how to

Nomadism, Travel Advice

How to Pack One Bag for Life (What’s in my Backpack)

It’s been two years that I’ve lived out of one bag.

In two weeks I will take a second (small) suitcase with me to Cape Town, so I might as well write this while it’s still true.

One of you lovely readers asked me what’s in my bag, and I’m glad you did, because packing lists are one of my favorite things to write. I’m serious. Growing up, I would start making my list weeks before family vacations; I started packing pretty far in advance, too. I’ve stopped making lists (but kept the habit of packing way too early), so this is a fun throwback.

A few caveats:

I chase the sun. If you expect your life to include winter, you’ll need more warm things.

I have my hobbies, you have yours. Your “extras” will likely be completely different from mine.

I leave things, give things away and pick things up near-continuously. It is useful to have friends and family, in whose basements, attics and closets you can leave things you don’t want to let go of but don’t want to carry with you (especially books). It is also useful to get used to giving away something old to make room for something new.

I carry many extraneous items. I suggest it to you, too, even if it’s impractical. It’s the difference between going on vacation and carrying “home” with you.

I will write this packing list like I write recipes—Italian style, not-too-specific, and with room for creative interpretation.

I’ve split the following list into (I think) logical sections. I hope it may help someone pack for a nomadic existence, a long backpacking trip or an extended stint abroad. At the very least, I hope it will give you a glimpse into the very practical side of long-term vagabonding, and make you smile.

One Bag for Life

For when it gets chilly:

  • Bright blue wool socks for which your friends will mercilessly mock you
  • A shower-resistant outer shell (when it rains, you will wish it were rain-resistant too)
  • Bright blue fleece, because there’s no such thing as too much turquoise
  • Sturdy boots/shoes (right now I have trail shoes, but sometimes I opt for boots)
  • A sweater, preferably stolen from a friend

For all the time:

  • 1 pair hiking pants
  • 1 pair yoga pants
  • 1 pair “Toby pants” (also known as harem pants by those who don’t know me)
  • 1 pair jeans/passably normal pants
  • X pairs socks and underwear (how many? it depends how often you want to do laundry…)
  • 5-6 shirts (some for hiking, some for exercise, and some for normal person-ing)
  • 1 bathing suit
  • Toiletries (pure argan, coconut or almond oil, natural bar soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, tea tree oil, natural deodorant, comb, nail clippers, lip balm, sunblock—yes, that’s it!)
  • First aid kit (which you will never use but carry around forever “just in case”)
  • Sunglasses and glasses
  • Passport, expired driver’s license, bank card, and other assorted bits of paper that sometimes come in handy
  • Birkenstock sandals
  • Reusable bags (for food-shopping, beach day-ing, or hanging on doorknobs to look at and wonder why you’re carrying so many extra bags)
  • Sarong, which serves equally well as scarf, towel and pillow cover

Because I’m a woman who likes dresses:

  • 1 long skirt.
  • 2 dresses, neither of which are as practical as they should be, and one bright red

Me-specific things (yours will be different):

  • Yoga mat (I’ve gone with Manduka’s travel mat—it doesn’t get any lighter, it also doesn’t get any less cushioned)
  • Climbing shoes
  • Dance shoes (the super lightweight practice kind—heels are heavy!)
  • Books (rotating; right now The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, a book of Italian fairy tales by Carlo Collodi, and Bushido’s Way of the Warrior)
  • Notebooks and many, many pens (you will lend them to people and not get them back, so it’s good to have 5-10 on hand at any given time)
  • Laptop (for work; if you don’t work online, maybe skip the laptop—it’s a hassle)
  • Sleeping bag (and sometimes, but not right now, tent or camping hammock)

Unnecessary but still important things:

  • A large quartz crystal
  • A large quantity of jewelry
  • A large camera
  • Smartphone (for staying up-to-date with loved ones and total strangers)
  • Gifts (for people in the next place you’re heading)
  • Oversized purple headphones
  • Smaller-sized purple headphones
  • Pretty scarves to put on top of ugly tables

And just like every time I pack my bag, I feel like I’m forgetting something really, really important, but I haven’t left anything out, so that must be everything!

The moral of this story? We actually can fit everything we need into one bag—for life, or at least for a few years. It’s probably going to be too heavy, and we’ll probably find ourselves missing variety (of shoes especially), but not nearly as often as we’d expect. We’ll get accustomed to accumulating more belongings when we pause for a while, and equally accustomed to shedding them when it’s time to move once again.

The other moral: Good food is always money well spent. So are experiences. Our stomachs are like endlessly refillable backpacks, and our brains are like slightly leaky, endlessly expandable suitcases. Fill them.


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10 Hours in Nairobi (Airport!)

Final Destination: Jinja, Uganda—the mouth of the Nile

Tuesday, 12 April, 2016—Nairobi, Kenya

The New York Times may have all the tips for how to spend your 36-hour weekend in Nairobi, but you only need 10 hours to enjoy all the delights of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport!

It’s going to be a long day, so wear comfortable shoes. The following is only a sample itinerary—feel free to craft your own.
5:50 a.m. Early bird gets the worm and all that. Arrive at Nairobi airport from whatever your previous port of embarkment may be. Drink in the fresh morning air (but please, not the water) and stumble toward your connecting flight. 
(Note: This is best enjoyed on minimal rest, so try not to sleep too much on your red eye.)
7:15 a.m. Pole pole (slowly), friends. Delays are normal, especially with Kenya Airways. The Avanti Cafe on the ground floor has reasonably priced tea and friendly and sympathetic staff. (They’ve heard your story before; don’t bother.)
Savor your mediocre latte and partake of the only free wifi in NBO. Don’t miss the sights: Watching disgruntled tourists aimlessly milling about in growing impatience is one of the unique pleasures of the airport experience.
8:15 a.m. Board your flight and prepare for take-off. Don’t worry, your day’s not over that quickly—we’re just going for a quick aerial tour of the beautiful city of Nairobi.
Sit back, relax, and enjoy the view on your 10-minute cruise above Kenya. “Technical issues” are just an official way of saying, “please don’t leave yet, Nairobi airport has so much more to offer.” 
9:35 a.m. Make good use of an hour on the ground before deplaning, and get to know your fellow adventurers. Enjoy a stale, rubbery apology croissant, courtesy of the airline, too. You’ll need your fuel; we still have 6 hours to go! You may also like to observe the unloading of your luggage, which was heading toward your final destination just minutes before.
10:50 a.m. Experience extreme disorganization first-hand. Join the pack, and wander confusedly from gate to gate, really getting to know the twists and turns of the Nairobi airport. Intimate knowledge like this is rare for the average tourist; you may even have time to peruse the least authentic curio shops in all of Kenya.
11:25 a.m. Head to Table 49 for a classic airport dining experience. As you sample your chocolate-cardboard muffin and piping hot tea, you may appreciate the opportunity to practice your Italian, French, Swahili or German language skills with some of the other diners—this is an international airport, after all.
12:10 p.m. Wave goodbye to some of your new friends as they head to the next (now fully booked) flight, then get to know some of the airline staff as they place you on the next one—5 hours later.

12:45 p.m. Why not head back to the unsurpassed Avanti Cafe for another visit? After all, no one has given you any free water, and you’re probably thirsty. Browse through Facebook, and daydream about arriving at your destination before dark.

1:25 p.m. Stroll upstairs to Table 49 for another complimentary meal. Totally edible chicken, rice and spinach, and a bottle of water to boot! Enjoy getting to know the remaining stranded passengers from the morning, and observe the effect that sleep deprivation may have on your conversational skills (hint: they improve).
2:55 p.m. Meander down those gray, expressionless airport terminal hallways one last time before you have to leave. Join the desperate crowd at gate 15, and since you’re early, why not finish up your conversations with your new friends.
3:50 p.m. Get on that plane, friends, it’s time to fly. Cross your fingers that your checked baggage makes it on with you, and settle in for a nap—you’ll need it. Safari njema (safe travels)!

In complete seriousness, as desperately long and painfully disorganized as my unplanned, extended layover in Nairobi was, I don’t think I’ve ever had as many conversations, in as many languages, with as many strangers, in one day. We were all looking out for each other, united in common misfortune and misery—which, miserable as it was, was also pretty cool.
And, it’s always better to laugh. Running on 3 hours of sleep and very disappointed to be spending my day off in an airport—instead of with friends in Uganda—I quickly found the entire situation completely absurd, and I had to laugh.
You have to laugh.
Frustration is useless, especially in airports, and a bit of humor can make a bleak day far more bearable.

So, enjoy your next visit to the Nairobi Airport, and let me know if you want any more tips—I’m probably an expert now.


Update: In Jinja, Uganda now, visiting some friends I haven’t seen since a year ago in Kenya, and enjoying some much-needed R and R. My checked luggage, if you were wondering, miraculously made it here, too!


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Travel Advice

How to Take the Bus Everywhere

Jesus travels… and so can you!
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise… there is always another way to get there.
In October, I visited my parents in Shanghai (their home base at the moment). Day two of my trip, I took an afternoon to explore on my own, wandering the tiny alleys of Tianze Feng, in and out of stores selling tins of tea and other adorably packaged goods.
I have a “taxi card” to return—a business card with the name and address of my parents’ residence written in Mandarin and English. Taxis are cheap. Simple.
But then, naturally, there’s a catch: I cannot, for the life of me, catch a cab. I stand first on one street corner of the main road by Tianze Feng, then on the divider between lanes, next on another corner. 
Most of the passing cars already carry passengers, while other drivers seem to be intentionally avoiding my gaze. The afternoon shadows grow longer as I watch one Chinese shopper after another run to intercept an incoming car. There are people crowded on all sides; traffic moves at around 60 km/hour; I am never fast enough.
Finally, someone does stop, but when he looks at my card he shakes his head and drives off. Does he not feel like going there, or can he not read the card? I will never know.
Meanwhile, I have seen at least 20 public buses pass me by. I know I need to go *that way.* New plan…
I think it really is possible to take the bus nearly anywhere and everywhere—if you want to. Here’s how:
Step 1: Learn the word for “bus” and/or the proper pronunciation of the place you wish to go.
In Shanghai, it took showing my taxi card to several people to learn to say the name of my parents’ road: Nanjing Shu-Lu.
In Kenya, buses are “matatus,” and knowing that makes them a lot easier to ask for.

Sometimes there might be a boat involved… even better!!
Step 2: Find the bus stop.
In many places, there will be a physical structure, replete with maps, schedules and names. In many others, there will be nothing but a small sign bearing the image of a bus—or nothing but a crowd of people standing at the side of the road.
Ask people for the *bus* to [fill in the blank] until you find your stop. In my experience, other bus drivers and shop keepers are the best people to ask, and most likely to know the buses in the area, while taxi drivers are the worst, since they have ulterior motives.
In Shanghai, I was lucky enough to find an old woman who understood my question, and knew that the 42 bus would take me to the right place.

Or you can do this.

Step 3: Catch your bus.
It might stop automatically, or it might barrel past if you don’t flag it down. A sign bearing a name or number may tell you it is the right bus, or it might be a skinny man hanging from the window, calling out the destination.
I usually like to confirm at least a couple times that it is indeed the right bus, as I have ended up on the wrong bus far too often.
Step 4: Revel, and ignore the funny looks.
Depending on where you are, you might well be the only obvious foreigner on the bus. People will stare. It will get old. Just do your thing and try not to do anything egregious—appropriate dress and conduct is always a good call.
Revel in being on your way to where you’re trying to go! There is truly no better feeling than the surprise of success after a stressful search!

If your bus looks like this, wait for the next one.

Step 5: Pay.
Often, fare will be collected at some point along your journey—or upfront, or upon arrival. Try to pay attention to how much other passengers are paying to avoid a high “tourist tax.” But if you do end up paying a few cents—or dollars—more, well, the tourist tax is real. I’m sorry.
Step 6: Arrive.
Chaos, confusion and disorientation may accompany your arrival… sweat, frustration and elation, too. One thing I can almost guarantee: you will arrive having spent less money. A second thing: it gets easier with practice.
I love taking the bus. Despite the dust. Despite the confusion, often frustrating and hectic. Despite everything. Because the bus is always an adventure. Always. And that’s kind of the point.
Need to make a connection? Repeat steps 1-5. Chances are, someone on your first bus will be able to point you to your next one, or even lead you there.
“Trunk-seat” heading out of Mbita, Kenya a few days ago.

Enjoy the adventure!
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Asia, Culture

What is Cultural Immersion? I Don’t Think It’s This…

“When I’m in a new place, I don’t want to go to the tourist places; I don’t want to go to museums. I want to see real things.”
Thus began my tour of Nanxun, a water village 1.5 hours outside Shanghai. Our guide, Stacy, began her introduction loudly, Midwestern inflection un-dampened by seven years in China.
Here we go, I thought. I would not be sleeping as I had hoped, for all 18 participants would be introducing themselves next. I’m not sure I had ever been on a real group tour like this before, but that weekend I had the distinct pleasure two days in a row.
Will I do it again? Quite unlikely. Am I glad I went, if only for the wealth of new writing material to come of it? Oh yes.
As our bus hiccupped out of Shanghai, the platitudes rolled on. Introducing her partner, Mike, Stacy continued, “Of course, because Mike is Chinese, he’s good with numbers and dates and things.” 
Chinese towns, people and art, on this tour, were only authentic if over 80 years old.
Those who know me are aware of my crusade against terms like “real” and “authentic.” Last year, after months around tourists bemoaning the loss of “real” Tibetan-Nepali-Indian-etc culture, criticizing restaurants, cafes and people who were not “authentic” and congratulating those who were, I lost my taste for such judgments. After reading a large amount of literature on these discourses, I am convinced that “is it real?” “is it traditional?” and “is it authentic?” are the wrong questions to ask.
Our first stop in Nanxun, naturally, was for toilets. We pulled up outside a large, nondescript hotel where around 40 staff reluctantly moved through their “morning exercises”—something resembling the bastard son of the Macarena and the electric slide. They looked especially mortified to have an American, camera-laden audience, and I couldn’t find the spirit to take any pictures. After all, we all know the miserable feeling of dragging through forced routines.
Indeed, much of the day felt disturbingly reminiscent of an elementary school field trip I and my two aunts didn’t want to be on. We were the disruptive kids at the back of the bus.

As we marched single file through the house of a certain Mr. Wang (a retired blacksmith well over 80 years) to see his traditional Chinese oven, all I could think was, “What is the point of this?” 
I, like Stacy, enjoy seeing into people’s lives and homes. I tend to be nosy and curious and have few boundaries when I travel. I have participated in many home-stays and exchanges. But I hope I would never be so entitled as to walk into a stranger’s home, practically without conversation, take a few pictures, and leave.
What did we all learn that day in Mr. Weng’s home? I, for one, have no idea.
Stacy has branded her tours as off-the-beaten-track cultural immersion experiences. Certainly, I saw parts of Nanxun and Shanghai that I may not have stumbled on alone, but is it even possible to immerse ourselves in another culture in any meaningful way in just 8 hours? 
I wonder.
We spent a hefty chunk of the afternoon in a retirement home with three charming Chinese women. Why? Because, “these old folks have so much wisdom to share.” Our interview, however, proved far too short to extract much of any depth. And though I did learn that I should not dry my face immediately after washing it and that “There is more food now” than in the Mao years, that was about it.
One spry and flexible 90-something retiree led us through her morning Qi Gong routine. Later, I had the dubious honor of hearing “Jingle Bells” played on traditional Chinese instruments. Still, each stop on our itinerary, our “conversations” with local people, and our glossy overviews of entire schools of religious thought struck me as more shallow than anything else.

Museums and retirees are equally “real.” Back alleys are not intrinsically superior to touristy main ways. Cultural immersion does not emerge automatically with the right combination of orchestrated meetings and exposure to dirt. Cultural immersion does not literally mean walking in and out of a local person’s kitchen. It is far more elusive. It requires more depth.

That is not to say we should give up hope of having meaningful, culturally immersive experiences when we are short on time. 
But let’s not place the things we see into two categories: real and unreal.
When we have the opportunity to engage with another culture, let’s really engage. Ask questions. Look and see and taste and listen.
Let’s decide for ourselves what is real.
What is cultural immersion? That is a big question to answer, and maybe later I will try to go into it (though I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer to give), but I am fairly certain it is not this.

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Culture, Travel Advice

And How Is Your Family?

A recent conversation with the lovely Alec MacMillen (Arabic speaker and traveler on his way to Jordan on a Fulbright at the end of this month) reminded me of this topic…

And How is Your Family? Making Connections Abroad

In the first unit of my Tibetan language class, we learned words for family members and how to ask about them. “Do you have any brothers or sisters? Where are your children? What do they do?” Beyond “how are you?” these were the first questions I learned how to ask the Tibetan residents of my neighborhood in Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal.
My friend, a novice monk. We could converse only at a very basic level, but he knew that I had one brother who lived in Canada.
When I traveled to Senegal on a High School summer exchange program, I learned much the same phrases in Wolof. “Where is your family?” “They are here,” was a classic exchange between strangers or friends. What I didn’t quite understand at age 16, I began to see more clearly while studying in Nepal: In almost any corner of the globe, family is literally the foundation of every relationship. If you want to form a friendship, begin by asking about someone’s parents, sisters, brothers, children. If you wish to grow closer to your host family, ask about children, cousins or siblings abroad.
In most beginning language courses, vocabulary for family members and questions about family almost always show up in the very first unit. In 6th grade French, I remember finding this awkward and a little bit silly. Many college language students feel much the same way.
In the U.S., these are not the first questions we are taught to ask. At least, these were not the questions I was taught to ask. For many Americans I know, inquiring about family members is intimate, almost invasive for acquaintances or strangers. Here, if you want to form a friendship, begin by talking about shared interests, food, school… Family comes later.
In that Tibetan language class, my teachers stressed the importance of asking about family first, before anything else. This was crucial to respectfully initiating conversations and friendships; omitting to ask about family could be perceived as inconsiderate or even offensive.
Istanbul, where I probably sat down to drink tea in every candy shop over the course of my week-long visit.
Once learned, this was a lesson I would carry with me. In Turkey, I made friends with every shopkeeper I met, exclusively by asking about family. In Italy, I remembered to ask new friends the same. Regardless of country or age, new acquaintances responded with warmth and enthusiasm to my queries. Do you have children? Where are they? What do they do? Do you have any brothers or sisters? What do they do? Where are they? Are you married? Where is your husband? Your wife? What are their names? Detailed, personal questions repeatedly forged an immediate intimacy and connection that flippant conversations about the weather or school could never produce.
I became more comfortable in the asking as I saw how people opened to my questions. When I returned home and began conducting interviews for my senior thesis work, I employed the same technique, with surprisingly similar results.
There exists in the U.S. an individualism that de-emphasizes the role of family. We are individuals. We are not where or who we come from. As I traveled and made friends, however, I found that most people do not agree. Questions about family are so crucial to forming relationships because family is crucial to forming individuals. No matter how much we pretend, we do not exist independently of it.
While hitchhiking, I bonded quickly with strangers by asking about siblings, children, parents, etc.
At least, that is the belief that drove my experience of connecting with strangers. Whether or not I believed it didn’t even matter so much; my new friends did.

So, if you are traveling and you want to make friends, after you ask “how are you?” remember to go on with, “And how is your family?” See what happens.
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