Friday, August 19, 2011

My Art of Packing

I leave for Liberia tomorrow. A two-week work trip.

I've been organizing and packing for days. Unlike with a vacation, a work trip requires more packing effort for me. Although I take a long time to pack for any and every trip. Ask my husband. Or my ex-husband. Or anyone who has ever lived with me. All the many years of many travels and I still can't pack quickly. Or very light. I've gotten a lot better, but alas, I will never be the carefree girl who grabs a bag and throws some stuff in and is done in five minutes. And then during the trip can live with no regrets and happy with their small, fast packing decisions. I envy those people.

However, while I might pack a lot, I don't pack outrageously. I usually take one check in bag and its always just at the allowed weight, not over. Then I take one carry on roller bag that has two computers (crappy work Dell and gorgeous personal Macbook Pro - I am not going to post photos on or blog from the crappy Dell), my big camera, some fun stuff to read (3 hours 40 to Atlanta; 13 hours 40 to Monrovia - good times!!), some of my work folders and anything else I can fit in there without breaking my back when I hoist it in the overhead bins. Because I am a firm believer that you are allowed to bring what you want, but you must carry your own stuff. I take full responsibility for what I bring.

I approach packing in the serious, intense, Type A way I approach a lot of things. Love me or not - this is me. I make a list - a very long and organized list - and I check everything off as I pull it together. I try to think of everything I might need or want. Rarely to never do I forget things, and those few times I do forget something I feel really bad about it and beat myself up a little about it because - I. do. not. forget. things. It is in my DNA. To be honest, as I get older, I do forget things more and more sometimes. I guess that is just the way life goes as we age.

In addition to creating the famous packing list, preparing for a trip like this always involves:

- a trip to the drug store where I inevitably spend $150 buying things I "need" for the trip.
- too much time spent trying to find and pack every possible toiletry I might desire over a 2-week period in mini-size.
- a trip to the travel clinic to ensure vaccinations are up to date and to get a prescription for anti-malaria medicine.
- checking the local weather to decide what kind of clothing I need. I don't know why I do this because I already know. Liberia is always hot and always humid, but right now its also the rainy season which means rain every day. And mud.
- pulling out most of my clothing from the closet and drawers to decide what clothes to wear.
- talking myself out of bringing 3 books to read because given my track record, unless its a beach vacation I won't read any of them.
- the cats laying all over my clothes and/or sleeping in my open suitcase while I am packing.

To pick out clothing, I have this routine (that I don't recommend) where I first pull every piece of clothing that might possibly work for the trip out of my closet and drawers onto the bed into giant piles, and then I weed through the piles and cut them back to a manageable set of mix and match clothing for the trip. Leaving a big mess of clothes that I won't pack that I then have to hang up or fold again. I have to do it this way. Start with more and then weed it down. I also have to try everything on - which amuses and confuses my husband. My argument is that I don't want to get to my destination only to discover that those pants don't fit me anymore, that shirt looks stupid with that skirt, and this dress is way too short or low cut to serve as appropriate work attire. That makes sense to me. I will also tell you that in spite of my Type A personality I am not one to fold my clothes neatly. My husband folds clothes a million times better than I do. Apparently the folding techniques I learned from my year working at The Gap didn't stay with me.

For this trip I have to consider that it is a work trip. I will be working in our office and attending meetings with officials, so its not shorts and t-shirts or low cut sun dresses. However, it is a work trip in Liberia, which means heat, humidity, rain and mud. I will be sweating all the time except when I might be freezing in over air conditioned rooms. So, this means business casual clothes that handle hot, humid, and muddy and too much air conditioning. And that hopefully dry fast.

Thank god for REI. Since moving to Salt Lake and working from home where I no longer feel the DC work environment pressure to dress up and wear heels, I have become a shopaholic at REI, which is a convenient 5-minute drive from our house. Over the past year most of my wardrobe has transformed and screams REI. My luggage is also from REI. Some days I am like a walking advertisement for REI. Head to toe. I think its funny.

Let me tell you - no one compares to REI (that I have found) in selling comfortable, durable, attractive outdoorsy type wear that can be dressed up a little so its appropriate, but not too flashy for an expat working on a development project in an office environment in Liberia. I was planning to blog just about REI, but never got around to it, so here is a mini ode to the store. Thank you REI!  I love you.

To give you an example - here are two REI outfits that I will be taking with me to Liberia. And they are freshly sprayed with DEET to help me from succumbing to malaria. Again...good times! I don't like chemicals like DEET and it freaks me out to spray it on my clothes. But getting malaria freaks me out more. I've had it. And I don't really want it again.

Back to my packing list...The packing list is always many pages long - listing out every toiletry, every type of clothing, every charger and cord, etc - that will ensure that I will have everything I need for my trip - for work and for my personal needs. If I am going to be on the road for two weeks, especially in a place like Liberia where you can't run out to the mall and pick up something you forgot, then I am going to be damn sure I've thought about everything. And going to a place like Liberia, and for work, adds things to your luggage that you normally might not pack such as:

- an umbrella. because its rainy season and it rains every day.
- bags and bags of chocolate for the office staff. just because.
- little toys for the cute little boy who hangs around and whose father works at the compound where we have our office. who wouldn't do this?
- a flashlight. two words. power outages. expect them. you will have them, even with a back-up generator.
- insect repellent. one word - malaria.
- medicines that i would not normally care about: malaria medication, prescription anti-diarrheal medicine, pepto bismol, immodium, cold medicine, etc. trust me. you need these. you will always need these.
- enough clothes to change twice a day due to the excessive humidity and sweating, and to maybe not have to do too much laundry.
- lots and lots of cash. its a cash only economy. no atms. no way to get money. one trip i had to carry like $5000 in cash on me. not a usual thing for me.
- a giant stash of mail that my office wants me to carry over for our expats.
- external computer hard drives for the office. cheaper to send with me than by courier.
- computer grease. this one has worried me. i received an envelope full of small syringes that just say VOI. i have to carry this in my checked in luggage. i worry that someone will see this weird package and wonder what the heck I am up to. i swear its just grease to fix computers! and you can't find it in Liberia.
- work stuff. pens, highlighter, notebook, calculator (oh i love my calculator and can't live without it, especially when analyzing a 19M budget), and try as i might i can't not bring a stack of file folders with papers that i know i will need. i know i can find everything on my computer, but some documents i need to read and work with and i just can't do it yet without the hard copy. i need that paper in my hands.

So you see? This stuff starts to crowd out your normal packing of clothes and basic things. In fact I am staring right now at the pile of things on my floor that I will be taking over to the office to leave and not bring back, and I am deciding that this is just about a second bag's worth of stuff.

On that note...I need to go finish my packing so I can relax this evening and hang out with my husband. I wish I could pack him in that second bag.

Off to the next Byway adventure...

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