How traveling for two months has been a lesson in minimalism

coconuts on the beach in Brazil
© K Martinko

Nearly two months have passed since my family and I left home in Canada to travel in Brazil. As we approach the end of this incredible experience, I’ve been reflecting on the number of things we’ve done without and hardly missed. At the same time, there are a certain things that I can’t wait to get back to.

What I have not missed:

1. Clothes

We traveled with two large suitcases – one for me and my husband, and one for our two children. Each of us brought relatively few clothes; I have 2 pairs of shorts, jeans, two summer dresses, a skirt, four tops, and a bathing suit. Each of my kids has 3 pairs of shorts, 4 T-shirts, a swimsuit and hat.

Although my wardrobe feels repetitive, it has been pleasantly surprising to discover how few articles of clothing I actually need. It also takes the indecision out of getting dressed each morning.

2. A complete kitchen

The kitchens in our furnished rental apartments have been equipped with the bare minimum. Our current one has a set of 1 large, 1 medium, and 1 small pot, and a 6-inch frying pan. There are 4 plates, 4 glasses, and 4 sets of cutlery.

Since we cook most of our meals in-house, I have to come up with alternative ways to grate cheese, spin lettuce, strain pasta, peel and stir-fry vegetables, etc. I never realized how many different devices I use at home to perform specific tasks, and yet this trip has shown me that there’s always a way to manage without.

3. Toys

My kids, ages 3 and 5, brought a small backpack filled with little cars, Playmobil figures, a couple Transformers, and a favourite stuffed animal. They also have a couple storybooks, colouring books, and pencil crayons. These few items have been the sum total of their entertainment for the past two months.

Admittedly, this has been challenging at times, particularly the lack of books, but this trip has proven that they need fewer toys than I thought. Lack of toys forces them to come up with creative alternatives. For example, they use a bucket, an old ice cream box, empty coconut shells, and kitchen spoons to build castles at the beach.

What I can’t wait to get home to:

1. Spices and condiments

Cooking on the road has meant greatly simplifying our meals. The result has been a good but monotonous diet, based on rice and beans, but with more meat than I’d like.

Not until this trip did I realize that most of my vegetarian cooking is ethnic – Thai or Indian curries, stir-fries, Asian noodle dishes, etc. – all of which are nearly impossible to make with the limited ingredients sold at the tiny local grocery store. I look forward to returning to a world where cumin, curry paste, tamarind, lemongrass, hot peppers, and cardamom pods exist.

2. Outdoor play space

Although my kids have done marvelously well with their limited selection of toys, we’re going a bit crazy with the lack of outdoor play space. We’re not used to living in an apartment, and Recife is a hot and humid concrete jungle, with relatively few green spaces.

Any time they want to play outside, it requires a special trip (usually by car because it’s so far and hot) to a specific park. It is far more hassle than opening the back door to let them run around.

3. Reusable containers and decent garbage disposal

Styrofoam and excessive plastic waste is huge down here. Nearly all bakery items are placed on a Styrofoam tray and wrapped in plastic wrap, which never fails to horrify me. Yesterday I stood in the grocery line behind a woman who had placed every single item in a clear plastic produce bag, including boxes of soap, a plastic jug of laundry detergent, and frozen vacuum-packed fish. Those bags were then placed in additional plastic grocery bags. Since I don’t have reusable containers, I ask for a paper bag instead, which inevitably creates confusion.

There is no recycling separation at home, although much of that is done by hand by catadores, or garbage-pickers, either in the street at night or in the landfill sites. A friend who spent four years working with pickers in Olinda’s (a neighbouring city) garbage dump said that, despite the lack of in-house separation, Brazil’s recycling rate was far better than the United States’ in 2007, but I don’t know if that still applies. Nevertheless, it makes me highly uncomfortable mixing recyclables and organic waste in the same garbage bag.

A serious household purge of clothes, toys, and superfluous kitchen devices will be in order once I get home. As for the other items that I've missed, I'll appreciate them all the more for having gone without for these past months, and will redouble my efforts to minimize our household trash.

How traveling for two months has been a lesson in minimalism
There are certain things I've hardly missed, and others I've missed more than I expected.

Related Content on