I’ve been in South America for well over a year now and I continue to be amazed by the sheer variety of life and the experiences that come with it. It seems I fall in and out of love with people and places constantly and without warning. In some ways, I’m so ready to go home and yet I also strive to hold on to each day as tightly as possible, to remind myself that I am actually, truly living a dream. I’ve learned a lot, about myself most of all, but also about travel itself, and I’ve come up with a few things that I think should be on most women’s list of things to bring when traveling — things I haven’t seen on many other lists. So here you go! If you have comments or would add something, let me know!
1. An IUD (Intrauterine Device): Yeah, I said it. It’s no secret that a lot of shenanigans happen while traveling — in hostels, on exotic beaches, in showers — and guess what? It’s better to be prepared, and I think the IUD is about as prepared as you can get. There’s a lot of misplaced fear about this form of birth control because of some shoddy models in the 70s, but since then the IUD has come to be scientifically accepted as one of the safest and the most effective option. The Pill is great, but sometimes traveling is hectic, and it’s easy to forget to take one. Just consider this: if you were to accidentally get pregnant while in the middle of a months long trip through South America, Asia, or Africa especially, it may be nigh on impossible to get the kind of care you might need (the day-after pill, abortions, etc.). For more details, check out this world map of abortion laws.
Where you’re traveling can also determine whether condoms are affordable or even available, and that’s not a risk you need to be taking. Travel is all about calculated risk, not haphazard, drunken ones! That said, you should also bring as many condoms with you as you can, since IUDs only protect against pregnancy, not STIs or STDs. Another bonus of IUDs (specifically the Mirena) is that it makes your period lighter. In all the time I’ve been abroad, I’ve only gone through half a box of tampons!
Check with your health provider to see about your options. Many insurance plans provide IUDs for free and, depending which one you choose, they last from 5 to 10 years! That’s a decade of minimal unplanned pregnancy worries…
2. A Laptop: If you’re a working girl, laptops come in mighty handy. You can teach English classes online, write travel articles for various websites, or do a myriad of other small jobs which can help fund and thereby extend your travels. Also, Netflix sometimes provides a most-needed hiatus from travel frenzy.
3. A Kindle or Similar Tablet: I have the Kindle Fire and let me tell ya, I don’t know what I would have done without it. Pre-travel I was one of those book nerds who ranted about how Kindles would never replace real books because, like, book smells! But while traveling, real books literally weigh you down. I generally have around 10 different books downloaded on my Kindle at any given time, which in real life would add a lot of extra weight to my backpack. No bueno. But besides reading, Kindles can do soooo much more. I’ve used mine to edit manuscripts, input grades for my ESL students, and write blog posts (PDF reader and a word processor, say what!), as a music player for long bus rides, and as an alarm clock, among other things. This is also a great option if you don’t want to bring your laptop, either because you don’t want the extra weight or in case it gets lost or stolen. Kindles are much cheaper to replace.
4. A Library Card: Huh? Yes. You heard me right. Here’s what you do: Download the Overdrive App and verify that your local library is a participant. Then, if you haven’t already, go open an account at your library. But wait… I’m going to be traveling. Why would I need a library account at home? Here’s why: Overdrive allows you to check digital copies of books out from your home library regardless of where in the world you are. Mic drop. Instead of spending valuable dollars on buying books from Amazon or at the rare English bookstore (although do go in these too while traveling — it’s fun), you can do this for absolutely nothing. Depending on the library, you can generally check up to 30 books out at a time, for up to 3 weeks, and then renew as often as necessary. This. Changed. My. Little. Bookish. Life.
5. A Filtering Water Bottle: Backpacking is all about saving money wherever possible in order to be able to do the epic treks or go scuba diving with hammerheads in the Galápagos. Even the small stuff, like buying water, adds up. Reusable water bottles that come with filters are a great way to avoid this. When hard-pressed, you can get water from virtually anywhere (though again, calculated risks are the name of the game) and the filter will make the water drinkable. They tend to run at around $50, but it’s a worthwhile investment. For a list of some of the most popular brands, click here.
6. Probiotic Pills and Emergency Diarrhea Medication: I have a stomach of steel, luckily, and so I’ve never gotten truly sick from anything I’ve eaten (and I eat everything), but just in case, I never travel anywhere without these two things. Probiotics are simple supplements that help your digestion and I take these for a few days whenever my stomach is unhappy. In cases where you’re having to run to the bathroom every few minutes though (as happened to a friend in Colombia once, unfortunately in a hostel where everyone could hear everything), it’s smart to have some more hard-core drugs on hand. If they don’t cure you, they’ll at least slow things down till you can get to a doctor.
7. An Expired Passport or ID Card: I’m going to pat myself on the back here, but this is seriously genius. A lot of people will bring copies of passports around with them when going out to a club, but I’ve also seen them get rejected. I have an expired Driver’s License that I take out with me and it’s worked every time. If you lose it, it’s not a big deal, but it’s official enough that it probably won’t ever get questioned. (Disclaimer: my experience is limited to South and Central America. Not sure how well this would work elsewhere. It would rarely work in the States for example.)
8. Double of Everything You Can’t Live Without (Within Reason): Bringing a nice camera with you on your travels? A laptop? A Kindle? It’s smart to double-up on things like batteries, chargers, etc. Why? Because there’s a good chance they’ll get lost, blown out by power surges, or stolen, and buying them in a foreign country is often a lot more expensive than buying them back home. Just make sure you keep them in separate places, in case of theft or loss. Otherwise you might find yourself carrying around a fancy gadget that doesn’t work. It sucks, let me just tell you.
9. A Second Backpack: Sometimes you see people walking around with a huge backpack behind them and a smaller one on their chest like some kind of hunchbacked marsupial. They didn’t overpack; they’re just smart. I always bring a small, closeable bag with me whenever I travel and this is where I keep anything valuable (passport, money, gadgets, etc.). When you take long bus rides, your bags go under the bus and out of sight and sometimes things disappear mysteriously. It’s better to keep this small bag with you at all times. On your lap is the best place for it. I’ve seen many a bag stolen from overhead racks and even pilfered from between a person’s legs. It’s a great place to store valuables, but that also means they’re all in one place, so beware. It also serves the double-purpose of being a day bag when you don’t need to carry all your belongings with you.
10. A Piece of Jewelry, Article of Clothing, or Talisman that Makes You Feel Bad Ass: This, in my opinion, is a lot more important (and less silly) than it sounds. You’re going to find yourself in uncomfortable situations while traveling. Maybe you got on the wrong bus, or are in a place where men stare at you in a less than friendly way, or you’re nervous about flying. In any case, even a small boost of confidence helps, and I’ve found that wearing something, visible or not, that gives you that feeling is invaluable.
In my case, whenever I’m moving from one place to another I always wear a quartz stone necklace that my mom bought me in Salento, Colombia. I don’t strictly believe in this kind of stuff, but quartz is supposed to protect you. I always wear two bracelets: an engraved one from my best friend and one my dad gave me that says “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” These help remind me that there are people out there who love me at those moments when I feel particularly lonely or sad. And whenever I’m feeling especially pissed off about the seemingly omnipresent male gaze or just want to seem a little tougher than I actually am, I have a shirt that says “Fuck Your Macho Bullshit” and it makes me feel better. They’re small things, but believe me, they’re something. Even little comforts go a long way when you’re traveling by yourself.
Bonus Tip: An Understanding that You Are Fierce, Powerful, and Moreover Extremely Privileged to Be Doing What You’re Doing: It’s easy to fall into a pattern of complaining. Yeah, the WiFi sucks sometimes, there are really big bugs in the jungle, and the bus drivers don’t always let you use the toilet, but you are part of the 1% of the entire global population that gets to travel for fun. The people you meet in those small South American towns? They wish they could be you, traveling without a care in the world. Be aware of that. Be grateful. And always, always remember that just the fact that you’re leaving comfort and security behind to venture into the unknown makes you one bad ass lady.