Getting Rid of Stuff

Got to start somewhere – sorting session in Suriname

“Just throw it away,” I instruct Coen whenever he returns with yet another gadget he received at a workshop.
“No, I’m sure I can make somebody happy with it,” he will answer.

So, there you have it, the two solutions: Throw it away, or Give it away.
If it were so simple, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.

‘Every increased possession loads us with a new weariness’
~John Ruskin

There are various inspiring blogs on creating space in your house, like Courtney Carver describes in her How to Live in the Land of Enough – Space. By the way, if you need help just cleaning out your closet, check her Minimalist Fashion Project 333 Begins.

Too Many Souvenirs & Too Many Presents

But how do you get rid of stuff when traveling? When your backpack has become a burden, your suitcase no longer closes, when your bicycle has become too heavy to peddle, or – as in our case – we can’t move around in our car anymore?

We made stacks for each type of item and subsequently divided it up in "Must bring" and "If there's enough space, bring"

We made stacks for each type of item and subsequently divided it up in “Must bring” and “If there’s enough space, bring”

We travel to enjoy, right? How much joy is there in carrying around all that stuff, in worrying about all that can get stolen? None at all. When packed with care, this shouldn’t be a problem (albeit a challenge for many, as Jill Browne so aptly describes). But on the road we buy souvenirs, some more clothes or get presents from people we meet. All is well until that moment you realize: some of this stuff has to go!

But What? And Where to?

After having lived in Suriname for a year or so, we spent several days cleaning and sorting our possessions before hitting the road again. On the road, I do this regularly as space in the car is limited, but since we had a home in Suriname, that stack has grown like Jack’s Beanstalk:

  • Books.
  • T-shirts, caps, and other clothes.
  • Instruction manuals for car rallies.
  • Zillions of tourist brochures.
  • Broken plastic boxes and other stuff we hadn’t bothered to replace or fix.
  • Strainer and another couple of kitchen utensils that are only handy or a necessity when you have space for it.
  • Too many noodle soups, cans with peas and tuna, packages of pasta and rice, and all other kinds of “What if” food. I realized that when you have a whole cupboard instead of one storage box at your disposal, your perspective of space changes quickly.
  • Loads of spare parts, bolts, and nuts, pieces of rubber and other items that still needed to be sorted out after the Land Cruiser’s overhaul a year earlier.

We knew we couldn’t carry all that. We didn’t want to, either. The question was what we were going to do with the things we were going to ditch.

1. Do we just throw it in the garbage?

I’m very much a fan of throwing stuff in the garbage as I quickly feel that I am only burdening somebody else by giving him/her my possessions. We often receive promotional gadgets, which are presented as gifts, but which to me are junk. I don’t like to pass on junk, so I throw it in the garbage can.

After 30 years the old Coleman stove gave up, after many repairs. We bought a 'new secondhand' and hope it will last just as long. However, it was time to ditch that old one!

After 30 years the old Coleman stove gave up, after many repairs. We bought a ‘new secondhand’ and hope it will last just as long. However, it was time to ditch that old one!

Coen, on the other hand, likes to hold on to things. I remember a couple of years ago a good friend of ours gave Coen a new Garmin GPS. Coen was thrilled.
My immediate remark was, “So we throw the old one out.”
As usual Coen replied, “We’ll make somebody happy with it.”

That doesn’t always work for me. I generally have not enough patience to let stuff lie around until Coen’s right person comes along, as he just as easily forgets about it and the item never goes. However, in this particular case, I agreed with Coen that ditching a still good GPS didn’t feel right.

2. Do we make somebody happy with it?

When we returned to Bolivia a couple of weeks later, we met a young couple that was preparing a journey to the Salar de Uyuni (read here and here) with their Volkswagen Combi, which constantly broke down. Southwest Bolivia is serious off-the-beaten-track business where it is not a matter of course you’ll find your car back after you’ve walked to a town for hours to get a mechanic to help you because you got stranded. They had no GPS. Our old GPS was a perfect tool to hand on to others who could use it. I felt good about that.

Instead of buying a new laptop, we bought another secondhand and Coen used it to fix the broken one.

Instead of buying a new laptop, we bought another secondhand and Coen used it to fix the broken one.

On the road I find it generally easy to swap with, or give away to, fellow travelers. We understand each other’s needs, see what somebody has or doesn’t have, and it’s easy to see if some of my stuff could be useful to somebody else.

3. Do we give it to a person without knowing whether he/she wants/needs it?

I hate playing Santa Claus to strangers:

  • Probably because I hate receiving stuff that I don’t care for, but feel I can’t refuse.
  • Probably because it may mean I’m giving items to somebody else who may not need them either, but hey, since they come free of charge, they may as well keep them. So I sort of nurture the want/need of possession, which is a particular trait I wish we had less of in this world. We don’t need all that junk, one zillion gadgets, and stuff we never use or look at!
  • Probably because sometimes there is this underlying hierarchical issue of richer vs poorer that I don’t like. In most countries we travel, we meet people who are poorer than we are. This difference in wealth is uncomfortably accentuated (well, at least is to me) when I give something to a poorer person whom I don’t know  – “it’s no longer good enough for me, but maybe for you.” It’s a kind of charity I’m not in favor of.
  • Probably because I don’t like the feeling of playing God. When I have a stack of T-shirts or a couple of empty jars and there are ten poor families living along the side of the road – whom I don’t know, have never met, have no connection with – to whom do I give? Why to one and not the other? It’s like the issue of giving to beggars. Do you, and if so, to whom do you give?

Do you recognize those feelings?

I’m not talking about when you know a person, have formed a friendship and just see or know that this person can use that particular item you no longer need. Then it’s just a friend giving something to a friend, and differences in material wealth have become irrelevant.

There's too much food in the cupboard. What stays behind and to whom do I give it (and why not to somebody else)? I leave it to chance and have confidence that somebody who needs it, will find it.

There’s too much food in the cupboard. What stays behind and to whom do I give it (and why not to somebody else)? I leave it to chance and have confidence that somebody who needs it, will find it.

One thing I learned on the road is that sometimes there are sensitive (cultural) issues we may not be aware of. For example, how in Suriname many people won’t wear second-hand clothes, no matter how poor they are. They are afraid the clothes are inhabited by wintis (spirits) that could harm them – the previous owner could have asked a shaman to put those wintis there exactly for that purpose.

So What Do I Do?

Some countries have the practical solution of second-hand stores, where we can take our still usable and sellable stuff. Others don’t.

Here’s what I’ve learned to do when I don’t have a perfect gift opportunity like the above-mentioned GPS in Bolivia:

  • All broken/rotten stuff obviously goes into the trash. (At one time I saw how locals in a disaster area opened up boxes with relief goods; one contained socks with holes in them – how can anybody do that?)
  • The still usable/good stuff goes in separate bags and I put these next to the garbage collection point / the garbage can or whatever the local system is. I make sure the bag is identifiable as “good to use”.

I then have faith it will find its way to somebody who needs it.

The result of this solution is that I don’t give junk, or what I consider the too-old-to-pass-on stuff to somebody else, yet acknowledge that while I don’t want/need it, others may feel differently. If a person rummaging through the garbage is happy with those things, then it’s up to him/her to take them.

A cleaning session somewhere along the road.

A cleaning session somewhere along the road.

In Bolivia, after the overhaul of the Land Cruiser 2 years ago, we had one of these major cleaning sessions. Garbage disposal points in La Paz are the electricity poles on the pavement. One morning I filled two bags: one with trash and one with reusable stuff. When I returned twenty minutes later to put down the second batch, the first stack of reusable stuff had already been taken away.

In Suriname we repeated that course of action, which went extremely well. Now, three months down the road I have yet another cleaning session here in Brazil, as the interior had to be taken out and apart to get some welding done. There’s hardly anything to get rid of this time – which is the best version for me: for the past three months we haven’t accumulated things we don’t need.

All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here and here.

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