Tag Archives: Travel

TIA: This is Africa

Long bus rides may not be the most pleasant experience, but it’s usually not difficult to merely buy a bus ticket, right? Well, not everywhere. As Leonardo DiCaprio says in Blood Diamond, “TIA, right mate? This is Africa.”

Chris and I arrived in Johannesburg on a November Sunday around one in the afternoon. We took the metro to Hatfield, a student-centered suburb of Pretoria, and opened our Coast to Coast backpacking book, a pocket-sized, pink- and purple-striped guide to hostels in SA, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, and Lesotho. There was one hostel listed in Pretoria, on Arcadia Street. We asked the first guy we saw, a young, long-haired and bearded backpacker type, where it was. He said it was near but he wasn’t sure where. Then, he did something strange.

He fixed us with a steely gaze and said, “You should take a cab. I wouldn’t walk around with backpacks like that, looking like tourists. I wouldn’t really walk anywhere, actually. Welcome to South AfricaThis is South Africa. You’ll be mugged.”  Sufficiently scared out of our wits, we said thanks, and walked across the street to ask a taxi driver to take us to the address, and he said it would be 50 rand (about $7). Now, in the US, seven bucks for a cab ride is chump change. But in South Africa, you never accept the first price.  We said we’d pay him 30, but he refused.  We walked away in hopes he’d call us back, falling over himself apologizing and offering us a ride for 35 or 40 rand. But he let us walk.

Just then, a car pulled up beside us. We backed away. Cars pulling up beside you near Johannesburg is the kind of thing you read in newspaper stories under headlines like “American Backpackers Still Missing.”  The window opened, and the shaggy-haired guy we saw before stuck his head out. His dad, driving the car, had a classical guitar performance at three, and it was currently 2:15, so he had just enough time to drop us off.

We arrived at the hostel, and were greeted by the lovely Yzelle and Maj (pron. Mae), who generously offered us the private room for the same price as the dorm, because they had had their first theft at the hostel a week before and feared for people’s safety. This was the second robbery comment in the past 15 minutes, and Chris and I began to seriously doubt what we were doing hanging around there.

But, when in Africa, as in life, you can’t just shy away from challenges. And anyway, we wanted to book a bus to Nelspruit, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthe gateway to Kruger National Park, home to the largest concentration of safari wildlife on the planet. Yzelle and Maj told us that, since it was Sunday, the ticket office was closed, but that we could still buy the tickets on Computicket.com, a third-party site like Ticketmaster.

We found a bus leaving Pretoria at 7:15 the next morning, and booked it using my credit card. The fine print at the end of the confirmation page read, “Please pick up tickets using the credit card of purchase and a photo ID at any supermarket counter, as tickets purchased on Computicket cannot be picked up at the bus station.” Chris and I looked at each other, stunned.

I called Computicket to explain the situation, hoping they’d come riding in on their silver stallions to save the day, just like any respectable American business would do.  The recorded voice answered the phone.

“Our offices are open from Monday to Saturday, and are closed on Sunday.”

TIA, mate.

We asked Yzelle and Maj if we could just pick the tickets up at the station if we explained what happened. They shook their heads. “If you had bought the ticket on the bus company’s website, you could have picked it up at the station.”

We started. Why did they tell us to book the ticket on Computicket, then?

To further the problem, in South Africa, bus tickets are commonly sold at the lotto ticket counter in supermarkets, as the recorded voice had said. Why? TIA. The only solution now was to get to the supermarket. We asked Yzelle and Maj where the nearest supermarket was.

“They’re all closed, I think. It’s three forty-five, and they all close at three on Sundays.”

By now, we were fuming mad. We thought that picking up the tickets the next morning was our only option. The metro opened at 5 AM. Good. But the supermarkets opened at 8. There was no way we would be able to pick up our tickets in time to catch the 7:15 bus.

“Except…” Yzelle began, “there IS a Shop Rite that’s open until 8 today down at the Menlyn Mall. You could try there.”

“Great, where’s that?” I asked.

“About 12 kilometers down the road.”

I stood with my mouth agape. I checked the map. There was Menlyn mall, all the way in the bottom right-hand corner of the map.  A taxi ride would have cost 70 Rand (9 bucks) each way, or we could walk the 8 miles, or we could try to hitchhike. Chris was steaming, slamming his hands on the bed in our room, furious that the good deal we got on the room was now ruined by heinous bureaucracy. There had to be another way.

I asked Maj if there was a bike I could borrow. She took one out, a small mountain bike built more like a tank, with a seat and handlebars meant for someone six inches shorter than me, and an old enough model that you needed a screwdriver to adjust the bars or seat, provided you could even turn it through the rusty metal caked to the columns.

I looked at this sad excuse for a bike, its chain hanging limp from the gears.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

I fixed the chain, tested the brakes (the rear brake was almost nonexistent, the front one strong – not the combination you want), and set out to bike it. 8 miles was nothing. I’d done forty before, plenty of times. I wrapped my credit card in two bills – a fifty and a ten – and, remembering what the shaggy haired guy said about not going anywhere for fear of being mugged, stuck it in my underwear.

The first danger I encountered was that in South Africa, they drive on the left. Obviously, this also means that you ride your bike on the left, and use your right hand to signal. This was a test of my concentration and balance, especially since the rear, safer brake was still located by my right hand. I navigated the first few turns on side streets near the hostel until I felt comfortable making tight left turns and wide, sweeping rights. It was weird, but I got the hang of it. Eventually, though, I had to turn onto the main road.

I rode along in the left hand lane, a bizarre feeling if I’ve ever had one, and got buzzed by two successive cars, each one passing within six inches of me. It dawned on me that mugging might not be the only unsafe thing about South Africa. Also, I wasn’t wearing a helmet, a big no-no. I immediately moved up to the curb, and, in poor cyclist etiquette, rode past pedestrians on the sidewalk the rest of the way.

Forty-five minutes later, I locked my bike up at the Menlyn Park mall and walked in to “Entrance 7.” There was no giant “Directory” sign like you see in the US, and the information booth was empty. With at least seven entrances, it was going to take me hours to find the Shop Rite. I stopped a young couple and asked where the supermarket was. They pointed over my shoulder.

“Right there!” the guy said, with a laugh.

I smacked my palm to my forehead, said thanks, and headed over to a supermarket called Checker. It wasn’t Shop Rite, but I had picked up bus tickets at Checkers before, so I knew it would be ok.

Twelve glass doors stared at me, spanning the front of the store under the enormous sign. The eleven on the right were closed, and a middle aged lady in an official Checker uniform was ushering a long line of shoppers out of the door on the far left. I walked up.

“The store’s closed,” she said.

No. No! It couldn’t be closed! This was our only way to get the tickets.  I told her I was just picking up tickets, that I had bought them already and just needed five minutes. She said sorry, the store was closed and I’d have to come back tomorrow. I started to launch into my story of the early bus and the supermarkets not being open in time, but she just shook her head and pointed for me to leave.

Disgusted, I knew I had to think fast. I found a security guard and asked where the Shop Rite was. Yzelle and Maj said it was open until 8.

“There’s no Shop Rite here. Only Checker.”

I gritted my teeth, thanked the man, and marched back to the far left door of Checker, determined to talk my way into this or die trying. As an English teacher, I have faith in my ability to talk my way into and out of just about anything. I’m good at persuasive arguments and Socrates’ rhetorical appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos. If ever there was a time to pull out all the stops, this was it.

Once again, I pleaded with her. It would take two minutes, but I HAD to get those tickets. It was of the utmost importance for national security and the stability of the space-time continuum, or something. I don’t really recall what I said, but I do remember that she frowned at me.

“Go quickly,” she said, pointing to her left. “The counter’s over there.”

I ran across forty checkout lines until I arrived at the lotto counter. I asked for my tickets, and slapped my credit card down on the desk.

“Photo ID?” the woman asked.

I stuck my hand into my, well, the side of my underwear, and pulled out the fifty and the ten. No license. No passport.

“I don’t have my photo ID,” I said, letting the sweaty, crumpled bills fall lazily on the counter.

The woman looked at the money. “No photo ID, no ticket.” I died a little inside. I fished around in my mind for what to do. And then I remembered: TIA. A little bribe never hurt anybody. I had heard a story that morning from a guy who had given us a lift to Pretoria that he had gotten stopped by a cop for driving without a license, a serious offense with a penalty of 1,000 rand ($133) among other things. He had slipped seven rand (a buck) out of his pocket, handed it to the cop, and the cop said, “Have a nice day,” got in his squad car, and drove away.

Pushing the money across the counter, I pleaded my case. I could tell her the names and birthdays of both passengers, the route, and the departure and arrival times of the bus, even sign my signature to match it to my credit card, but I HAD to get those tickets.

She considered it for a moment. “I have to ask my supervisor.”

She said something in Afrikaans, one of the official languages of South Africa, a mix between Dutch, German, English, and French, and the supervisor turned to me.

“Sir, are you telling me that I have to lose my job just so you can have two bus tickets?”

“No, no,” I said, explaining the situation once again.

“There’s a lot of credit card fraud in this country, sir. I can’t let you do that.”

I pleaded, glancing at the soggy sixty rand still sitting on the counter. It looked less like a good bribe now than when I had pulled it out.

She narrowed her eyes and asked me where I was from. “The USA,” I said.

“I can tell from your accent.”

She proceeded to ask me what I was doing in South Africa, how I liked it, how long I had been here and when I was going home, no doubt checking my story for legitimacy, to see if I had to fish around for details or if I would slip up and not be able to answer the questions. They came a mile a minute, but I stayed cool under pressure and answered every one.  “Travelling, great and beautiful country, about two weeks, and unsure, because heading to Mozambique and Malawi soon.”

She still wasn’t convinced. “I promise you,” I said, “the bus leaves Pretoria at 7:15 tomorrow and arrives in Nelspruit at 12:55 in the afternoon.”

“I’ll have to check that the bus leaves when you say it leaves,” she said.

Finally, a break.

The supervisor typed something into a computer, and saw that, indeed, the bus would leave at 7:15 and arrive at 12:55.

She looked at me. The supervisor looked at me. I looked at the soggy underwear cash on the counter.

She held my credit card up to her face with one hand and handed me a blank slip of paper with the other. “Sign here,” she said.

I did so, my looping, sweeping signature exactly matching what I knew was on the back of my card.

She considered the two, and spouted a long string of Afrikaans to the lady behind the counter, the only word of which I caught was one that sounded like “Forge.”

“Yeah,” I said, smiling. “You can’t forge that signature.”

The lady smiled. “No, you certainly can’t.  Here are your tickets.”

She printed them out, wished me a nice trip, and like a miracle, we were on our way. Anything was possible now.



Incredible, Indelible India

Today marks a month since I’ve entered India. It’s a long time, to be sure, but as most western travelers say when I tell them, “Really? Only a month?” Apparently, the “thing to do” is to get a six month visa and spend the entirety of it traveling around this huge, varied country. And with so many different places to go, different culture, food, even languages, it’s something I’d love to do. But for now, I’ll be content with my six weeks. Even in that amount of time, India has already left a unique mark on me.

Not a day goes by in India without three distinct things happening: 1) Almost getting killed by crazy drivers, 2) Seeing an Indian wobble his head, 3) Having someone ask you if you’re married. Let me explain.

The stereotypes we maintain in the west about crazy taxi drivers really snaps itself into focus after you come here. I can’t speak for the crazy taxi drivers from the middle east, but for Indians, as it was for the Chinese when I visited a few years back, the lines in the road are merely suggestions. The normal way to make a turn is to drive heedlessly into the path of oncoming traffic while honking your horn incessantly. These other drivers, rather than getting mad like their western counterparts undoubtedly would, merely swerve around you on either side, those who can make it in front of you going in front, those who you’re likely to cut off going behind, like water parting around a rock. There might be seven or eight vehicles (rickshaws, bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, cars, trucks, pedestrians, elephant riders, and horsemen) facing different directions in any one intersection, all weaving around one another and the crowd of cows grazing on rotten fruit. Hardly anyone stops and there are almost no accidents and no gridlock. Somehow, the chaos works. And New York City traffic just got a whole lot clearer.

The head-wobble is a distinctly Indian movement. The nonverbal communication here is unique and varied, and it takes a while to get used to. A sharp, diagonal nod of the head means “yes”, and it’s sometimes given with the word “yes” and sometimes without. A shaking of the head side to side (a Western “no”) can mean either yes or no, depending on their facial expression. Many times, if I’m asking someone about the rules of cricket (which I do often, since there are so many and I’m still learning how it all works), they’ll shake their head throughout my explanation. When I finish, they don’t say anything. This invariably leads me to ask, “So, is that right?” Then I’ll get a diagonal nod, like “Duh, didn’t you see me agreeing with you?”

But the head wobble is the best of all. Side to side, up and down, and around in a circle all at the same time, it’s the same motion that a bobble-head doll makes when you flick it in its oversized noggin. People have explained to me that this means, “I understand,” or “ok,” or that they agree with you. Sometimes I say agreeable things just to watch them do it. It’s fascinating.

If countries had national questions, India would have two. The first would be, “Which country?” This heinous fragment tacitly passes as a sentence in India, and is usually asked after some typical intrusive Indian activities like:

A) Five minutes of staring at you

B) Holding their camera up to take pictures of you from six feet away and then actually posing when you do the same to try to make them uneasy. Everyone ends up smiling.

C) Sending each member of a 25-member family up to your side to take the same picture of you with every single person in the family in front of either a blank wall or the Taj Mahal or a pile of samosas.

D) Staring over your shoulder as you read a book, check your email, eat a mango, or the most interesting activity of all, look around at stuff.

E) Giving you directions like “straight” even if they have no idea where the hotel/restaurant/river/tea stall you inquired about is located. Indians are so polite, that rather than saying, “I don’t know,” they’ll send you all over town looking for a hotel that is twenty feet around the corner from the shop they’ve owned for thirty-five years, but still don’t know about.

The second, and I think, most popular question in India is, “Are you married?” When I answer that no, I’m not married, and furthermore I’m 28 and don’t have a girlfriend either, they look at me with what can only be described as something akin to anaphylactic shock.

Marriage is a serious business in India, with the newspaper the Hindustan Times even containing a “Matrimonials” section that looks like any old Classified section that you’ve ever seen. Ads run like “23 yr f, pretty, dark eyes, thin, Brahmin, Hindu, working for computer company Mumbai, seeks man from good family with steady job in business/law.” The stranger thing? Far more arranged marriages end up working out than “love marriages.” Many Indians I’ve talked to, even young, English-speaking, western-dressed ones, say that they want to have an arranged marriage. Many others say they want a love marriage, of course, but I’ve heard so many times that they trust their parents, that their older sibling had a love marriage end in divorce, that they just don’t want to deal with the hassle and uncertainty, so they’ll get an arranged marriage and it will work out.

They are even more mystified by the fact that men and women can live together without being married. This is a big no-no in India, despite being a near requirement of western couples to see if things can work out. In India, they say they just learn to adjust and it will work out in the end. And for the most part, they’re right.

I could go on and on about India – I’ve had so many interesting encounters here. I’ve met a gypsy musician, a three-toed, blind sadhu, a fifteen-year-old savant tabla player, a Kashmiri horseman, an overweight man who owns a bakery (but apparently not shoes) that only makes gulab jamun, and countless others whose lives differ in so many ways from our own.

This trip has been solely in northern India: Kashmir, Rajasthan, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh. Someday, I definitely am coming back to the south. And sure, India is exactly as you think it will be: dirty, crowded, hot, chaotic, dazzlingly colorful, naturally beautiful, kind, religious, traditional with modern western influence, culturally diverse, and delicious. In short, it’s just too interesting a place not to.

Pictures from the Trip So Far

Here are some of my favorite shots from our trip so far, all from South Africa up to this point.

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What To Pack for a Year on the Road

I’ve heard them all: the economy’s bad, you should get a secure job; Africa’s dangerous, go to Europe; if you save up now, you can go anywhere you want when you retire.

My response has been consistent: thanks, but no thanks.  I know what life expects you to do, and what people tell you to do, but I also know that you only get one life.  We’re put on this earth for around 80 years, and we’ve only got one shot to make it a fulfilling one. One that we’ll look back on with reverence.

I’m about to embark on an adventure that is solely what I want it to be, and I’ll figure the rest out when I get back.  The trip is an open-ended (read: one-way ticket), 8-12 month trek that will take me and my friend Chris from South Africa up the east coast of Africa to Ethiopia, and then to India, the Himalayas, some of the Stans, China, and Southeast Asia.

So if I’m not worrying about a job, dangers of the road, or spending money while I’m young, I’ve got to be worried about something, right?  As it turns out, I am.  What exactly do you pack for a year on the road?

There are hundreds of opinions out there, from what kind of backpack to buy to the amount and types of clothing to bring to the types of preparations you should make before setting off. I’ve thought and researched long and hard about this, and I’m going to give you a rundown of what I’m bringing. I think it’s a comprehensive list that will serve me, or you, just fine.

The Backpack

My backpack. My home. An Osprey Kestrel 38 (as in 38 liters)

The backpack is the heart of all travelers’ gear. It’s basically your snail’s shell for the entirety of your trip, so you want it to be something comfortable, accessible, and easy to manage. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of packs on the market, all purporting to help you with this feature or that. The Kestrel 38 is by no means the be-all, end-all of packs, but it works well for me. First of all, 38 liters is about the upper limit of what can be considered a carry-on bag on most budget airlines. Read: budget. On some larger airlines, I’ve seen people stuff what look like Jeeps into the overhead compartments. This is partially due to the new checked bag fees, which, using a 38 L pack, I’ll be avoiding. This is because on a budget trip, I’ll be flying with cheap airlines like RyanAir, IndiGo, and AirAsia, which dramatically limit what you can bring. With a pack this size, I’ll never have to worry about some baggage handlers throwing my stuff around. The pack also has a built-in rain cover that folds out of the front compartment. This is invaluable on long trips, when it will inevitably rain, so that I don’t have to worry about my things getting soaked, and then spending days waiting for everything to dry so it doesn’t get moldy. Two zipper pockets on the hip belt are a nice plus, as is a zipper at the bottom so I can access my gear from the top or the bottom.

For those of you looking at that picture and thinking, Are you crazy? How can you fit all your gear for an entire year in that tiny little pack?, let me just say that the number one thing that happens on any trip is always overpacking. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten to the end of a trip and spent one day specifically wearing and using all the things I hadn’t worn or used yet just to justify the fact that I brought them in the first place.  On a year-long trip, extra stuff means extra weight. I want to bring as little as possible. If I’m really hard-up for some item, I can always pick it up on the road, which is better than bringing something I like but don’t need and then having to decide between carrying the extra weight the whole trip or jettisoning something I really don’t want to lose. Think about it: people live in these countries. Do they freeze to death at night?

Socks and Underwear (and Toilet Paper)

Socks, underwear, and the invaluable "emergency toilet paper"

I’ve brought six pairs of underwear and eight pairs of socks, all (except the one pictured) stuffed into these little sacks. One sack is a water bottle holder, and the other is a towel bag. The underwear is Under Armour, quick-drying and sturdy, which is so important on a long trip. The socks are part merino wool, part nylon, part polyester. Two of the eight pairs are heavy-duty hiking socks. The last thing you want on a long trip is cotton, which holds water, gets heavy, grows mold, and stinks to high heaven. Not that these microfibers don’t smell (trust me), but in a pinch, I can wash them and hang them up to dry overnight, which would never happen with cotton. By stuffing everything in these tiny sacks, I can keep them separate during the trip and never lose anything in the deep recesses of my pack, something that is far more common than I’d like it to be.

The emergency toilet paper is something my dad taught me always to bring, because “you never know when you’re going to need toilet paper.” Amen, dad. I can say that, from experience, this has come in handy more than any other single item I’ve ever packed. In many countries, you have to bring your own toilet paper to the bathroom. That’s reason enough to bring some. But in addition to that, it can be used to wrap cuts so you don’t have to ruin a shirt, can act as extra padding for a foot blister if you run out of bandaids, and can be used as tissues or a rudimentary wash cloth if need be.

Shirts and Pants

I'm too sexy for my shirts (and pants)

The key to shirts is multiple uses. I want things I can layer. Giant wool sweaters are nice, but unless you’re going exclusively to a cold climate and are going to be wearing them the whole time, they’re heavy and take up too much space. In total, I have four microfiber shirts: two long-sleeve crew neck, one long-sleeve with a collar and a half-zip, and one tee-shirt. The collar can help to keep the sun off my neck, and the long sleeves can easily be rolled up to form makeshift tee shirts. I have two button-down shirts, likewise with collar and rollable sleeves, that can double as nicer, going-out shirts if I need. Tee shirts aren’t exclusively American, but most other cultures wear collars more often than we do. Even if, at 6’2″, I’ll never blend in to the crowd in Mozambique, at least I’ll look classy when I stick out.  I have a pair of long-john thermals that roll up really small, which will be great as a base layer on cold, mountain mornings, and a pair of convertible pants that zip off to become shorts. I really don’t love these kind of pants, but they’re useful, dry quickly, and are as good as anything for a hike. I have one more pair of nicer brown pants, pictured below with a few special items.

What to Wear on the Plane

What I'm wearing on the plane

Planes can get cold, so always wear a fleece or jacket, or both, as well as long pants and shoes, on a plane. Even if you’re flying from Miami to Cancun for a week on the beach, the worst thing you can do is wear shorts, flip flops, and a tank top on the plane. When you get up to 30,000 feet, you’ll be regretting packing those warmer clothes away.

Here is one of the long-sleeved shirts I mentioned before, the nicer pair of brown pants, a handkerchief, a belt, underwear, socks, a raincoat, and a lightweight fleece. The fleece is the perfect layer of warmth for cool, crisp nights, and makes for a good layer under other, warmer clothes. The raincoat has a zipper inside that can hook into a mid-weight fleece for added warmth.

Warmth, Sleep, and Cleanliness

Fleece attachment to raincoat, towel, little blue sleeping bag liner

Here’s the fleece. It’s not too snazzy on its own, but it’s warm, zips into my rain coat, and truthfully, form takes a back seat to function on this kind of trip. I highly recommend a microfiber towel, the kind that claim to absorb ten thousand times their weight in water. They really do absorb quite a bit for their size, and they dry relatively quickly. This is an absolute must if you’re traveling. I’m bringing the silk sleeping bag liner in lieu of a sleeping bag. For one, you can see the size difference. It’s also an easy way to keep myself off of suspect sheets at budget hostels, help protect my legs and arms from malaria-bearing mosquitoes at night, and add a small layer of warmth. Most people like the peace of mind of feeling a sheet over them when they sleep. This does just that, and for far less space than a sleeping bag. Silk is also, pound for pound, stronger than steel, so it passes the test for holding up on the road.

Yay! Swimming!

Bathing suit and sleep shorts, all in one

A bathing suit is always an essential item. And on a long trip where space is an issue, these will be long and comfortable enough to double as sleeping shorts, so that I don’t have to pack an extra pair of basketball shorts for a single purpose. The best part? If they get dirty from being used every day, I can just wash them while I’m taking a shower, and they’ll dry in no time.

Hats, Hankies, and Help

Hats, handkerchiefs, a dry bag, and chargers

I’m bringing a baseball hat (New York Mets, of course) for general use: sun shield, casual dress, and of course, bad hair days. The bucket hat offers even more sun protection, although it looks dorkier, and the wool beanie will be perfect for cold nights. I always pack my chargers (for iPod, camera, etc.) in a cardboard box (this one is from an old cell phone) because it has enough structural integrity to hold together even when in the middle of a backpack. The dry bag is a safeguard – if I leave my backpack at a hostel and go hiking with a smaller, shoulder bag, I can put any electronics inside the dry bag while I’m on the hike. Handkerchiefs (or bandanas) are some of the most versatile, reusable items you can pack. They can replace tissues, keep your hair out of your eyes like a headband, be tied around your head as a sleeping mask to keep the light out, function as a clean plate for a sandwich on a hike (and a napkin!), wrap a cut if emergency toilet paper just isn’t strong enough, and serve as a better washcloth than toilet paper, too.

All the Little Things You Don’t Want to Forget

Miscellaneous, and very useful, items

Here’s a camera case for my digital camera and camcorder, a simple black and white composition notebook with a pen, a Kindle with over 100 books on it, a deck of cards, and iPod touch with headphones and a microphone, two smaller note pads, a money belt, a duct tape wallet, sunglasses, a frisbee, a padlock, and a “survival kit in a sardine can.” Okay, let’s take these one by one. A digital camera and camcorder (Flip video) are not essential, but everyone seems to take them, and of course, who wouldn’t want documented records of their trip to some degree? The reason I got the Flip was its size, a little longer and a little thinner than that of a deck of cards. I’m not shooting BBC’s Planet Earth here, so the quality of the video compared to the size is about as good as you can find on the market. The camera is a compact digital, one that offers 18x optical zoom, as well as a 28mm, wide-angle option, all while fitting into your pocket. A great travel camera if I’ve ever seen one. I’m also bringing mini tripods for both, and spare memory cards.

The notebooks are invaluable for writing down train/bus schedules, contact info of people you meet on the road, and generally just journaling. The smaller ones can fit in a pocket, while the bigger one is good for days spent lounging and writing. The frisbee and cards are necessary diversions for a long trip, and the money belt is useful, tied around the waist under the shirt (or better, under your pants) to keep spare cash and your passport away from hit-and-run snatchers. The padlock works with a length of wire to tie my backpack to a railing on a bus or a bedpost in a hostel.  The way I think of it is, if someone is going to mug you, they’re going to mug you, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. But you can take basic precautions to deter petty theft, of which there will be far more than violent crime.

Sunglasses are necessary, of course, polarized being better than not to keep the glare from the ocean, snow, or lakes out of your eyes.  The duct tape wallet is good for a bit of cash that you can theoretically hand over to anyone who asks for your wallet, while keeping all your cards in your real wallet. I’ve never had to use this, and also am making the assumption that someone will hold you up for it rather than just rip it out of your pocket, but it takes up no space and can’t hurt.

The iPod touch is the best little item I’ve ever purchased. It gives me the internet in my pocket (provided there’s wireless) and a calculator, a place for photos from home, and a pocket full of music to keep me entertained during the trip. The microphone on the headphones is key, too, because that lets me use the Skype app when wireless is available, and make phone calls right from my iPod. The sardine can, well… the link above says it better than I ever could.

Don’t Forget a Folder

Folder for important papers

A little folder comes in handy to keep papers (flight/hostel reservations, your itinerary, passport photocopies, etc.) separate. I also have this little yellow book that’s a proof of vaccinations. Many countries require you to show proof of vaccination against Yellow Fever or other diseases in order to be granted an entry visa. This yellow book, or a similar card, is an international standard. I’ve chosen a half-sized, envelope folder. I’ll have to fold all my papers in half, but I still think it will take up less space than a full-sized, 8.5×11 folder.

Stuff Sacks

What cute little bags!

Here are a bunch of little bags I’ve taken from a variety of places: a hot cocoa pouch, a whiskey bottle, and another whiskey bottle. In these, just like in my underwear and sock bags, I’ve stuffed a variety of items. In the purple bag is health: basic medicine, like cortisone cream, Neosporin, ibuprofen, acetominophen, and band-aids. The green, Santa bag, is sleep: a headlamp, eye mask, ear plugs, and mini alarm clock. The brown bag is laundry: 25 feet of twine, six clothes pins, and six dice to play with. Okay, the dice aren’t laundry, but they can’t fit inside a playing card box. The little black box is for the e’s: eyes and electric. Spare contact lenses and adaptor plugs for all the regions I’m traveling to. Note that adaptor plugs only fit a plug into a socket – they don’t convert the current. That’s another thing: these days, many electronic items come in 110v/220v form, so they’re not exclusive to the USA’s wimpy 110 volt system. The days of power converters is coming to an end, so if you can buy an item that works with both voltages, buy it, and avoid the extra weight and space of a converter. Sadly, not all of my electronics work at both voltages, but most of them do, so adaptor plugs are all I’ll need. Lastly, a small roll of duct tape is always good to have. It can be used to remove warts, waterproof a bandage, act as its own bandage, wrap a splint around a limb, repair tears in bags or mosquito nets, hold broken shoes together, and much more. It’s one of the most versatile items on the planet.

Don’t Forget Your Bathroom Stuff

All the bathroom stuff

Toothbrush, deodorant, razor, floss, etc. I don’t need to go into all that, but I should say that the bathroom bag you bring should have a hanging hook. This will make it easy to bring everything you need at once, especially when (often) there is no counter space. Some Dr. Bronner’s magic soap works as soap, shampoo, toothpaste (in a pinch), laundry detergent, and a variety of other uses, and you only need a drop or two for a good lather. The peppermint is a favorite of mine because it’s so fresh that it wakes you right up like you’ve just been given smelling salts. It’s hands-down the best soap I’ve ever used. Contact lens solution is essential (Costco sells a huge three-pack of Kirkland brand for 8 bucks), and malaria pills (doxycycline) are a must, unless, of course, you want to take your chances with malaria. I’d rather admit my feeble humanity and take the precaution.

The Great Shoe Debate

Keep footwear simple!

Look, even as a guy, I own tons of shoes. Sneakers, nicer walking shoes, sports sandals, flip flops, dressy leather sandals, slippers, snow boots, hiking boots, and on and on. These are the hardest things to pack, because A) they don’t fold, and B) they’re heavier than clothes. But think about it: if you really had to wear only two or three pairs of shoes, could you do it? I’d say so. I’m going with a pair of lightweight, hiking trail shoes. They feel like sneakers and have great treads, as you can see.  I can’t play basketball in them, but then again, they’re great for grass sports like soccer. Flip flops will give me something nice and simple to wear around the hostel to give my feet a chance to rest. If it turns out that I absolutely need sneakers, I can always grab a pair. But having size 13 feet really makes shoes one of the hardest things to justify packing.

So, that’s it. A small pack, a few layered items of clothing, and some miscellaneous stuff to entertain me and keep me clean and healthy along the way. I hope I’ve got everything I need. One thing I can say, though, is I’ll feel far more happy with what I packed and how I look and feel, even if I have to buy something on the road, than those people with the giant, 70+ liter packs who look more like pack mules than travelers.

I hope this gives everyone some insight into a well-planned packing job, and inspires some of you to live with less, even if it’s in the comfort of your own homes. Getting rid of my unneeded possessions has been one of the most cathartic things I’ve ever done. As for me, first stop: Cape Town, South Africa, where it’s approaching summer. I’ll check in from the road!