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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
I’m generally against clothing with writing or slogans on it, since 97% of them tend to be brand names (I see you, Hollister. Trust me, you only have your company name printed all over those t-shirts), Busted-Tees-style statements with an overinflated sense of their own cleverness (“Keep talking, I’m fluent in stupid”) or just blatantly idiotic or offensive things that reflect terribly on the wearer (something something your boyfriend etc). Pretty much the only acceptable words to put on clothes, in my opinion, are the names of bands, sports teams, events or geographic locations. A journalist who’s into facts, how shocking.
I recognize that this isn’t a preference I share with the majority of the American public (especially the under-18 cohort), and it definitely isn’t one I have in common with the Colombian public. People here are way into t-shirts and other clothing with words or sentences written on them. But not just any string of words — they’re almost always in English, and they’re equally as often misspelled or just lacking any grammatical sense whatsoever.
There’s the lady on the bus in a t-shirt that just says “Love Smile,” “He said he would never” scrawled across the back of a teenage girl’s hoodie (never what? he would never what?!) or, my recent favorite, the guy on the TransMilenio with a “New York” t-shirt that said “Time Square” in at least three different places. And don’t even get me started on the signs and promotional material for companies — I want to grab a paintbrush every time I pass the beauty salon a few blocks away from me named “Beauty Stile.”
I recognize that the fact that I’m a knee-jerk grammar nerd who has to bite my tongue to keep from correcting people in conversation has a lot to do with why I notice these little details, but I’m also just kind of baffled by the whole concept of it. I get that people may not notice that things are misspelled (like the TimeS Square dude) or maybe they don’t care that the sentence on their shirt doesn’t actually make any sense, but I’m sort of unclear on what the market is for clothing splattered with nonsensical English words. Why not buy a t-shirt that has an actual reasonable sentence in Spanish, or, better yet, clothing without any words at all? Better to be understood in no languages than misunderstood in two.
Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:
Okay, so I’m a bit biased in this regard, since I’m kind of a jeans purist. My ideal denim is dark, doesn’t make me look like a child trying to wear her mother’s too-long pants, and doesn’t have any weird shit on the pockets. They’re pants, not a decoration — or so I thought until I came to Colombia. Here, jeans look less like serviceable, utilitarian pants than an overactive jewelry or tattoo designer’s rhinestone dreamscape.
Now, I’m not saying that Colombians have cornered the market on inadvisable jeans. I’ve seen a lot of poor denim choices in my life. I’ve been to Europe. I’ve walked past bebe stores. I lived through the ’90s, for god’s sake. But the “styles” here really go above and beyond normal tackiness. Looking for acid-washed, light blue jeans ripped in like five places? Trying to bring back the bad old days with whiskered creases on the unflattering part of your thighs? How about pants with pockets so bedazzled it probably hurts to sit down? Or, better yet, let’s just make most women’s jeans without any back pockets at all, because being able to put shit in your pockets ISN’T THE MAIN POINT of these pants and really the best reason for the existence of jeans. It is almost impossible to locate a pair of normal, non-floral, non-sparkly, 5-pocket pants in this country — in fact, the only places I’ve been able to find them are international chains like Zara or Bershka, which is kind of cheating.
Now normally we ladies are the ones who have to suffer the indignities of unreasonable denim designs, but here they are equal-opportunity offenders. In fact, I think the worst jeans I’ve seen may have been men’s. They do, at least, have pockets, but they apparently have taken all the pockets that were supposed to go on the back of the women’s designs and stuck them on the men’s in the strangest possible locations: near the knees, in front, stacked on top of the back pockets that are already there. Men’s jeans here add zippers in the oddest places, like they wanted to be those zip-off cargo pants that turn into shorts but lost the courage at the last moment and decided just to zip about four inches diagonally across the thigh for no apparent reason. I don’t think I know a single person who’s ever bemoaned the lack of a conveniently-placed thigh pocket on his or her pants, but clearly I haven’t spent enough time here. And let’s not forget those trousers clearly influenced by the Ed Hardy School of Design, with multicolored birds of prey, weird tattoo-style lettering and yes, even the occasional bedazzlement.
Usually I’m glad that I’m a poor volunteer primarily because it prevents me from constant shopping and the subsequent constant debt. Even if I had all the money in the world, though, it wouldn’t convince me to buy a pair of jeans at most stores here. My broke ass has been proudly sparkle-free for 23 1/2 years now, and I fully intend to keep it that way, thank you very much.
Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:
Despite the fact that, yes, I own at least 20 pairs of them, I firmly believe that heels are some sort of sadistic device invented by men back in the day when they were brainstorming ways to prevent ladies from fleeing their manors, carriages and other dignified, claustrophobic locales (for the record, the same goes for hoop skirts, corsets and foot-binding. Except that only one of these things is still popular). I accept wearing heels in exactly three situations: 1. For job interviews/other important looking-like-an-adult moments; 2. For fancy parties and/or theater events; and 3. That one time every month or so that I feel like getting way too dressed up, going out dancing and getting drunk enough that I don’t notice how much my feet hurt.
This is just one of the myriad reasons why I would be a terrible Colombian. Women here wear heels everywhere. To work, to commute, to the hair salon, to the fucking grocery store — if a place exists in Colombia, I guarantee you that there is at least one woman there wearing heels. I seriously can’t explain this phenomenon, since I can personally think of few better ways to torture oneself than insisting on wearing heels everywhere. However, many people in Bogotá do tend to dress more formally than what I’m used to, and they definitely pull out the stops when they dress up to go out, especially in the nicer parts of town. Still, it doesn’t explain the woman I saw this morning, wearing heels to walk her dog.
The upside of this seemingly masochistic custom is that Bogotá is like paradise for anyone with a shoe shopping
problem habit. Since everyone wears heels constantly, and the weather is here is so destructive toward footwear that it almost seems deliberate, I can only assume the women of Bogotá constantly need to replace their shoes. And luckily for them (and for future me, when I someday get over my fear of falling out of high heels), there are shoes sold all over the place, from tiny neighborhood shops to bright neon-lit mall stores. There are whole neighborhoods known for having good shoe shopping, and they even have Payless! Score!
Some of my friends here have told me they primarily wear heels to be taller, which I guess is the best explanation I’ve heard so far, since Colombian women generally tend to be fairly short. As an exactly average-height American woman, statistically speaking, being “tall” is not a normal experience for me, but I’m told at least once a week here that I’m tall (to which I usually respond that no, I’m normal, it’s just that everyone else is short. Which is so considerate. Ten assimilation points for me!). Although this is still weird for me, it does mean I can get away with not wearing heels most of the time, since the corollary to most Colombian women being shorter than American women is that many Colombian men are also shorter than American women. Heels would only exacerbate the situation, so I use that as my excuse.
I will say I’m definitely a bit of a weirdo at school for wearing my boots every day — because I am a logical person who refuses to wear heels when I have a twenty-minute walk each way back and forth to school. Besides, who am I trying to impress? My ninth-graders? Pretty sure I stopped trying to impress ninth-graders when I was halfway through ninth grade. Still, it’s amazing how much social pressure, or not even pressure so much as overwhelming social norms, can influence a person. At least twice in the last week, I’ve actually considered wearing heels to work, for no other reason than the fact that everyone else does it. Luckily, both times I’ve come to my senses and remembered that the only thing worse than walking home in rain every afternoon is walking home in rain in shoes that might betray me at any moment.
But check back in with me in a few months. It’s possible this place will work its magic on me and convert me into some strange being capable of walking in heels without falling on my ass. The Catholics do believe in miracles, after all.
Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love: