African Vacation 2011, Part One: Packing for Africa

08 February 2011 · 13 comments

Hello, friends! We’re not in Africa yet, but we soon will be. We flew to Washington, D.C., on Monday morning, and here we sit with a 24-hour layover before the flight to Johannesburg.

Last night, we joined Todd Landis (an old college classmate who now lives in D.C.) for dinner at Georgia Brown’s, which bills itself as “authentic, Southern low-country cuisine”. Having just eaten fried chicken at Portland’s Screen Door the night before, I had to compare the dishes. You know what? Portland’s fried chicken kicks ass on D.C.’s fried chicken. It’s true! But it was great to spend a couple of hours getting re-acquainted with Todd.

Note: To meet up with Todd, we took the free shuttle from the hotel back to the airport, then caught an express bus from the airport to Rosslyn Metro station and rode the Orange Line Metro a few stops east to get off near the White House. The public transportation was painless but slow; the roundtrip including dinner took us almost 6 hours!

We slept in this morning. Neither of us has been sleeping well, so it felt good to get nine hours under our belts. I had intended to exercise in the hotel’s gym, but I spent just five minutes doing some pull-ups, thrusters, and inclined push-ups. I spent most of my morning editing a video about what I packed for the trip.

Packing Light
As Kris and I travel more, we’re learning the wisdom of traveling light. Since our 2007 trip to England and Ireland, we’ve lived by the “carry-on only” rule. We never check bags.

Note: Okay, sometimes we check bags if the airline says overhead bins are full, but we never plan to check bags.

Each trip, we pack a little lighter. This time, for example, I only brought a couple of books. It may seem silly to bring any books at all, but you have to understand that I used to bring a small library. Now I’m just bringing what I think I’ll actually read. That’s progress. (Not enough progress, if you ask Kris!)

Our trip to Italy and France last fall taught me another handy trick for packing light: When possible, wear wool clothing. Wool doesn’t retain odors. You can wear a wool shirt for days on end and it won’t stink. It’s awesome. So, this trip, I have six wool undershirts. (That’s probably two too many, to be honest.)

Anyhow, here’s the video I put together documenting my packing list for Africa:

Some things to note:

  • As I mentioned, I pack wool clothing whenever possible. This includes wool undershirts and wool socks. If I had a sweater, it would be wool, too. I prefer Merino wool for its flexibility. (That is, it’s not too hot.) Though some folks prefer Smartwool, I’m a fan of Icebreaker. Much of the wool in this video was bought at an Icebreaker warehouse sale. (Meaning the shirts were $10 each instead of $60.)
  • I’m taking three Filson bags. Filson gear is expensive, but it’s durable and well-designed.
  • The Rick Steves travel pack is awesome. It’s been discontinued, unfortunately, because it was very reasonably priced. (It’s the Veloce travel bag, if you’re interested, and you can get it in colors other than orange.) Kris and I both have one of these packs, and find them versatile and convenient. They’re full of pockets and compartments, which makes it easy to organize your stuff. We use them primarily for actual travel: These bags live at our feet on the plane, and are on our backs in the airports.
  • I take way too many gadgets. I need to break the habit. For example, I even added my laptop for this trip, so that I could blog about Africa as we go. We’ll see if this is a mistake.

When I get back from Africa, I’ll go through my packing list (and re-watch this video) to see which items did and did not get used. I did this after Europe, too, which is why I’m not taking the voice recorder. (I’m glad I had it in Belize, but really, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.)

Conscious Spending
If you watch the video, you’ll see that I’m packing things like a pair of $60 compression socks and five pairs of $20 travel underwear. Plus, my carry-on bag cost a small fortune.

Some of my gear is expensive; I’m okay with that. After several big trips, Kris and I are learning that we’re willing to pay for gear that matches our travel style. $20 travel underwear that dries quickly after being washed in the sink is awesome. My collapsible chopsticks may seem frivolous, but I find them handy.

A cheap bag that makes life difficult is no bargain, but an expensive bag that makes travel a pleasure is worth every penny. (I consider this an example of conscious spending — we’ve tried several bags each now, and have rejected some cheap gear that got in our way.)

Now, though, it’s time to close up shop and head to the airport. Our flight to Johannesburg awaits!

1 Darren February 8, 2011 at 11:33

It looked like a TON of stuff but you got it all into the two bags so you’re golden. My only advice, based on my experience, is buy yourself a Kindle or use the kindle feature on the iPad. You’ll save yourself a lot of weight. Have a great trip!

2 bethh February 8, 2011 at 12:02

wow, that is AWESOME! Nice job. I request you do a two-pile review on your return – things that were used vs those that were not.

My history of packing:
2 weeks in London in 1999: 1 week for work, 1 for fun – got it all in a carry-on but it was bursting full, so I had to buy a cheap duffel to get my souvenirs home (I no longer do much shopping on trips though)
3 weeks in Italy in 2001: week-long bicycle tour, 2 weeks of touring about. I got it all in a camping-size backpack & a tote bag but it wasn’t pretty.
3 weeks in Ireland & Scotland in 2009: I brought a much bigger suitcase than I liked (partly b/c I was going to a wedding so had to bring a lot of extra gear). I swore never again, no matter what.

I’ve got more travel this year and eagerly look forward to your review of what you used and what you didn’t! I’m especially looking forward to finding out if you used those chopsticks ;-)

3 Andrea Deckard February 8, 2011 at 12:07

Well, I’ve only traveled abroad once when T and I went to the DR. We took two huge bags that were checked AND a carry on each. Of course our checked bags were lost during the travel (go figure).

I for one am glad you clarified about your underwear. Because, I’m not a fan of turning things inside out if ya kwim :) I wondered how that was going to work for you. I’m assuming the clothing is the same way as well? I definitely think that purchase was worthwhile for that purpose alone! And, I’m really surprised you don’t have more books on your kindle ipad app too.

Have a great trip! I hope you blog about it WHEN you get back!

4 Tyler Karaszewski February 8, 2011 at 12:15

Haha, looking at that video, it seems like you are bringing a ton of stuff J.D.! Maybe it’s partly because you’re also showing the bags you’re packing everything into, and the clothes you’ll be wearing on the plane, etc. I went and found this picture that I took before I went to Costa Rica for three weeks. My bag is on the left, my wife’s is on the right. Stella the cat is for scale.

There’s also plenty of stuff I just wont bring on trips, though. I tend not to bring a razor, for instance. Shaving isn’t for vacations. And my wife lets me wear more minimalist swim trunks than you seem to be allowed. I also try to leave most of the technology behind. I find it helps me immerse myself in the locale better when I don’t have my familiar internet haunts to fall back on.

Also, I stopped bringing American cash with me to countries that don’t explicitly accept it as currency. It’s just a liability — you can’t spend it and the temptation for people to steal it is huge. I had $200 stolen by the staff at the place I was staying in India, and I couldn’t really even lodge a complaint because few people speak English there, and even fewer do when they have nothing to gain from the conversation. That money was probably a month’s salary to whomever took it, and I probably looked incredibly rich in their eyes, so it’s hard to blame them, but I could have saved the money if I just left it home.

Have a great trip, J.D.!

5 Eileen February 8, 2011 at 14:16

Wow. I wish I’d known about you when I was packing for Peace Corps.
PS I thought Kris Gates was ‘right about everything’! I wonder how she reacted when you fit everything.

6 MutantSuperModel February 9, 2011 at 08:49

Have a safe, wonderful trip! But really, WOOL in AFRICA? Hmmm

7 peterxyz February 10, 2011 at 11:49

If you like wool shirts, try an icebreaker merino wool t-shirt.
Being a kiwi, I have been wearing these for years. They go through the washing machine with everything else (I use cold wash & seond fastest spin and hang them to dry) and last well
I prefer them with the prints,
http://www.icebreaker.com/site/catalog/weight.html?gender=Man&range=Superfine&weight=150%20Prints
http://www.icebreaker.com/site/catalog/weight.html?gender=Man&range=Superfine&weight=200%20Prints

I have worn them in both hot and cold climates and found them to be very versatile. They layer and because you can wear them by themselves they are more versatile than an undershirt. In fact I have a confession to make – they have a wide range of clothing, but (aside from the occasional hat) all I buy are the t-shirts in a mixture of plain and prints. Some of them are tighter fitting – either by style or choice, which allows me to layer two t-shirts when its a little cooler.

They have a store in Portland – well worth paying them a visit

8 Claudia Gates February 10, 2011 at 16:12

Have a great trip! I hope that you will write about it from Africa. I can’t wait to hear about your adventures. You’re a good packer. I wish Dad would take your advice about packing light for trips. He packs more than I do. Plus I end up helping him carry his camera case, because he can’t manage it all.

9 kristen February 11, 2011 at 15:14

Two thoughts:

Georgia Brown’s is not well thought of in DC. Your friend should have taken you somewhere better to impress you with DC’s chicken :) These days the restaurant is seen as past its prime and where tourists tend to go.

More importantly, might you consider stopping your constant written and oral references to “Africa” when you are in fact only going to two specific countries? Let me explain this pet peeve…if you think about it, and if you notice other people, you’ll notice that Americans almost always refer to any trip to any specific country in Africa as traveling to “Africa.” It’s downright weird and part of the legacy of racism and America’s views about Africa. When you were going to France, I’m guessing that you generally referred to going to France, not “Europe.” When people go to Spain, they say Spain. If someone is going to China and Thailand, that person would likely reference the two countries rather than saying “Asia.” Referring to all of Africa like one lump is unfortunate. It’s dozens of completely different countries. You are merely seeing small parts of two of them. Also, you end up sounding unintentionally ignorant. For example, in your video, you said that DC is cold and that Africa isn’t cold. DC is a small, specific place and you’re right that it’s cold. Africa is VAST and parts of it are freezing right now. There are mountains covered in snow. But, it’s summer in South Africa and Botswana and apparently warm in the parts that you are going to. Please consider referring to your travels as being to “South Africa and Botswana.” You’ll do a world of good just educating people about the nuances of Africa not being one amorphous lump.

10 jdroth February 13, 2011 at 08:34

Kristen, I have to say that your pet peeve seems, well, a little silly to me. Yes, I do say I’m going to Europe when I’m going to Italy and France, or to England and Ireland. And I’d say I’m going to South America if I were going to multiple countries there, too. And I’d say I was going to SE Asia if I were visiting Thailand and Singapore in the same trip. So when Kris and I are off to visit five African countries — South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia — I’m perfectly content to say I’m heading to Africa. (Though I’ll admit that after spending a week here, I’m now inclined to use the term “southern Africa”, because that’s what this region calls itself. I’d never heard that phrase used before last Monday, though.)

So, I appreciate your concern, but I think it’s a semantic pet peeve and not one I share.

11 kristen March 1, 2011 at 07:09

Thanks for sharing, JD. I continue to have the pet peeve :) Though “Southern Africa” is certainly accurate. If you start to notice how Americans use “Africa” when they are in fact referring one one country, you’ll see how it’s often incorrect. It’s obviously not incorrect when one is flying to the continent. However, there aren’t many other statements that are correct when people start a phrase with “In Africa… (the weather is __, the people are___, the scenery is ___) because it’s a massive continent with dozens of countries that are vastly different in every respect (politics, religion, weather, geography, etc). I think that too many people really don’t know or understand much about Africa other than seeing it as one big blob, and that gets reflected in our language.

Regarding your reflections on this post-traveling, my thought is that locals using a term doesn’t make it acceptable. I lived in South Africa for 4 months and in several other African countries for months at a time. My experience is that people have learned to say “welcome to Africa” as a general greeting because that’s how tourists talk to them and what tourists relate to. They don’t speak so generally to non-tourists and they don’t necessarily see themselves as a giant African conglomerate. Also, as a general logical principle, locals using terms doesn’t make it right. Americans might use gay slurs, in the past lots of us used “nigger”, we still have lots of more subtle but offensive or less-than-ideal jargon in our language — I’d hate it if a tourist came to the US and decided that some of our language was “best practice” or “ok” just because lots of Americans use it.

Anyway, thanks for considering. I think it’s at least worth thinking about and being careful not to generalize too much about a vast region that is often stereotyped and misunderstood.

12 Lindsay February 12, 2011 at 05:58

Great advice! My husband and I are working on new clothing items to pank when we travel. I love the idea of the wool items and need to start getting a few. We continue to pair down everytime we travel:
Paris, France May 2009 for 8 days – we each brought 2 suitcases that had to be check! We never touched half of it. Once home we had to want 3 hours for our luggage to arrive – we vowed never again! (Prior US travel we always brought two checked suitcases each.) Mexico Nov 2009 for 7 days – tried to pack carry on only, failed. We each took 1 checked bag. Rome, Italy March 2010 for 8 days – ok we will only do carry on. Looks of research and repacking and we made it! Each had a carry on back pack and a carry on day bag! Although we almost could not close the bags! Munich, Germany Sept 2010 for 8 days at Oktoberfest – each had on backpack carry on and a very small day bag, all zippers closed with ease!! New York City for 8 days New Years 2010/2011 – carry on back pack only! Even though it was cold we did with lots of layers! We are hoping to do 2-3 weeks in Ireland/England/Scotland soon and we will do carry on only forever. One great thing is now all my family travels like this! Myself, my sister and my mom all went to Oahu Hawaii (my brother is stationed there with the military) in Dec. 2010 – all did carry on only as I told them I would not travel with them if they checked their bags. Our total weight was 55 pounds for all 3 of our bags for 8 day trip!

13 Carrie March 22, 2011 at 17:22

Now that you have returned from your trip, what packing changes (if any) would you have made (hindsight being 20/20)

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