Packing List Post Mortem

So here was my challenge: pack everything I'd need for a month-long, four-season trip into a single suitcase. 

I photographed almost everything I put in my bag before I got on the plane. Now that the trip is over, I'm going to post the photos and evaluate the choices I made.

Before I get on with it: I used the website a lot while I was packing. It's a great resource & has lots of great tips for traveling light.

My packing rule is this: never pack more than you can carry, and always carry what you pack so you know whether or not you overdid it. If that last bit makes no sense, I mean: don't let some sympathetic person help you with the load. Carry it, feel it, learn from it. 


Toiletries. I think I did a pretty good job with this--I cut out everything I wouldn't use daily, and anything that I could do without. No body lotion, for example, even though at home I'm careful to moisturize.

On the other hand, I tried out new products on the trip, and that was a mistake. recommended BB Cream as an all-purpose lotion/moisturizer/sunscreen. I thought it sounded practical and cheap, and in general, I try to avoid packing things that I can't bear to lose. Things get lost and stolen when you travel and you can cut down on the pain in advance by leaving valuables at home.

My usual foundation/moisturizer is pricey, so I ditched it for the cheap stuff. The BB Cream was okay, but not great--I thought it felt a little heavy. The Garnier Fructis was another substitute, which I made for the same reason, and I ended up hating it. 

Lesson: it's okay to make substitutions, but test drive thoroughly before leaving home.


Dresses. I took three and should have taken two.

What's worse, in retrospect I'd probably leave out my favorite of the three: the little spaghetti strap dress with the geometric pattern. I could only wear it when it was very warm and relatively informal. 

The plain gray dress was more functional, because I could wear it in multiple weather conditions--with tights and a cardigan in the cold, with just a cardigan when it was cool. The black dress worked in all the same situations when the gray print worked, and a few more as well--it looks a little more formal. 

cold weather.jpg

Cold weather gear, for hiking. I did not look very fashionable on the trail, but all of this was about right for a summer hike in a cold climate. Pants and long underwear--I ended up using the long underwear as pajama pants. A thermal top and a t-shirt. A long-sleeved shirt, a fleece, a down-filled vest (inherited from my mom--I don't buy anything with down), gloves and a sport bra. 

This was all I wore for about two weeks. Piled all together it was pretty bulky, but looking at the picture now--nope, not a thing that I didn't use and use again. 

cold weather extras.jpg

Various cold weather extras. A travel towel (the nubby blue), a scarf (the beige), a sleeping bag/bed liner, basically a person-sized pocket to use when you suspect your hotel's sheets haven't been washed lately, a platypus water bottle, a pair of crampons and rain pants in a little pouch. Sport sunglasses.

Things I didn't use: the rain pants, the crampons. 

We didn't need crampons in the Torres del Paine, and when we did a mini trek on the Perito Moreno glacier, the tour company provided heavy-duty crampons. Really poor use of space. The rain pants would have come in handy if there had been more rain, so I'm not sorry I brought them. 

first aid kit.jpg

The contents of my first aid kit. 

I have yet to use burn gel or iodine swabs on a trip. I think, in future, I might cut down on emergency care items. Band-aids and a thermometer? Okay, that's fine. But there's no need to go hog wild unless you're really going to be in the wilderness. That's my new position.

There's no getting around the practical stuff: contact lenses and laundry detergent, razors and feminine hygiene.

One tip I got from that worked like a charm was to bring several tiny travel size bottles of saline solution for contact lenses. Yes, more waste, but when you use one up you throw it away instead of carrying around a bottle that stays the same size even as the volume of solution inside of it decreases. 

Packing items that you know you won't bring home is great, because it means you have at least a little space for souvenirs.


Two sweaters, one cardigan. This was about right. Pretty plain--also about right. 


Yes, lots of tops. I could have cut down here; this is well beyond the bare minimum. But they weren't bulky and they created the illusion of variety so I'm okay with the excess.

The mix here: long sleeved, short sleeved, ratty, neat. 


Two pairs of pants and one skirt. The tech pants I wore in Patagonia aren't in this picture, but I only used those while hiking.

Probably could have cut out the skirt. I only wore it a couple of times, and a dress would have served as well. (so maybe the choice ought to have been: take the skirt or the third dress? One or both of them should have been cut).

warm weather.jpg

Warm weather/beach clothes. A swimsuit, a swimsuit cover up, terrycloth shorts, two tank tops and a lacy undershirt. 

The things I'd cut? The swimsuit cover up and the lacy undershirt.

The cover-up because I didn't end up doing much swimming, and other items would have served as well.

The lacy undershirt because--like the gray print dress--even though it's a favorite item, it was unnecessary. There's probably room in most bags for a few unnecessary, fun things. This tiny little top takes up no space and caused me no grief. But the goal is to pack smarter every time, and I never had a moment when I thought, "Oh, I'm so glad I brought this, nothing else would do!" with that top. So, the conclusion is to cut it.

It's a travel truism that you should pick clothes for versatility. That's the mistake I made with the lacy top and the dress: not versatile. 


I brought three pairs of shoes. Hiking boots were a must. Cheap black flats, and a pair of sandals so old that I threw them away before I came home.

The hiking boots were a bummer. They were huge, which meant I had to wear them on every bus and plane, no matter the weather. I didn't have room to pack them away. But they were necessary.

As for the other two? I picked them because they were disposable, not precious, but they did the job. 



A little purse that I could fold into my suitcase, but pull out to use when out and about.

Kleenex. Because eventually, you learn not to trust toilets to be properly stocked.

Travel guides, my dive log.

Glasses, in case my contact lenses got lost, or for overnight plane flights.

My kindle and cord, my phone cord, a pack of cards.

A warm weather hat, a hat with a sunshade. Never used the hat with the shade--either I should change my habits (probably) or I should leave it at home.

A journal, a tiny nalgene bottle full of fountain pen ink, and gluesticks, to paste items into the journal.

Travel bars for times when I couldn't find any vegetarian food.  

A travel alarm.


Valuables. I try to bring as few as possible, because I want to have my valuables on me at all times.

A DSLR camera, an extra lens, an extra battery and charger. The camera is bulky and really, it's a pain to carry around. But I like taking photos so I accept the constant discomfort. I bought a strap cover on Etsy because I hate wearing a brand name across my chest.

Two wallets. I kept them in different bags, so that if one bag were stolen, I'd be able to carry on. Each wallet had cash, a credit card, and a form of ID. I also carried a little coin purse to hold small amounts of cash, so that when I had to pay for something on the street or in a shop, I'd only pull out the coin purse and only display small amounts of cash in public. 

Also, I say two wallets but one is my fauxdori--you can see the pen loop that I bought, with a plain black Pelikan inside, and, yes, I travel with a fountain pen and, yes, I find that perfectly practical--I think I refilled it once on the trip, because it's a piston filler and holds a lot of ink.

A bungee cord. I don't know why it's here, but I shouldn't have brought it. 


And this is what it all looked like when packed. One medium-sized suitcase that I checked. One camera bag that I had on me at all times, everywhere.

The camera bag has three separate combination locks on it. One is on the strap, so that you can wrap the strap around a pole or a bedframe or whatnot and lock it in. That's handy if you need to sleep in a hostel or on a train. There's a lock on the front pocket, where I kept my fauxdori (which was also a wallet), and another lock on the top flap, which you open to access the camera. I picked this bag because it holds two lenses, and because it soothed my paranoia. 

Lastly, the backpack. I don't like to carry backpacks but I needed it for the hike. This was the only luggage I took on the 6 day hike through the Torres del Paine. It was too small, and as a result I had to....(a) leave my kindle in my checked baggage, because I was afraid of crushing it, which meant I had nothing to read on the trip and (b) strap my jacket to the outside of the backpack while I hiked, because there was no room for it inside.

In an ideal world, I would have bought a different daypack. It would be about 30% larger and super snazzy. But I didn't want to buy too much new stuff for the trip--I had to pick and choose, and 'new backpack' didn't make the cut. Anyhow, it worked.

With the suitcase handle in one hand, my backpack on my back, and my camera bag around my shoulder I was mobile but awkward, loaded down. I had no trouble walking, I carried all of this up and down long flights of stairs, unpaved streets, in and out of buses. 

That being said, getting from place to place with all this stuff on me was a chore. I did not feel light and fancy free. I felt burdened and vulnerable. 

I could have made my life a lot easier by not carrying the camera case. The camera case is what tips a decent bag-and-carry-on duo into a tangle, and it was the camera that made my shoulder ache at the end of a long day.  Nothing else I could have cut would have made as great a difference; but there's no chance I would have left the camera behind. 

Public Places In The Past Smelled Bad

I'm always clocking the "mph" in each new city I visit in India.  No, not the miles per hour - the men peeing per hour.  So far Jaipur has the highest mph.  Can't turn around without seeing some dude huddled up against a fence or a tree, scenting the area.  A few days ago I shared a taxi with a couple of Danes from Jaisalmer to Udaipur.  I explained about varying rates of mph across the country and said I had a daily quota to meet: five men peeing in public, or I've gone under. They laughed and said I was exaggerating.  I counted seven before the taxi arrived in Udaipur and we parted ways.  Victory?

There are lots of great smells in India.  Incense and flowers and stuff.  But the number one most common odor here is urine.  There are five hundred million men in India and they are all manufacturing a powerful eau de parfum that they spray all over every public space.  Streets, parks, train stations, you name it.

That's not all, of course.  India is one of those countries were women are not encouraged to go out alone.  If I get on a bus or train, I'll see men - alone or in groups - or families.  Not groups of women.  Western women travel alone here, but not Indian women.  And there's always something prickly and uncomfortable about being the odd person out.  I can say from experience, it's really, really uncomfortable to sit down in a train car when every other person around you is male.  It's really hard to fall asleep in your berth when you can hear men's voices around you and no feminine murmurs to balance it out.

I've met so many friendly people.  I've found helping hands along the way when I needed it, I've asked for directions and gotten guides instead.  But that doesn't change the fact that male-dominated public spaces are fundamentally hostile to unchaperoned women.

Westerners - Americans, certainly - feel like we have a right to public spaces.  We're used to seeing them as an extension of our homes, as the focal points of community activities, as friendly and welcoming.  And that often seeps through to writing about historical eras, where characters venture blithely into the streets without a wink of fear.  They travel alone, they go out on foot, and they don't suffer constant harassment.

But, seriously, imagine your usual gently-bred Regency heroine.  She's sweet and innocent and she says "limbs" instead of "legs".  Does she see five men peeing into a ditch every day before lunch?  Does she think the world smells like urine?  No.  No she does not.  Why?  Because she stays inside.

Public spaces, public life, street life -- these things didn't really exist until the latter half of the nineteenth century (reams have been written on the birth of public spaces and it's a fascinating topic).  There are still places in the world that are male-dominated, where social life is private, and they really do give us a glimpse into what it would be like for a lone woman in a hostile world.  The answer?  Scary.  Disgusting.  Chaotic.

Bathing In The Past Was Not Fun

The most obvious - and most necessary - way to research for a historical novel is in books.  At libraries, online, wherever you can get the information you need about the period you've chosen to explore. Spending three months in India hasn't taught me anything about how to address a duke or what Regency garters looked like.  But there are certain lessons I've learned here that will pay dividends in my writing, lessons that just don't sink in when you read about them in books.

Example?  Bathing.  Most historical writers know that hot water was hard to come by in the past, but a lot of them still incorporate bathing into their books as a pleasant or relaxing activity.  You know what I say to that?  No.  Not possible.  Not even kind of.

Hot water is still hard to come by in India.  Cheaper hotels don't offer it at all.  The bathrooms in most mid-range hotels feature electric or gas water tanks.  You flip a switch, wait half an hour for the tank to warm up, and you can shower with hot water until it runs out.  Even then, the water pressure tends to be weak.  Only high-end hotels have unlimited hot water with which to fill a full bath or shower at leisure.

I've been staying at midrange hotels - so far 500 rupees (about $10) per night appears to be my sweet spot, but I've ventured on up the scale when I need a break - so I've been taking a lot of very short showers in hot water, very short showers in tepid water, and, yes, lots of cold showers.  Even in the hottest places I've been, the very tropical Andaman Islands or lush Kerala, these showers are miserable.  Forcing myself under the cold water is not relaxing in the slightest.  I'm always careful to time the showers for morning or afternoon, when the sun's still as high as possible, so that the chill of the water doesn't follow me to sleep and keep me shivering in my bed.

But I've been to some chilly, northern climes here as well.  Dharamsala, Manali, Darjeeling.  Taking a cold shower up in the Himalayas isn't just miserable, it's an ordeal. The buildings aren't heated.  The bathrooms are freezing.  You have three or four minutes to frantically scrub soap over your body, huddling into a trickle of hot water, before the warm runs out and then you're stuck wet and dripping in the frigid air, rubbing desperately at yourself with a towel and piling on warm clothes to banish the chill as soon as possible.

People who would never dream of skipping a shower back home break down under those conditions.  It's just not worth it.  Showering in the north was usually my least favorite part of the day.  Not relaxing.  Not refreshing.  Not fun at all.

Conclusion?  Bathing in the early nineteenth century, with a limited supply of hot water cooling rapidly in a tub or bucket,  is a chore.  An annoying chore.

Next up?  Public spaces.

On Clues

Khajuraho is my favorite place in India so far.  Why?  Well, the UNESCO heritage site here features some very fine sculptures which only a very discriminating art lover can appreciate, like this one:

You'd never believe how many very discriminating art lovers there are around here.

The sex scenes bring in tourists by the busloads and I admit, they're pretty awesome.  I mean, how long did it take to carve that thing up there?  A year?  More?  Imagine waking up every morning for a month thinking, "Gotta get those buttocks just right..."

The sex scenes win for shock value but my favorites were these two:

Doesn't it catch something essential about coupledom?  The man and the woman have been interrupted in the middle of an embrace, and they shift their attention as one, in perfect harmony.  Physically, they fit together while mentally, they mirror one another.  Like a single organism.

The one above is just amazing.  The figure is twisted and exaggerated almost, but not quite, past the point of believability.  I love the ruffles and knots in the thin fabric wrapped around her waist, the musculature of her back and bottom.  There's such love of the human body in the sculpture, and the color of the stone is like flesh.

And while a lot of the figures are idealized, some of them have lovingly depicted little pooches: 

But here's why I'm writing this post.  After spending a few hours staring at these twisting, entwining, flexible sculptures, this tree:

I looked at it and I saw all the images that had been swarming around in my head, cocked hips and belly buttons and stretched necks.

Here's another snarl of trunk that had the same effect:

Here I can almost see a female figure in relief, breasts outthrust, a belly button pocking her narrow waist, and round hips.  Just like the sculptures on the walls.

Ordinarily I don't think I'd have seen anything in the tree at all, let alone anything lurid, but I'd been primed.  All the crazy couplings I'd been looking at were swarming around in my brain and I was ready to have them pop out, fully formed, at the slightest suggestion.

There's a lesson here about misleading an audience.  If you want to give someone a certain idea, if you want them to think, say, a tree is a naked body, all you need to do is foreshadow it right.  The secret is in making the right preparation, so that readers will jump to the wrong conclusion.


Hiking is good for many things.  It’s good for the health, it’s a good way to visit places inaccessible by car, and it’s good for moralizing.  You can always draw a nice moral or two from a long hike.  Sometimes it’s not new, but it’ll feel new for a while, and that’s invigorating.

I just finished a three day trek through the mountains surrounding Manali, a town nestled beautifully into the Indian Himalayas.  I had a wonderful time and, two days later, I’m still in incredible pain.  My calves hurt.  My knees hurt.  My thighs hurt.  I’m going to spend more time recovering from this hike than I spent on the hike.

So what morals did I collect, in recompense for all this pain?

There’s always someone more hardcore than you.

I admit I patted myself on the back a little before I set out.  Trekking through the Himalayas!  How daring of me!  I stopped the patting when I realized I was the slowest and weakest of the seven people who’d booked onto the same trip.  A fifty-seven year old Spanish guy zoomed ahead of me as though his legs were made of steel springs, neatly destroying any age-related excuses I might have cared to make.

But I was not that Spanish guy.  Nor was I the twenty-two year old Swede who mostly guides rock climbing tours but can lead a trek in a pinch, or the pair of Australians who loped up the steep trails without once stopping to pant or wheeze.  I was me, and I had to go at my own pace.  I had to stop to catch my breath more often than I’m really proud of.  I had to pause to let the burning in my thighs die down.

But I got there in the end.  To camp, to the little rocky lake we’d climbed to see, to the ridge with the panoramic views.  We all walked the same trail, the same distance.

The limit of your tolerance is not the limit of your abilities.

So on this trek, we climbed up – just up, up up up up – for two days, and down for one.  See the imbalance?  On the third day, when we descended, we had to cover the same distance we’d hiked on the first two days combined but at twice the speed.  Like on the first two days, the trails were sketchy, hard to follow, and incredibly steep.

I’d thought going up was hard but the descent nearly broke me.  I hit the wall.  I reached the limit of my tolerance.  I was drained, in pain, and hours away from the finish line.  Stopping wasn’t an option, so I slogged on.  I’d picture myself sitting down in the dirt and throwing a tantrum, but no amount of wailing or whining would get me any closer to the bottom of the mountain.  The only way I could end my torment was to keep going.

About an hour away from the bottom, we started seeing signs of habitation.  Apple orchards, especially.  The trail bordered a low stone wall, next to an orchard.  A water pipe had broken and for who knows how long had been spraying water onto the trail instead of the apple trees.  For a few hundred paces, the trail was a great sucking mud pit.  Opposite the wall lay a thorny bramble.  No going around.

I was already miserable.  I had already passed beyond the limits of my tolerance.  And I was wearing sandals.

Too bad.  I stomped through the mud.  I got it all over my feet and between my toes.  Mud crusted on the hem of my pants.  I kept walking.  The mud dried.  My feet looked like the belonged to a cavewoman.

An hour later, I reached the finish line.  I had some fresh-squeezed apple juice.  I took a shower and uploaded my photos to see what I had seen.

We all reach emotional walls.  Physical ones.  Come face to face with our own limitations.  And we can all break through those barriers, by necessity or choice.  Especially at the end, on the descent, I was thinking of the long road to publication.  How sometimes I want to give up, whine and throw a tantrum – boo hoo, it’s hard to land an agent, hard to find an audience.  Too bad.  I haven’t reached the finish line yet.  I can keep going.