Deciding what to pack for an overseas trip is an onerous task, especially when your return home is unknown. Initially I’d assumed I would’ve only survived six months in Asia, mostly because I had foolishly believed that I was going to be granted a fellowship at the New York Public Library and instantaneously catapult to the literary big leagues. Unless that acceptance email was mistakenly filtered into spam and subsequently trashed without my knowledge, I am yet to receive an offer (nearly two years later).
Because of this optimistic oversight, I failed to make concrete plans for anything after my first few months abroad, only to end up elongating my expectedly brief overseas jaunt to span nineteen months and two continents. Since I was under the impression that I was merely preparing for a 6-month sabbatical from my prestigious writing position which was never granted, I tried to pack minimally by my own peculiar standards. Even though I had tremendously downsized my wardrobe, I still arrived in Asia equipped with more belongings than any of the other participants in my language program… in excess of 50lbs easily.
Before becoming a wanderer, I used to be typical hoarder. I’d hold on to old, outdated clothing just in case a special occasion occurred where I was invited to a red carpet gala or featured in an athletic commercial. Most of it wasn’t even worth buying to begin with, let alone keeping just in case an opportunity presented itself for me to adorn hot pink high heels, a skin tight golden glitter dress or neon Nike apparel. But I was trying to be somebody back then, the girl who had enough clothing to not duplicate any one item for at least a month. These days, I’ll wear the same outfit two days consecutively if it’s clean… like yesterday until I spilled coffee on both my over and undershirt and sat in swampy wet grass. Now when I find holes in a shirt from overuse, I just pretend it’s vintage and all the rage this impoverished season.
My former self was unable to part with unnecessary materials and utter junk that had absolutely no purpose or value. My closets overflowed and dresser drawers were stuffed to capacity. Additionally, bins of storage were packed tight and shoved under my bed, too full to even secure the lid. This is not ideal when the entire square footage of your Manhattan bedroom measures smaller than some people’s walk-in closets.
Whenever I had to move apartments, I’d struggle with my heavily packed containers and trash bags full of clothes. The heavy duty bags would tear under the weight of all my hideous attire. I had racks hung over doors stacked with knock off trendy shoe styles from TJ Maxx that I could barely bring myself to wear in public. I was the epitome of a Trashinista! I’d wobble around NYC in my cheap toe-splicing finds, purchased at a half-price discount (presumably because they were a threat to healthy aligned ankles), trying and failing to be sexy. I could’ve started my own fashion faux pas clothing line called BTBC, Broke Trash Bag Chic.
To be honest, I don’t even care for shoes all that much. There, I said it! I genuinely loathe trending shoe styles. Any woman who claims she enjoys giraffe neck-length heels is outright lying, at the expense of females everywhere. They are about as enjoyable as a stiff underwired bra digging into your back all day long. Or comparable to an itchy thong pulled tight up your ass hidden behind your yoga pants in an attempt to conceal that you’re a proponent of proper underwear usage.
Personally, I’d prefer to live in a world full of cozy cloth loafers and stretchy slacks paired with a relaxed plain tee, maybe accented with a light scarf if I’m feeling frisky. A world where the care-free side braid or messy bun topped with a fedora is always in style, where I can confidently go naked faced without “contour” makeup masks and where wearing a swimsuit top as a substitute for a cupped bra is deemed perfectly acceptable, i.e., a place know as The Philippines.
One epiphanic day it occurred to me that shoes walk on the same ground where dogs pissed and homeless human beings slept. And on that day I chose to wear whatever affordable attire made me feel comfortable and tried to stop being such an overly consumptive dime store diva. I realized that there were larger concerns in the universe than the hem of my dress or the colors on the soles of my boots, not that I ever owned anything with red soles unless I accidentally stepped in wet paint.
It’s all made in Taiwan anyway so I’m not sure why the label even matters. Someone (other than myself because I’m neither fashionably nor business inclined) should develop a brand called Made in America just for the sake of irony. I volunteer to write the sarcastic copy for this campaign. It would probably be a huge hit for Asians and Trump fans alike, which defies all logic, a pretty standard theme worldwide.
Since at the beginning of my journey I thought I was just going to Cambodia for my TESOL certification and then Thailand to live and teach, I prepared for Asia attire. Because Europe wasn’t yet on my radar, I’d only considered organizing myself for the laid-back warm weather lifestyle and rather cluelessly at that. This greatly narrowed down what types of clothing I would need to acclimate the hot and sweaty climate.
In one monstrous wheeling suitcase I tightly packed my summer wardrobe: beachwear, what I believed to be “teaching outfits,” a few pairs of flats, sandals, basic clothes for everyday use and several scarves and cardigans for temple touring. Another body bag resembling apparatus (last minute Walmart purchase), I stuffed full with essential resources such as probiotics, mosquito repellent, pharmaceuticals, toiletries and technological gadgets. I also carried a regular backpack where I had my computer, iPad, a Thailand/Cambodia specific travel guide, a soft blue blanket and small carry-on items. School girl mistakes were made by the dozen.
When I got to the Philadelphia airport with my luggage, passport and paperwork, I nervously walked up to the counter not having even the slightest inclination about what the hell I was really getting myself in to… probably for the best. I must’ve looked like a doe-eyed kindergartner on her first day, reporting to class with a tightly fastened backpack and nervously clutching all the necessary papers in a manilla folder. Unsurprisingly, my tank of a suitcase was overweight so with the help of my parents who kept trying to talk me out of the whole thing at the literal last minute, we began feverishly transferring items to the other bags. This ended up being a bit of a blessing later on in my maiden voyage across the globe.
“Chandra are you sure you want to take this?” My Mom asked me while holding N.A.P. Bear (that was his given name at his Brookstone birth) by his neck as if he were a baby kitten, his stuffed arms drooping sadly to his side. He didn’t have a say in the matter, N.A.P. Bear was about to be a world traveler whether he liked it or not.
“Yes! Give me that!” I grabbed N.A.P. Bear and shoved him face down into my backpack along with some t-shirts. There was no time for deliberation.
Once we balanced the weight of the luggage, we shared an anxiety-filled goodbye and I was on my way to the departure gate. I sat down and paged through my Fodor’s travel guide, unable to actually focus on any of the words in the book. I just stared blankly at the pictures of strange seafood carcass soups and bug buffets at lively markets, surprised by my own audacity. Again, I thought to myself “Chandra, seriously, what the F are you doing?”
I would have this same thought several more times during the 29-hour flight, complete with two stop-offs. My doubts only doubled after landing in Phnom Penh and watching helplessly as the baggage claim circled several times without producing my checked luggage. This was because my baggage had decided not to accompany me on my trip, but instead stay behind in L.A., where I was stationed during my first layover. I believe it was foreshadowing how hilariously unprepared I was for this misadventure. Apparently there hadn’t been adequate time between flights to have my luggage transferred between the domestic and international terminals.
I hadn’t packed my carry-on in preparation of this nightmare scenario. I didn’t have any of the items I had meticulously and carefully packed, just a plush bear and some cotton tees, which everyone knows are super useful in the sweltering heat of Southeast Asia. I failed to even consider keeping so much as one set of clean underclothing or travel-sized resources, such as a toothbrush or deodorant. This was merely the first of many silly mistakes I’d make along the way during my overseas journey.
While I wouldn’t go as far to say that I was deathly ill-prepared for my trip, I definitely could’ve been more informed. I foolishly took advice from a questionably knowledgable source, one provided through testimonials from the students in my language program’s past. This proved to be drastically unreliable as in accordance with their guidance, I’d come prepared to join a Mennonite’s community. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the program was slightly dysfunctional and the soundless advice given by the students before me was a testament to that. They had convinced me that my sheer presence was offensive and to basically cover any and all exposed skin in public. It took me less than a week of profusely sweating through long-sleeved blouses and heavy trousers, all the while surrounded by locals appropriately dressed in tank tops and skirts to realize I was going to have to pay a visit to Thai shopping plazas.
For the amateurs out there, I’m going to provide an idiot-proof guide for expat packing essentials! This will prevent you from spending your first frightful day in a foreign country searching for soap without whitening-cream or looking for bottoms in an Asian market large enough to cover the average-sized asscheek. During my first shopping excursion abroad where I set out to find clean clothes that would temporarily replace my delayed cargo, I almost got my wide shoulders stuck in a mini off-the-rack blouse that was several sizes too small. The Cambodian sales lady looked on horrified as my giant beast body bulged at the seams, quite literally. To avoid similar shame, read on all you rookie travelers to learn how to make wiser decisions that will hopefully make your life easier and luggage lighter.
Packing Tips 101
- At least two complete wardrobe changes of clothes in your carry on just in case your luggage fails to follow you as mine did.
- Only a travel-size of all your essential toiletries. The rest you can buy for much cheaper once there and find the proper stores for groceries/pharmaceuticals.
- A reliable pair of flip flops/sandals, walking shoes (loafers, boat shoes, Toms) and cross trainers. Additionally, one pair of shoes devoted to rainy days, which depending on your geographic location could be plentiful.
- Enough undergarments, sports bras and swimsuits to last the length of your stay if you’re like myself and on the curvier side, because you’ll be hard-pressed to find something above size 0 at a decent price in countries not typically as obese/voluptuous/pleasantly plump as America.
- Probiotic capsules. Your GI tract will rejoice.
- Ibuprofen for every and all ailments until you can locate the local shops harboring all the goods. Other medicines can easily wait until you get there, where you’ll receive the same product at 1/4 the cost. You can also obtain antibiotics OTC for a very reasonable price without a doctor visit or prescription. The drug store pharmacists trust that as an adult, you know when you have an ear infection and are able to communicate such without spending $100 to sit in a waiting room reading Vogue until you can consult a physician to tell you what you already suspected before handing you a tiny pill accompanied by a giant bill, imagine that?
- Two “professional” outfits maximum if you’re going for career purposes. Don’t clutter up your suitcase with Amish apparel like I did. It’s best to wait until you get there and start your job assignment to decide what outfits will be most appropriate depending on your working environment. In some places you will be given a uniform, or at my job, you may wear normal/nice outfits that you’d wear in any modern city anywhere else in the world, who’d a thunk it? In most international cities, you can easily find a discount store in a Westernized mall with a lovely selection of flattering clothing, or even brand name stores that suit your niche.
- One durable belt. A few pairs of socks. Scarves or light sweaters to be used to drape over yourself when visiting religious establishments.
- One bath towel and one beach towel.
- Comfortable/lightweight/linen/breathable tops and pants. Minimal denim. No leather. Pleather optional for aesthetic purposes during nights out on the town.
- A versatile jacket in case of inclement weather during random trips to Hong Kong, Amsterdam and/or London, when in the middle of summer it’s a “balmy” 54 degrees Farenheit.
- A computer or tablet for work, writing, entertainment and/or research purposes. Having both is a bit excessive and will quickly become cumbersome to carry around.
- An older model phone that if/when stolen, cracked or dropped in the ocean won’t be tragically devastating.
- Something that reminds you of the comforts of home to make your new environment feel both friendly and familiar. For me this was a bear and a blanket, which I shamelessly toted about like Linus.
- If you are going to travel for an undetermined amount of time and there is an Olympic event or World Cup in the possible future, be sure to pack your favorite national gear. It was a huge bummer sitting in an Irish pub in Prague watching the U.S.W.N.T. clench another title last summer and not be sporting 1 of my 4 Hope Solo jerseys.
- Hair sheers. I survived the entire time I was overseas by trimming my own hair when it got to be too unruly.
- Moisture wicking dry-fit type sports clothing if you plan to do any sort of exercising abroad. I’d wished I had taken more workout gear in general as I trained for the Bangkok Marathon, played soccer twice a week and regularly visited a gym for spinning, yoga and kickboxing classes. I had to have sports bras imported from home (the Asian alternative didn’t compact the coconuts nearly enough to meet my high-impact needs). I also had to outright purchase new fitness spandex and football cleats, which together cost me three day’s worth of wages. These things really can’t be anticipated, as there was no way to know I was going to find myself on boy heavy sport’s teams in Bangkok, so it’s best to just roll with the punches and splurge on some brightly colored fun new gear every once in awhile!
- Clothing without elephant print, anchor symbols or tiki designs should you find yourself in a country that might find it odd that you’re wearing a flowing floral beach dress and the nearest body of water is a decorative fountain.
- Backup tech gear because when your power adaptor kicks the bucket, a replacement is much more expensive overseas.
- A moderately-sized sturdy backpack. Nothing behemoth in nature nor one too small to be practical or useful.
- A side satchel or some sort of bag to hold your belongings that can be securely attached to your body at all times, one that cannot easily be ripped from your shoulder or have the straps sliced in a thievery attempt.
- Sensibility and patience. You’ll certainly need it.
Perhaps the most important item to bring is the luggage itself, in the form of an easily-commutable suitcase or large backpack. The size and clumsiness of my suitcase made it very difficult to maneuver traveling solo through airports and bus terminals. Granted I was moving to another continent for work and required more than a gap year backpack, a convenient four-wheel rolling suitcase as opposed to my archaic two-wheeler from the early 2000s is a wise investment. This would have saved me many frustrating situations during the commuting process and when fumbling through the turnstyles, which always ended disastrously. It would have also alleviated back pain inflicted upon the poor saps who tried to help me maneuver my luggage, like one particularly perplexed Thai hostel owner. She audibly groaned attempting to assist me with my suitcase by picking it up and cramming it into the back of a taxi.
Exasperated from the heavy lifting she asked, “How long you stay in Thailand?” She probably wanted to say, “I don’t think you understand this whole backpacking concept” and couldn’t find the words to explain her confusion about my dimwitedness in English. Meanwhile I was pretty proud of myself, thinking how my new packing method was a vast improvement from the trash bags.