When I quit my job in New York to go backpacking in South America, I agonized over what to pack. I couldn’t, for instance, not bring my Ferragamo flats, even if it meant ruining their soles on dirt paths and crumbling cobblestones. I certainly couldn’t leave behind my beloved red lipstick—I wanted it for nights out salsa dancing, or when I needed to feel myself. It was a reliable pick-me-up, an armor against insecurity. But I left behind everything else: my makeup bag full of OPI and Essie nail polishes in shades of red and gray and green, expensive top-coats with specks of gold glitter, black eyeliner and mascara and dozens of tubes of lipstick—neutral to crimson to pretty in pink. I’d left my satin gloves and pearl necklaces and flapper dresses.
Consciously, I’d decided to leave behind the New York fantasy I had built for myself, a fantasy built in no small part on clothes. Still, I refused to buy a pair of hiking shoes. I couldn’t stand the way they looked: clumsy, heavy, ugly mud brown.
I wore a v-neck t-shirt, jeans, and an old cardigan at the airport. I did not feel myself. I sat across a perfectly coiffed Colombian woman with a Hermès Birkin in her lap. I frantically texted my friend: I feel so underdressed. My hiking backpack, with its countless, messy straps, didn’t lend me an air of sophistication.
I love clothes. I always have. In the earliest days when fashion blogs were just beginning to sprout, I posted daily outfits to a Flickr group. Fashion was novel and exciting, and it was a way to distinguish myself. I loved losing myself in editorials, in beauty and glamour. I loved the transformative power of clothes, how changing your outfit meant changing your persona.
On the road, my aesthetic changed. It was a slow, subtle process. It became looser and easier the longer I was away. In New York I loved silk shirts and tailored blazers and pencil skirts. In South America, I bought feather earrings and macramé necklaces made from natural stones. My single pair of jeans became worn out with holes. I never put on my red lipstick. And I learned the depth of my mistake about the hiking shoes: I went hiking for the first time in the rocky, jagged mountains of Colombia wearing gym shoes that had tractionless white soles. It was completely miserable.
So I stopped worrying about it, and I got hiking shoes. There was so much more to do. There were hikes to go on and waterfalls to swim in and cities to explore. If anything, I wanted to play down my Western clothes. It was easier to explore Latin America as a young woman alone if I was less conspicuous, and so it was jeans and t-shirts and a local bag. On the nights I did go out with fellow travelers, everyone else was rumpled too. At least I had my Ferragamos. That was the only thing that tied me to the past, my fancy New York persona. Once, someone recognized the brand and laughed. They became worn down, too, holes on the toes, the heels. I took them to a cobbler in a small Peruvian city, and afterwards, the shoes looked industrial. I could have cried. I desperately missed my favorite cobbler in Williamsburg, who worked miracles restoring the shoes once every couple of months.
Still, there was a certain joy in abandoning myself to the world around me, which meant becoming a hippie. The travelers who dressed very well—the girls with heels in their backpack—were a different kind of traveler: prone to dancing and drinking in hostels full of Westerners, and not so much exploring dusty, neglected towns and mountains with unmarked trails alone.
After seven months of backpacking in South America, I came back to New York for a visit.
I felt shocked by the style all around me. I kept staring at clothes of strangers. I admired the gold buckles of boots and the sharp silhouettes of coats. I looked at stylish haircuts and dangling earrings. I’d been lost for so long in a world of Keen sandals and alpaca sweaters.
“You look exhausted,” a friend told me at dinner. We were at a West Village restaurant that served complicated classics: tiny corn dog appetizers paired with curated sauces. I felt the sting even as I smiled and said, oh, I’m not.
I was happy, actually, overwhelmed by the sudden return to the city, the Western world, but blissed-out from my travels. But then again: I wasn’t wearing makeup. My t-shirt had holes in the neckline. My woven bag from Colombia was tattered and pilled.
It shouldn’t have mattered. But so much of my identity as a New Yorker had been built around a certain attitude, a certain look. It alarmed me that, so quickly, I’d become a stranger.
So I left again. Traveling in Asia, I became fully unrecognizable in comparison to old selfies: me with lush bangs, cat eyeliner. On the road, sometimes I’d dig up the photos and show them to the people I met. What happened, a man in China exclaimed. He was not enthusiastic about my short hair, my makeup-free face. In big cities in China, it set me apart as an outsider, where most young women looked like dolls in pastel-hued dresses. Sometimes, I got the hippie approval. A rock climber in Yangshuo told me it suited me better. Mostly, I agreed.
Nearly two years after I first left, I moved back to New York. I didn’t think I’d stay—I only intended to visit before heading off on another trip. But then I fell back in love with the city, and I couldn’t go.
This time, I had only my backpacking clothes (all of it fit inside one tote bag). For the winter, I bought just one new thing: a black wool coat that I wore every day. Remarkably, my backpacker clothes served just as well in NYC.
This time, I found the balance between two worlds that once felt contradictory. Now, I wear clothes until they are absolutely undone. Half of my wardrobe comes from my travels: oversized cotton shirts and long linen skirts, pashmina scarves and wool shawls from China, Peru, Nepal. I’m still fond of clothes that let you walk long hours and sleep on couches, clothes for grass and sand and mountains, clothes that are quickly washable and not so delicate. And I’ve also grown fond, again, of my city shoes and fancy jewelry: leather oxfords and loafers with intricate beading, a ring of diamonds and rose gold.
The only thing I’ve left behind for good is the performance of beauty. When my friends tell me about new hair treatments or shopping trips to Sephora, I listen blankly. But then, still, some days, I curl my lashes, sweep on blush, and put on tinted lip balm. But I don’t spend too much time before the mirror. Instead, I go for long walks in neighborhoods I don’t know, and turn my face up to the sun.
Laura Yan is a writer, wanderer, and sketcher of strangers. She does not know where she is going next. She tweets @noirony.
Photos via Laura Yan.
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