The Incidental Tourist

The Month of Living Expatriately: Episode 1, The Packing Menace

Recently, I had the chance to become a true expat and live abroad for a month in Taipei, Taiwan.  My job here is fairly simple, but busy, doing a lot of backlogged test work to help my overworked co-workers with an onslaught of new business.  I’m on the back side of that trip now and have enjoyed the first two weeks immensely, though I do admit to being just a bit homesick.

I am a bit surprised, however, that I’m actually quite comfortable living here. Perhaps it would be a bit different if I had to pay the bills for a flat in Taipei rather than live on per-diem lodging, but for the most part, I am enjoying life as an expat.  I’ve been to Taipei many times in the past, but this is the first time I’ve been gone for so long, and some adjustment was needed.

First, packing. Oh how I HATE taking more than one bag when I travel, and I abhor taking a large bag at all, but for a month, I needed both the 25 and 21 inch bags, plus a backpack to carry my laptop and SLR in.  There is an art and science to proper packing.  Inexperienced travelers tend to overpack.  You don’t REALLY need a pair of jeans for every day of the week, nor do you need a closet full of shoes.  Think about what you do at home. And do less.  And do laundry.

I was able to boil everything down to 4 pairs of jeans, 5 t-shirts, 2 button-down white shirts (you should always have a white button-down shirt handy), a belt, 6 pairs of socks (2 for tennis shoes, 2 for casual shoes and 2 for hiking boots) and underwear.  I do admit to having a full week worth of underwear, because that’s the ONE thing I’ll not wear more than one day in a row.  Also, a pair of lounge pants and an undershirt and a hat.  That’s more than I’d pack for a typical week trip, but to be fair, for a month, I wanted a LITTLE variety.

I also carried a lot more in terms of toiletries than usual.  I don’t normally carry a shaving kit, really, as I can shave before I leave and not need to worry about it for a week. Thankfully, I have a job that doesn’t insist on shaving regularly.  But for this trip, a new razor/trimmer combo and a can of shaving cream came along.  A month also requires more of everything else. Deodorant, toothpaste, allergy tablets, stuff for the squirts and the upset tummy.  A lot of this you can also buy abroad, but you probably don’t want to try reading labels that aren’t in your native language when you’re looking for medicines to ingest.

Shampoo and stuff can easily be purchased abroad, but I elected to pack this as well as I rather like my shampoo and body wash.  The up side is that I buy small size bottles that I can just toss when I get here, so there’s less weight on the return trip (or more available weight and space for souveniers).  The point is, as with the clothes, you need to carefully weigh what you’re taking with what you can buy abroad and with what you really, at the end of the day, don’t need at all.

The one thing you should NOT skimp on, however, is prescription medicine. This is something you should really plan ahead for.  Most places will only give you a month supply at most (accepting mail-order pharmacies that sell 90-day supplies) so you need to be sure that you get an extra refil of everything you’re taking before you go.  Your local pharmacy can’t transfer a prescription to Uncle Ho’s Drug Emporium in the Pacific Rim.  Also, you certainly wouldn’t want to run out of things like diabetes or heart or other life saving medication while you’re away.  Some Rx drugs can be ignored, but many are a necessity of life and you should try to take enough or at least 1.5x the lenght of your trip to account for losing meds, delays in travel and other things that may occur.

Another consideration is that you may have to pay for your baggage and the limits on weight can change.  For example, flights outbound from the U.S. on U.S. carriers typically allow for 50 lbs per bag max before you pay over-weight fees.  Foreign carriers, however often have a 20Kg limit, which translates to roughly 44 lbs, so a 6 lb difference which could be important if your return trip starts on a non-US airline.

Also, some airlines will give you one bag for free, but charge you for the second on international flights.  If you fly enough to have status, these fees are usually waived, but not always.  And if you’re like me, this time around, I lost my much beloved status due to travel cutbacks at work, so while I had a great trip outbound, I will have a not-so-great return trip because I will no longer have my status.

Another thing to consider are carry-on bags.  For the love of GOD, please do NOT try to bring a too-big bag as a carry-on. You just piss the rest of us off who are waiting on you to stuff your giant Gucci duffel Bag into the overhead. If you can’t lift it, don’t bring it on. And remember that overhead compartment space can be limited on crowded flights. So don’t be a dick and take up too much space that screws another traveler out of storage room.  Finally, carry your damn bag.  Don’t drag it down the aisle, where you bump the shins of everyone in the aisle seats, don’t smack people in the head by carrying an arm load of shopping bags that make your total width twice what it normally is.  And when they say put your small bags under your seat, please do so. There’s no need for your little back-pack to take up valuable overhead space when there is plenty of room for it under the seat.

Remember the most important rule: If you carry it on, you have to carry it off and carry or drag it through the airport, through security and everywhere else, and it’s a real pain in the ass dragging a 30 pound bag over a mile from one gate to the next in a large airport.

Finally, a word about security.  If you ARE carrying liquids, put them in a damn bag like the instructions say to. Keep them easily accessible so you don’t hold up the rest of us when you try to run your bag through the x-ray. Pull your laptops out and put them in the tray and get EVERYTHING ready to go BEFORE you get to the bins for the security check.  Nothing pisses regular travelers off like having to wait for you to unpack your poorly packed bag, slowly take off your shoes, belt, watch, hat, and so forth, put everything in individual bins and hold up the line for several minutes while you then re-pack everything (or worse, have to have a bag check because you neglected to do the above).

And that’s it for packing. I had an exceptionally difficult time packing for a month. There’s a totally different logistic angle when you’re packing for a long term trip versus a week or so.  I still think I probably over-packed a bit, but for the most part, I think I got it down to the minimums in most areas for a sparse, but comfortable month in Taiwan.

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