In the last five years that I’ve traveled in and around Oaxaca – in planes, buses, cars, collectivos and mototaxis, even once in a cattle truck when the bus broke down – I’ve packed a lot of bags. I don’t backpack any more but I like to have what I need without toting too much.
I’m also always amazed at what people wear to travel, and since I almost always have a layover in Mexico City I have ample time to peruse the passengers. I wouldn’t have thought to wear, for instance, a tiger print jumpsuit (never mind the pattern, how do you manage a jumpsuit in an airplane bathroom?) with four-inch stiletto heels. That goes for plate-sized belt buckles, flip-flops, see-through blouses and sombreros that won’t fit into the overhead compartments. Personally, my travel uniform is stretch jeans, a dark T-shirt, cotton sweater, socks and tennis shoes. But that’s just me. OK, José travels in full cowboy boots and hat but that’s him. If you travel in first-world countries with hotel rooms that cost more than $25 a night, you may not need to read further. But I’d rather travel longer for the money and I honesty enjoy the adventure (and people) that budget travel provides. Here are my top packing picks:
First the bag: I have a pair of turquoise L.L. Bean duffle bags that have seen me through miles of travel. One has wheels, one doesn’t and can stuff inside the other one for a trip where I take a lot one way but not the other. The turquoise stands out on the luggage belt, and the ripstop nylon really doesn’t rip. They’re so dirty and scuffed that last time I left Oaxaca, I had to sign a waiver that the airline wasn’t responsible for the beat-up appearance of my bags.
- A really good travel purse that fits into the backpack which is actually my personal carry-on and where I keep my laptop. My son gave me a dark red Pacsafe bag that has all kinds of interior pockets, a steel mesh lined strap to foil theft by cutting, and a security clip on the zipper. I carry it not only when I fly or take buses, but when I know I’ll be in crowds. Both times I’ve been pickpocketed, it was in big crowds when an unseen hand unzipped my purse even though I had my hand on the strap.
- A folding bag in my carry-on: airlines keep changing the rules on size and weight of carry-ons, and several times I’ve been asked to gate-check a bag on boarding. No way am I going to put my laptop, meds or other important stuff in the cargo hold so I do a quick-change and put the important stuff in the folding bag.
- A small notebook and at least three pens. I’m always sorry when I forget to pack a notebook, because I’ll inevitably need to make a note or jot down an address. To the techies wondering why I don’t just enter info in my iPhone, it’s because I don’t want to whip out a theft magnet in public. Three pens because the person sitting behind me always needs to borrow one when it’s time to fill out custom forms, and one will already have leaked or run out.
- Travel pants with pockets. The times I’ve forgotten and worn pocketless travel clothes, I’m really sorry. I don’t put my wallet in pockets, but I do use them for stowing boarding passes (only at the last minute, because they do fall out), Kleenex, gum and chapstick. Cargo pants with zippers are great, and I have several in tencel fabric that doesn’t wrinkle and dries quickly.
- Multi-use clothes and accessories. I don’t have room for a lot of different outfits, so I have to use each thing a lot of different ways. My favorites are:
- A long multicolored scarf, which can be used as not only a fashion accessory but a hand towel (public restrooms are often out) or pillow. It also makes a great bib when eating messy foods (oh wait, all foods are messy eaten on a moving vehicle). When I traveled with a broken shoulder, a long scarf was easier to use and pack than an actual sling.
- A bandana or two: to use as a headband, sweatband when exercising, impromptu eye mask when trying to sleep in a brightly lit place, and once used to pull a rolling suitcase when the handle fell off mid-trip. I also always pack one for hiking for all the same reasons plus pack one in my first-aid bag to use as a bandage if necessary.
- A cotton sarong that is my go-to lounging outfit with a tank top; it can be tied at different lengths as a skirt or in lieu of a towel or robe out of the shower.
- Pants with adjustable tabs so you don’t have to take separate long and cropped pants. Often the temperature changes enough in a day that I wear them long in the morning with socks, and am down to rolled-up pants and sockless by afternoon. I stop short at the safari-style that have zip-off legs, but about 95% of all traveling American men could suddenly sport shorts if necessary. It’s not.
- Overnight essentials: yoga pants, extra T shirt, clean underwear, a toothbrush and my phone and laptop chargers in my carry-on. The clothes can double as pj’s, exercise wear or an extra outfit since delayed flights have sometimes turned missed connections into overnighters.
- Elastic hair bands, a dozen or so. Obviously to make a ponytail when my hair is hanging down on my neck, but also to secure boxes, pill cases and other things that fall apart in transit.
- A few electrical gizmos that make travel life easier with electronics: multi-plugs for when there’s only one outlet in a room, converters that fit a three-pronged modern plug into an old-fashioned two-pronged outlet, and a small extension cord.
- A first-aid/repair kit: mine’s a small zippered mesh bag that holds ibuprofen, first aid cream, tea tree oil (insect repellent to nail fungus), bandaids, safety pins, small scissors, duct tape, rubber bands, paper clips, Pepto Bismol tablets and candied ginger (for motion sickness on swaying boats and buses, doesn’t make you feel drowsy like some OTC pills). Also needle and thread plus dental floss, which makes great heavy-duty repair thread. The daypack I stitched back together with dental floss is still fine four years later. Not pretty, but fine.
- Quart-size ziplock bags. I always pack liquids in them and carry extras for corralling small things, collecting rocks or seashells or whatever. They’re often not available in the places that I travel, so I usually carry a bunch extra, also a few gallon sized.
- A neck pouch, the dumb-looking kind that’s big enough for a passport, cell phone, credit cards and money. I don’t like wearing one while walking around but I do put it on while sleeping on buses and planes and sometimes on crowded streets. Years ago, my almost-grown sons ridiculed the ones I’d bought them for a European backpacking trip, but on last sight in a Paris train station were both wearing them with sheepish looks as their back pockets were inaccessible under frame packs. I also have a couple of more fashionable embroidered neck purses that hold money, a debit card and my Mexican cell phone.
- A complete purse: both a wallet for bills and separate zippered coin purse for change, chapstick, sunglasses, extra case to hold my regular glasses when sleeping, tiny folding umbrella, and always, always extra Kleenex plus any clean napkins I’ve pilfered off of restaurant tables.
The kleenex I keep to myself, because there will always be another bathroom with no toilet paper, at least the places where I travel. The pens I’ll share, but not the tp – you’re on your own there.
— Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org