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Anatomy of a Packing List

January 4, 2018

My family members are all experienced travelers, and I've found myself looking back on our separate pre-departure rituals as I prepare to spend the semester in Beijing, China, with IES Abroad.

My father's mode of preparation has become something of a family joke. Each time we are about to go abroad he announces, almost verbatim, "Guys, I'm really going to try to pack light this year, and I think you all should consider doing the same."

We laugh, because he says this each time we are getting ready to travel, to mixed results.

"No, no," He insists. "I'm serious this time. A few t-shirts, a couple of pairs of pants; that's really all I need. Our suitcases are always stuffed to bursting. I'm not pulling out my back for twenty pairs of shoes!"

We don't take him seriously, because my father's attempts to pack light, while admirable, are fundamentally mislaid. He always under-packs, ending up having to buy himself a new wardrobe while we are abroad. Besides, whatever space he happens to save by packing ascetically is quickly filled up with my mother's stuff, which inevitably overflows the confines of her own luggage.

My mother is a professor of Spanish and Latin American studies, and it is her work that has made it possible for us to spend semesters and summers in Mexico, Chile, Spain, and Peru. As such, over-packing is her prerogative, since she has to be sure to take enough business-appropriate outfits for the road. When we were younger my siblings and I didn't understand why she had any right to pack more than the rest of us, and so her habits have somewhat set the trend for the family. In them, she is my father's polar opposite. Her suitcases are always jam-packed. While we are away, she continues to acquire a steady stream of souvenirs—Mexican pottery, Argentine leather shoes, Spanish marzipan, Peruvian textiles, and Chilean wine—which always ends up being stuffed into our suitcases. As children, we felt that we were entitled to similar excess.

For years my sister travelled everywhere with her pillow. Once, my brother insisted on bringing a collapsible soccer goal with him to Spain, as if there was no such thing as soccer in Madrid. My own indulgences were books, but when I lost a library hardcover in Mexico one year, my mother finally put her foot down and purchased me an e-reader. Suddenly I could tuck an entire library into my backpack. I began to understand that my father's minimalistic approach, however much we mocked him for it, had its own merits.

I am keeping this in mind as I prepare to go to China, and I suggest other expectant travelers do the same. It can be easy to default to the comforts of home, to stuff our favorite outfits, our heavy cameras, or our favorite novels into our bags, but I've found that none of these measures remind me of home or prepare me for my journey. My packing list this time is short and sensible. A few shirts, a couple of pairs of pants. But I have left space as well for some reminders of home: my journal, a handful of family photos, and—of course—my e-reader. I've realized that I don't need anything more than that. When we go abroad, we create our own rituals and experience new adventures. I am excited to have the chance to do the same in Beijing, and to have the opportunity to share my trip with you!

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