Dreaming of a lighter future amongst a wreckage of wrong-headed packing

Eight ceramic mugs, four ceramic bowls and three ceramic vases qualify as my most underthought packing decision. We purchased this heavy set of souvenirs in Rajasthan during the heat of a Lariam-induced daze.

Nearing the end of a summer spent wandering India, there were still three separate train journeys and a series of long flights before we could unload the pottery. The ceramics were packed in boxes with handles fashioned from twine which dug into our hands. Our huge internal frame backpacks, and the secondary knapsacks we carried on our stomachs, were already bulging with hiking boots, rolls of to-be-processed film and paperback books. We were foolish.

But even packing fools can learn from their mistakes and three years later we carried one day-trip sized backpack each for a month spent in Turkey. We didn’t long for a single missed item, we jettisoned books as we finished them and we jumped on and off the country’s plush bus system with ease.

Turkey was, sadly, a happy, outlying blip on my packing timeline.

Graphic on packing for travel (expatlingo)

Entering a period of “black roller bag” business travel through Asia and Africa, I packed extravagantly with the knowledge I’d use hotel porters to shift my overloaded belongings. I was issued a heavy, thick Dell Inspiron laptop that I dutifully carted around along with reams of pre-digitized paper reference materials. Traveling to places where I couldn’t rely on hotel business centers, I packed my own travel printer. Tired of paying 35 US dollars for club sandwiches at Luanda’s Hotel Tropico, I brought cases of Cliff Bars. Recommitted to running, I squoze in trainers in addition to my casual shoes, dress shoes and airplane shoes. I was the RV of business travelers: why travel light when you can bring it all with you.

And then suddenly the paperwork and printer were out and the black roller bag was filled with sets of tiny clothes and shoes.

Traveling with two young children meant the sacrifice of my former list of personal carry-on essentials: ear plugs, iPod, extra eyeglass case, cozy socks, chapstick, book, headphones, and Tylenol PM. Now my must-have list solely includes items that quiet or entertain children.

We turn over a mound of belongings at the check-in counter, including a stroller, two car seats and several large roller bags. My own belongings occupy one-half of one of these bag.

But from this ugly peak of voluminous packing, I envision a future with the four of us carrying only daypacks. We will shed strollers, car seats and diapers. I will train my children to hand wash clothes in sinks overnight. Chargers will become universal, rendering my Ziploc bag of tangled cords obsolete.

One day we four will flit from a bus in Cappadocia as lightly as butterflies. And we will never buy pottery.

24 responses to “Dreaming of a lighter future amongst a wreckage of wrong-headed packing

  1. We dream the same! Our nappy content is already less than it used to be (nights only), car seats still to come. (We mostly don’t bring the stroller.) There were also bibs, bulky water bottles and feeding utensils- well, I don’t have to tell you. We really noticed the difference when our eldest turned three so we’re hoping next year when our youngest turns three we will be well on our way! Then all we have to do is train up their back muscles a bit…

    • Agreed that next summer (when our youngest is firmly three) could be the start of a good, long stretch of golden travel.

      Speaking of training up their backs, I think I’ll have them both carry a small backpack on the plane to next week practice hauling a bit of their own stuff around. I’ll also plant a lot of positive conditioning like: “Wow, you’ve carried that little bag all the way from Hong Kong to Tokyo, I bet you can carry it off the plane in Seattle and show Grandma how grown up you are!”

  2. Packing light is always difficult especially with kids! My family has gone on a similar trajectory of starting out very overloaded and over the years learning how to pack lighter. I could still do better – I can never pick the right amount of books to bring – but it’s a learning process and I’m doing better than I used to!

    • A Kindle has helped me with books. The biggest drawback is that you can’t actually read your books during take off and landing (a pretty significant drawback!).

  3. The last time I flew back from China this family with THREE young kids ranging from barely older infant to several years – had maybe ONE carry on between all of them (and both the mom and dad were there). You can imagine what a long and screaming flight that was. The kids almost opened the plane door and jumped out due to boredom.

    I, too, used to have a Dell Inspiron. My heart (and sore left shoulder) go out to you.

    • Probably those parents forgot that they hadn’t packed along their ayi.

      My shoulder still seizes up with tension when I’m particularly stressed as a result of that damn computer.

    • Thanks Kathy! One day, I too will be lightened. At the minute, however, I’m getting ready for “home leave” and my packing list alone is already heaving.

  4. Every year we travel home to the USA for the summer, and every year I try to be judicious but pack way too much stuff. Note the use of the word “I.” With two teenagers, a toddler, and a husband who can generally squeeze out a 2 to 3-week vacation in the middle of our extended holiday, I still do the lion’s share of the packing. Saw this cartoon the other day and it made me laugh. Guess there are lots of other families in the same boat. http://www.nickmom.com/more-lols/whats-packed-in-each-family-member-suitcase/

    • I’m also in the middle of packing for our summer “home leave” to America and that cartoon is sadly far too close to being absolutely true. If left to their own devices my 6 year old would pack scissors, markers, paper, a swimsuit and ten million books. The 2 year old would pack every car and train in the house.

  5. I always really admire people who get the art of travelling light! One day trip sized rucksack for a month trip is incredible! I really struggle to do it. I even come to work every day looking like a pack horse, actually don’t know how I do it!

    • I did it only once and it was absolutely incredible. As beautiful and elusive as a spotting a snow leopard. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to repeat that feat. I remember it requiring a lot of hand washing and hiking in inappropriate footwear.

  6. Oh, the packing quandary! I remember thinking when I moved to Taiwan, “How on earth am I supposed to pack for an entire year?!” What kills me is that, even though I figured this part out and have never made big or bulky purchases abroad, people keep giving me things that require terrible amounts of juggling to get home. A ceramic tea pot and mugs? No, thank you! Only of course I can’t say that. I haven’t ever gotten to the part about traveling with kids yet. It sounds like a nightmare, and yet I know parents have a way of becoming experts at it. I look forward to the packing as light as butterflies part for you, too!

    • I know what you mean about gifts killing packing plans! When we travel back to America for the summer sometimes my kids end up with some pretty bulky gifts that I end up having to fit somewhere in the suitcases…

  7. Pingback: Travelling, With Graphs | Fantasy Holidays Under Five (And Over Fifty-Five)·

  8. You are so right, totally with you re: your black roller bag days and how it’s nearly impossible to pack running shoes along w/all that extra paper! Hopefully each successive home leave is getting easier and easier to pack for. Good luck!!

  9. Luanda? No kidding…I’d like to get there, have a plate of US$200 bacalao, then leave. Maybe check out Cabinda.

    Mind describing it a bit? If you went there now, your Chinese skills would probably help.

    • I was there four or five times between 2004 and 2006 for work as a contractor for USAID. We weren’t really allowed to leave the hotel except with an Embassy driver so what I saw was mostly going to and from meetings (though we did talk them into letting us go for a run on the waterfront one day). The whole place had a real wild west feel about it and everyone seemed to have an “esquema” going (had to, to get buy I suppose). Everything was pretty rough and corruption was rife (including at the airport so we used “expeditors” to get in and out smoothly). The only buildings that looked touched since before the civil were a few key government buildings, the DeBeers building and an oil company building (maybe Texaco?). I’m sure it’s much built up now.

      We also took a trip out to Huambo (“Nova Lisboa”) that I’ve previously posted some photos of here: http://expatlingo.com/2012/02/14/huambo/

      Even then, there were a lot of Chinese construction workers around and lots of blue open bed trucks with Chinese characters on the back.

    • I just flew back to America for a visit and tried going as lean as possible. Two car seats and a stroller are killing me. But by next summer I should be golden.

      Thinking of your blog title, we were re-routed on an Air India flight from Hong Kong to Japan. I chose the Indian vegetarian option and had the best airline breakfast of my life.

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