The End of Owning

This excerpt is from a mass email that I sent out to friends and family December, 2007. It was written shortly after I’d ditched everything I owned that didn’t fit in a backpack and set out from Chile with the goal of hitch-hiking to Alaska. I recently revisited the email while writing an article for on the subject with our ownership of stuff, and as it often is, our stuff’s ownership of us.

We live in a consumer driven society where our consumption of things tends to increase with our pay grade. Rarely do we say to ourselves, “I have enough, and don’t need anything more.”

What I found in Chile as I was casting aside the last of my belongings, was that the actual getting-rid of things was more difficult than deciding to ditch them. Below is an edited version of the email detailing why:


Hola Todos,

This is just a generic mass email update to indicate that Peru has decided to let me into their country (fools) and that I am currently in Tacna, Peru waiting for a bus.

My last days in Chile were spent saying goodbyes and trying to sell my excess things. The saying goodbye is boring and slightly emotional, so we won’t talk about that. The selling of my things ended up being mildly entertaining…mostly because no one wanted to buy my things. 

As I will be traveling in the next few months through some of South and all of Central America, I realized I had way too much stuff, and would need to get rid of many of my books, shoes and clothes. After some selling setbacks, I had one goal, to sell about 1,000 dollars in stuff for enough money to buy one cheap pair of sunglasses and three pairs of socks…preferably Nike, although after these setbacks I was even willing to settle for Puma socks…

So, a friend and I found ourselves in Valparaiso lugging two massive suitcases filled with the stuff I wanted to sell, trade, or barter away for some socks and sunglasses. In one of my attempts I walked up to a sunglass vendor on the street. I told him that while I did not have any money, I would be willing to trade him for a pair of sunglasses. He looked at me rather suspiciously, I was apparently the first gringo, or maybe person, to ever offer to trade him a suitcase of stuff for a $5 pair of sunglasses.

He didn’t say “no”, so i proceeded to begin unloading my suitcase in front of him showing him the many shoes and shirts I would give him for one pair of sunglasses. At this point a homeless man who had been passed out in the street sprang to life. He saw the open suitcase, the things, the trading, the opportunity to gain, and he stumbled over to me Frankenstein-ishly, and began grasping at my things. My friend and I took a step back, and another street vendor took a step forward to warn us “Have caution, he’s a dangerous, dangerous man!.” At this point the sunglass vendor wanted nothing to do with me, and I just wanted the homeless man to let go of my doc martin shoes which would have been too big for him anyways. So I handed him fifty pesos (a dime) and quickly put my things back into my suitcase and walked away disillusioned at my inability to trade $1,000 worth of things for a pair of $5 sunglasses.

After being turned down while trying to trade for socks, I had a new goal. Instead of trading my things for sunglasses and socks, I decided just to get rid of them so I could be finally free of them. The books we gave to dogs. Illiterate ones. For every sleeping dog we found in the street, we tucked a book under its arm. (These photos later became the Dog Literacy Project)

For the cloths and shoes, we had a more philanthropic vision of giving them to the poor and unfortunate. Unfortunately going to the poor neighborhoods lugging two big black suitcases is somewhat dangerous…very dangerous we were told when we asked, and it was also lunch time, and we were tired of carrying large suitcases in Valparaiso’s heat. So we ended up taking them to a park. On the way to the park we were warned twice that it was dangerous to carry our things in this neighborhood. Little did they now that we were secretly hoping to be robbed since our only goal was to get rid of these once valued possessions which had now been reduced to unwanted burdens not even worthy of a pair of socks. 

So on a park bench, I opened the suitcase and put everything in a neat pile. The Chileans looked at the two of us suspiciously from a distance; surely this was another crazy thing that gringos did that was as unexplainable as it was loco. 

I then wrote in large letters on a piece of paper “Gratis” or “Free” and put it on top of the pile, and left. In my ideal vision the Chileans would all gather around the pile of cloths, shoes and other things, and take one item. When we were about 20 feet, walking away from the pile, an obese man sprinted towards it. He picked up the sign and crumbled it into a ball, and then in his massively fat arms scooped up and made away with everything. Goal one, get rid of everything: accomplished. Goal two, convince South America that Americans is not a land of rich wasteful people: completely underminded.