The Matpackers

Back in the day, when I was a child and traveled en famille, we would pack all of our belongings (including toys, puzzles and tennis rackets) into a few suitcases – and off we’d go. By plane or car, our luggage would be squeezed into the back of our family car, on top of the station wagon or into the cargo hold of a plane. It never occurred to us to pack otherwise. When my older sister and I traveled to Europe in our teens, we hauled suitcases as well.

Then, in my early 20s, I did what many others were doing at the time, traveling around Europe. The Eurail Pass was a much-coveted perk at the time, but we continued to pack much the same way – though by then, as we were all relatively experiences summer campers – our gear was stuffed into duffle bags. And my, how we shlepped those bulging bags around France and Italy.

But truth be told, I recall that when we arrived at an airport, we’d heave our duffles from conveyor belt to cart to taxi to hotel/hostel. Then we’d go about ‘sight-seeing.’ Leaving that city to our next destination, we would do the reverse – and start all over again. It was not quite in as much vogue as it has become today, to carry a bulky backpack from place to place. I suppose it could be said that we traveled in higher style – although we certainly didn’t think so at the time.DSC08918

Fast forward to my leap into solo travel across the world, into Asia. A six-month stint (and leave of absence) that transformed into something much more, began with a friend driving me to the airport, and both of us wondering how I would make do with the gargantuan backpack I’d borrowed – and stuffed to the gills. Little did I realize just how challenging it would be to unburden myself of this monstrous appendage each afternoon or evening, only to have to shove it back onto my back every morning. But after awhile, I smoothed into the process, paring down unnecessary items, until I finally rediscovered my posture and normal gait.

That, however, was then. When backpacking was still considered a sport, a leisure activity, an inextricable part of overseas / distant travel. But now even backpacks – at least the way they once were, laced with dangling hiking boots or flipflops, water bottles, decals, whistles and super-minimized rolled up sleeping bags – seem like a throwback. Or perhaps it just seems so… when one lives in Bali and sees the throngs of nouveau, Gen Y, often-tattooed travelers.

A whole new species has emerged. Welcome to the era of matpackers. The offsprDSC08920ing of backpackers now roll up their yoga mat wherever they go, lest they be caught unaware of – or, worse, lycra-less at – the nearest yoga studio. So they think nothing of carting their already sweat-soaked piece of rubber through smog-filled cities, unfurling them at a moment’s notice, sitting down crossed-leg and muttering the requisite ohm.

Then again, I suppose the roll would come in handy if said matpacker should stumble upon a yoga teacher on the train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, or a hostel in the countryside outside Luang Prabang that hosts yoga retreats. Mat in hand. Head on mat. Always ready, to be a mere step away from breathe, pray, love.