Leaving Stuff Behind

text and photographs by Jessica Stammen


It is when you have nothing that you have everything.  It is debatable though widely believed that the Mandarin character for catastrophe is comprised of separate components that signify both crisis and opportunity, and while some women would call traveling for two full weeks with just one small backpack a crisis, I call it opportunity.  An opportunity to get just a little closer to having everything.

I experience immense joy and satisfaction when traveling light – and ok, maybe a little pride.  I spent the bulk of March in Costa Rica.  Before my departure from Logan I noted with a huge smile that the bag I packed for more than two weeks was smaller than most my fellow passenger’s carry-ons.  Giggling, I propped it up proudly in the breezeway between terminals A and B and conducted a photo shoot as bulkier luggage, like awkward older siblings, rolled by.  I hopped on my flight with just what fit into the same small backpack I take, almost full, to the gym for an hour’s workout.

And by workout I mean playtime. At the gym I run, I skip, I jump.  I do handstands.  I laugh a lot, mostly at myself.  Having an attitude of play is a choice.  I am a recovering gym-addict-for-all-the-wrong-reasons and so I am intentional about this in the same way I am about traveling light – or taking a vacation in the first place, a definite period of time devoted to pleasure, rest or relaxation.

Whether at the gym or in Costa Rica there is a temptation to bring daily drudgery, worry, guilt, and exhaustion along.  These are the couple extra pounds on our bodies or in our bags that put us over the limit before treadmills or frequent flier miles even begin.  At counters across the country we stuff excess into our carry-ons to avoid a $50 fee.  But who are we fooling?  We’re still left schlepping it along through security.  Forget terrorist threats; this is the real crisis.

Why not leave stuff behind?

When I left for Costa Rica the hairdryer, energy bars, ipod, headphones, backup headphones, extra pair of socks and jumprope came out of the gym bag.  I mostly limited my clothing to what could be layered on my body during the plane ride.  All I packed were bathing suits and books.  (Yes, traveling south facilitates minimalist packing.)  With my camera, sketchbook and a ziplock full of powder to mix my morning green drink I was ready to go, ready to leave everything else behind, ready to get away.

And while getting away is important, getting to – to a place – is equally so.

After my flight arrived in San Jose at 1:30 in the morning (God bless those budget airline schedules); after I procrastinated my way through immigration and customs to delay the long wait before Hertz opened at six; after I made the winding drive out of the mountains and towards the coast while bus drivers passed truckers who were at the same time passing me; after wandering through the mercado in Santa Cruz delirious from a mixture of sleep deprivation and the joy of finding huge bunches of cilantro for fifty cents; after turning down one dirt road to another, to another; after all this I pulled into la casa de mi tio, a vacation spot my Uncle Chuck has owned for nearly twenty years.

Before gazing out at an expansive view of the Pacific; before standing on the seventy-foot bluff and feeling the power of the waves crashing below; before weaving through the scattered palm trees in the yard; before cooling off in the pool and relaxing in the shade of the ranchero; before walking the short path leading unsuspectingly to all this… a wall greets me with the casa’s name in hand painted letters: Coco Flotante.  Indeed, after all that and before all this, I am a floating coconut, weary and wanting to be washed ashore.

Finally, I am here.  There’s no-thing for me to unpack; I am free to unfold myself into all the possibilities of this time and place.

They say kids who play with blocks, legos and erector sets instead of television and video games develop a greater capacity for imagination, creativity, resourcefulness, and resilience.  Traveling light is like playing with blocks instead of watching TV.

On TV other people snorkel, scuba dive, and zip-line.  But on my vacation I’m the one ready for adventure.  I hike volcanoes, swim under waterfalls, explore thermal springs, and fly in a tiny plane over huge mountains and along a coastline that dramatically reveals a non-existent landing strip in the crevice between two hills, a landing strip I believe possible only when parked on it.  Everyone must fly into Golfito once.

On TV other people have fun and find friends.  But on my vacation I’m the one on the dance floor at Mundo Milo late into the night, laughing and learning to salsa with Gerardo and Chicho.  During the day, when it’s particularly hot, Uncle Chuck and I enjoy cold drinks and learn the game of Tuck at the Guacamaya Lodge.  I’m hooked; I will schedule next year’s visit around the local tournament.  While at Guacamaya I notice how Lilly and Alice’s daughters have grown so beautiful.  Seven years ago they were giggling grade-schoolers piled into the back of a tiny SUV on a field trip to see a mural I was painting.  Much has changed in these years; more has stayed the same.

On TV no one gives or expects attention past the first sound bite.  On my vacation, without bringing all my stuff with me – mental and material – my capacity for attention and appreciation is more.  The quiet possibilities are noticed, like the beauty and grace available while blundering through a conversation a little bit English, un poquito Espanol.

Like noticing how the power and pull of the closest, fullest moon sorts and shuffles evidence of itself on shore, the changes in tiny grains of sand and pulverized shell playing out on an astronomical scale.

Like lying embraced in a hammock at night, feeling both phenomenally safe and utterly vulnerable as the Papagayo winds join monkeys howling all around.  Like waking up in the paradise of here with shocking news from there, and yet still remaining here:  “Tsunami… Japon… no en la playa.”  Dealing with the unexpected is the quietest possibility – and the greatest adventure.  Stuff follows us everywhere and it is in the quiet possibility of ourselves that we resolve not to add to it, to instead travel light.

Because the unexpected followed me to New York City in 2001 and I found myself working at Ground Zero for nine months after 9/11, I feel I know something of what it’s like to be in Sendai, Kesennuma or Fukushima right now.  Destruction and disaster are no respecters of place or people; there is no choice, no intention, no preparation.  The only tools available after losing everything are the same characteristics a child develops through play: imagination, creativity, resourcefulness, and resilience.  Nothing matters more.

There is hope in a child who can create entire neighborhoods, cities, and worlds from a pile of blocks dumped on the floor.  And there is hope that catastrophe, the literal “turning upside down” of the world is not, must not always be bad.

I imagine Mike Barton’s world was turned upside down the day he met Dean Jamon while surfing the break at Playa Negra, just two miles north of Coco Flotante. With the flexibility and fluidity that characterizes surfers at play, Mike hopped on a tsunami of possibility.  He did not physically leave Playa Negra, but he left behind life there as he knew it in order to get to a place, four years later, where he is now sous chef for the renowned Patrick Jamon at the distinctive Villa Deevenaand where he is about to open an impressive skatepark right there, off a dusty road, in the last place you’d expect to see one.

The unexpected and unthinkable can and will happen.  It will happen good or bad.  It will happen no matter if we are here or there – Japan, New York, Maine or Costa Rica.  It will happen whether we have a lot or little.  It will happen no matter how prepared we feel.  The best form of disaster preparedness is traveling light and being here – right here – not on TV, not on someone else’s vacation, not loaded down by baggage, but here in a place of possibility, aware and alive.

I love my little backpack.  What it holds and what it doesn’t hold is a lesson.  My friend Ricardo told me about a guest who arrived at his casa with two huge bags for his two-week vacation in Costa Rica.  It was his first visit.  During his stay he gradually realized how much he didn’t need.  He got rid of things until, returning home, he was down to one bag.  He left an empty backpack with Ricardo saying, “Keep it here.  I’m coming back.”

There is always more to learn and less to pack.