Almost sixteen years ago on a hot summery day in July, I boarded a plane for Uzbekistan. I was headed there for my first year as a teacher of expatriate students whose parents were working there for a non-profit. I had a baggage limit of two suitcases plus one carry-on and packed them carefully for the year - important things, you know, like clothing, journal, supplies, retainer, and <ahem> hair rollers.
After over an 18 hour journey, I made my way through the seemingly disorganized lines at customs. As I stood there at the conveyor belt waiting for my luggage, I hopefully scanned the sea of bags for my own suitcases. One eventually came, but as the line dwindled down, I realized the other had not. And there was one problem - I didn't speak Russian or Uzbek.
Unfortunately, as I passed through the lines where the guards wave you through, I realized that my forms counted my carry-on as a bag, so they thought I had all of my bags. I failed miserably as I stood there trying to explain and point to my bags and then point to the custom forms. The burly guard grew frustrated with me and angrily waved me through. It was only then that I stood there and burst into tears. Eventually another expatriate who was waiting for me figured out what was going on and was able to meet me there and explain to the guard what had happened. We went to the lost baggage claim area and filled out a form, but my other suitcase never appeared.
In the weeks that followed, I adjusted to my new life and language as I lived with a local family, and they found out about my situation. On my first night there my local mother had a friend come over who began to take measurements and show me a variety of pastel, glittery fabrics. At the time, I was not into pastel, glittery fabrics (actually, I'm not now either), but one of my new Australian expat friends who dropped me off had told me to just compliment them by using the word for beautiful as they showed them to me before she left me. I should have realized what was going on, for the next morning, the neighbor returned with a mu-mu style dress with flutter sleeves in a sparkling Pepto-bismol pink.
Later as my Australian friend returned to pick me up, her eyes widened in surprise. "Oh my," she said, trying to hide a smile.
"I look like a human Easter egg," I replied with a smile, knowing that they could not understand our English at all.
The most surprising thing in the weeks and months that followed, however, was that life did not crumble when I lost half of the things I had believed were essential to my first year there. I had fewer clothes, but soon discovered that most people living there had much fewer items than I had, and they had less on purpose. I eventually grew to love a simpler wardrobe that could literally fit in a wardrobe, or to say "nothing" when friends from the U.S. would email me to see what I needed.
I may have lost the suitcase, but I gained a much more valuable perspective: we need so much less than what we think we need.
Have you ever had your possessions cut down drastically? How has living with less changed your life?