Packing Light

Pack light. Less is more. You don’t need much – just the essentials.

This was my mantra as I packed, two days ago, for the Camino de Santiago – a walking pilgrimage spanning 800 kilometres through northern Spain. It’s important to pack lightly because I’ll be walking over 20km per day, for 28 days straight, in order to reach Santiago, the endpoint of this pikgrimage. More baggage makes for a more painful walk – which is why I’m writing this on the notes app on my phone instead of my laptop.

This necessary austerity forced me to reconsider what I was planning to bring on the trip and evaluate which items would be most essential on my journey. Especially the bigger items – my laptop, which would make updating the travel fellowship blog much easier, and my camera. Writing my packing list alone required hours of research, reading other pilgrims’ advice and thinking through the scenarios in which I would actually be using these items. Through the process, I realised that I sometimes didn’t put as much thought into the baggage I’d taken along with me the past semester: commitments, time management, priorities that I let gradually creep into my backpack and weigh me down more than benefit me.

This pursuit of simplicity is therefore one of the reasons that led me to apply to walk the Camino de Santiago for my Travel Fellowship. Reflecting upon the past semester made me realise how little space and time I had away from distractions, clutter, and noise: almost like standing in an RC lift indefinitely, surrounded by colourful posters 24/7. I remember managing 15 different micro-goals at once, balancing a Tower of Babel of commitments and readings, constantly jumping from one task to the next. It left me with little time to fully absorb, reflect on, and understand a tumultuous first year of college, something that, in the past, I was more likely to do. My faith helped with that – as a Roman Catholic, reflection and prayer are two essential facets of my life that I forgot about in the flurry of my first year in college. While still having this inward desire to turn towards my faith, it was mostly overshadowed by things that were right in front of me; I was distracted very easily by the outward pulls of the world and forgot about the importance my spirituality previously held for me. The physical simplicity of the Camino de Santiago mirrors the inner simplicity I believe would help me – freeing me from the unnecessary to see, more clearly, the important.

These outward signs of inner changes are what I hope to foster during this pilgrimage. Having a clear sense of direction, with every physical step taking me towards the end goal. Enjoying this journey and making the best of it by lightening my load. Depending on the goodwill of volunteers managing the pilgrim hostels, finding a community of pilgrims that journeys with me to that goal despite our different nationalities, beliefs, backgrounds. Having faith in myself and in the route despite my doubts and fears. All these are relevant to the inward and outward journeys I hope to make over the next few weeks, and attempting to navigate on my spiritual journey both in the context of this pilgrimage and back at home, in Singapore.

Finally, while this is a deeply personal journey into myself, reflecting on the pilgrimage also makes me curious about how others experience it differently. What affects them, why they chose to walk it, and how it may impact their spirituality, if they even see it that way. One local I spoke to told me, “Every person has a different pilgrinage. Even though you’re all on the same route, you all experience a different pilgrimage.” Without understanding more the experience of other pilgrims, I will not be able to fully immerse myself in this pilgrimage and see how this Catholic tradition has been adopted and adapted by very diverse people.

These objectives, exploring the effect of the outside on the inside, developing my personal spirituality, and understanding how other pilgrims experience the Camino, are my main focus as I walk toward Santiago. I will document them in the Travel Fellowship blog, my own personal journal, and photographs, and collate them into a booklet of reflections at the end of this trip. A very personal and intimate book pondering the journey that I make during this month.

So, in summary, what does this pilgrimage do? In my journal entry from last night, I wrote, “It literally strips me of everything familiar, everything “normal”, sends me into the unknown Outside perhaps to turn inward instead.” Maybe I’m afraid of what things it will strip from my life, but I’m here, and I’m realising that my backpack needs to be light. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about my journey on The Way as much as I do writing about it!

Is there a better way to travel?

I’ve had my fair share of travel experiences in my life. And so has, I expect, most of the students in Yale-NUS. But how many of us have actually had meaningful travel experiences?

This travel fellowship in particular has been a dream – we’ve engaged in depth with locals of each city and village we’ve been to, gotten the names and stories of those we conversed with. We’ve tried local cuisines, travelled with locals instead of foreign tour groups, and made local friends that we’ll definitely be in touch with for a lifetime. Sure, we gave in a couple of times and did some touristy things like get bubble tea and fries. But for the most part, unlike any other trip I’ve been on, I can confidently say that this travelling experience has not just been touch-and-go, not a privileged student traversing “less developed” lands.

But again, how many of us can say the same? As a group, we questioned this multiple times. On our long bus rides, when we were struggling to express what we meant via gestures – the only way we knew how, when we were crossing the border into Cambodia, a land that is associated (in Singapore) almost exclusively with overseas “service learning” trips, and even now, as we pack our bags and ready to leave this chaotic but charming (in its own way) part of Southeast Asia.

There’s something very disturbing about the fact that this travel experience has felt so different from other travel experiences we’ve experienced thus far. Something that indeed makes me wonder, how did we go so wrong? How did travel become so glorified, self-indulgent, superficial? We could point fingers at tour groups, governments, advertising businesses, and sometimes even the locals who encourage these thoughtless travel experiences, but at the end of the day, it’s still a choice we make.

It’s many choices we make. From the method of transportation, the food places we eat at, the attractions we mark as to-gos, the people we converse with, even down to the way we say hello, goodbye, and thank you.

But then again, does it matter? There is no easy answer to this question. We stumbled when we got to this question too. Does it matter that most of us just visit cities to take advantage of the strong Singapore (or American) dollar, to take nice photos – devoid of its meanings, its context, and its histories, to say that we’ve actually been there?

Perhaps the more important question to answer is how do we travel better? This trip has provided us with an insight into possible answers, including (but not limited to): supporting local enterprises, eateries, transport companies, staying in homestays instead of international hotel chains, engaging and getting to know locals whenever possible.* These are things we know to do, but rarely carry out. Not because they’re difficult, but because they’re inconvenient most of the time. And sometimes, I guess we all just want a break.

But as we found out from this trip, and as we hope other travel fellows have also learnt, when you travel with a specific desire to engage and learn, you come up with a much more enriching experience that will probably change your life.

*Of course, it’s not a checklist. Even doing all these things doesn’t make you a “better” traveller. The goal is not to “live like a local”, because the truth is, we’ll never be able to. The point is, I think, to acknowledge that we are foreign to the lands we travel to, and respectfully engage with as much heart as we can.