending a few nights each in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. As usual, we packed only our small carry-on bags, giving us the freedom to wander between and throughout these places without the burden of heavy luggage.

It was a wonderful trip. Our friends tend to view our vacations as something between exhausting and crazy (particularly as they are often planned less than two weeks in advance). To us, however, being “in motion” seems perfectly natural. We feel at peace, and at home, when we are on the road.

The best way I can describe it is with a line from an old Chinese poem: “To drift like clouds and flow like water.”

Except for flights, and a short list of “can’t miss” sights, my husband and I travel without schedules or planned activities. We enjoy plunking ourselves down in the middle of an unfamiliar city, and simply being absorbed by the life and activity on its streets. We ride the subways, browse the local markets, hang out in the parks, and wander through back streets and alleys. We try to get a feel for the culture, and imagine what it would be like to live in the places we visit.

It’s our own kind of minimalist travel, just going with the flow and letting the experiences happen as they may.

I want to live my “real life” the same way. Sometimes I think there’s much too emphasis on setting goals and planning futures and reaching milestones. Why not simply enjoy life, instead of creating additional stress? I’m not against having aspirations; but to be honest, I don’t want to schedule my life on my iPod, download productivity apps, or attend virtual workshops on how to be successful at x, y, or z. And I certainly don’t want to create a five-year plan and mark my progress each step along the way.

Instead, I’d like to approach life the same way I approach travel—simply taking each day as it comes. I want to be surprised and delighted by what transpires, rather than ticking off a series of planned events. Mostly, however, I want the freedom to “wander” without the burden of possessions and responsibilities. That’s primarily my motivation for living a minimalist lifestyle; by keeping my “baggage” and “itinerary” as light as possible, I hope “to drift like clouds and flow like water” each day of my life.