The Art of Traveling Light

A few weeks ago I wrote about the five unexpected benefits of traveling light, and in the end promised that I’d share my own packing tips with you soon.

My apologies that it took a while for me to get back to you on that, but here I am, ready to address all your questions and packing concerns with:

 Mirva’s Ultimate Guide to Traveling the World with a Carry-On

Before you get started, here’s my disclaimer: this information may not be suitable for mountaineers, hikers, skiers, winter enthusiasts, campers or globetrotting opera singers.  This advice is geared for typical travelers who are heading to those predominantly warm destinations – Australia, Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean  – and who plan on mostly sleeping in hotels, hostels or private homes, not outdoors. Also, some of this advice may not apply as well to guys as it does to girls. Sorry about that.

Still, this post will include information that may also benefit those above-mentioned groups and several others. Just remember that anything you read here should not be taken at face value – what works for me may not work for you – and is best used as a guide that can be modified to suit your needs.

Everyone has their own “must-have-items” while traveling, so please do not get offended if I have left out the one item without which you absolutely cannot live. For each his own! That said, here is my advice that comes from 10+ years on the road.

The Three Things You Think You’ll Need, but You Really Do Not

1)      Jeans

This may come as a shock for you blue jeans lovin’ folks out there but these heavy, cumbersome and hard-to-dry pants are the first absolute no on my packing list. You know how much space those take out of your little bag? And you know how much they weigh? A lot. Let’s face it, you plan to chill on the beach for the majority of your vacation anyway and jeans do not belong in that scene at all.

I realize you may want to bring a pair with you ‘just in case’, but I am telling you – it’s not worth it. Instead bring a few of the following: light-weight khakis, a thin pair of black pants, capris, shorts, sweatpants, skirts, dresses, leggings or even jeggings –basically anything is better than a pair of jeans. And if you are one of those countless people who just cannot imagine life without jeans, then fine, bring one pair. But make sure that it is of the lightest fabric you can find and be prepared to wear it whenever you are on the move: changing cities, flying somewhere or sitting in a bus for 30 hours. At least that way the jeans won’t take up precious space in your bag. Just don’t come complaining to me that you’d rather be wearing shorts or a nice dress in this heat! In all my travels around Asia, Australia, Latin America and now Africa I have never once wished I had brought jeans with me. Instead, long skirts are my staple travel wear (perfect also for countries where you shouldn’t show much skin). Whenever I get cold, I just wear leggings underneath.

2)      Sleeping Bag

I used to travel with a sleeping bag at all times though I wasn’t planning on doing any camping. I just brought it along in case the blankets in my hostels would not be warm enough or I’d take a night bus where the AC was on full blast. How many times did I actually roll the sleeping bag out of its case? A handful, at the very most, and even then I used it mostly just to get at least some use out of it.  Thus hauling a sleeping bag around for months just in case was hardly worth it. Nowadays I travel without one and have never regretted it. Every hotel gives you a blanket, and hostels too. When I have gone Couchsurfing, every host has offered me a duvet or a blanket or at least a sheet. And should you ever find yourself really needing a sleeping bag – well, just deal with it somehow. Wear layers, cuddle up with someone, tear down the curtains of the hotel room, use a scarf as a blanket… Be creative.

(The only time my sleeping bag came in handy in Australia in 2006 was during a visit to Byron Bay with my friend Kaisa, pictured here. The bus dropped us off at 4.30 a.m., and we didn’t want to splurge on a night’s accommodation when the night was almost over anyway.)

Nowadays I’d rather experience a chilly night once or twice during my trip than haul extra weight around for months. If you absolutely want to bring something to calm your nerves, get one of those slip-in silk sleeping bags that weigh nothing (and are meant for avoiding contact with dirty sheets) or “borrow” one of those handy, light airline blankets.

3)      Towel

While I started off traveling with a fluffy normal towel, over the years my towels just got smaller and smaller, until I finally was down to a tiny kitchen rag. You really do not need much more than that to pat yourself dry. Air-drying is so underrated! And if you love wrapping yourself in a big towel after taking a shower, don’t worry. Many guesthouses and hotels will supply you with one. Also, being deprived of a real towel for a while will help you appreciate the luxury when you come across it. For me that is part of the point of travel – learning to enjoy things you used to take for granted.

(Here I am, loving my most recent borrowed towel in Senegal’s Casamance region)

On the other hand, here are the…

Three absolute  must-haves for a traveler

1)      Sarong

If I could only take one item with me on my trip, a sarong would be it. If you are not familiar with the term, a sarong is a thin, colorful piece of fabric that is sold pretty much in every beach town worldwide.

If you do not already own one, make sure to buy one when you hit the road. You can rest assured, there is not a single item in this world that is more multi-functional than a sarong. I use mine as a towel for the shower and the beach (which is why I often do not even bring the little kitchen rag with me anymore), as a blanket in chilly buses and planes, as a sheet or a pillow case in one-star hotel rooms. I wrap it in my head like a turban or around me like a dress.

I even wore a flowery sarong to a Cambodian wedding once! I sometimes carry things inside my sarong, or hang it down from my hostel bunk bed to create an illusion of privacy. I use it as a curtain or as art on the wall. The sarong simply cannot be beat! I usually buy a pretty one from every trip and keep it as a multi-functional souvenir.

2)      Bolero

As with jeans, many people feel the need to bring a bunch of long sleeve shirts along just in case. But unless you are going to a Muslim country, a place with an abundance of malaria or some chilly high altitude towns, you will not get much use out of long sleeve shirts. But since you’ll still want to be prepared for chilly days or nights, the best solution is to bring a bolero or two. A bolero refers to those add-on sleeves that were trendy some five years ago, and are still super trendy in my books as the ultimate travel accessory (hence I’m wearing a bolero in the sarong photo above!). Just throw on a bolero and voila – your sleeveless top has turned into a long sleeve shirt! The best part is that you can wear the bolero with any of your tops, and it weighs much less than a full long sleeve shirt. So even if you never end up needing to wear it, it’s not a big loss weight-wise. The only thing is that boleros are a bit hard to come by these days. So if you see one sold, grab it right away! In fact, I just spotted some in a store in Dakhla, Western Sahara, if anyone is heading that way…


3)      Mini-size shampoos and other beauty products

You know those mini-size shampoos and conditioners that you get at hotels? That is what you should be traveling with too. There is absolutely no reason for you to haul around full-size lotions and potions that take up half of your luggage (yet many people still do!). I bring just a tiny shampoo bottle with me – well, everything I bring is tiny in fact! Here’s a half-liter water bottle as a size comparison.

This black miniature shampoo bottle in the middle lasts me a couple of months, easily.

“How?” you may ask. Well, for one, I have trained my hair so that it only needs to be washed once or twice a week. Other days I just take a shower without washing my hair, which is a great time and shampoo saver. Secondly, I’ll refill the little bottle from time to time from the big bottles that other travelers are hauling around – they are usually more than happy to get rid of a few extra ounces of weight. Or if need be, I’ll buy a bigger bottle to refill from and give the rest to another needy traveler or a local.

(Note: If you think that your hair cannot be trained not to get greasy every day, you are wrong. It definitely can – you just might not want to be seen in public during the training period as it takes a few weeks. Getting braids makes the process a whole lot easier. Your hair doesn’t need to be washed more than once a week after it is braided, and you can continue on that path even after you take the braids off.)

  (Braids are also a great ice-breaker when traveling. People cannot wait to touch your strange hair, at least when you have partly pink braids…)

 

What did you think about these tips? Were any new to you? I still have a few more up my sleeve, so stay tuned…

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24 people, 6 days, 1 Sahara

What happens if you bring 24 strangers together and isolate them from the world for six days in the middle of the Sahara Desert? Unexpected things, I tell you.

And I am speaking from experience, as I was one of these 24 travelers to take part in The Road Junky Sahara Retreat this February. The retreat, which I randomly came across online in January, was the main reason I chose to start my African tour from Morocco.

In case you haven’t heard of Road Junky Travel, it’s a web magazine dedicated to travel stories and videos. This year was the second time that Tom Thumb, one of the website’s founders as well as a writer, storyteller and permanent nomad from England, organized this retreat in the desert. As last year’s camp was such as success, Tom decided to make this year’s stint a day longer, five nights and six days.

The Road Junky Sahara Retreat was advertised as a travelers’ meet-up, and a chance to meditate in the vast emptiness of the Sahara, and participate in workshops of yoga, aikido and dance. There would also be travel stories shared around the fire, and evenings spent listening to Tom reciting tales from the “1001 Nights” collection.

Those of you who know me probably remember that I am not into yoga, I definitely never meditate and I have never expressed even the slightest interest in aikido. A few years ago at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism I did participate in some martial arts classes held by Sensei George, but mostly just to show my support. I was never a natural-born Jackie Chan, nor into any remotely hippie-sounding spiritual stuff.

Add to this equation that I don’t like being far from the ocean, having grown up on an island four hours
off the coast of Western Finland. As an adopted New Yorker, I also don’t feel particularly comfortable
when I am far away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Three days is usually the max I can handle being in a remote location without getting anxious.

Yet somehow I felt drawn to this idea of spending a week amidst the sand dunes in the Sahara, so much so that I decided to shell out the 250 euro the retreat cost and sign up. I wanted to see how bright the stars would be, whether the yellow sand dunes were really as spectacular in real life as they looked in
photos, and whether I could actually learn to enjoy these activities I had no previous interest in.

As I mentioned in the beginning, unexpected things will happen if you bring 24 people to the Sahara Desert. An anti-American hippie will befriend a clean-cut Midwestern guy, a vegetarian will succumb to the smell of delicious chicken tajine and a reserved German will throw himself in the middle of a cuddle puddle of entangled human bodies. Unlikely friendships will form, long-overdue tears come running out at the sight of the most beautiful sunset and strangers will care for each other as if they were family.

A black-clothed heavy metal singer with a pony-tail Mohawk will turn into a hug monster, and a sandstorm will blow away a songwriter’s creative block. A hyper, cynical city girl will enjoy yoga, aikido and dance therapy lessons held in the middle of nowhere.

Yes, that was me stretching myself in unlikely positions at the crack of dawn, welcoming pretend-attackers into my invisible circle, searching for my sphere of energy and sensing that of others. Without thinking about how silly I looked, I allowed myself to imagine I was as light as a feather dancing in the wind and as heavy as a stone laying in the sand. I learned to lean on other people both physically and mentally, which is at times hard for those of us who are fiercely independent souls.

No matter how “hippie” some of the exercises seemed for my taste, I decided to face this retreat with an open mind and see if it would lead to something new, whatever that might be. After all, “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” And I did enjoy doing things differently for a change, and interacting with the types of people I normally do not encounter.

And though I was even contemplating trying to meditate to the sound of people humming “ommmmmmm” around me, I didn’t quite get to the right mindset for that. The retreat was so action-packed that I just didn’t have time!

In case you are interested in joining next year, here’s what our daily schedule looked like:

-8 a.m. wake-up call: “Yoga in 10 minutes!”

-Crawling out of our tents into the fresh but chilly desert air

-Climbing over the dunes into the designated yoga spot

-Yoga for 45 mins to an hour: stretches, breathing exercises

-Breakfast: bread, yellow and red jam, olives, olive oil, endless cups of Moroccan tea

-Another call: “Aikido in 10 minutes!”

-Climbing over the dunes into the designated aikido spot

-Aikido for 45 mins to an hour: exercises with a partner, pushing, gentle shoving, how to avoid an attack by moving along with the attacker’s movements instead of fighting them.

-About an hour of free time

-Lunch: Bread with Moroccan soup consisting of orange broth with bits of tomato and quinoa. Orange slices for desert, as well as dates, wafers and nuts before and after lunch. More tea.

-Chilling and playing music in the sun for an hour, enjoying the heat that would be gone after sunset

-Another call: “Dance class in 10 minutes!”

-Climbing over the dunes into the designated dance class spot

-Dance class for an hour: touching one person in the group when the music ends, pretending to be a
tree or a traveler in a forest, trying to find your energy center and developing your own dance

-Time for sunset: climbing up one of the highest dunes to see the view. This is harder than you’d think.

-Trying to find your way back to the camp in the moonlight, getting lost for a bit and panicking ever so slightly

-Dinner time: chicken tajine, veggie tajine eaten out of communal bowls. Bread, tea and orange slices for desert.

-Climbing over the dunes to the designated fire spot

-Guitar music and singing around the fire, chatting, Tom telling 1001 Nights’ stories under the full moon. Most of them seemed to include a girl who was “as beautiful as…the moon, shining in the night sky.”

I was officially dubbed the most unromantic person on the retreat after jokingly questioning this funny metaphor. “How can you compare a woman to the moon? The moon is just a white blob! A rose maybe, but the moon?” 🙂

Overall the retreat was great fun and definitely helped me empty my mind of daily worries for a bit. Some of the things others mentioned enjoying were the friendships, sunsets, losing track of time in the desert, workshops, feeling the connection to the earth, sensing love and peace, seeing the moon rise out of the horizon and finding new energy for the future. All very hippie-sounding, but I guess that’s not such a bad thing after all.

If you think this retreat could be for you, keep checking the Road Junky website for details. The next one should be announced in the fall, and will be held around February/March 2012.