I suppose there are veteran travelers, or maybe backpackers, who can just stuff a few things into their bag and go. I was not one of those people. When I had to pack for a year in Cambodia, I found myself more equipped for a Boy Scout outing than for an international electoral mission. Although I had acquired a spectacular Swiss army knife, a half dozen plastic bottles of Avon Skin So Soft—guaranteed, my military buddies insisted, to protect me from insect bites—and a rather impressive mosquito net, the world-time watch and water filtration system suddenly seemed a bit ridiculous.
Even a long weekend trip required packing several pairs of shoes, too many matching shirts, pants, and earrings. Only rarely was I smart enough to take a pair of stretch black jeans and a couple of black t-shirts and call it good. More often than not, I felt like a pack mule rather than a tourist. I even had fold-up bags to carry more “stuff” that I bought along the way.
My mother, who loved to travel—indeed lived to travel—had a motto: never take more than you can carry. It took me decades to appreciate her wisdom.
Necessity, not desire, changed my old packing habits. I had become a septuagenarian with arthritis who had to pack for three months across several continents, time zones, and multiple elevations.
My suitcase had to be light enough to pull off an airport’s baggage carousel without throwing out my back, haul it up stairs if necessary, and take it on trains and buses. To save suitcase space, I would wear my heaviest shoes on the plane as well as my heaviest jacket because I was going to travel between tropical climes and high latitude destinations. I had long since stopped worrying about wearing jewelry, not wanting to have a good ring cut from my finger. Only one superfluous item had to go with me, and I would wear it around my neck—an ancient wooden Buddha that I’ve worn almost daily for the past 30 years. I have been assured by many Cambodians that my travel totem has great power; it is why they believe I am so strong.
Because Metamucil is not sold in China, a bottle of it went into my suitcase. So did a myriad of medications, so many that I had to take out a purse, a third pair of shorts, and a long sweater. I was down to bare bones. The suitcase closed. I could lift it with one hand. Success.
Not success. I cannot travel without trinkets to pass out as gifts for unexpected kindnesses or for children whom I meet along the way. Since I no longer had a purse, I found a light-weight backpack to double as a wallet, a folder for travel documents, and a catch-all for everything that did not fit into my suitcase. I threw in an all-purpose scarf, in case I wanted to visit a mosque or make a fashion statement, a dozen emergency protein bars, lip balm, an extra toothbrush, and eyeliner—my one makeup requirement. I also decided to take an iPad, which is an acceptable substitute for a phone, camera, and laptop. There was only one thing left to carry—three dozen miniature squishies to pass out to children. They squish, so into the pack they went.
Zip, snap, zip. I was ready!