There is a certain freedom to having nothing. At first, the idea of not having what you think you need to get by, to be comfortable, or to be successful is as painful as a punch to the gut, but when you have no choice but to go forward without all the comforts you’ve relied on or expected, the world — or at least the jungle — becomes lighter and more alive.
In September, I booked 15 days in Brazil to celebrate the milestone of turning 50. Nine of those days were to be spent deep in the wildest, most remote areas of Brazil’s Amazonia along the western legs of the Japura River. Traveling by air to Manaus, the central capital of Amazonia, we proceeded by a variety of boats (one so rustic that our guides had to manually pump water from the engine hutch every hour or so) west of the last village of Maraa.
I wanted this rustic adventure. No luxury cruise up the Amazon was this; instead, I and my three brave friends would literally camp in hammocks each night, fish for our own dinner in the murky, mysterious waters, and sleep under mosquito nets like explorers of the past.
I wanted adventure. I wanted an excursion like none other I had been on, a test of my mettle and survival skills as I celebrated a half-century of living. A big part of me wanted to experience the unspoiled, feral wildness of the Amazon before clear cutting, industrialization, or climate change took this untamed place away forever.
I just didn’t expect to do it without any gear or luggage.
Somewhere between our layover in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and our home base of Manaus, my and two of my friends’ luggage with all of our gear didn’t arrive. Luckily, one of our friends carried her gear on the plane, so we at least had some items we could share, but the rest of us had only what we carried in our small carry-ons.
That first day, before our tour, was steeped in the stress of trying to find out where our luggage was, especially since none of us spoke Portuguese, the language of Brazil. It was especially hard in light of all that I had already lost and was learning to live without this year.
My relationship of 26 years ended. We sold the house that we had shared for 17 years. I had to downsize to fit my belongings into a two-bedroom small apartment. I had lost dear friends to a virus.
I was already having to live without. Not having the simple basics I thought I needed to experience a roughing-it version of the Amazon seemed just another blow, another loss.
What I discovered, however, were items I no longer needed after 15 days in the Amazon.
What I Didn’t Need
I am not too modest to admit I know how to pack for an adventure. Here is a list of what I had packed to survive 15 days in Brazil.
- Two pairs of Baleaf light hiking pants
- Two pairs of shorts
- Nine pairs of underwear
- Six pairs of light 100 percent wool socks
- Three tank tops
- Two T-shirts
- Three sets of SPF 50 moisture wicking long sleeve Columbia fishing shirts
- Two hats
- A pair of hiking boots, one pair of Keen hiking sandals, and one pair of Keen water shoes
- A rain jacket
- A Columbia base layer jacket
- Various gear, like a utility knife, a solar charger, Picardin bug spray, medicine for everything from diarrhea to bug bites, a dry bag, instant coffee packets, spare rope, a compass, water filtration kit, a collapsible camp cup, my daily vitamins and hormone pills, and my Kindle.
- Eco-friendly bar shampoo, conditioner, and soap
- Three notebooks
- Spare camera batteries
- Pepper spray
- Two different swimsuits
Here is what I actually had on me when our tour started:
- The sundress I wore on the plane
- The hiking boots I wore on the plane
- The single pair of underwear I was wearing
- One swimsuit
- One small portable charger
- One extra T-shirt and leggings
- One notebook
- Two books to read
- My basic toiletries, baby wipes, and makeup
- One bag of snacks
On our first stop in the jungle at the distant tiny fishing of Maraa, I was able to scrounge around the tiny shops to buy:
- A ball cap
- One long-sleeved, stained, bright orange fishing shirt
- Flip flops
- A pullover sweater
- An emergency rain poncho
- A flashlight
- One extra totally fashionable but impractical tank top
- A packet of underwear that ended up not fitting
- Two extra pairs of socks
- One bottle of mystery booze that cost only $1
Armed with the most basic of necessities and ill-fitting clothing, I was ready for the jungle, or as ready as I could be. By the first day, I was mostly barefoot, like our guides. By the ninth day, I was feral and dirty and not missing what I had packed at all.
What I Learned To Live Without — All The Stuff
Looking back, I realized I had overpacked. I brought items that I probably would not have even unpacked while out in the jungle. Did I really need three Columbia fishing shirts? Did I really need a collapsible camp cup or two different pairs of swimsuits?
Turns out that the two full outfits I ended up with, plus the pullover sweater for the chilly nights, were more than enough. Everything I wore got instantly dirty anyway, but I could easily wash everything in the river with eco soap that our guides had so I could have at least halfway clean clothes each day.
Some days, I reveled in just being filthy and not caring. Everyone was filthy. When you’re in the jungle, there’s no way around not sweating or reeking of bug spray or sweltering in a mess of your own body odor and humidity.
In life, after selling my house, I also learned that I didn’t need 80 percent of what I had accumulated over 17 years. Half of my closet and linens and shoes went to a thrift store. I emptied drawers that I hadn’t opened in years into boxes without even looking inside. I eschewed bringing the dozens of drinkware I had and kept only four glasses, four coffee cups, and two wine glasses.
It still wasn’t enough. Nine months after moving, I still have boxes tucked away in the closet that I have no idea what they contain. Do I miss everything I gave away?
Not one bit.
Pro Tip: What I absolutely needed for the trip: Solar chargers, baby wipes, long-sleeve shirt and pants (for the insects), good hiking boots, a hat, a flashlight, and bug spray.
What I Learned To Live Without: Security
All that stuff we lug with us on trips and through life gives us a false sense of security. Having three long-sleeved shirts and two of the same pair of hiking pants made me feel like I had a fall-back plan, a safety net, in case one shirt ripped or got too dirty.
The spare rope, the utility knives, the water filtration system — yes, all those are wise items to bring when venturing out into the wild jungles, but they weren’t necessary on this particular trip. We had drinkable water, and when we ran out of that, we boiled the river water. Would life have been easier with all the technical gear and “emergency” tools? Sure, but without them, we found a way to adapt, become stronger, and get by.
I had been mourning the loss of the security of a longtime established relationship when I entered the Amazon. For the first time in 26 years, I didn’t have my partner by my side. I didn’t have that absolute knowledge that someone was with me who loved me and cared about what happened to me.
I didn’t have the security of a relationship that was as familiar and comfortable as an old tatty robe. Giving up the security of modern conveniences and tools in the Amazon made me realize that if I can survive that, I could also learn to live without the security of a home, relationship, and future.
I learned it’s just another adventure and another way to grow stronger.
What I Learned To Live Without: Fear
Stepping out into the world without the items you think you need, without that security you relied on, is a frightening thing to experience. Without all the gear I had packed, my mind immediately envisioned all that could go wrong in the Amazon — being eaten alive by biting insects (okay, that did happen, but even with all my stuff, the nasty biting flies would still have bitten me), getting sick from unclean water, getting lost and eaten by a jaguar, or catching some bizarre, rare jungle disease.
Instead, I met Mr. Jose, the last of the Katukina tribe to live alone and traditionally on the shores of Lake Parica, a vast body of water west of any civilization past Maraa. For 40-plus years, from the time he was 14, Mr. Jose lived alone on these lake shores with only his 10 dogs to help him raise manioc root and pineapple, harvest acai berries from their high branches, and fish for piranha every day at dinner.
Most of the time, he was barefoot. Other times, he, too, wore stained and torn “thrift-store” clothing. He showed us the tooth of a jaguar he killed that was eating his dogs one by one. He gave us hospitality and led us on hikes through the jungle and made acai juice for us as we slung hammocks up by his dwelling.
Instead of fear, I watched Mr. Jose. I learned to sit quietly and undisturbed in his dwelling as hand-sized Brazilian wandering spiders sat still and ominous all over his walls. I waded with him into the lake at the dead of night, risking piranha bites, to rescue a small caiman alligator from a fishing net. I bushwhacked alongside him in the deepest jungle to search for jaguar tracks, and I ate foods made by his own hands that were harvested from his own garden.
I let go of the fear of the unknown, and in turn, when I returned to a life that was new and foreign and scary to me, I let go of that fear as well.
The best lessons in life, I believe, happen when something goes wrong. In this case, not having all the gear I had planned on ended up teaching me more about myself and my abilities than I could have imagined.
It’s not easy going without everything you thought you needed in life. Did I want all that gear I bought? Yes, I certainly did. All that gear would definitely have made our trip to the jungle much more comfortable (and less smelly).
Did I need all that?
I learned I didn’t. I learned that I, even at my age, could adapt to a new environment without the security blankets I had relied on for so long.
After 15 days in the Amazon, I realized all that I no longer needed. With that knowledge, I now go forth, barefoot and dirty, into the world with more strength than I could have imagined.
Tips For Not Losing Luggage
- Try not to check a bag at all. All that gear fits into a large backpack carry-on, but I had checked the bag because I had packed a knife and bottles of bug spray. I should have just bought those items in Brazil and kept that backpack with me.
- When you arrive in another country, be sure to pick up your bag at the baggage claim at the airport to recheck as you go through customs.
- If your airline offers it, sign up for alerts on your baggage. This will be helpful in knowing where your bag is at all times.
- Always include a bag tag with your contact information on it. I use a business card.
- Pack only half of what you think you need. Trust me, you don’t need most of what you pack anyway.
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