Why I’m a paranoid packer

18 08 2011

By Whitney

Ever spent almost 2 months with only one pair of underwear? I have. Inadvertently, of course. I studied Biological Oceanography at MIT for grad school – which meant I was lucky enough to get sent to sea for research 1-2 times a year. Usually, that meant some combination of horrendous flights to get to a remote locale somewhere in an equatorial region….hopefully with luggage. Now, it’s basically a given in that line of work that you will eventually end up in some small town in a random developing country luggage-less. This somehow failed to occur to my 22-year-old self, all bright-eyed and headed for Africa.

We had an overnight layover in Dakar, Senegal after a harried connection in New York on our way to Cape Verde (oh, never heard of it? You’re not alone. It’s a newly independent island chain in the Atlantic Ocean). Here’s a map to get your bearings:

That tiiiiiiny little island chain off the coast of Senegal? Yeah. That's where the luggage was supposed to go.

So. I arrive with a labmate and an adviser in Dakar….no bags, no bags, oh! There’s the adviser’s bag! No bag…no bag…


When the airport actually opens, we try and get a lost bag report written….only this is West Africa, and French is the spoken language. Between the advisor and myself, we manage to get some sort of lost baggage report filed with our broken high school French. The attendant types everything in to an MS-DOS computer (can those even connect to the internet to search broader systems for our bags??!). We board a plane for Cape Verde (“They made you wait 3 hours for a half empty plane because of the drug smuggling filling up the cargo holds” a local tells us), defeated, and basically certain that there will be no baggage for us prior to the ship’s departure.

Luckily, we had the foresight to buy tshirts at the Senegal airport. It was the last time we saw clothes of any substantive quality. Cape Verde had only Asian imports….which just won’t work when you are 6’1″ and female (just be glad you don’t have a 36″ inseam, ladies!). My labmate and I ended up with string bikinis for bra/underwear, a couple of Puma knockoff tshirts (mine ripped on the third day) and some men’s board shorts. A few British scientists took pity on us and have us some of their extra toiletries, and we were able to find one disposable razor on the whole island for sale.

This was the outfit that I wore every other day for 6 weeks. No stress, indeed. And yes, ship laboratories really are that chaotic!

(Our luggage was tracked down by my labmate’s mom over a month later in Johannesburg, South Africa….about a continent away. There may have been screaming arguments with diplomats involved to get the bags back. Also, almost anything that could have gone wrong on that cruise did – think broken A/C, broken equipment, bomb squads. But that’s a tale for another day.)

So, what have we learned here folks??

Be oh so careful about how you pack a carryon and checked bags before you go to remote locations for extended periods of time. Don’t show up in a foreign country without an extra pair of underwear. Ever.

These days, I pack carry-on heavy and rarely check a bag. But, I just don’t think that’s possible on this trip. With my camera gear, my carry-on is accounted for – meaning I have to check the clothes….and try and get over my paranoia.

How do you pack for a six month trip, anyway?

In a word: sparingly.

Everything I bring has to fit into a backpack. Wheeled bags are a horrible idea in developing countries (and in Europe – ever spent time wandering trying to find your hotel dragging your suitcase over cobblestone streets?). Here’s a rundown of what I’ll be packing:

3 short sleeve shirts (drywick – no cotton!!)

3 long sleeve shirts (drywick and specially designed for bug repelling in mosquito country)

2 pairs of convertible pants (yes, they are dorky – but we are doing way too much trekking to not have them)

1 pair athletic shorts

1 jersey knit skirt (so that I can slip into something more typical for me to go out at night)

bucket hat (super dorky but super necessary)

hiking boots, Keene sandals, flip flops, 5 pairs socks

5 pairs underwear

fleece/rain shell

fleece headband (for when we climb mountains and it gets cooler)

technical gear including hard drives, computer, camera, lenses, tripod

multitool, laundry supplies, meds, toiletries, snake bite kit, leech socks, sleep sack

And that’s basically it. Here’s a snapshot of my backpack and an overview of the contents:

My backpack all alone in a hallway with all our remaining belongings (shipping out tomorrow!).

All our clothing is packed into space and sanity saving packing cubes. I packed leech socks (top left) for rainforest treks, waterproof sacks for gear on kayaking trips (far left), a USB key with heavily encrypted browser software on it to protect our info in cyber cafes (bottom), a "kitchen sink" to wash clothes in (center), dessication packs to keep my camera gear from failing (left), and the normal stuff (shoes, laundry line, etc). All of this adds up to about 30 pounds of gear.

So how exactly am I getting over my packing paranoia? Care packages are a lot easier to send to a large Asian city than to a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. At least I know my mom can order specific clothes for me and send them! And in the meantime, I’ll just chill and snorkel – something that doesn’t require a lot of clothing!




4 responses

18 08 2011
Heather Daly

I don’t think I could do it! I had to check a bag for a 4 day stay in Texas!!!

18 08 2011
Jo Goodman

I know I couldn’t do it. Packing light isn’t easy for me. Let me just say how adventurous you both are for taking this trip. I can’t imagine taking six months off, much less backpacking around Asia!!! I hope you see wondrous beauty, exciting and once in a lifetime charismatic megafauna, and have the best adventure of your lives so far.;)

22 08 2011
the Wrens

I an also recommend a small LED travel flashlight. And always pack at least 1 (I prefer 2) sets of underwear and a tee shirt in your carryon

22 08 2011

Ah, yes, we both have little LED flashlights and a headlamp. We want to do some caving in Borneo, and they don’t have lighting in them! Will def have a spare tshirt and underwear in the carryon :-). Too paranoid not to!

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