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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Packing for Life Overseas

Whether you are leaving home for a week, a month, a year, or forever, the most common question that visitors and expats ask when traveling is, “What should I bring?” I asked my own “What should I bring?” questions to friends in Tunisia before I packed up my life. I had the added issue of how to pack for an indefinite amount of time. Will I be back to Canada in the next year or two? I’m not sure, but I’m leaning on the side of no, so I had to think hard before filling my suitcases.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you pack:

1. How much room do I have?
- DON’T go over the airline weight limits and specifications, unless you want to pay a whole lot extra, or have a whole lot more trouble. Some airports allow you to mail things you had to take out of your suitcases, but some don’t. Personally, I try never to risk it.
2. What will I need while I’m there?
- These are the practical needs. Clothes, resources for work, medicine that you might not be able to get at your destination. Asking questions of people on the ground will really help you weed out what you really need and what will just take up space. Less is more, especially when it frees up a place for...
3. What will I not be able to get there that I will really miss?
- These are what you take only if you have room. You might bring favourite food or treats from home, keepsakes, photos of friends and family, pass-times, and things that just make you happy.

So how did I answer the questions?

In this case it was two 50 pound bags, one small backpack (and I mean SMALL if you don’t want to run into trouble. Here is a link the one I carried, with my 13 inch laptop, a small camera, a Zoom audio recorder and my passport inside), and a mini carry-on case.
I also brought another suitcase full of Christmas presents for my family, since I stopped in Dakar to be with them over the holidays. The suitcase was made possible by some kind friends in Canada. It allowed me to fit my Dad’s new laptop in my carry-on and bump some of my necessities to the extra suitcase. We don’t always have that luxury, but it’s always nice to be able bring some Christmas cheer from home.

For me, this was mainly clothes, but also some resources for my job.
The first thing to think about is the plane. I always wear comfy clothes and shoes, then put another outfit, a scarf, hoodie and sandals in my carry-on if a quick change is needed (or in case my luggage is lost). An iPod, magazine, lotion and lip balm for the dry plane, and a travel neck pillow are pretty good companions too. Any important or expensive things also travel with me on the plane.
For clothes, makeup, jewelry and toiletries, I tried to think about how my routine would change, and pack accordingly. I brought some clothes that would be suitable for fall weather, since Tunisia can get pretty cool. Some of my must-haves were my leather bomber jacket, lace-up ankle boots, warm socks and a couple of hoodies. For the warmer weather I brought Birkenstocks, below-the-knee skirts and lots of tee shirts, with some nicer dresses and tops thrown in. And of course, I included a journalist staple- button down cotton shirts. I tried to keep in mind what would be culturally appropriate and modest, while still focusing on comfort and practicality for my work.
In terms of what I need for my job, the electronics in my backpack about summed it up, but I also picked up a copy of the Associated Press Style Guide just before I left. For free-lance work I brought the Canadian Press Caps and Spelling, and for survival purposes a tiny Larousse and my Becherelle.
I also packed some medications that I knew I might not get for a while. Many things will be readily available to me in Tunisia, but there were some (like ibuprofen liquid gel-caps) that I just did not want to risk being without.
The last real necessity that I brought was my small, well-worn ESV version Bible. It’s better than any compass I know. Without it I’d be lost.

I’m a big fan of eating whatever is available on my travels, so the only “food” item I packed was Vanilla Earl Grey and Vanilla Rooibos tea. Those two are as much about stress relief as a taste thing for me!
There were a few magazines (Outside, Relevant and Lula) that I knew I would be missing and made sure to bring. Then I added Le Petit Prince (my all time favourite book). Luckily I received a Kindle for Christmas, so I was glad I hadn’t lugged half my library with me like I’d wanted to.
Before I left I got some photos printed. I picked my favourite people and memories and will have them on display in my new place on a rotating basis.
Finally, I brought some mini scented candles from Bath and Body Works and some mini perfume bottles (Pacifica Malibu Lemon Blossom, DKNY Be Delicious, and Very Irresistible Givenchy, in case you were wondering). I also chose a few colours from my embarrassingly large nail polish collection. Everyone has their little indulgences that help them get through the busy times, and these are some of mine.

Packing for any length of time can be stressful. but I’ve found that when I remember these three questions, it can actually be a lot fun. I like to imagine the adventures the things I pack will have with me. And, frankly, living with less is never a bad lesson to learn for most of us Westerners, so I don’t sweat the small stuff. Because really, you will live, no matter what you forget or don’t have room for (unless it’s life saving medicine- please don’t forget that!).

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