10 Things a Bookish, Modern Woman Should Never Travel Without

kaelyn

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.

 

kindle

Me actually doing work poolside in Peru.

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.

 

kaelyn2

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.

kaelyn

 

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.

The Traveler’s Privilege

Canoeing down the Cuyabeno River in the Ecuadorean Amazon.

Canoeing down the Cuyabeno River in the Ecuadorean Amazon.

Growing up, travel was something which was all but taken for granted. Early on, we generally just tagged along on my dad’s business trips to San José, but we also made trips to New Mexico or Western Canada or Tijuana. We went to visit friends and family in New York and Seattle. We made monthly trips during the ski season to Mammoth Mountain and almost every summer we went camping in Big Sur, which continues to be one of my favorite places on Earth. After my parent’s divorce, my mom stepped up her game and took us to Hawaii and Costa Rica, then she started trading her house with people in Ireland and France and Italy. My dad and stepmother took us on a safari to Kenya and Tanzania. I think my brother and I both realized that most of our friends weren’t traveling like this, but I am sure, as children and even into young adulthood, that we had no appreciation of just how privileged we were to be doing it.

I got my travel bug from my mom. Like me, you won’t hear her saying “maybe one day when I have money”. Instead, we find a way to make it happen as soon as humanly possible. Hence, my setting off for South America with less than $2,000 in my bank account. For me, it’s not scary to drop everything and run headlong into the unknown, but as I’ve been traveling these last few months, talking to other travelers as well as locals in the places I’ve visited, I’ve started to realize something: I am not necessarily stronger or more special or independent or adventurous than anyone else. What links me to the majority of my fellow travelers and separates me from many non-travelers is that I have led a life of privilege.

It’s taken me a long time actually, to identify, understand, and finally accept (and truly be grateful for) the kinds of advantages I have had in my life due to, for example, my family’s socioeconomic status as well as the amazing support I have received from them over the years, the country and specific place I was born in (Southern California), the things my parents taught me about being open-minded and tolerant to all people, and even (and sometimes especially) the color of my skin. For a long time I railed against what people called my “inherent privileges”. How could I be in any way held accountable for things I have no control over? I didn’t choose my family or my genes. I was born into it. But after years of talking to other people about it, reading books about people who both have and had not had privileges like me, and especially after traveling a significant chunk of the Western world, I’ve finally accepted the truth of it and consequently made it into a base from which I can delve a lot deeper into the world around me.

This is my blog. No one is paying me to write it. It is a place where I can share what I learn while I travel, but it is my opinion and should not in any way be taken as my assertion of some kind of universal truth. But I have noticed that my fellow travelers mostly come from similar backgrounds and the explanation I have come up with is this: Most people who can afford to travel the world come from first-world countries, and specifically countries that for hundreds of years were serious imperial powers. I’m talking colonialism, here, and not just the last few waves of colonialism, but stretching back centuries. Again, I don’t have research to back this up so for now we’re going to call this a personal observation, but most people I’ve met traveling who also have had the opportunity of leaving their jobs and friends and families to explore the world come from a pretty restricted number of countries including, but not limited to, the United States, England, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy. I would also like you to keep in mind that the national makeup of travelers varies from destination to destination, so here I’m talking specifically about Latin America. The point is, however, that I almost never meet travelers from Asia, Africa, or Latin America itself. When I meet a Colombian or a Mexican or a Peruvian in Ecuador, for example, they aren’t traveling, but working (again, this is not meant to be a blanket statement. I met a guy in Otavalo, Ecuador who made the amount of the world I’ve seen laughable.). To me, this is a seldom discussed consequence of the far-reaching effects of colonialism.

As for why this is, I’m not going to go into it much here because I do think it is something which deserves a little research before I start blurting out reasons think people from these latter countries do not travel nearly as much as their Western counterparts. I also want to point out that I’m not saying it’s easy for people from the former countries to travel. I know personally that it can be very difficult to save a bit of your paycheck each month in order to travel. But when I explain this to people here in Ecuador and Colombia, about how much money I left with and how I saved it, I am often met with a look of polite bewilderment. For me, $2000 is a lot of money. For some of the people I talked to, it is months of feeding and taking care of their families. The fact that for me this is “extra” money is dumbfounding to them.

I firmly believe that traveling can teach you more about yourself and the people with whom you share this tiny, blue dot than anything else, be it reading or watching National Geographic or exploring the ethnic micro-neighborhoods in your city. There is absolutely nothing that can match it. Traveling gives you empathy and compassion for people whose lives are much more limited and difficult than yours. It reinforces the truth (one that has evaded humanity for its entire existence) that no matter the skin tone, height, skull size, clothing, degree of health or ability, language, or average yearly income, we are all exactly, one hundred percent the same amount of human, with the same basic needs and that we all deserve the exact same amount of respect. We all deserve to be free of exploitation and of the violation of our rights as human beings. Which brings me back to my point: I believe that travel should be more than a privilege. It should be a right. Call me an idealist, I really don’t care. Travel is just as important in the grand scheme of things as national history or economics or biology. Schools shouldn’t focus single-mindedly on expanding the capabilities of the mind, but also on developing the potential of the heart, and nothing will do that like travel can.

Look around you. Look at ISIS in the Middle East, look at Israel’s conflicts with Pakistan, at the U. S.’s political involvement in a little too much of everything, at Ukraine’s struggle with Russia. Yes, we need diplomacy and yes, we need political and economic advisers, but I think we could do with a great deal more heart in all these problems. A fundamental issue with at least my country’s dealings with other countries, in my opinion, is that we do not see their people as being on the same plane of existence as us; they are other, we are American. My argument is simply this: we are all human.

The Benefits of Travel-Induced Fear

What is it about life that defies all expectations? I started this trip thinking I didn’t have any expectations, but now I think it’s absolutely impossible to go into any situation without subconsciously forming an idea of what will happen. Each day that has gone by, each step I have taken, has surprised me. I can already feel my travels hardening and strengthening me, breaking the mold I had created up until now. Traditionally speaking, I am homeless, and carrying all my belongings on my back has taken some of the softness from my body, a body whose favorite pastime had been sleeping in its own bed. Waking up each day with no plan or at best a very loosely-defined one has made me more adaptable and flexible. Finding myself alone in a big, big world has kicked the door wide open to what I am capable of. And yet I’ve also been reminded that I am not invincible, that as a woman and an obvious tourist some people see me as vulnerable and an easy target.

The feeling of belonging is one which is easily taken for granted. It’s not until you find yourself suddenly an obvious other that you are reminded of how comfortable belonging really is. But being an other is immensely important. It gives you perspective into the lives of people who are always other, like immigrants or minorities, it gives you compassion and empathy. Now I don’t personally think I’m ever really the sort to blend in with a crowd, but being a tall, white, blond woman in Colombia is like being a flamingo among sea gulls. We’re all birds but the outsider is obvious from a mile away. It’s enough to make one miss home, and I do, but missing home and wanting to go home are two very different feelings.

My time with Jessica and Adri is over now and suddenly I’m in a country where no one knows my name. The day they left was the first day that I felt something close to fear. Alone? On a continent to which the only connection I have is a hard-won language? It’s hard to explain this quasi-fear and why it’s not enough to deter me. I could say that I pride myself on facing my fears, and I do, but that seems trite and barely scratches the surface of why I’m doing what I’m doing. To be completely honest, I don’t know what keeps me going most days, and that’s not meant to be bleak. What is it in me that has made this possible? Why am I not content with my own bed and people who know me and love me and protect me? Why must I go out and find fear in the big world? Perhaps it comes down to this: I know there are things out in the world worthy of my fear, but there are also things that make risking that fear worthwhile, and for me, that knowledge is enough.

To illustrate the kinds of things I think worth braving fear for, let me share some of the things we all did together before my girls left.

For scale: Jess in front of La Piedra de Peñol in Guatapé, 2 hours outside of Medellín.

For scale: Jess in front of La Piedra de Peñol in Guatapé, 2 hours outside of Medellín.

We climbed 675 steps to the top, in spite of being in the end phases of a three day guaro (local word for aguardiente)-induced hangover.

We climbed 675 steps to the top, in spite of being in the end phases of a three day guaro (local word for aguardiente)-induced hangover.

But the reward was worth the work.

But the reward was worth the work.

The town of Guatapé: a reminder of one reason why I love Latin America. The colors!

The town of Guatapé: a reminder of one reason why I love Latin America. The colors!

Adri on an impromptu climb towards La Virgen in Santa Fe de Antioquia.

Adri on an impromptu climb towards La Virgen in Santa Fe de Antioquia.

La Virgen and I overlooking the Río Cauca.

La Virgen and I overlooking the Río Cauca.

Jess and Adri deep within the Zipaquirá salt mines in the Salt Cathedral... being irreverent, of course.

Jess and Adri deep within the Zipaquirá salt mines in the Salt Cathedral… being irreverent, of course.

Fear is an incredibly important emotion. Sometimes it tells us when we’re in danger and need to be cautious. It reminds us that we are not infallible, not superheroes. It reminds us that there are people out there who can and will hurt us for personal gain or, even scarier, for no reason at all. But it can also be a useless emotion when it only serves to keep us from doing things. Comfort might be going to sleep in my own bed, surrounded by my things, near to people I love, in a city I know like an old friend, but it also means giving up seeing things, wonderful things, that can only be reached through a veil of fear. Fear can even keep us from meeting amazing people. I was a little anxious about my first Couchsurfing experience in Medellín, staying with a stranger and all, but by moving through it, we had the privilege of meeting and befriending the best host anyone could ask for. So yes, fear is ugly and I resent the way it can make me mistrust people I’ve never met or interacted with, but what you can find on the other side of fear is sometimes unutterably beautiful, so for now, I’ll take fear over comfort, and run with it.

Our host in Medellín, Esneider, and his hilarious friend Carlos.

Our host in Medellín, Esneider, and his hilarious friend Carlos.

No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet introspection. -Patrick Rothfuss, A Wise Man’s Fear