Monday, August 20, 2007

So Why Travel Anyway?

So you're going on a trip. You've got your flight, an itinerary, maybe even planning what you'll bring. In the midst of all the anticipation, take a moment to ask yourself one very important question: why are you going travelling in the first place?

Your answer might be "I need a vacation" or "I want to relax and have fun." Okay, but let's think about it a little more. You've chosen a destination. Why there? And what do you hope to get out of your experience? Most importantly, what impression do you want to leave on that place?

I suppose this might sound a little dull and ultra-responsible. After all, its your vacation, isn't it? Humour me. There's another point of view.

The other day, I listened as two Italian women ranted at a Thai restaurant owner for not making their cappuccino correctly. They didn't want to pay. This restaurant happened to be nestled on an isolated beach, had no electricity, and made wonderful home-cooked Thai food. The Italian women stomped off, refusing to pay, and left the restaurant owner to fume, hate Italians, and tourists in general. I've witnessed similar confrontations when hamburgers, spaghetti, pizza, and bangers and mash were not to the customer's expectations.

I find it quite incredible that restaurants throughout Asia are making food to suit the palates of visiting tourists in order to make them feel at home. It is a gracious, generous gesture. What is shocking, to me, is the number of tourists who travel without ever eating the food of the country they are visiting.

This goes further: in large tourist centres throughout Asia, the restaurants, hotels, and other amenities cater to every western whim. They allow a tourist to visit another country without ever experiencing a different culture; tourists eat western food, speak their own language, and only know they're away from home because there is a tropical beach outside.

So what, you might ask. I spend my money, I should be able to eat the way I like. Maybe. But do you really want to help make today's tropical paradise into a place just like your Western home, a place that only tourists can afford to live, a ghettoized tourist trap where you are surrounded not by another culture but by the very people you went on vacation to escape?

To return to my original question: why are you going travelling in the first place? Is it to be surrounded by people from your own country as you drink, party, and relax on a beach? If so, I suggest you can save a lot of money by staying at home. Do you expect to eat your local favourites while abroad, avoiding the local food at all cost? Why don't you spend your money at nice restaurants at home and avoid the disappointment of eating Western food in another country? In short, if you expect all the comforts of home, maybe travelling just isn't for you.

The most successful traveller will, in my view, come to terms with some basic facts:

First, you are visiting a foreign place with different customs. Make an effort to learn what those customs are. Respect them as you would expect a visitor to your home to respect your customs and wishes. You do not need to agree with them in order to follow them. You may not be Muslim, but wearing shorts and tank tops in their home is upsetting and disrespectful. It may be completely acceptable for women to suntan topless where you live, but in many places it is not; just the opposite, it is shocking, insulting to local customs, and signals that you are sexually promiscuous. It's not hard to learn about the traditions and culture of the country you're visiting. Guidebooks and websites make it quite clear. If you're the sort of person who just doesn't care what the traditions may be, realize too how disrespectful and rude you are being. Then consider that many people where you are visiting would likely prefer you stayed at home. The way you act at home may not be acceptable elsewhere.

Your actions influence how people view your country. Those Italian women have changed how that restaurateur views Italians. Be gracious and respectful and your country will be remembered in a positive light.

Everything you do has an impact on the place you visit. The things you eat and purchase, the places you visit, the tour companies you select, all tell local people what tourists value. If you choose the cheapest tour company that offers trips that happen to damage coral reefs or rainforests, then more of those companies will appear in the future. Doing a little research to learn about the companies you use can make a big difference. Choosing an environmentally sensitive company sends a message that that is important to tourists and there is money to be made at it. Your actions -- perhaps more when you're on vacation than any other time -- really DO matter. This is also true of other behaviours such as drug and alcohol abuse. Young people in the countries you travel to may look up to tourists, seeing them as the world's most wealthy and privileged elite (which, by the way, you are). If they see those same tourists using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol, it is that much more likely they will do so as well. The destruction that such "drug economies" have had in some countries is large and widespread. If you are looking to abuse drugs and alcohol, stay at home so the social problems you create are your responsibility, not those of an already poor developing country.

Lastly, there is one important fact that all travellers would do well to spend some time considering: your ability to get a passport, buy a plane ticket, and enjoy yourself in a foreign country is a privilege that the vast majority of the world doesn't have. Most do not even have a vacation as we know it, let alone be able to travel abroad. With such an incredible privilege comes responsibilities, whether we like it or not.

Failure to show respect to the people and cultures we visit, to those who will never have the privilege to travel as we have, and who open their homes for us, is not only insulting: it confirms we are not worthy of travelling in the first place.

So before your next vacation, I ask you to give some thought to why you are travelling ... and what sort of traveller you want to be when the trip is over.

Monday, August 13, 2007

What to Pack (Everything Else)

No matter what you're planning to bring, its too much. After almost a year of travelling, our packs still have things that we could do without. But there are other items -- some unexpected -- that I'd never travel without.
This more or less what we've been carrying with us for a year. It all fits into our two 75 litre packs. With each item, I explain how often it was used and its value during our travels.
I've already posted information about clothing and first aid from the rest of the contents listed below.
Beside each item I've noted whether I feel it is (R)ecommended strongly, (N)ice to have, or should be (L)eft at home. I've also indicated whether it was used Often, Sometimes, Rarely, or Never

In my pack:
Shoe bag (R; Often)
Made by Eagle Creek, these are well designed and very useful. When travelling for my work, I would pack my shoes in plastic bags to keep the smell and dirt away from my clothes. These plastic zippered pouches work much much better. I'll never travel without them again. They fit perfectly around your shoes so they take up less space as well.
Nalgene water bottle (1 litre) (R; Sometimes)
Immediately identifies you as either Canadian or American. Essential if you plan to purify your own water and reduce the plastic you contribute to landfills while travelling. Just remember not to completely seal them before they're dry: they can get smelly fast. You can also buy a piece that inserts into the top to make it easier to drink from.
Mesh bags (one for underwear and one for the rest of my clothes) (N; Often)
I think mesh bags are great for clothing. They keep everything tightly packed but you can easily see what's inside. They also breathe (unlike plastic) so if your clothes are a little damp from humidity or the wash, they're less likely to smell. Unfortunately, mesh bags are not easy to find on their own; usually they are included with outdoor equipment such as quick dry towels or fleece pullovers.

Electronics such as:
IPOD (N; Sometimes)
Don't forget the charger. If you have one that needs to be plugged into a USB port to charge, I wouldn't bother. Its too expensive to pay for time in an internet café just to charge your IPOD!
Digital camera (R; Often)
We met one traveller who decided not to bring a camera on his travels, believing that having one dilutes the experience. Everyone else carries a digital camera (does anyone use film anymore?). Taking photos was one of the joys of our trip. Many people may decide to buy a new camera for their trip. Fine, but I strongly suggest taking lots of pictures with it before you leave. Every camera has its quirks; best to discover them taking photos of your car than of a precious moment you'll never see again.
Rechargeable batteries for your camera and flashlight (two sets) (R; Often)
If you're bringing a PDA, remember to bring spare backup battery.
Memory cards for your camera
Bring enough memory cards to last you. Two 2GB memory cards are plenty; I used two 1GB cards for most of our trip. Regardless, buy two cards rather than one so if one breaks, you'll always have one works. For trips longer than a couple of weeks, you'll want to have your photos transferred to CD or DVD so you can purge your memory cards and start again. More on this in a separate entry.
Battery chargers for your various electronics (IPOD, PDA, camera, etc) (R; Sometimes)
Plug adapter set (R; Often)
These allow your electronics to plug in the various electrical sockets around the world. They DO NOT change the voltage, however. Make sure electronics will work with the power supply of your destination (are "auto-switching"). That's a whole separate blog entry though.
Card reader and USB cable (R; Often)
Essential if posting photos to the internet and transferring photos to CD/DVD. We also used it to write our blog. More on this in another entry.
Bags for all the electronic gear (R; Often)
I liked to keep batteries and plug adapters in one small mesh bag and chargers in a separate, larger one. They keep all the separate parts together, reducing the likelihood of a part getting lost.
Spare DVDs (N; Sometimes)
I bought these so I know I'm getting good quality media when I burn my photos to DVD. Not necessary, but nice to have.
Plastic tupperware container with lid (doubles as a bowl) (L; Rarely)
Safety pins (R; Rarely) - use to pin your money belt to your pants in places like railway stations and other high risk areas where someone might get the idea of cutting the waist elastic, pulling the belt from your waist, and running. The safety pin will hold it in place.
Travel sewing kit (L; Rarely). Tailors are everywhere in most countries and very inexpensive. Likely they'll do a better job than you will too.
2 caribiners (N; Rarely)
Used during treks to fasten sleeping bags and water bottles to our day packs. Not necessary but were handy, but only during treks.
Plastic wrap and/or ziplock bags (R; Often)
Wrap your passport and other valuable documents in this to keep them dry while inside your money belt. Otherwise they'll get sweaty and very smelly. I've also used small freezer ziplock bags (thicker with a double seal) which are even better.
Duct tape (R; Sometimes)
Has a ton of uses and highly recommended. Wrapped it around my water bottle. You can also buy it in travel packs so you don't need to carry a roll. We used it to: repair innersoles, holes in compression sacks, hold on mole skin while trekking, seal holes in mosquito nets and wrap Christmas presents.
Tea light candle (N; Sometimes)
Electricity often goes out. Have some candles and a lighter ready. Of course, you can always buy candles and nowadays you'll need to buy a lighter too (since you won't be allowed to take it on the plane)
Flashlight (R; Often)
Carry a small one where ever you go in Asia. Power outages are common, as are big holes in sidewalks, exposed rusty rebar, and other dangers. Good for reading in bed and finding your way down dark hallways to the shared toilet in the middle of the night. Use rechargeable batteries, ideally of a type you can share with another device like your camera. I recommend the LED type with a minimum of 5 LED lights (I would opt for 10 or more if you can find it). LED flashlights are a lot easier on batteries. Some travellers use LED headlamps which would be handy, but more bulky to carry.
Canada flag pins (L; never) Totally useless. People don't want trinkets, and giving them to children encourages begging.
Canadian coins (L; never) Same as the flag pins. Teaches children to beg tourists for money. Not the sort of impact I want to have on the country I'm visiting.
Combination lock (R; often) many guesthouses use a padlock and key for security. The padlocks are often cheap and can be opened by almost any key. The combo lock was fantastic peace of mind. Also handy if you have an in-room safe (which were very rare in our travels).
Locking chains (R; sometimes) Bought these in India. Used with our combo lock, they were essential for securing our bags on sleeper trains and locking our bags in our room while we were out.
Clothesline (R; often) Get a good length of thin nylon rope. Most outdoor stores can help. In tropical places, you sweat lots so there's lots of laundry to do. That means hanging it to dry in your room or always sending it out to be cleaned. A long clothesline was often necessary to help us hang our mosquito net..
Air freshener spray (N; rarely) - A small "sample size" of air freshener can be very useful for musty rooms and smelly bathrooms, not to mention when you get sick. Certainly not necessary, but nice to have if you can find a small one. Of course, aerosols aren't allowed on planes any longer ...
Mosquito net (R; sometimes) - Many places supply them, some don't. Not used a lot, but invaluable when we did. If you're a budget - midrange traveller in an area prone to malaria or dengue, I'd bring one.
Playing cards (N; sometimes)
Nalgene sealing container for important drugs (such as anti-malarials) (R; often) - Really useful to keep pills dry and safe. Nalgene makes really good ones, but as long as the container seals well it will be fine.
Plastic travel soap holder (R; often) I stored this in a ziplock bag. My simple rule: anything that can or does get wet goes in a ziplock. Bottles of liquids go in two ziplocks. I don't want to open my bag to a sticky wet mess.
Insense (N; sometimes) Helps repel mosquitos and hide the musty nasty smells that linger in some rooms. Buy some in the country you're travelling in; in Asia its everywhere.
Water treatment (chlorine) (R; often)
In most developing countries, empty plastic bottles fill parks, lakes, fields, rivers, and just about everywhere else. Do you contribute to the problem or not? Admittedly, in some countries the tap water -- when treated and therefore safe to drink -- tastes terrible. In that case, at least use treated water for brushing your teeth. Chlorine treatment works well, tastes fine, and is safe for long term use (unlike iodine tablets).
Bag of elastics (N; Rarely) - I like the thick elastics for keeping cables organized (USB, power cords etc), keeping my soapdish closed, and other handy uses. A small bag takes up almost no room and can be handy.
2 compression sacks (packet compressor by Eagle Creek) (R; often) - Great if you have clothing you don't use a lot but still need. We took some cool weather clothing with us for when we went trekking in Nepal. In warm places, it stayed tightly packed in the compression sack. I used the thick Eagle Creek compression sack for clothes and another, thinner one as my laundry bag. I loved being able to compress my dirty clothes into a small space yet also keep them sealed up in my bag.
Yoga mat (thin for travel) (N; sometimes) While we didn't do yoga as much as we hoped (it was just too hot), they did get used, especially when relaxing on the beach in places like Southern Thailand. They also were handy to put on very hard mattresses or to put an extra layer between us and a very nasty mattress. Ewww.
PDA and keyboard (R; often)
This, in conjuction with a card reader, was used to maintain our travel blog. I will dedicate an entry to this process in the future.
Bathroom kit (R; often)
Get the smallest one you can that will hold your stuff. Most include a detachable mirror, which is useful. Get one with a hook that will hang up in the bathroom.
Contents of the bathroom kit (mens): rasor and spare blades (in some Asian countries shaving products aren't easy to find so bring some extra blades), shaving cream (though I used regular soap for almost the whole year of travelling), deodorant, body powder, toothbrush in travel holder, toothpaste, dental floss, earbuds, facecloth
Thin rayon bedsheet (R; often)
In tropical places, you often will not be given a sheet. Sometimes you'll just get a rough wool bedcover. A thin rayon sheet (or sarong) gives you just a little more warmth and comfort in the night.
Travel towel (R; sometimes)
Despite there being lots of manufacturers out there, it is difficult to find one that dries quickly and is absorbant. Whichever you buy, try it before you go. Not used a lot, but in budget accommodations there are often no towels provided. You could use a sarong instead, but the towel was useful and I'd bring one next time I travel.
Shampoo (solid type from Lush) (R; often)
Lush shampoo bars last a long time, travel well (they sell a metal container for them) and are easy to pack. They are also good for washing clothes. Best of all, using them means one less potentially messy liquid in your pack and no plastic bottles to throw away.
Swiss army knife (R; often) - Essential for travel, and every one of the tools were used on our trip. Ours had scissors, can opener, corkscrew, pen, toothpick, tweezers, and eyeglass screwdriver.
Hand sanitizer (R; often) - Every restaurant and toilet has a sink but few have soap. Hand sanitizer will keep you from getting sick if you use it regularly. Hard to find in many Asian countries so we brought a container with refillable pocket-sized bottles.
Travel alarm clock (R; often) - We liked our clock with a thermometer built in, but it was badly designed. Perhaps simple is better. Imagine the clock you are considering being compressed in your pack for a long time: are there buttons that will be pressed that will run down the batteries? Ours did, forcing us to remove the batteries every time we packed.
In Laura's bag:
1 compression sack (see my description above)
1 yoga mat
Daily journal (R; often)

Maybe you blog, maybe you write out your experiences on paper. Keeping a record of your experiences is really important, in my opinion. We also used this journal to record how much we spent each day and tracking whether we were sticking to our daily budget.
1 travel towel (see above)
Mosquito coils (R; often)
In tropical places, mosquitoes are everywhere. Mosquito repellant will often not be enough. We would burn a coil in our room when we were out at dinner, thus ensuring we wouldn't be bitten too badly at night. We would also burn them to keep the bugs away if we were enjoying the evening on a deck. Occassionally, we would even bring one to a restaurant at dinnertime.
Water treatment (see above)
We brought too much water treatment with us, not realizing how much we would use. In one year, we used about 100 - 150 ml of each liquid.
Spare set of perscription sunglasses (R; sometimes)
If you wear glasses, either bring an extra pair or a copy of your prescription so you can get new ones made. Glasses get lost and broken; having a backup is common sense. Similarly, if you wear contact lenses, bring glasses as a backup.
Bathroom kit (see above) containing:
Nail clippers, makeup, earrings, exfoliation stick (essential if you are wearing sandals a lot to avoid your feet becoming badly calloused, cracked, and sore), sunblock (don't believe the travel books ... you can buy sunblock almost everywhere), aftersun crème, conditioner, hairbrush, hair clips, moisturizer, feminine hygene products
Insect repellant (R; often)
- DEET-based insect repellant is terrible, toxic stuff, but the diseases you can get from mosquitoes are worse. We used Watson's cream-based repellant which was less greasy than most and lasted a long time (the two of us used three containers over the course of a year) despite being applied almost every day.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

What to Pack (First Aid Kit)

It is incredible how few travellers don't consider bringing a first aid kit. Of course, what you bring depends upon where you go and the activities you'll be doing. Its worth doing some research before you leave. What type of medicines and care can you expect to receive where you'll be travelling? Some places offer excellent medical care; others may require you to be transported to another country for anything serious.
Its safe to assume, however, that you're going to get sick at some point during your travels. This is especially true if you travel for a long time (six months or more) or visit a country known for suspect water and food handling (such as India, Nepal, Cambodia).
Its best to be prepared and hope you won't need your first aid kit. The following is what we packed.

First aid bag
Best to keep your first aid kit separate so that you will always know where everything is. After all, you'll likely be looking for something when you are not feeling your best.
Bandaids - different sizes. Most common were blisters (or blister prevention) on our feet.
Moleskin - especially if you're trekking.
Antibacterial wipes - good for cleaning scrapes and minor surface wounds
small burnpads
Antidiarrheal tablets - only for emergencies. Minor diarrhea is a normal reaction to a change in diet and shouldn't be medicated. We kept these for travel days and in case dehydration was a possibility. I never took one during the entire year; Laura only used them once.
Antibiotic eyedrops - For eye infections. We never needed them.
Tylenol 3 painkillers - Contain codeine which is illegal in some countries. If someone is in a lot of pain and it will take a while to get to a doctor, these will be handy.
Ciprofloxacin 500mg (antibiotic) - Cured us when we were very sick from ingesting nasty bacteria in India. Cured us quickly. Available abroad but you may be too sick to go get it if you're travelling alone (we heard of this happening more than once, resulting in the traveller becoming very sick indeed)
Apo Metronidazole 250mg (antibiotic) - General purpose antibiotic. Some use it instead of Ciprofloxin for bacteria in the digestive system. Also can be used for other bacterial infections. We never used it.
Tylenol and Advil - Used it for the occasional headache but mostly for treating fevers
Pamprin - Wasn't needed, but may be useful for PMS
Epipen - For very serious allergic reactions. This gives a shot of adrenaline to the patient. People at risk of life threatening allergic reactions will know to carry one.
Antihistimines - For hay-fever and other minor allergic reactions.
Thermometer - We suffered from fevers more on our trip than we ever had at home. A thermometer was critical to determine when the fever might be getting bad enough to require being taken to a doctor or the hospital.
Gravol (motion sickness) - Even those not prone to motion sickness will be tested by the windy roads and stuffy bus trips in some countries. Recommended that you don't take a whole dose, as they will often put you to sleep and leave you vulnerable to pickpockets and thieves.
Orajel (small tube) - for tooth pain before you get to a dentist. We never needed it.
Acid blockers for upset stomach - If severe heartburn is an issue, you might wish to bring these. We never needed them.
Topical antibiotic cream- for cuts and scrapes
Pocket Doctor first aid book - the most important item in our kit, it was extremely valuable in helping us make decisions about treatment. Bring a good travel first aid book so you will know when a trip to the doctor or hospital is needed. I've talked to several travellers who waited too long to see the doctor and made their illness much worse as a result.
Pepto bismol tablets - for upset stomach and diarrhea. Never used it
Cold sore cream- if you are prone to cold sores
Oral rehydration salts - many travellers suffer from dehydration, usually after severe diaarhia or vomiting. Rehydration salts will help. We used plain potato chips and flat soda instead.
Hydrocortisone cream- for rashes and skin irritations
Prescription info for all drugs - keep your prescriptions with you. Some countries may want to see them to confirm you are not trying to illegally import drugs. Also check if your prescription drugs are illegal in the country you are visitiing.
Of course, you will also need a supply of any prescription drugs you regularly take, as well as any anti-malarials you have been prescribed.
Note: Malaria prophalaxis drugs may change the effectiveness of birth control pills. Check with your doctor and pharmacist.

It is very useful to have a small plastic container that can be well-sealed (Nalgene makes good ones) for carrying a few pills with you during the day. We stored a few of the following in this and kept it in our daypacks:
-Anti-diarrheal pills
-A couple of Rolaids
-Malaria prophalaxis
-Any other daily medications you require

Sunday, August 5, 2007

What to Pack (Clothing)

What to wear? Especially if your trip will be long or take you to different climates, deciding what clothes to bring can be difficult. Below are the clothes we packed and my recommendations. We could have taken less, so I've also given a list of what we now -- in hindsight -- feel are the essentials. All this is based upon travel to tropical climates where local clothing is generally inexpensive.
In my pack (mens):
One pair of walking shoes and one pair of Teva-style sandals
Two pairs of shoes are enough (though we met a couple who carries five!). The sandals were worn all the time. The walking shoes were mostly for trekking, evenings where there are many mosquitoes, and in especially dirty cities. I suggest walking shoes that could be worn to a nice restaurant (so avoid the bright colours and choose the boring brown suede ones instead)
2 pairs of Tilley quick dry socks - two pairs of socks is plenty, as I found I rarely wore the walking shoes. The Tilley socks are very durable. Though well-worn, the socks lasted the entire trip. Two pairs give you one set to wear while the other pair is being washed and dried.
1 swimsuit
2 pair Tilley quick dry boxers (I'd buy briefs instead next time. Boxers are too hot for the tropics but good for sleeping in)
3 briefs (1 pair Tilley quick dry briefs which are durable, well-designed, and always dry overnight. The two other pair I rarely wore and could easily get rid of. Three pair of underwear in total is enough as long as they all will dry overnight)
1 long sleeve "formal" shirt - I brought a white linen long sleeved shirt. It was perfect for evenings when I wanted to cover up to avoid the mosquitoes while at a nice restaurant. Surprisingly, it even stayed white!
Quick dry t-shirt - As with most clothing, you can buy these abroad but they are often of poor quality (lasting only a few weeks). Quick dry athletic fabrics are perfect for travelling in hot humid places. I wore this t-shirt very often. Essential.
Cotton t-shirt - Cotton is a poor choice for travelling, especially the thick cotton that t-shirts are usually made from. It usually shows sweat dampness, dries slowly, and is hot. That said, this shirt was great when I was trekking in Nepal and wanted warmth and breathability.
Tilley longsleeve shirt - Too hot for the tropics but good for cool places and for covering the arms during treks. The cotton was too heavy though. Go for thin, lightweight, and breatheable. Tilley clothes are well-made but I find this results in shirts that are too heavy and hot to be practical in the tropics.
Long-sleeved fleece pullover - I brought this for trekking in Nepal and was glad I did. If you're planning to go trekking at high altitudes, be prepared for cold wet conditions and no heat in your room at night. I could have bought this in Nepal and would have done so if I'd known how much outdoor gear was available there.
Long-sleeved quick dry pullover - I brought this for cool nights and for trekking. There were a few places I was glad to have it: trekking in the mountains in Vietnam, in the foothills of the Himalayas in India, and in Nepal. I could have layered other clothing, but this was nice to have.
Long underwear - We bought thermal underwear online in Canada and had friends bring it when we met them in India. They made trekking in Nepal much more comfortable, especially at night. Despite outdoor clothing being available everywhere in Nepal, I never saw thermal underwear for sale. If you're going somewhere cold in Asia, I'd recommend bringing some as you likely won't find it there.
Mittens and wool hat - purchased these in Nepal. Great souvenirs and we were glad to have them in the snow at 4500 metres. Don't bring them with you and mail them home when you're done (or give them away to a local who needs them more than you)
Tilley shorts - I judge travel shorts and pants by their pockets. Can the pockets be closed with a zipper? Do they have velcro flaps to cover them? Do they (like Tilley clothing) have secret pockets for valuables? I would never put anything of value in my pockets unless the pants/shorts have these features. I've heard too many stories from travellers who were pickpocketed. Tilley shorts pass the test and are also very durable and comfortable. Unfortunately, there are many countries where it is inappropriate to wear shorts regardless of the temperature (such as India). Thus, it is more important to have good pants ...
Tilley pants - similar to the shorts and with all the good pocket features, these were really useful but too hot to wear much in the tropics. Pants should be thin cotton or (better yet) a quick dry, breathable fabric that is cool. Nevertheless, these were worn a lot.
Nylon pants - had these made at a tailor shop Vietnam. Lightweight with cargo pockets that zip closed and have flaps secured by velcro. Secure, lightwight, and quickdry these were the perfect travelling pants. If you can find nylon pants with secure pockets, buy them.
Zip-off pants - these were similar to the nylon pants I had made. Made of a thin breathable fabric, they kept me cool during long hot treks through the rainforest. They also had one zipper pocket for money. I wore these pants out. However, I only removed the pantlegs two or three times. Thus, zip-off pants are not needed if you bring a pair of shorts. Bring good, breathable pants instead.
After travelling for ten months, the wardrobe changed a bit. It is now:
2 shortsleeve very thin cotton shirts
1 white linen longsleeved shirt
(noted above)
1 longsleeved thin cotton shirt (now very faded and worn). Find a thin cotton shirt that is loose and doesn't show moisture and you will have the perfect travel garment! I bought this, the other cotton shirts, and pants at the FabIndia clothing chain in India.
Tilley shorts (see above)
Cotton tshirt (noted above)
Two pairs of loose cotton "pajama" pants. Perfect for the beach but they don't meet my pocket criteria. Comfortable for beach time though.
Belt - bought this as I lost weight during travel. Buy your pants a little small and you won't need one.
I got rid of my zip off pants and my tilley pants. The zip-offs were worn out (had been worn on every trek and were in bad shape). The Tilley pants were just too hot and thus were rarely worn.
1 Tilley hat - I was glad to have this for sun protection in many places, though it made me look goofy.
The Essentials to Pack
If we were to do it all again, this is the clothing I'd put in my bag
2 pairs of shoes (one pair of walking shoes, one pair of Tiva-style sandals)
2 pairs of Tilley quick-dry socks
3 pair of Tilley quick-dry briefs
1 quick-dry t-shirt
1 long-sleeved cotton shirt (thin and loose-fitting)
1 pair Tilley shorts
1 pair of lightweight pants
1 hat for sun protection
For Women:
2 pairs of shoes (one pair of walking shoes, one pair of Teva-style sandals)
8 pairs underwear - Could have made do with less -- maybe five pair -- but wouldn't have saved much space by doing so. Only bring cotton or quick dry underwear (no satiny ones) which are best in the heat and dry quickly. Tilley underwear are good but not very attractive. Cotton is best.
1 bra - Didn't buy this until 3/4 of the way through the trip, as Laura had been wearing tanktops with built-in support. When she decided to buy new shirts, she needed to also buy a bra. Laura's bra-optional tanktop outfit may not work for women who are especially well-endowed. In that case, breathable cotton tshirts would be a better choice. Be conscious that in many countries, exposed skin will attract unwanted attention from men and women (as well as demonstrating a lack of cultural sensitivity)
Longsleeve dress shirt - Bought halfway through the trip to have something nice for evenings. Not worn very much though.
3 tshirts - Purchased halfway through the trip. Only really needed one. Shortsleeve shirts are more culturally appropriate than tanktops which require you wear a long-sleeve overshirt to cover the arms.
2 tanktops - Should have brought only one tanktop and one more dressy tshirt, as you can't wear tanktops to dinner. As noted above, tanktops require a longsleeve overshirt in some countries (such as India and all Muslim countries) to be culturally sensitive. However, the coolest outfit Laura wore was a tanktop with her Tilley sunshirt worn overtop. Loose fitting but she never got a sunburn.
1 longsleeve sunshirt - Probably worn this over 300 times over the course of the year. Would suggest a colour that goes with lots of different things. Worn to cover her arms exposed by the tanktop and for sun protection (it is rated 50SPF). Was more conservative with sleeves rolled down, or could be cooler with sleeves rolled up. This outfit was cooler than the clothing worn by local women (kurtas or saris), which were more restrictive and allowed less air circulation.
Pant-skirt - Bought a pair of loose wide-legged thin cotton pants that look like an ankle-length skirt. Wore them all the time; they're cool and can be "dressed up" as well.
2 strapless sundresses - Bought them while travelling near the end of the trip. Good beach cover-ups and for sunset dinners.
Zipoff pants - Only wore them as pants for trekking and sometimes at night for mosquitoes. The rest of the time they were worn as shorts. More useful than full-length pants as they double as shorts. These were Laura's only shorts other than a small pair of beach shorts that would not be appropriate in the city. In many of the countries we visited, shorts are not appropriate for women or men. Even capri pants are pushing the limits of what is acceptable. Capri pants are useless in the evening for mosquito protection. In countries that tolerate shorts, there will be temples you cannot visit wearing them (making zip-on pantlegs very convenient).
1 pair of beach shorts - worn over her bathing suit, Laura didn't use these often. It would have been much easier to buy these, a sarong or sundress abroad.
Loose cotton pajama pants - bought these halfway through the trip in India. Replaced her zipoff pants which by then were too big. Breathable and good for hot climates.
3 bikinis - Brought two and bought one abroad. Only used them near the end of our trip. Should have brought one and bought others as needed. If you want a full support suit that offers more coverage than a bikini, buy it at home. You may have difficulties finding what you want abroad. If you're travelling in Asia, remember that Asian women are petite and the size of clothes will reflect that. Note that in Muslim countries, women either do not go swimming or do so fully clothed. It would be highly inappropriate to wear a bikini outside tourist areas in these countries (and expose you to a lot of unwanted attention)
1 Tilley hat - was expensive and rarely worn. Would buy an inexpensive hate while travelling next time.
1 fleece - used in Nepal and a few times elsewhere in the trip. In hindsight, should have bought it in Nepal instead.
2 light thin scarves - bought while travelling and used to cover shoulders while wearing a tanktop, cover the head in temples, and as a belt to "dress up" outfits.
1 Salwar Kameez - bought in India, this local outfit garnered much positive attention from locals. Wearing it, especially in temples and other traditional places, seemed to convey respect for local traditions and culture. It was also beautiful, if hot. In conservative countries, buy a local outfit for visiting religious places; it will make for a much more positive reaction to your visit. The outfit will also be a nice souvenir of your visit.
The Essentials to Pack
If we were to do it all again, this is the clothing Laura would put in her bag.
2 pairs of shoes (1 walking shoes, 1 Teva-style sandals). Knowing the terrain and length of our Nepal trek, she would also have brought worn-in hiking boots.
2 pair Tilley quick dry socks
2 pairs of Tilley briefs and 2 pairs of cotton underwear
1 cotton bra
1 tanktop
1 sunshirt (long-sleeved)
1 dressy t-shirt
1 pair zip-off pants
1 swimsuit
A final note on clothing: If you're travelling for longer than three months, there is a good chance you will lose weight. After six months, our clothes had become baggy and needed tailoring. Some garments were mailed home because they were too big. For this reason, don't expect that what you pack will last you for the whole trip. Buy clothing abroad: its cheaper, supports the local economy, and makes a good souvenir. Often the clothes are of poor quality, however, and won't last long.
One last note: Tilley travel clothing is mentioned several times above with good reason: they are of good quality and well-designed (not because I have any particular loyalty to the store). I also like that they are Canadian, and have knowledgeable staff. Their website is

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Bag

Whether its a short or long trip, your luggage is your home away from home, the one thing you will bring that will be difficult to replace. If its too big or heavy, you'll curse yourself. If its too small (though many will say this isn't possible), you might regret it. Maybe. No matter the trip, its essential that your bag is easy to tranport and secure.
While preparing for our trip, we were advised by two different friends to get bags that had wheels but also could be used as a backpack.
In ten months of travel, we've used our bags as backpacks fewer than ten times. Though we're thankful to have the option of a backpack, the wheels have been invaluable. If you're travelling to urban centres, through train and bus stations, and not planning to do lengthy treks where you'll need a true backpack, wheels are the only way to go. Its an expensive option perhaps, but well worth it. After all, this will be your home for the time you're away.
I'll briefly mention that a suitcase has very limited use when travelling anywhere but the most developed countries or the fanciest hotels. If you're planning to hire a taxi to take you everywhere, use porters to load and unload your bags, and never need to carry your bag yourself, then perhaps a suitcase is a good option. Otherwise, they're just too cumbersome to travel with for any length of time. Backpacks aren't just for backpackers!
After travelling with it for almost a year, I can wholly recommend Osprey's travel packs. Well designed and solidly built, it has lived through more than its share of rough treatment and shows only cosmetic, minor damage. Worth a look anyway!

Passports and Visas

If you're travelling, you'll need a passport. If you don't already have one, apply early. In Canada, getting a passport is, unfortunately, a lengthy and beaurocratic process. The requirements are spelled out pretty clearly on the government website. In case you're like most people and find the process frustrating, remember that there are many people -- the majority of the world's population in fact -- for whom a passport is something they'll never be priviledged enough to have. You're lucky -- very very lucky -- to be able to get one so easily.
Depending upon the countries you're visiting, you may also need to apply for visas. Remember that most countries will not issue you a visa if your passport expires in six months or less. Keep this in mind when considering whether you need to apply for a passport (or renew your old one)!
It is incredible how many travellers do not research the visa requirements for their destination. Instead, they rely upon their travel agent, fellow travellers, or blind luck. I have always been able to find visa requirements on the internet with a little creative searching. Otherwise, there are always embassies and consulates to phone (most have web sites too). Remember, you won't be allowed to board your plane if you haven't met the visa requirements for your destination. Do the research, get the visa, and don't forget your passport. You won't leave home without it.
One last thing: keep an eye on the expiry dates of your passport and visas while travelliing. We have some travel friends who had to make a few very stressful last-minute dashes for the border to renew their visa. And despite what other travellers might tell you, DON'T overstay your visa. Doing so is breaking the law; get caught and in many countries you'll end up in jail and/or blacklisted from ever entering that country again. Get the visa extended legally. There are usually a number of ways to do this. Again, check with your embassy or their website.

Money, money, money

Unfortunately, travelling costs money. Sometimes lots of it. But carrying lots of cash is obviously not the best idea. I heard a story about a woman who arrived in Delhi and had her money belt stolen before she even left the airport. All the money for her trip was in that moneybelt. She turned around and got back on the plane home; her trip -- and with it six months of savings -- was finished before it even began.
How to carry your cash? It used to be that travellers cheques were the best choice. But you're often charged a fee to buy them and a fee to cash them in. In places like India, there's a long complicated process involving multiple forms and waiting in line (sometimes for a long time) to cash a travellers cheque. It is, quite simply, a pain in the ass. Consider too that its not as easy as you might think to get your money back if they're stolen. Some travel companions of ours had their money belts stolen while travelling. The travellers cheque company wouldn't give them a refund without seeing their identification ... which, of course, was also stolen. It was easier for them to get a new passport than replace their travellers cheques! Most people don't realize that you usually need the reciept issued when you buy the travelers cheques; the cheque numbers alone aren't enough. In short, there really isn't much point to using travellers cheques these days when there are other, better options.
It is much easier to simply carry your ATM card with you. Most places have bank machines everywhere and there's the added benefit of usually getting a better exchange rate than if you were to change cash directly.
There's some things to consider before departing with your ATM card in hand, however:
-What international network does your card use? Most use PLUS or CIRRUS (the logo should be printed on your card and is also on the ATM machines). Most ATM machines abroad take both, but not all. Know what network your card uses and see if your bank can tell you if it is available in your destination.
-Can your card access more than one account (such as a savings and a chequing account)? You may not know which account you're withdrawing from while abroad, if that matters to you. Selecting the "savings" button on a foreign ATM machine may withdraw money from your "chequing" and visa versa.
-Keep your ATM reciepts. Some countries will require them to change unused money when you leave the country. You'll also want to double check that the amounts you withdraw match your bank statements. If you throw out the reciepts, destroy them first. Many will print your entire ATM number on them ... a pretty big bonus for someone snooping through your garbage can who knows what to do with it.
-If your bank has an internet banking option, use it. It's a good way to check your withdrawals.
-Some countries don't have ATM machines. They're rare, but they do exist. Lao, for example, has only one. Cash advances on a Visa card are the better option in these places.
-In some places, your ATM card might not work. In India, we searched for days to find a machine that would work, though many used the right network. Have a backup plan in case your card doesn't work ... and keep trying different machines if you don't have luck the first try.

Lastly, you should also carry a credit card with you. Visa seems to be the most widely accepted. High end shops, restaurants, and travel agencies will accept it. In many places, you'll be charged extra when you use it. 3% added to your bill seems to be pretty standard in SE Asia. I'd only use it in the most reputable places ... its pretty easy for someone to copy your credit card number and use it fraudulently. Find out how to check your visa transactions online to ensure someone isn't using your card without your knowledge. Get your Visa card setup for cash advances and ensure you know your PIN number. If your ATM card doesn't work, its always possible to get a cash advance on your credit card either at an ATM machine or by going into the bank.

Finally, its not a bad idea to carry a small amount of cash in a currency like Euros, Pounds, or US dollars (these days, the US $ is depreciating quickly so I'd recommend euros as a better choice). It can be exchanged pretty much anywhere and might be useful in an emergency. I wouldn't carry more than about $100 US.

There's more to be said about security of your cards and such, but I'll save that for another day.