Packing Essentials – Things You Should Never Leave Home Without

I am a great advocate of packing light and making do with bare necessities because let’s face it, if you wanted to travel to another country to experience all the things you love at home (re: McDonalds), then you might as well stay home. To be fair, I make it a point to try the local KFC meal just because. This is what it looks like in Bangkok.

KFC Thailand
(Expert’s note: When they say spicy, they really, really, really MEAN IT!)

Jokes aside (but seriously, the word ‘Spicy’ in a meal is a warning, not a description!), there are somethings that you should carry with you no matter how large or small your luggage space is. It has helped turn travels into journeys into unforgettable adventures and the best part of it all is that they are ABSOLUTELY FREE!

In no particular order, I give you my packing essential list.

Packing Essential #1 – An Open Mind

Bucket Cocktails

Shady Bars

Right alongside your handy travel adapter (even though being phoneless can have great perks!), bring an open mind. There will be times when you are called on to drink cocktails from shady bars in buckets, there will be times you will have to drive on the other side of the road, times when out of sheer hunger you will say yes to the man selling roasted scorpions. These make great icebreakers when you’re on your next adventure but mostly you will remember having the time of your life!

Packing Essential #2 – Patience


If you don’t have an annoying sibling, find an annoying friend or go stand in the queue at Nilgiris (a supermarket that just can’t bill your products without also making you wait for 500 hours) in India. It will help you develop this great thing called Patience which is also free but you won’t believe the things it will help teach you. That delayed sky-train ride, those long hours being lost in translation, those cancelled flights, those times a terminal becomes your second home – these are things that help you live a realistic day-to-day life in a foreign country. It could lead you to holidays you never planned for – like an island trip to Zanzibar or breath-taking views because walking through dangerous hills was your only chance out. When you aren’t trying to follow in Bill Murray’s footsteps, life happens to you.

Packing Essential #3 – Greetings 101

I have always been the kind who doesn’t read much about the place or its culture till I am actually smack in the middle of living it. It is not always a good idea. There’s always a chance that somebody speaks English and will help you out, but it could just as easily go the other way. If you are like me, just observe the words that are being said in greetings. Saying hello is a big deal in all cultures and even if you speak no more than the word for ‘whats up?’, you will find your journey that much more easy because of it. It gives off the impression that you are trying (which, of course you are) and it helps you make friends with the locals which can lead to even more moments you won’t soon forget. Find a way to bond and if you can get them to smile (or laugh) back at you, you are set!

Packing Essential #4 – Manners

Tanzanian Kids

While not all rituals seem logical to you, when in a foreign country, it is good to practice your manners. They do things different two streets down from where my parents stay and yet, when I’m in their neighbourhood, I respect their way. As a guest, it is your duty to be mindful of what goes and what doesn’t. Keep your eyes open and read body language where you can. Take your shoes off where you need to, cover up where it is expected, and stand up for the anthem even if it is in the cinema. At the end of the day, good manners will take you where your money won’t go.

Packing Essential #5 – Curiosity


This great characteristic to develop is deadly to cats, or so I hear, but great for us humans. Wanting to know what that particular shrine is, or what is down that colourful street is a great way to discover things that aren’t on a Lonely Planet Guide or on Trip Advisor. Yes, you can see and do and all touristy things that your heart desire, but there is something appealing about finding a canal and pointing and ordering the greatest dish you have ever tasted. Forget the taxi and get on that rickety boat. You never know what treasure you will find on the other side!


Don’t over-think it bro!

I had never been to a holiday for the sake of a holiday till I was 24. This shouldn’t be surprising considering I’m born to self-realised Social Activists/AidWorkers who can never really draw the line between work and anything else and it would be hypocritical of me to complain because in this field, work is life. And I’m pretty much the same. Still, any holiday we took as children would be combined with a work detour. When we went to the beach, we also made a side visit to the fishing villages that were struck by tornados or a giant tsunami. If we went away elsewhere, there would be villages with a flood situation, with food scarcity and with sheep I could kidnap.

For every essay we had to submit on Shakespeare and the Skeletal System, we had a summer of adventure to look forward to, so much so that the idea of just getting away to do nothing seems preposterous even after all these years. I went backpacking across Europe to end up volunteering in a small village in France. I went to Africa to see the place but ended up working for 7 straight months – even in places where I went to take a break. You know where this is going right? Classic movie sequence of epiphany that hits because of something a stranger observes that you hadn’t even realized before? Yeah, that.

That was my first holiday, and like all firsts, you remember it fondly. I went to Zanzibar thinking I’d spend one day looking around and the evening at the beach and the next day, volunteering at a Madarasa. I ended up staying a week and doing nothing but sipping gin cocktails, making friends with a cat that was older than the island and taking in sunrises and sunsets on the Indian Ocean. I had quite a bit of unlearning and letting go to do.

Stone Town – Zanzibar

Earlier this year when I realised I could go away again, I picked a place because my grandmother, who I’ve come to know only through the stories I’ve been told, was born there and came away to India by a treacherous ship journey that took months and months. I learnt that she used to be royalty in Malaysia and when they came to India, they lost everything. And she had her adventures- she was the first of her family to study in a British School when they opened up the schools to Indians (It was the same school my sister and I studied in) She fell in love and married an orphan boy and lived a life she never thought she could/would.

When I booked my tickets and got my visa, people asked me why I was going – I had a massive Sméagol fit.

2 weeks on a holiday doing nothing but exploring? Not going near a volunteer project or a social cause? Not on any freelance travel writing project? An empty itinerary/list of things to do? Just going with the flow? And then I was finally able to say it.

I’m going for me.

I was a Mayan – Fact!

No, seriously. I had 100s of people line up to take photos of me. I was 18ish and I had to sign shirts and bags and photos.

I suppose the joy of living with people from all over the world was that we got to swap traditional clothes every Sunday. That Sunday I was wearing traditional Thai clothes but  I seemed to have caused quite a scene.

There was an old couple chatting with each other and pointing (rather openly) at me. They finally had the guts to ask me where I was from and when I said “Indian”, they went beserk. They wouldn’t let me try to explain

Hubbie: Ich glaube, sie ist rot-indian

Wife: Nein, ich glaube, sie ist Mayan. Oder Inca

(Red Indian? Mayan? Incan?!)

There were even a couple of kids who pointed at me and squealed “Pocahontas, Pocahontas”

Parlez-vous Francais?

Something about being in Africa has made me think of France – Strongly. It probably is this French looking chameleon that I’m tempted to call Pierre or Didier or something typically French like that. Or maybe it’s how seeing that Asterix blanket in Shukuru’s bed made me think of how close to reality those comic strips are. It probably is just the smell of fresh bread wafting from this kitchen! I made my first loaf of bread and all I can think of are the baguettes of France. Aah the Gauls – they know how to feast!

By France, I don’t mean Paris (Pronounced without the ‘S’). I mean those little hamlets that are the heart of this country – Burgundy, Provence. Towns and villages as endearing as their names – Lacoste, Lubéron, Aix, Cluny, Avignon. Every Sunday, we would walk to a different town. That’s one thing I miss about Europe – the long stretches and the fresh air. You could walk all day and not tire. The thing about France is the weather – it’s warm, almost Mediterranean. Farming is the main occupation – vineyards stretch for miles and miles and miles, village markets that boast of wares according to season – Christmas, harvest, hunting seasons.

And France’s favourite ritual is eating. There’s summer food and winter food. My trip began with lunch in a family owned restaurant. It was stone walled and full. The owner was a man of considerable size who perfected the art of teleportation – he was at every table making sure everyone was alright. It was a meal I shall never forget – if there is such a thing as gastronomic frontiers, this meal broke all records! It started with home-made pizza, 3 of them: Anchovy, mushroom and cheese (In France, you HAVE to have a slice of each). We would then wipe our plates with pieces of bread torn from loaves of bread that are complementary and placed in the middle of the table. Each loaf was at least 2 foot long.

By that time, the second course arrived – pâtés of rabbit, boar and thrush. There was a chunky, pork-based terrine laced with marc. There were saucissons spotted with peppercorns. There were tiny sweet onions marinated in fresh tomato sauce. Plates were wiped once more and duck was brought in. The highly decorated and over priced slivers that they serve you in these fancy restaurants were nowhere to be seen. There were full pieces covered in dark, savoury gravy and surrounded by wild mushrooms.

I was thankful that I was able to finish so much food and I was just about to sit back and relax when I felt something close to panic as I saw people around me wipe their plates with bread again. A huge, steaming casserole (Rabbit rivet of the richest, deepest brown) was placed on the table and was the speciality of Madame, the hostess, wife of whom I now called Obelix. And all this, by the way are wiped down with bottles and bottles of wine – The whites of Côtes du Rhône, the reds from local farmers who I had the delight of meeting and the lightest, tastiest and most delightful bottle of pink champagne I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking (It was on the house for an Indian guest who appreciated good food)

Aah to eat like a peasant.

When I was there, the breadmaker would arrive at 6 in an old box of a car that was at least 30 years old struggling up the little hill. I grew fond of the man. He would tell me stories in rapid French that I didn’t understand a word of but nodded my head anyway as we cut baguettes and baguettes for breakfast for 50 odd volunteers. One weekend, I decided to humor him and visit him in his bakery. He handed me a brown bag of goodies and I decided to open them only when I went to my favourite spot in the town – a vantage point up the hill of Cluny where I could see the World War II ruins, the old abbey, and the entire expanse of Burgundy covered in the first rays of sunlight that morning.

I opened the bag to find fresh bread, goat cheese, figs from his farm that he always talked about and cool flavoured milk – and just like that under my favourite walnut tree, I had the best breakfast of my life so far!

Something in Africa’s air today has made me miss France!