I had the good fortune this year to travel to Africa. My company decided to send me there for a few days for business and I immediately scheduled a three week vacation around those commitments. It was a wonderful journey and I met great people and saw amazing sights. I also learned some discardian lessons.
The first lesson: You Need Less Than You Think
Because I would be going on a safari with a very limited amount of personal storage space, I had to work out how to do the entire trip out of one 24 inch duffel bag and my small laptop bag. Fortunately, the conference was before the camping safari, so I was able to acquire some clothes that look good and are wrinkle resistant enough for meeting a group of customers and yet comfortable and rugged enough for 3 weeks of subsequent touring.
Layers make you flexible when it comes to clothes. I had an assortment of things that worked well together and allowed me to cope with both African afternoons in the 80s and freezing London nights.
You really can fit enough clothes in a tiny duffel. I brought one dress, 2 pairs of slacks (1 wool, 1 lighter weight), a pair of those safari pants that the legs can zip off to turn them into shorts, a few short sleeve shirts, a few long sleeve shirts, half a dozen socks and undies, a pair of stretch pants that could be worn under the dress or the pants to warm things up, and a big heavy wool jacket. Many of the clothes were deliberately chosen to be quick-drying and I usually did a bit of hand-washing every few nights. I brought one pair of shoes: sporty-stylish walking shoes in a cheerful red color. Cute enough to work with the conference clothes and sturdy enough to get me through all my adventures. This was just the right amount of clothing for my month away.
Now I’m looking at my next year of clothing buying and thinking how I could simplify my closets by focusing them a bit and getting more out of less.
Lesson #2: Most of the Rest of the World Gets By On Less Than You Can Imagine
After visiting the home of a woman in an informal settlement in Soweto and chatting with her as she cooked on a paraffin stove in her two-room jury-rigged shack, the quantity of stuff I have in my apartment alarms me. And I’ve been consciously reducing my belongings over the last few years!
Miriam didn’t have many things, but everything she had had a purpose. Her home was painfully simple – and I do hope that she’ll soon realize her dream of moving into a more solid home, perhaps even with plumbing in the house – but she had put her heart into it and made it clean and cheerful. Her wallpaper was crafted from bright green wrappers from some household product and the exterior was painted gaily. The dirt floor was scrupulously swept and a few plants were growing in her yard.
Visiting Miriam’s house and a girl’s orphanage near Nairobi and a Maasai village made it very clear that it is not number or newness of possessions which make a home happy.
The corollary to this lesson is You Need What You Need, But You Don’t Need Much More Than You Need
Lesson #3: Compared to Most of the Rest of the World, I’m Rich
This one’s pretty obvious and yet I find myself realizing how much I’d taken for granted the luxury of a solid, non-leaky house, of indoor toilets, of a fuel supply and plentiful clean water piped right into the house, of a great variety of fresh foods, and of clean clothes in good condition. These are incredible treasures and the most essential of them is sanitation. In many places I visited the women must spend a large part of their day walking to gather water and firewood. When that eats so much of their time, they have less ability to spend effort on other household or community activities or on their businesses. Toilets and pumps may not be romantic, but they are some of the most effective tools to change people’s quality of life, and particularly women’s lives.
As I begin appreciating what I have more, buying fewer new things and getting rid of things I don’t need, it makes it easier to afford (or notice I could already afford) to contribute to other people’s quality of life. Sometimes that bit of money comes from skipping something I realize isn’t really worth spending my money on. (Never getting into wearing makeup sure has saved me a lot of money over the years!) Sometimes it comes from acknowledging that something brings me enough pleasure that I really should invest for the long term in it. Once you do the math you may figure out that ad hoc purchases are actually costing you a lot more than you really need to spend. (Hey, coffee drinkers, do you love the ritual enough that perhaps you should get that nice espresso machine and a couple bottles of Torani syrup and quit buying those cups of "fourbucks" coffee, hmm? And you bestseller readers, you know the library has them too and you can often reserve them online in advance? And city dwellers, do you really need to own a car? I find I save hundreds of dollars a month by using public transit, taxis, City Carshare, and the occasional rental for a weekend away.) Think about where your money goes and where you want it to be going.
I made a post on my MetaGrrrl site in which I recommended a few good places you can donate your money to make a difference. I’ve decided this year that I will make sure to get $1000 donated to Heifer Project’s Women in Livestock Development Program. Once that goal is achieved – and your help is much appreciated! – I’ll start a campaign to raise money for sanitation projects. The Discardian Well has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?