It took longer than necessary: the packing. Although years of trotting, hopping, and traipsing—often half-wittedly and recklessly—around my archipelagic Philippines, preparing for the first trip abroad proved to be unnerving. The arrogance to skewer five Asian countries at once—a week a country, five weeks living in a backpack—perhaps was the reason behind this jittery feeling, like there were tiny roots that kept on growing in my chest as the trip got nearer and nearer.
These tiny roots named what ifs; they did not lull me to sleep rather shook me up from my ever light sleeps: what if atms did not work, what if border patrols detained me, what if someone slipped a bullet or a little packet of shabu in my backpack, what if I lost my luggage, what if I lost my wallet, what if I lost my passport, what if I met an accident—these misfortunes that befell to others and could possibly happen to me.
How to sort out a mind that is like a dysfunctional backpacker’s bag’s—so disorganized, chaotic, and sometimes horrifying?
In the field where the metaphorical cannot stand without passing the literal first, I went for the most literal approach on packing: I cleaned my small place and organized my cabinet first. The white clothes went to the top shelf, the colored ones on the left, the jeans at the bottom, hoping that by doing so could help me in organizing my luggage, which for the first time proved to be difficult.
After cleaning and arranging my place, I packed my backpack like I was putting the many voices in my head to sleep: everything must have its own designated place: undies go to the lavender pouch, toiletries to the blue, passport to the brown pouch, foreign money to the map pouch. And then zip them away. Shut the voices up.
It was harder than I thought. Suddenly, the art of the five-minute packing, the adventure that I have somehow mastered over the years, proved to be useless. The packed was unpacked; the unpacked packed. It became a ritual, this endless battle, this zigzagging feeling between hesitation and certainty.
But eventually I found the unlikeliest allies for my trip. My own travel minions.
Hybrid Bag: A Backpack that Can Stroll
A backpack is meant for a backpacker. That is how stereotypical a language can be. A quality backpack can cost Php8, 000 or more. A backpacker is supposed to be poor. At the top of my head, eight thousand can see me through a whole week in Malaysia; so I was hesitant to buy one to replace my battered, well-traveled Jester. The staff at an outdoor shop eventually got tired in tailing me around; he must have sensed my stinginess.
Finding my hybrid bag was coincidental. I passed by the department store when I saw a sales person eagerly demonstrating the function of a luggage to a customer. He looked enamored with the product himself; so instinctively, I approached him and looked at the bags. And there, I found Hybrid, a backpack that can be a stroller, a stroller that can be a backpack. The size? Exactly the dimension most airlines advised: 56 cms X 36 cms X 23 cms. And the price? One third of the backpack’s.
A Bundle of Elastic Bands
How to save and maximize a limited space? How to fit in two weeks’ worth of #ootd in a cabin baggage? Elastic bands. The greatest joy, I called it. I individually rolled all my clothes and tightened both ends with a rubber band. In some cases, I pair shorts and tops in one roll. One wrap, one outfit. It was easy to grab one from the bag without messing the other outfits. My clothes looked like shanghai rolls inside a big plastic bag. And my worried mind finds them delectably neat to look at.
Pouches for the Small Necessities
One of the many what-ifs I entertained: what if an airport security opened my backpack and my undies, in their entire splendor, came rolling out? Humiliation would render me boneless, I think. So I put my intimates in a pouch.
Pouching small and necessary things saved me some time. Instead of wasting minutes in looking for something, the hand automatically grabbed the needed purse: the map pouch for the weekly budget, brown leather for the passport and tickets, purple for the intimates, blue for the toiletries.
Traveling is a world for, of the erratic. But this certain unpredictability does not have to reach its arm inside my backpack. Having these little organized compartments provided me that much needed sense of sanity.
Scarves: Versatile Powers
I brought two scarves: one salmon pink and one true autumn. Scarves are rather versatile in their purposes. Crossing borders translates to long air-conditioned bus rides. I wrapped the scarf around my head or my shoulders to fend off the cold. It became an instant cover for my bare shoulders or a wrap-around skirt upon entering temples. An instant towel, a shed in a shadeless rocky beach, a cute accessory tied on a tote, and not to mention, it added color to my travel portraits.
Plastic Bags: Separating Dirty Clothes from the Clean Ones
Backpackers do not wash themselves. Backpackers have greater pursuits in life that they find clean and fresh clothes a trivial matter. Their backpacks have the unmistakable stench of all the places they have been to; and perhaps unconsciously they want others to be part of the experience: here, smell Southeast Asia!
Generalizations exist for a reason, and sometimes it is believable especially if you have stayed in a windowless dorm for a week. To avoid this, I compartmentalized my clothes in three plastic bags: one for dirty, another for my week’s worth of #ootd, and the last one (placed at the bottom of the bag) for the clothes I would not be using for that week. They are all air-tight and secured with an elastic band.
Although I labored on packing, it was far from perfect: two weeks’ worth of clothes, for one, was too much. I should not have brought the portable tripod and the pair of sandals. These were, as mountaineers called it, dead weight.
After unpacking the lives I lived during my five-week trip in five ASEAN countries, I patted the dust away from my backpack and mentally patted myself for a job well done.
In retrospect, there is no room for should haves.
• Jona Branzuela Bering is a writer and photographer from Cebu, Philippines. When she is not traveling, she gardens, teaches, and becomes the slave of her four cats. Follow her travels on Instagram @travelingjona. For more travel narratives, tips, and photos, check her blog Backpacking with a Book. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org