Top Five Travel Clothes

Unless (maybe even if) you’re a ridiculously intense back-to-basics backpacker, there are special things that go with you when you travel. It could be a simple charm, a lucky water bottle, even a special pair of socks. Whatever it is, you can be sure never to board a plane without it.

Clothes and/or accessories are a special point of interest when traveling, mostly because of the space issue. We have a limited amount of real estate in which to stuff everything we need for a given amount of time, so we have to be as efficient as possible about maximizing the potential use of everything we bring. I’m notoriously not a heels girl to begin with, and they almost never make an appearance in any of my pieces of luggage, because I recognize that the odds I’ll wear them more than once on any given trip is just south of zero. At this point, I’ve done enough gallivanting around the world for various lengths of time that I have a pretty strong sense of which things I’ll need (jeans, sneakers, scarves) and which things I’ll almost immediately regret bringing along (more than one swimsuit, necklaces, sweaters).

Still, I have a few things that have made it through years and countless TSA searches with me — things that I refuse to throw away or leave behind, regardless of how many holes they spring. We’ve been through so much together, it would be like a breakup to get rid of them at this point. I’m sure that even when they’ve deteriorated to the point that wearing them would cause my friends to be embarrassed to be seen in public with me, I’ll find a nice cozy box or corner of my closet in which to stash them, so I can keep them for the memories, even after they’ve long outlived their initial use.

The top five things that almost never leave my side (or my suitcase), barring serious climate-related factors:

1. This disgusting ratty grey jacket. I bought this jacket for $10 at the Urban Outfitters basement in Harvard Square, back when it was cheap and actually worth a visit, sometime around my sophomore or junior year of high school. Yes, high school. I’ve had this jacket for going on eight years now, and it shows: there is about a 1:1 ratio of holes to fabric at this point. I still wear it almost every day. This jacket has lived with me through the dramatic end of high school, survived all of my college escapades, protected me through six months in Buenos Aires, visited many of the cities on the Eastern Seaboard, climbed a volcano in Ecuador and is still going strong here with me in Colombia. I’ve known this jacket longer than I’ve known some of my friends, and I refuse to get rid of it because I love it more than almost any other article of clothing I own. Plus it makes me look really poor, so nobody wants to rob me, which is always an advantage when strolling around major cities with an upsettingly expensive camera stashed in my bag.

sorry, mom and dad. but I was 21!

The jacket, keeping college me warm whilst downing a beer on an unseasonably chilly Wrigley Field rooftop. Chicago, May 2010.

2. This soft, reversible printed scarf. I’ll admit to being a bit of a scarf magpie. Scarves, along with earrings, are one of my great travel weaknesses — they’re so pretty, so light, so cheap, so easy to pack, and always useful when living in temperate climates (aka my entire life). I stumbled across this lovely creation in a market in Tel Aviv/Jaffa — not exactly ideal scarf weather there, but I was headed back to chilly Boston just a few days later, and I couldn’t imagine a comfier way to arrive than snuggled up in this soft piece of fabric. As the best scarves do, it unrolls to practically the size of a blanket, or at least a very functional shawl, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve curled up in it to get through a flight, road trip or class in a particularly cold lecture hall. Since accompanying me back from Israel, my scarf has visited four separate continents, making appearances in France, Argentina, New Zealand, Canada, Ecuador, most of the northeast U.S. (plus Chicago), and is in fairly heavy rotation here in scarf-friendly Bogotá. In a robbery, I’d probably fight harder to protect this scarf than my wallet. Wallets can be replaced — four continents of memories can’t.

man, my forehead looks huge now

My scarf (and the rest of me, pre-bangs) reveling in the view from the deck of the Eiffel Tower. France, January 2009.

3. This pair of grey H&M Sqin skinny jeans. Wayyyyy back at the beginning of college, when skinny jeans were still a trend as opposed to a reality of daily life, I was pretty anti-skinnies. I’m not exactly model-thin, and the idea of wearing something that highlighted that aspect of my figure wasn’t my favorite idea. Still, I was wearing a lot of boots and long sweaters through the Chicago falls and winters, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to buy one pair of pants that I didn’t have to violently stuff into my boots. Hence a pilgrimage to H&M, that great source of cheap, trendy and occasionally baffling articles of clothing, and a spontaneous decision to invest in a pair of comfy light grey skinny jeans — just to have something in another color, I told myself at the time.

this brings back some really uncomfortable memories

Getting the patdown from correctional officers in an old prison in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. I’m not even safe from the long arm of the law at the end of the world. Argentina, May 2009.

By now, these pants have survived two transatlantic trips (France and Israel), made it through several different corners of Argentina, stuck it out through one Boston and three Chicago winters (and a spot of Canada snow in May) and, though they’re a bit faded by now, they still cover all the necessary parts of me. They’re sturdy, comfortable, go with everything and I don’t give a damn about getting them dirty because I paid about $30 for them almost five years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten more than my money’s worth out of them.

4. This basic black Target peacoat. Oh, Target. Questionable business ethics and political affiliations, dependably cheap wares. What ever are we to do with you?

One thing we can do is wear out your merchandise until it is at the point of disintegration — which is exactly what I’ve done with this coat. I acquired it sometime around the first year of college, undoubtedly while on a quest for something completely different, because that’s how Target runs work. Since then, it’s been my near-constant companion when I just don’t feel like rocking my normal green peacoat, or when going out — the rationale being that it’s far too average and unappealing for anyone to steal. It’s not like this is a North Face, people.

Despite its simple appearance, it’s still a warm coat that matches with everything and is small enough to travel fairly light, to such far-ranging places as Argentina, New Zealand, Israel, Colombia and a fair percentage of the bars in Chicago and Boston. Almost six years later, we’re still together — a bit frayed at the edges, for sure, but it’s nothing a little needle and thread can’t repair.

it survived the helicopter ride up here, too

Atop a mountain in Fiordland National Park on the South Island of New Zealand. Not bad for a cheap Target peacoat! Te Anau, April 2011.

ugh, I promise to never make this face ever again

Probably the most obnoxious photo of me on this site. Just keeping my ego in check. Israel, December 2009, practicing my best Candy Vanna White pose.

5. This totally awesome, magic, beat-up red leather bag. For the mere price of $2, I rescued this bag from its sad fate languishing in the basement floor of a Cambridge, MA thrift store almost seven years ago, and we’ve been near-inseparable ever since. I get more compliments and people inquiring about the provenance of this unlabeled, fraying leather bag than any other bag I own, and with good reason: It’s got character. And you can’t buy that, ladies and gentlemen.

Plus, it sure has a lot of stories/secrets to tell. This bag has accompanied me through nearly all of my travels in the continental U.S., and has made appearances in Canada, Israel, Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Canada and all across Colombia. It has been known to hold water bottles (filled with both water and other substances), shirts, shoes, umbrellas, cameras, makeup, DVDs, four different phones, gloves and/or other winter accessories, snacks, jewelry, baseball hats, Ziploc bags of cereal, iPods, notebooks, regular books, concert tickets, at least 100 different pens, various forms of currency, chopsticks, nail polish, lollipops, sunglasses and, on at least one occasion, a flashlight. My goal is to fit either an entire outfit or a small animal in it sometime before the end of our functional time together.

It’s funny to look at this list and realize that the things that last the longest, and that become the most significant to us, are rarely the things on which we spend the most money. None of these items cost more than $35 — most were less than $20. And yet here we are — five, six, eight years later — still together. I have a stronger emotional investment in most of these items than any of the (few) fancy shoes or dresses in my closet, and that’s not a coincidence. The things we love, like the people we care about most, are the ones that share experiences with us, and remain with us through the endless security lines, the bad restaurants, and the moments around the globe that change our lives. These are the things we remember.

These are mine. What are yours?

“THIS Song Again?!” The Inescapable Travel Soundtrack

One thing I’ve noticed through the course of my travels is how closely places are tied, in my memory, to music. Of course, most of us have strong associations with all kind of songs — Radiohead’s “House of Cards” will always bring me back to a transcendent moment at Bonnaroo in the summer of 2006, while Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” reminds me instantly of an ex-boyfriend (yeah, I know. The weird thing is, I hear it more often than you’d think). But there’s something about traveling, about going out to clubs and hearing the same song three times in one night, for a month straight, that creates these indelible impressions. Almost every place I’ve visited has at least one song associated with it — some have more, and some memories are stronger than others, but they’re all there, and I don’t see them disappearing anytime soon.

I certainly won’t bore the Internet by enumerating the entire list (there are plenty of other blogs that will be more than happy to do so), but there are a few particular tunes that are permanently stamped on my memory, and I think it’s fun to see which songs — some deep and meaningful, others stupid and mindless — stay through years of experience.

When I was sixteen, I visited one of my best friends at her home in the Dominican Republic. It was the first time I’d ever been out of the country on my own, my first time in the Caribbean, my first time trying rum, all kinds of firsts. Like most sixteen-year-olds, music was vitally important to my life experiences, and it became even more so when I was there. I think we tend to be especially open to the impact of music when we’re already trying to absorb everything else happening around us, and that was certainly the case for me. I still remember with perfect clarity sitting in the back of a pickup truck with about ten other teenagers, driving through the dark streets of Santo Domingo and yelling the lyrics to the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” and having it just mean so much in that moment. To this day, I still can’t hear that song without thinking of warm night air and that boy I totally had a crush on.

And then there’s Wisin y Yandel’s “Rakata” — one of my first introductions to the much-maligned but secretly widely-enjoyed genre of reggaeton. People in Latin America have such strong opinions about reggaeton: it’s fun, it’s lower-class, it’s crude, it’s hilarious, it’s offensive, it isn’t real dancing, and so on. While most or all of these may be accurate in various situations, the truth of the matter is, when you get anyone drunk, they LOVE reggaeton — or at least they’re perfectly happy to dance to it and keep their class-based opinions to themselves. Maybe its because I don’t have an official place in the Latin American social structure, or because I can’t dance to complicated beats, or because I secretly love songs with really absurdly dirty lyrics, but I kind of enjoy reggaeton. Not all the time, mind you, but when I’m in the mood to dance, or I’m feeling really good about my outfit that day, why not jam to a little Don Omar in my headphones?

It may all have started with that Wisin y Yandel song, though. That song was absolutely inescapable for the two weeks I was in the DR — blasting out of car windows, playing in bars, tumbling from the top floors of apartment buildings. My favorite memory, though, is my friends’ four-year-old brother inventing his own dance routine to this song, and showing it off to everyone. I don’t remember the specifics of the dance, but I do remember that it was adorable, and probably more coordinated than I could manage today. They start them early on the islands.

If anyone else was in Argentina during the first half of 2009, you probably remember this song. Good lord, this fucking song. I’ll admit that I’m sometimes prone to exaggeration, but I am dead serious when I say that there were about three months when it was IMPOSSIBLE to go to a single bar or club in the city without hearing this song at least once. I think my record for one night was five times. The only reason I didn’t want to cut my ears off — like I would if it were, say, another goddamn dubstep track — is because it’s actually sort of sweet and really catchy, in a Spanish “Call Me Maybe” kind of way. I probably walked around singing it to myself for about two weeks straight. Even when I listen to it now, I still feel like I’m strolling through Palermo snacking on an alfajor.

But travel music doesn’t only apply in other countries. On the contrary, I think some of my strongest musical travel associations were born in a car somewhere in the U.S. Road trips are, I suppose, the ultimate scenario for creating these kinds of musical memories — trapped in a car with another person/s who you may or may not like, surrounded by snack wrappers and GoogleMaps printouts, you have few places to seek solace other than music. And while most of us don’t repeat the same song five times over the course of our trip (unless all the iPods are dead and we’re stuck with the one Peter Frampton cd someone’s dad left in the car five years ago or, god forbid, the radio), there are still certain moments that stand out, like driving through foggy Tennessee dawn with Phish turned down low so everyone else in the van could sleep, blasting the Allman Brothers immediately upon crossing the Mason-Dixon line, cueing up the Dropkick Murphys to greet us at the Massachusetts border, or my roommate and I speeding across Indiana singing Britney Spears at the top of our lungs because it’s the only way to survive crossing that state with our sanity intact.

The jury is still out on what my Colombia songs are going to be — after all, I still have seven months left here, and there’s no way to know what music will inspire memories until I’m in a place where they’ll be memories, rather than my current reality. Still, I’ve had “Tu Sin Mi” bouncing around in my head since March, when I heard it twice a day while vacationing on a long weekend with some friends, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon. And now it’s probably in your brain, too. Misery, company, etc. You’re welcome!

I’m not self-absorbed or deluded enough to imagine that I’m the only one with songs that take me back to special places I’ve been, though. Anyone else have some meaningful or amusing travel songs that will forever remind them of that ridiculous weekend in Beijing, or the time they got lost trying to get to Rome? Please share — I’d love to hear about some other musical voyages!