Everything Is Falling Apart

After a stop to admire the view of mountains across the lake, I arrived at the cafe a friend recommended in Lausanne, found my seat, and reached for my bag to retrieve my laptop.

The sunlight streaming through the windows backlit the bag and showed the signs of wear: patches of thinned fabric around seams and handles on the Longchamp Le Pliage that I use when I don’t want to tote around my full (and heavy) Lo & Sons OMG bag.

Both are hand-me-downs: my mom used the Le Pliage first; my sister bought the OMG for herself.

My cell phone is an iPhone 5 that belonged to my stepdad when new; my MacBook Air is a refurbished one that I bought from Apple when I first began traveling and working remotely in the spring of 2014.

A couple weeks ago, the laptop charger mysteriously stopped working, so I began leeching power off stray cables nearby on tables at the Dojo Bali coworking space before I borrowed a friend’s for a week.

The island doesn’t have an Apple store, and because I still have Apple Care, I’ll be damned if I buy a new one without trying to get a covered replacement first.

The day I packed my Eagle Creek suitcase for Remote Year in January 2016, I noticed a hole on the bottom right corner where the plastic structure had begun to peek through the thick fabric.

Panicking, I sent my stepdad to the store for duct tape, which has long since fallen off. But the bag has, so far, held up. Over a decade ago, my parents gave me the bag as a senior in high school for a church choir trip to England.

A few flights ago, the handle got jammed by a baggage handler, so now I have to drag it along via the top handle as I juggle my laptop bag, carry on, duffle bag, and suitcase in my frequent sweat-inducing pilgrimages between modes of transport and temporary housing.

My oldest of three pairs of Lululemon yoga pants has a hole in the butt where I sat on a stray ember from the BBQ on our patio on Cusco over Memorial Day Weekend 2016.

I bought my two pairs of running pants in Casablanca in 2010, so we’ve worked out together in about 30 countries. This past Christmas, I got a new pair of RayBans to replace the now-scratched ones that I bought during college.

Almost all my clothes and belongings are old and tired and worn.

I use hand-me-downs because I worry less while traveling about them getting damaged, lost, or stolen.

And those used items are vessels for the people that passed them on to me. Instead of everything being brand-new and factory fresh, many of my belongings are a thread connecting me back to the original owner.

The things I carry and wear have invisible traces of my mom or sister or stepdad or friends. However informal the transfer of ownership was in reality, to me, they were each a gift, a talisman to take with me on my travels.

When I’m thousands of miles and months away, these are tangible reminders that I am loved by people I cannot see or touch.

People frequently ask what to pack as a digital nomad or for a trip to a certain place.

I have some items I stand by and pieces of advice, to be sure. I can give insights to what I’ve used and what I haven’t in a given setting.

Delayed gratification and expectation setting are critical for my strategy: I plan for what I’ll need, when I need it, and how (and when) I can get it.

I prioritize having high-quality devices and materials. I use brands and products that are made well and last.

But the real rule of thumb for what I pack: what I need, specifically what I’ve already got or can get my hands on affordably.

And then I use it until the last inch of its life before I throw it away or donate it via the staff at my accommodations upon check out.

I only buy something new when necessary or if it’s particularly special or important to me, and often I wait until it’s my birthday or Christmas so I can coordinate the purchase to be reimbursed by a family member as a gift.

Occasionally I do splurge and buy something moderately superfluous: a pair of wedge sandals when I really needed flats, a Blue mic and Beats headphones for working on my podcast, a Wacom pen and tablet for occasional design work and art projects, a few articles of custom made clothes in Vietnam.

But most of my money goes into experiences: planes, trains, and automobiles, meals at cafes, adventurous excursions, and so forth.

I work in order to do, not shop.

When it comes to spontaneous spending, I’m far more likely to spend $20 or $50 contributing to an organization or charity I’ve encountered or read about in the news than buy myself something.

The world and the people in it have shown and given me so much — it only makes sense to give back than to focus on accumulating more for myself.

My transient lifestyle means I’m rarely anywhere long enough to contribute to a community any other way, but I still hope to have a positive impact and support the causes I believe in (and now, sadly, increasingly need protection).

When I want something, when I look in the mirror and feel insecure about my outfit, when I notice a tear in a bag, when something gets damaged — I think about replacing it, and I think about the cost in terms of money and my time. And usually, I decide to wait to replace it until it’s truly necessary and I’ve found just the right thing.

But when I hear about human right’s issues or art projects or nonprofits, and I have enough information to be reasonably assured the money will be well spent, I know it’s better off in their account than mine.

So what’s in the bag of a “digital nomad”?

The devices we need to work and earn money and bring our ideas to life.
The clothes and accessories we need to exist in various destinations and participate in the activities we care about. 
The few comforts that make any room on the road feel like home. 
The containers that keep everything safe and portable.

And almost everything is falling apart.

Katherine works remotely while she travels the world — on the road since June 2014.

She was a member of Remote Year 2 Battuta, living around the world with 75 other digital nomads from February 2016 to January 2017.

Want more? Follow along here on Medium and sign up for my mailing list.