Waiting for the bus with my bag, Salento, Colombia
I’ve been on the road for over two years now, not counting the few months I spent in Canada earlier this year. In those two years, I travelled across Siberia, through all of Southeast Asia, into India and Nepal, through 23 American states and 3 Canadian provinces, and have now spent the last six months in Central and South America; the items in my bag have inevitably shifted and changed, been sent home or donated to other travellers, been replaced by finds in faraway markets. There are a few things that remain the same, however, a few things that I can definitively say I wouldn’t like to travel without. Here, then, are my travel essentials, the things I always like to have in my bag and that I woudn’t travel without. Note: I have left out the obvious ones, such as passport, camera, and underwear (you can see what I had in my bag to travel to Southeast Asia here, and what I first travelled to Central/South America with here).
1. Tiger Balm. Tiger Balm is one of those magical heal-all ointments; I bought my first jar in Thailand in early 2011 and I’m still travelling with that same jar. I have rubbed it on my temples when I’ve had a headache, put it on bites to stop itching, smeared it on my chest and throat when I’ve had a cold, dabbed it under my nostrils when a bus was unbearably smelly, and used it to soothe sore muscles. Whenever I feel any sort of ailment, my first thought is, “How can I implement Tiger Balm to make me feel better??”
2. A notebook. In this era of technology, putting pen to paper seems almost antiquated. While most of my writing is done online, there are days when I really just want to make a list by hand, or write out a journal entry, or sketch a little cartoon. It’s also incredibly handy to have something to write notes in when you don’t necessarily want to whip out your computer or phone – I usually write hostel directions, phone numbers, or email addresses in my notebook for quick and easy access. You also never know when you may need a piece of paper to tear out and give to somebody. I know I’ll always travel with a notebook, no matter where I go.
Spot the iPhone, Sucre, Bolivia
3. A smartphone. I can’t believe I almost didn’t travel with my iPhone, but it has been such a useful tool. As I said earlier, we live in an era of technology, and nearly every backpacker I meet has a smartphone. In some ways it is sad, as I now walk into hostels and everyone has their heads down, tapping away on their phones – but overall I would say that travelling with my iPhone has been amazing. I use it daily: Twitter, Blogger, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, YouTube, and Safari all get regular uses per day, not to mention how often I use the clock, calendar, calculator, camera, weather, notes, and music functions. Simply put, I use it for everything. One item of note: I took my SIM card out before I left Canada, so I don’t get charged any international fees. I use WhatsApp and Skype in place of text messaging and phone calls.
4. Dry shampoo. I currently travel with a spray can of Tresemme dry shampoo, which has lasted me this past six months. As a lady with a fringe, there are often days I don’t want to wash my hair but my bangs are looking a bit limp – a few sprays of dry shampoo and I feel (and look) much better. Dry shampoo is also great for when you go on long trips where showering isn’t an option (my upcoming trip to the salt flats of Bolivia, for example) or when there is only cold water to work with. I hate having greasy hair, so this product is a miracle!
Putting my alpaca scarf to good use, Quito, Ecuador
5. A scarf. When in Asia I always had a sarong (for basically the same purposes) but here in chilly Ecuador/Peru/Bolivia a warm scarf is a necessity. I bought an alpaca one in Otavalo, Ecuador, and I have used it on countless occasions since – as a scarf, of course, but also as a blanket, a shawl, and even as a pillowcase. Sarongs can also be used as skirts, beach covers, towels, headwraps, kimonos, and just about anything you can think of.
6. Flip flops. I have a confession to make: I hate flip flops. I found one magical pair last year that I wore all over Southeast Asia, but they broke and I haven’t found any that match their comfort. I simply don’t like the way they look on people, nor do I think they are very practical for city use. I always, always travel with a pair, though, because they are great for being on beaches and on boats, and absolutely essential for any shared showers. Two words: foot fungus. Yuck.
Breakfast reading in Cartagena, Colombia
7. A guidebook. While I don’t often take my guidebook out during the day with me, I really like having it in my backpack to read on the bus or lying in bed at night. I use guidebooks in combination with Tripadvisor, Thorn Tree, and Hostelworld to get a sense of a place: the best places to stay, eat, sight-see, shop, etc. It’s great to have a map of a city before you even arrive, and just to get a general idea of prices and what to expect. It is by no means my bible, but a very handy thing to refer to in a pinch.
8. Backpack organisers. I’ve long relied on the mesh bags available from Mountain Equipment Co-op stores to organise my bag; I separate my clothing, my undergarments/bathing suits, and my dirty laundry this way. I recently acquired a plastic vacuum bag that makes a huge difference in the size of my backpack as I’m able to squeeze all of the air out of it before sealing it up. I find that organising my bag this ways makes life much easier, as I instantly know where everything is when I open my backpack. It also prevents things from getting lost when moving from hostel to hostel!
Wearing just about everything I’m about to describe, Bocas del Toro, Panama
9. Fun stuff. This is pretty general, I know, but what I mean by this is I like to have a few things in my bag that are very much NOT essential to my day-to-day life. I like to have things that I can pull out of my backpack from time to time that make me smile, or that I can use on a special night out. Examples of these things in my bag are: eye glitter, bindis, a necklace I wear as a tiara/tikka, finger puppets for funny photos, a toy camera, a crazy fringed one-piece bathing suit worn about once a month as a top, and neon pink lipstick. Sure, they add a bit of weight to my bag, but this is my life, and I’m going to live it how I want to live it. And my idea of living just happens to include glitter.
One of few available toilets on the Death Road, Bolivia
10. Toilet paper. Trust me on this one.
What are the essentials in your bag?