I am by no means an experienced traveler. I have been on exactly three trips in the past five years: a honeymoon to Disney World, a weekend in Pennsylvania, and then Tanzania. So I don't think I'm any sort of expert when it comes to globe trotting and all that. I do think I have some advice to offer, though. And thinking and writing about it helps me process my TZ trip (which I am still doing three months after returning home) and for me, it's fun!
Packing can be stressful. Particularly if you're getting ready to go out of the country, you've never traveled further than three or four states away from your own, and you consider yourself "high maintenance." My suitcases were absolutely, positively as full as they could possibly be, and so was my purse (it was ridiculous, I wish I had taken a picture. It looked like an overly full shopping bag.) Part of what I've been thinking about lately includes how I would do things differently, and what I think I did right. So here are my thoughts:
What I wouldn't change:
- Febreeze. This was a lifesaver. I took a travel-sized bottle of the extra strength stuff and was even able to share some with my fellow travelers. Washing clothes in a tiny sink is very difficult, particularly in a humid climate. Between the amount of clothing I had packed and the Febreeze, I was able to go almost the whole trip without washing clothes. It sounds gross at first, doesn't it? Well, it really wasn't, because I tried to pack smart with my clothing.
- Clothes. I do not have many clothes. This is a statement I could say at any point in my life, and it would be true. I have one pair of pants for work and one pair of jeans. This is what happens when you don't have much money. I knew I didn't want to wear jeans while trekking around Africa (especially the same pair every day, gross) so I started looking early for deals on clothes. In the end, I purchased four maxi skirts on eBay and on a clothing website (using coupon codes.) I matched these up with multiple inexpensive t-shirts from Walmart- about $4 each. Six or seven shirts plus four skirts ended up making 11 or 12 days of outfits. I basically purchased an entire new wardrobe for around $70. Then I took two pairs of socks, just in case floors were gross (I wore the same sandals every day while out and about) and "unmentionables" for every day, because they just don't feel right after they've been washed in the sink (once again, cheap clothes from Walmart came in handy!) My shoes were my only real investment as I needed something sturdy and good for walking. At $70, my sandals were the most expensive article of clothing I have purchased in my life, beyond my wedding dress and prom dress. But they were worth it- my feet never hurt during the entire trip! And I still wear them now that I'm back home. Lastly, I took a few pairs of work-out style shorts. Since I went to a private school, I have developed a habit of wearing shorts under my skirts- I still do today (I wore basketball shorts under my wedding dress. Not kidding.) They made good sleep clothes (paired with one of two tank tops) and were rotated out with the ones I wore during the day. Anyway, to make a long story short, bargain shopping and strategy made my clothes-packing pretty successful. Everything I took for myself fit into my carry-on.
- Snacks. These came in handy. I took one or two sleeves of Saltine crackers with me in case I had tummy issues. And a little baggie of ginger snaps. These are part of my go-to bag when I'm having tummy problems or anxiety issues. Those mornings when I felt really gross mid-way through the trip, I could snack on a couple of crackers and sip my water or ginger ale, and feel a bit better. I also took two boxes of fruit leather (which is flat and easily transported) and was able to share that with some of my new friends as well.
- Medicine. I do not regret for one second the sheer volume of medication I took with me. On my next trip, I will probably take some of it out of its packaging, but I had this weird feeling of paranoia that we would get pulled over somewhere and police would go through our bags and find my medicine, and I wanted proof that it all was what I said it was. Which might be insane, but whatever. I was prepared! I took basically everything the CDC recommended, plus whatever I wanted for my own peace of mind. Here's a list of what you could call my traveling medicine cabinet: allergy medicine; sinus medicine (super weak stuff that did NOT help on the plane ride home); many, many rolls of both Tums and Rolaids; Immodium and its prescription-strength counterpart Lamotil; my anxiety meds; my two prescription nausea meds (fast and slower-acting); Tylenol; store-brand Pepto Bismol. Plus a mini first-aid kid that had alcohol wipes and bandages. And one stick-on heating pad, and roll-on Icy Hot. Being fully prepared helped me feel at ease, and meant that I was able to help some of my fellow travelers when they weren't feeling well later in the trip.
- Wipes. Shout wipes, baby wipes, Clorox wipes. All the wipes. I didn't end up needing the "moist wipes" or whatever they call glorified adult baby wipes, because I knew that they would probably mess up the plumbing of the actual toilets we visited, and the rest of the time I tried to avoid using the facilities. The Shout wipes came in handy when I dropped a piece of fruit on my shirt the morning I was meeting my boys. The baby wipes were very handy for cooling down in the hot sun (if you're feeling overheated, you can run a baby wipe over your arms, face, and neck- and then "towel off" with a handkerchief if you have one. Which I did.) And they were great for cleaning up sticky hands of the little ones who don't eat with a fork on a regular basis. And the Clorox wipes? My shoes got a wipe down once or twice when I did dare visit the outdoor toilets at the centers. I was hoping and praying that the moisture on the floor was just rainwater that had washed under the door, but honestly, you never know.
- A notebook. Boy am I glad I took that notebook. It was great for a few reasons. I was able to journal each day (I needed more room than they gave us in our info book) and write down everything that happened that I remembered- which meant that I was able to provide YOU with detailed blog posts when I got home. : ) I also used the notebook for communication with the kids. Emily, a girl on the trip, had the smart idea to get the kids to write down their names when we asked. That way we'd know for sure what they were (between soft voices and accents, it could be hard to tell at times) and we'd be better at remembering them. I wouldn't know Dori's name if I hadn't had my notebook for her to write in. Plus I used it for my picture dictionary that I made with Faustina and Witness! We filled a dozen pages with pictures and descriptions in Swahili and English. This impressed my boys and their translators later in the trip!
- Gifts. I am perfectly happy with the fact that I was able to take an entire backpack of gifts for all THREE of my boys, plus gifts for several sponsors.
- Pashmina. I am not a scarf person, but I own a few pashminas. I like looking at them and feeling them. I took the pink and blue pashmina my mother in law got me in India on the trip- I read somewhere that it's a good idea to take a scarf on a trip because it has many uses. My scarf helped keep me warm in the chilly plane (airplane blankets are a joke.) I wore it one or two days on the trip when it was chilly in the mornings, because of the rain- and it became my "raincoat" on my way to and from dinner in Singida on most nights. Then on the way back, I used it to cover my face when I had to blow my nose, which was a lot, so I would seem less disgusting to the other passengers who were very close by. Many uses indeed.
What I would do differently:
- Pay the baggage fee. On my domestic flights, I had to pay $90 for overweight bags. The cost was similar for the international flights. My bag was only 3 lbs overweight, but that's the business. It would have cost $35 to check another bag, though. In the future, I will take another bag, weigh everything before I go, and save money. Plus I will have more room (read: 45 more pounds, if I can carry it) more space to take stuff to the centers, and carry gifts for other sponsors.
- Take a different purse. And put less in it. I over thought my purse. I was really worried about the international flights- that I would have a panic attack and feel really trapped and helpless while flying for 8 hours. So I wanted to have lots of stuff within reach. Therefore my purse had my Bible, a few books (in case I couldn't get into one and it wasn't a good enough distraction), my medicines, some crackers, my chargers, my iPad, phone, and iPod shuffle, and random things like a sleep mask (which I never used) and other weird stuff. In Amsterdam, I ended up buying a new purse that had a zip closure and a long strap, which was more comfortable. I took out the stuff that I didn't need during the first leg of the trip and counted my old purse as my carry-on luggage, since it was already marked as such. Anyway, I ended up having to check my carry-on in New York because KLM counted my purse as carry-on and weighed it- and the combined weight was too much.
- Lighten the load. In the end, I didn't read any of the three books I took, and much to my dismay, one or two of them got kind of smushed during the journey. I like my books pristine and wrinkle free. Now I kind of don't even want to finish the ones I took because they look messed up. I'm weird about books that way. I would also leave behind at least one bag of hard candy (I took three- hard candy is very soothing for me when I'm having a panic attack) and a few random other things.
- Take a jacket. I'll repeat my line about not having many clothes. I bought a $9 simple black hoodie for this trip. And it got gross. It just smelled weird after running around JFK and the long flight and then landing in hot and humid Tanzania after two days without a shower. So I didn't want to wear it the rest of the trip (understandably.) Even if it had been clean, it wouldn't have helped much during those times I actually could have used a jacket- when it was raining! It was never cold- there was one morning when it was a little chilly- but wearing a jacket made out of sweatshirt material is not ideal in the rain. It will just absorb the water. Next time I plan on taking a jacket that does better in the rain.
- Take stuff to help the food. I didn't mind drinking so much bottled water (many people brought instant drink mix, as it was recommended in our info packet) but after a while, the food was hard to eat. It was starch-heavy without things like sauces and salt, which we take for granted back home. Next time I will take salt, pepper, and sugar packets, and hopefully some ketchup packets, too. Not a bunch, but some. It would definitely help with the cooked potatoes and other super starchy things we had to eat. I would only use those at the hotels, though, and not at the centers, because that would look weird.
- Take more stickers. I'd also take more gifts for the kids at the centers. One lady in our group brought candy like pixie sticks. She'd wait until we were playing a group game away from the entire herd of children, and pass them out as a part of the game. It was really fun for the kids. And you can never have enough stickers when visiting a child development center. Seriously. If you brought a garbage bag full, you'd still run out.
- Bring pictures of my family. I took them for my boys, but didn't think about taking them to the centers. So many of the kids asked to see pictures. I had a few on my phone, but not many. They all laughed when they saw my photo of my brother's dog, though. They didn't believe he was a dog! Pugs aren't very popular in East Africa. : )
- Bring cards for the kids. At the end of the trip, I found some "pass it on" scripture cards my mom had sent in a card (did I tell you that my mom wrote me cards to read on the trip for when I was feeling homesick or anxious? My friends Jess and Mary Jane did too, and my friend Pat made me a card with a prayer for each day!) I gave those to some of the girls I made a connection with, and wrote a note on the back telling them that I would be praying for them and that I'd never forget them. Even index cards would have been good to take- I could leave more notes with more kids.
I'm sure there are a ton of other tidbits of advice I could give, particularly if you're planning on traveling with Compassion. But these are just some random thoughts I had. Thank you for indulging me once again and reading my ramblings! : )