22 December 2015


Every year, there are tons of questions online about how to pack for a year. I've been copying and pasting this list for about a year now, and most people seem pretty happy with it. I don't know why I've never published it here, but here it is!

A Very General Packing List.
Not everybody will need everything on the list.

-7-10 days worth of everyday clothing
-1 kinda-fancy outfit 
-1 outfit for exercise 
-2 things to sleep in
-1-2 sweatshirts/sweaters/light jackets (2-4 if going immediately to cooler weather) 
-7-10 pairs underwear
-3-4 bras
-7-10 pairs of socks
-1-2 Belts
-1 pair athletic shoes
-1 pair dressy shoes
-1 pair flip-flops/shower shoes
-1-2 pairs everyday shoes (if not covered above already)

-Travel size shampoo/conditioner
-Travel size toothpaste
-Travel size deodorant
-Travel size tissues
-Hair brush/comb
-Several headbands, pins, ties, etc. 
-Skin, hair, or cosmetic products that you can’t live without and can't buy abroad
-Other toiletry stuff you use regularly - razor, nail clippers, tweezers, etc.
-Tampons/pads/menstrual cup

::::Other Stuff::::
-Backpack or tote for school and short trips
-Camera (and charger)
-Memory cards
-USB drive/external hard drive
-Folding umbrella or rain jacket
-Host family gifts
-Any adaptors necessary for electronics
-Small dictionary 
-OTC meds that you use very regularly
-Prescription meds 
-Extra pair of glasses/contacts
-TSA-approved suitcase lock

::::Important Stuff::::
-1-2 other forms of ID (driver’s license, city/state ID, school ID, etc.)
-Debit/Travel card
-Cash (home and host currencies)
-Any paperwork/money you need for your visa (if not received already)

::::Very Optional::::
-Things related to hobbies (small musical instrument, sketchbook and pencils, cleats, etc.)
-Few small things to decorate your new room (photos, etc.)
-Little gifts (pencils, candy, magnets, etc.) for teachers/volunteers/friends
-Jewelry, scarves, etc. that you regularly use
-Camp/Travel towel
-1-2 books for plane (host language if possible)
-mp3/iPod (w/ charger, headphones)
-Travel sized hand sanitizer
-Wet wipes (for freshening up after long plane rides before you can shower/change)
-Water bottle 
-Flag from home country
-Credit card

::::Don’t Bring::::
-Hair dryer/straightener/curler
-School supplies

-You need to be able to carry all your luggage by yourself. Not roll, carry. You should also be able to get around the block with it twice (rolling is fine) somewhat comfortably. DO NOT go above the maximums that AFS specifies even if the airline has a larger allowance- you will likely have another flight, bus, or train ride in your host country with stricter requirements than your initial flight(s) and you may be using public transportation or riding in a small car to get to your host family’s home. You'll also have a lot more stuff on the way back! 
-Pack for 2-3 days in your carry-on in case your checked bag is delayed, and so you don’t have to tear through your big suitcase during orientations. 
-If you’re going somewhere with a cold winter but arriving in summer, consider buying your jacket, boots, etc. there or having them shipped over. If that's cost-prohibitive, cut down on the summer clothes and optional items and bring winter clothes. 
-If you’re going to a much colder climate than the one you’re from, plan to budget money for essentials like a coat and boots- what’s available to you locally probably won’t be warm enough. 
-If you’ll be wearing a school uniform, bring less clothing. 
-Bring clothes that you wear regularly, and that can be mixed and matched and layered. 
-Talk to your host family about computers. In many places, it’s very common for the family to share a computer. Don’t plan to bring your own unless it’s recommended by your host family or required by your host school. An external hard drive or USB drive can be used for documents, photos, music, etc. 
-Unless there are specific products that you absolutely cannot live without, don’t bring full-sized toiletries. Bring enough travel sized ones for the first 1-2 weeks, and buy new ones there. 
-Consider the availability of certain products where you’re going- availability of things like tampons, plus size clothing, large shoes, dark/light makeup, etc. may vary. Ask recent returnees or locals if there’s something you’re concerned about.
-Check the legality of any medication (prescription and OTC) that you plan to bring. Figure out how you’ll handle prescription meds well in advance. 
-Be mindful of how much stuff (especially electronics, name brand clothes, etc.) you bring. Your host family and/or classmates may be from a different socioeconomic background, and you don’t want to be perceived as spoiled or cause your hosts to feel self-conscious.
-Buy a cheap prepaid cell phone in your host country, or make sure that your phone is unlocked and has room for a foreign SIM card. Triple check that data is turned OFF for EVERYTHING. 
-Most banks can order foreign currency for a small fee with a couple weeks’ notice. I recommend ordering about $100-200 in your host currency to bring along, in case you want/need to buy anything in your first days. You may also want to bring along some cash in your home currency to use at the airport both before and after exchange. If you’ll have a layover in a third country, you may want to get a very small amount of cash in that country’s currency for buying snacks, drinks, etc. on your way, though most airport stores and restaurants will accept cards. 

-Get a debit card with a chip, and make sure that your bank is notified in advance about when you’ll be abroad and where you’ll be. Include countries where you have layovers. Do this a few weeks before you leave, and verify it a few days before you leave. 
-You'll need half the stuff and twice the money that you expect. If there's a question about whether or not you'll want something, leave it home. 
-Remember that this isn't a vacation, and people live where you are going. You don't need to bring every little thing that you may possibly need in the next year, because chances are, you can buy or borrow it where you're going. As long as you have a few changes of clothes, necessary medications, and some spending money, you'll survive. :) 

Current students and returnees, what do you think? Is there something I missed? Did I mention something that you've found totally useless? 

Happy planning and packing! 

06 March 2015

Paraguay: The Heart of South America

I read a great post about a visitor's experience in Paraguay earlier today over at Los Viajes de Mary, an awesome blog run by a Peruvian traveler. She had a 12-hour layover in Asunción and decided to make the most of her time in the city. I translated it to English to share it with you, but I definitely recommend checking out the photos in the original post!

There are far away and mysterious continents, there are countries with names that are difficult to remember, there are cities that you don’t even know exist. For example, in South America, who has decided to learn about Suriname? Yeah, that country north of Brazil. I guess someone has been there, or maybe like me they haven’t, and maybe don’t even know its exact location on the map.

Why is it that there are some countries that are more popular than others? Is it because they don’t do a lot of advertising? Maybe because we concentrate on the best known countries simply because we follow what’s in fashion?

It’s certain that there are countries known for their history, like Peru for Machu Picchu, or for their paradisiacal beaches like the Dominican Republic, but what would happen if I told you that there are countries known for their happiness? Could you imagine traveling to the happiest country in the world?

This should be an important reason to go to a country, don’t you think? Especially in this era of global pessimism, of distrust and insecurity, to be able to have a bubble where you know that you’ll only receive happiness, hospitality, and good vibes, isn’t that a real reason to get to know a country?

This country that I’m talking to you about is coincidentally located in the heart of South America, maybe that happiness has to do with this location; maybe it’s not only the heart of the continent, but everything that happens there is done with the heart. The happiest country in the world in 2014 was Paraguay, and I had the luck to land there.

A few days before my trip, I announced on Facebook that I’d be in this country and many Paraguayans wrote to welcome me, letting me see their hospitality and happiness from the start. That’s how I got the message from Silvia, a traveler with a big heart, offering to pick me up and inviting me to see Asunción with some other travelers joining us to take advantage of my 12 hour stop. After my flight was delayed and I slept in the airport, the moment finally arrived: Paraguay and I got to know each other.

Silvia greeted me with a hug, and took me to taste Paraguayan food in “El café de acá” where a unique environment invited me to breakfast. With a hot and soft mbejú, together with a cocido con leche (yerba mate with a little milk) that gave the perfect balance to this spectacular fusion of flavors, I began my day in this country that had so much to tell me.

The first thing I saw was the Costanera José Asunción Flores, where people were celebrating Tereré Day, a traditional beverage from Paraguay that consists of a mix of cold water and yerba mate. There were many women in traditional clothing doing makeup and getting ready for the celebration, a celebration where not only the beverage was honored but the significance that it has.

Tereré is shared with friends, because it is a beverage that unites. Instead of distracting themselves with television, they come together in a circle to talk while drinking tereré. Is this one of the reasons it’s the happiest country in the world? If only we saw each others’ faces, shared more, and distracted ourselves less, how different the world would be.

If there’s anything I love to feel when I travel, it’s freedom mixed with the breeze from the sea or river on my face, and I had that mix right in front of myself when I looked at the Paraguay River. Little by little, I was understanding this country, this human warmth, and this happy people.

The 12 hours in Asunción was an overdose of stimulation and information. I walked its streets, saw its buildings, and fell in love with the architecture of the ochre, terra cotta, and white hacienda houses. I noticed that many of the houses were only one story, and this surprised me. Although there were plenty of modern buildings too, this city still preserves the magical power of being able to look at the sky without feeling like an ant on its streets.

I saw the two faces of the López Palace with the façades that have so many stories to tell. I walked around the center of the city, I saw the copula of the National Pantheon of Heroes, I saw the Independence House, I fell in love with the brick façade of the National University of Asunción that contrasted with the white Cathedral.

Although I saw and did a lot in Asunción, I can’t say that I know it all. I have a lot left. On this trip, I got so see Asunción up close, walk its streets, see its river, enjoy its costanera, but I still haven’t immersed myself. Paraguay is a country that I want to return to, to get to know it in the future without hurrying.

I ended my day in this city doing what Paraguayans do best: sharing. A lot of travelers communicated and while some could only stay for a minute to welcome me in person, others sent me messages on Facebook, and others stayed to eat lunch with me at Lido, a famous bar since 1953, where they had me try lots of traditional foods while we talked and laughed like great friends. I learned a lot that day, but more than anything this country, known as the Heart of South America, showed me that it’s possible to be happy with the simple things. Just a little tereré, lots of laughter, and a little warmth are all you need to smile and feel your heart beat. And you, do you want to be happy?