An Interview with Allison Levine

Allison Levine at Big Sur.

Allison Levine at Big Sur.

Allison Levine is a web developer, traveler, and writer.  Last year, she demonstrated in this video how she packs her Synapse 19 for trips of indefinite length. On her blog, Off the Blueprint, she writes about the symbiotic relationship between travel, minimalism, and living lightly on the earth. We wanted to find out more, and here’s what she had to say.

TOM BIHN Crew: Tell us a little bit about your website. What relationship do you see between traveling and minimalism?

ALLISON LEVINE: Minimalism completely changed the way I travel. The less you’re clinging to, both mentally and physically, the easier it is to immerse yourself in a new culture. I realized how incredible that freedom to experience was when I took my first trip with my Synapse 19, to China. I got lost. I shared wonderful meals and conversations with people I’d just met. I questioned my world view. And I never had to say “Hold on, I need to go take care of my suitcase.” Traveling with only one small bag gave me the confidence to explore, and alone. I couldn’t wait to share that when I got back, so I created Off the Blueprint.

TBC: You’ve been traveling for a while with your Synapse 19. Are you still in love with it? What features do you appreciate the most?

AL: Yes! I love the size, of course—the fact that it fits everywhere, including inside a hostel locker. It can also hold so much for its size, thanks to the genius shape and pocket design. When I first took it out of the box I thought, no way am I going to fit everything in there. Then I started packing it and realized how huge the water bottle and bottom pockets are. I also really like that the main compartment only zips halfway down. That allows me to pack or unpack it while it’s standing, which is much easier than trying to get things organized while they slip out sideways.

Allison's Synapse 19, ready for travel.

Allison’s Synapse 19, ready for travel.

TBC: How did you generate your 12-item list of packing essentials?

AL: I read a lot of packing lists to see what worked for people. That helped me nail down the basics: light and efficient outerwear, quick-drying clothes, multi-use items, and tiny cosmetics. Then I experimented. I found that I could downsize some things further, like shirts, sweaters, and flip-flops, but that I’d left other things out, like a netbook or notebook to record my experiences. My list evolves with every trip.

TBC: It’s pretty amazing that you can fit everything you need into a 19-liter backpack. It seems like part of minimalist travel is bringing only what you need, keeping in mind that what works for others won’t necessarily work for you; so, it’s as much a mindset as it is a strategy for packing.

AL: Very true. I’m a small, not-so-strong person, so packing a 19-liter bag works to my advantage. I can fit everything in because my clothes are smaller, and because my bag is small, I can actually carry it! My list works for me, but I wouldn’t expect others to follow it exactly. Even I adapt it as needed. Now that I’m a vegetarian I carry a lot more snacks with me because I know I need to keep nibbling throughout the day to stay full.

TBC: Recently, your blog has focused quite a bit on vegetarian cooking and eating.  How does vegetarianism/veganism function within a minimalist lifestyle, to your mind?

AL: I think of it as eating light, both for me and the environment. Traveling light has made me question everything about the way I live, and whether there’s a better (albeit probably more challenging) way to do things. I really enjoy subverting norms because it forces me to get creative. And that’s something that inspires me about Tom Bihn—that they always think outside the box.

TBC: What is a travel-related item you thought would be really helpful but actually wasn’t?

AL: I thought a sarong would be an awesome, multi-use item to take. It can be a dress, a cover-up, a sleep sheet, a towel, etc. But I ended up only using it as a not-that-great towel, and ditching it after my first trip. It’s probably great to take if you’re hitting up a lot of beaches, but not so much if you’re mostly visiting urban areas.

TBC: Do you allow yourself any luxuries when you travel? How, in your eyes, does the idea of creature comforts interact with minimalist traveling?  

AL: I try not to start out with any luxuries, but I tend to buy them as I go, especially when I inevitably catch a travel cold. I had to start carrying my day bag separately during my train trip around the States because I picked up bottles of nighttime cold medicine, agave nectar, and lemon juice when I got sick. I don’t feel better until I’ve had my hot water with honey / agave and lemon.

To travel you only really need your wallet, passport, and maybe a spare shirt and underwear. Everything else is probably a luxury that we could live without. But we’re human, and as long as the creature comforts are manageable and don’t detract from your travel experience, I don’t think they’re harmful. Plus purchasing those comforts en route can be interesting, since even the most mundane transactions are exciting in a new place.

TBC: Speaking of that train trip—it was three months long. What inspired you to do this? Had you traveled much by train before? What did you hope to learn or discover on this trip?

AL: I’d traveled by long-distance train before in China and Europe, but never in the US. I wanted to see what American sleeper trains were like, and also take a trip that didn’t involve flying. I think I’ve got flyer-fatigue, because trying to get somewhere far away without taking a plane sounds so much more exciting to me lately. It slows you down and forces you to disconnect for a while, which is a rare pleasure in this digital age. So I was hoping both to experience a slower, historic form of travel and to learn more about my own country. I enjoyed meeting people from all over and learning about the history of places like New Orleans, Louisiana and San Antonio, Texas on my way west. And of course the scenery was stunning, especially when pulling into Tucson, exploring California’s central coastal area, and riding the rails through the Pacific Northwest.

Allison's view from the train, somewhere in Arizona.

Allison’s view from the train, somewhere in Arizona.

TBC: There are a couple of cool book reviews on your site, not of recent books but rather of guides or memoirs that were published anywhere from 50-75 years ago. Do you often look to writers and thinkers from the past as part of your research on travel and/or as inspiration for your travel philosophy? How do you see these texts from the past influencing the way you travel now?

AL: I really enjoy reading old travel books. Travel like that just doesn’t exist anymore. In The Importance of Living, Lin Yutang recounts the story of a wealthy man in ancient China who leaves his job, family, and home to wander the countryside with only a gourd and the clothes on his back. That story reminds me that the best travel is light and aimless. Some of my most rewarding travel experiences have been when I let my expectations go, or just gotten lost somewhere new. I like reading Dervla Murphy’s books because she inspires me to be fearless. And Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat reminds me to laugh in spite of travel mishaps.

In China.

In China.

TBC: What are your travel goals for the next few years?

AL: I’d like to continue traveling without flying, maybe to South America next. I definitely want to take the Trans-Siberian Railway sometime in the next couple years. More generally, I want to work towards leaving my trips more open-ended. Wandering isn’t really wandering if you know when you’re heading home. The idea of not knowing where I’m going next terrifies me, and that’s something I’d like to overcome.

Talk about this post in the Forums.