A conversation with Xandra Robinson-Burns about immersive and minimalist travel.
Want to read the Nomadic Art of Budget Travel? Get it here!
As promised, my first long backpacking trip when I had not yet embraced the minimalist approach:
Transcript of Interview
Kayla Kurin: Hi, everybody. Welcome to my first YouTube interview in a while. Today I've got with me my friend and fellow writer, Xandra, the protagonist at Heroine Training. We are here to talk about budget travel.
I recently released a new book called "The Nomadic Art of Budget Travel," which Xandra has so lovingly displayed.
I wanted to talk today to Xandra because she is also a writer and a traveler and a minimalist. I wanted to talk a little bit about what makes the philosophy in my book a little bit different than some of the other books out there, which are more straight budget travel books.
That is going to make more sense, I think, as we keep talking. What I mean by that is a lot of books are based solely on how you can reduce your costs, whereas what I wanted to talk about is how traveling in a more minimalist way is both going to save you money and deepen your experiences.
Welcome, Xandra. Thank you so much for having this chat with me. Why don't you tell us a little bit about you and your travel lifestyle?
Xandra: Hello. Thank you for having me. I am from the US, and I moved here to the UK about 10 years ago now.
I got really excited by my sudden proximity to so many new countries. I made a goal from the first year that I moved here to visit a new country every year, which I have kept up with. Now that I've gotten into my groove of, "OK. That is possible," miraculously, even last year in 2020, I managed to get to Poland at the very beginning of the year in time.
Maybe not this year. We'll see. Pandemic aside, I have been able to do it. That has been, on its own, amazing.
Reading your book, Kayla, got me thinking about what I am looking for out of that goal of visiting a new country, how I can best align my visit, how I plan my trip with that desire to experience a different place, and be immersed in a culture that you can't just read about. You can't just hear people talking about and get a sense of it.
You just have to go there, I've realized. I am excited to learn more from you about how to best tailor my trips. I go on really short trips too.
Your book is nomadic, it's about long‑term travels, slow travel, and I want to embody that spirit while also not being away from my dog for too long.
Kayla: [laughs] Your dog is very cute. I love that. I also came from Canada and lived in Europe for a few years and it is so exciting that you can just go to so many extremely different places so easily.
It's funny you mentioned that because when I was writing the book, I was thinking about people who wanted to do longer‑term trips, not necessarily as long term as I do, which is continuous [laughs] but at least a few weeks at a time, to a few months, up to a few years.
You're not the first person I've heard from, that's read the book and said, "I know you said it's for long‑term people, but actually I think this is really applicable to me too." I was wondering if there was anything specific that you had pulled out of the book that you think you're going to apply to your next trip, whenever, that is possible?
Xandra: For the first, this is huge. For the first time ever, I am warmed up to the idea of couch surfing.
I had heard of the concept and was like, "No, introvert." It was helpful hearing from you with the caveat that you identify as an introvert as well. This can be a really...not just an affordable option, which was the only selling point that I was aware of, for couch surfing is like you get to stay on someone's couch for free.
You make a really good case in the book for the immersive experience of finding the right person to befriend basically, and hang out with, and be introduced to the culture, in the way that I will usually visit a friend of mine, who lives in another country.
It's like, "OK, best to hear from the person who lives there," rather than stay in my little closed‑off, private space and try to research how to get that experience. It's like, "There's a person that comes with the couch who we can talk to."[laughter]
Xandra: I haven't thought of it like that.
Kayla: That's funny and I think a lot of people do just think of it as a free place to stay, and that's obviously not nice for anybody, because I don't want to welcome someone in my home that I don't know, that just wants to crash on my couch.
That cultural exchange part of it is the most fun part. It's funny because...I remember the time I did it, it felt very scary as an introvert.
I don't know if you feel the same way, but as an introvert, I thrive way more talking to people one‑on‑one. I don't do well at parties, trying to talk to a whole bunch of people at once. When I started backpacking, I was staying at hostels, which I don't do anymore.
When I was doing that more, being in a hostel felt like going to a party, which is fun sometimes but could be exhausting. Couch‑surfing felt like getting to meet one cool person that I had pre‑vetted and read their profile, and get to hang out with one‑on‑one. It was my introvert option when I first started traveling, which is quite funny because that's scary.
I know that you are a minimalist in your life. I very much admire that. I'm a pseudo‑minimalist. I was definitely not a minimalist when I was in university in my younger years. I was forced to become a minimalist through travel because I just had a backpack. I've now downsized to only traveling with carry‑on only, but I still definitely struggle.
I know that I'm happier when I have less stuff, but I definitely struggle with getting rid of old things that are still in boxes at my parents' house. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how minimalism has impacted your life, and then if you see any parallels between this immersive style of travel to a more minimalist lifestyle.
Xandra: I started out the same as you, where moving over to the UK, it was travel that forced me to become a minimalist. I had this university situation where I had to move in and out of college three times a year. I had international student storage, but it was very small.
To make my life less about packing and unpacking my things constantly, it gets you thinking. You have to do that like, "Do I really need to hold on to this thing, or pack it and unpack it three times a year?" It took me from reading about minimalism online because this was a pre‑Marie Kondo Netflix show time.
It was this obscure corner of the Internet of reading about people who backpacked around and owned a hundred things and all of these different variations of minimalism that worked for different people. It was travel that enticed me. There's the packing element. There's also the lugging the suitcase through Heathrow Airport that is very convincing.
When I heard about your nomad lifestyle, I was like, "How can you not be a minimalist when you're constantly on the go?" I want to hear more about that as well. In terms of travel, I like to both save money on upgrading luggage, because especially in Europe, you don't get a lot. You have to add‑on to get reasonable amounts of luggage.
I like to take that on as a challenge of like, "Can I avoid the 30‑pound‑bag fee and just travel with a handbag?" It turns out that I both can.
It's more of an integrated way of traveling if I'm visiting a friend and say, "Can I borrow a towel?" It just gives me more time at my destination because I don't have to worry about going back and forth to where I'm staying. I can just stay out.
One time ‑‑ I think this was the lightest I've ever traveled ‑‑ it was just a large handbag. The question was, "Could I get to Berlin to meet my friend and then take all of my stuff with me directly to the Lizzo concert, or would we have to go across town to hers to drop it off?"
I would rather not spend my first few hours in Germany on public transport going back and forth across the city, as lovely as that would be to experience. I want to get to the area where the concert is going to be and then have some time to walk around and just chill before. We made it happen.
I wouldn't recommend just doing that in your hometown, bringing a handbag full of luggage to a concert, but [laughs] when you're traveling abroad, it was absolutely worth it. It gets you more time to wander around.
Kayla: That is very similar to how I came to it. I knew what I wanted to do after finishing university. I worked for a couple of years and saved a bunch of money. I tell all the details about that in the book. I wanted to do this year‑long backpacking trip. I knew I was taking a backpack, of course. [laughs] I'm backpacking.
I fit enough stuff into this 80‑liter backpack. It was pretty big, but I could walk around with it. It was checked back for sure. It was really hard. It took me months to pack and narrow down. I was sad. I was grieved to leave and leave all of my stuff behind, all my prized possessions.
I was so amazed at how quickly I adapted. Within a couple months, I didn't care. I didn't remember what I had. I wasn't tempted to shop or buy anything since I didn't have anywhere to put it. It went from there.
A huge part of it for me as well was that I am already a bad decision‑maker. When living a nomadic lifestyle and when traveling long term, you have to make a lot of decisions every day. There's no planned route.
At first, every week, I was finding a new place to stay. Now, every couple of months, I'm finding a new place to stay, potentially learning a new language, potentially booking transport. There's all of these things that if you just have a place that you live in, you don't have to decide every day.
Getting to reduce the decision to be like, "Well, I only have two outfits that are appropriate for this climate zone, so you're wearing one of those," reduced that amount of decision‑making.
Similar to you, I downsized to carry‑on only living in Europe and not wanting to have to pay the fees. Also, it's just time‑wise annoying to have to wait for your checked bag to come out.
I had done that while I had a base in Europe and then would go for a few weeks here or there with a checked bag. I left Europe. I was planning six months in Latin America, and I was like, "You know what, fuck it. I'm only taking a carry‑on bag. I don't want to have to deal with this." I did six months carry‑on. It was absolutely no problem.
You fill the space that you have, but I will put this video also in my blog. I will include a photo of my very first backpacking trip where I've got my big backpack, and a big handbag, and a big floppy hat, and my camera bag. That was way too much stuff.
Xandra: Do you know if there was anything in that six‑month period of carry‑on only that you felt like you were missing, that was like, "Oh, luxury. I don't know if I had another bag"?
Kayla: No, because I feel like the luxury items that I missed are things that I wouldn't have taken anyways, like a big floofy pair of sweatpants, or a floofy robe, or a floofy slippers, things that wouldn't have been in a bigger bag anyways.
Xandra: No floof?
Kayla: No floof, unfortunately. The more climate zones you have to go through, the more challenging it is. On that Latin America trip, I was mostly in hot places. I was in Cusco, in Peru, which is quite chilly because it's elevated. I always have base layers with me, but I did buy a little alpaca sweater while I was there also because it was quite chilly.
I always have a little down jacket also. I'm quite prepared to go through their climate zones. If I was going to go to Iceland or Canada in winter, for example, I would not have been equipped for that in a carry‑on bag unless I had just been carrying my coat around with me the whole time.
Things like that, I'm happy to make a one‑off purchase while there and leave behind, but there was nothing in particular I missed that was hard for me to even remember what I had put in the bigger bag before.
Xandra: I find a lot of just‑in‑case items get in. More often than not, you don't need them. If there is something you really need, there's usually a place to buy it from or someone to borrow it from. [laughs] I've had the same experience, Kayla, of like, "Would I have bought if I had a bigger bag?"
I do have a question for you ‑‑ you mentioned this a little bit in your book ‑‑ about souvenirs. Traveling light has changed my perspective on souvenirs. It has lifted the pressure from having to find something special to pick out.
What I'll typically get as souvenirs is, if anything, something small and consumable. I love to bring home a special pasta from Italy or a special tea from Oxford. Well, first of all, my bag smells like tea. That's kind of fun.[laughter]
Xandra: Also, it changes my perspective around like, "I need to have this, amass this collection of things from around the world to prove how cultured I am to I don't know whom." Instead, I like to bring home experiences. Do you buy souvenirs ever?
Kayla: That's a good question. I definitely used to. It was a thing. You would have to go souvenir shopping. Now when I travel and I see those high streets that have all of these souvenir shops, I'm like, "Who is buying this? What even is this? I can't believe I used to buy stuff like this." [laughs]
I do occasionally buy souvenirs. Like you, consumable souvenirs are my favorite, especially because for me, it's very unlikely that I'm going home after I leave a place. It's not like I can get something and take it with me on a plane and then put in in my home, because I do not have one.
Usually, it's a nice tea, or chocolate, or coffee, or something that I'm bringing. Occasionally, it's an item of clothing that I need. I knew that I wanted to buy an alpaca sweater when I was in Peru because everyone has and they were so cool.
That was something that I was looking forward to buying, and got it. It's quite light. It folds quite small so it could fit it in my bag, stuff like that. Sometimes I will get an actual physical souvenir, but it's never like I used to, like want to have a spoon or something.
Occasionally, it's a ceramic or a printer piece of art or something, but never something very souveniry. I am not really picky about what and where I buy, because I have so few things. If I had just stopped somewhere for a week, I probably won't buy. If somewhere hasn't been a special place to me, I probably won't buy.
Something that has been fun in recent years is that I now have some nieces and nephews. I can buy them fun little local toys and dolls and stuff and mail it back to them. That feels like if I am itching to buy something more souvenir that scratches that itch.
It's fun in it. I do love going to markets and stuff. Sometimes it's just an item of clothing, or a bag, or something that I don't even think about as a souvenir, but I suppose it is. Those can be nice things to buy as well.
Xandra: I still have from Krakow of last year, which is not even a Polish thing. I still have a phone charger that I had to buy because mine broke. Every time I charge my phone, I remember my chip. [laughs] That's maybe not the best example because it's not like this local artisan thing, but it is an object that triggers the memory.
Kayla: That's so important because you don't want a thing necessarily. What you want is to remember this happy time that you're having. It's obviously nice if you can support a local artist in our local economy, but I think what you want is something that's going to jog that memory.
Photos do that really well. I know you and I are both not on Facebook anymore.
I don't know about you, but my iPhone has now started telling me like, "Oh, it's been a year since this photo," doing that reminder thing, [laughs] which has been difficult in COVID, because I'm like, "Gosh. I was in Vietnam this time last year. I was in Peru two years ago."
For me, photos are just the number one souvenir, because that jogs my memory a lot. I definitely don't feel the need to buy things everywhere I go but phone charger is a great one, just something that's going to jog your memory.
Well, thank you so much. This has been a lovely little chat about nomadic and budget travel. My book, The Nomadic Budget Travel, is available on my website [laughs] arogayoga.com/books. You can also search for it on Amazon. Xandra also has a minimalist packing guide. If you're interested, it's on heroinetraining.com.
Xandra: Yes. There is a direct link at heroinetraining.com/pack. It is digital and takes up no physical space. There's my comprehensive guide to packing for short‑term, long term, whatever, whenever, you will need to pack things again.
My work and my writing is on heroine training as well. I was just thinking about how I am not on social media but I have these archives, this digital archive on my website dating back to 2012 that jogs my memory of like, "When was I, where was I."
I have these photos and writings that I've chronicled of my travels and how they've woven into my home experiences too.
Kayla: That's so lovely. I know we just finished. I love that idea of creation as your souvenir because I'm a writer and I love writing about it to jog memories.
I think for photographers, for videographers, for painters or artists, any kind of creator can create your own souvenir. That would include also all your feelings of the place at the time as well.
Xandra: What a beautiful note to end on. Thanks for wrapping that all up so nicely and for writing this great book. It's such both an enjoyable story to experience your travel, anecdotes and memories, and also a practical guide that gets me want to get out my pen and paper and start budgeting for the next time I can travel.
It feels like, "Yeah, I could stay on someone's couch."[laughter]
Kayla: Sometimes they have beds for you too, like [inaudible 21:40] .
Xandra: [inaudible 21:43] .
Kayla: The abilities are endless.
Xandra: I'll look for that.
Kayla: Thank you so much for this chat.
Xandra: Thank you.
Transcription by CastingWords