My Life in Four Bags

From previous stories, you know I am an aid worker. And a globetrotter out of necessity. Here is a reflection on what makes my ‘home’ during my travels, written in April 2007, when I ended thirteen months of sabbatical, ready to go back to work.

My home is a set of bags. Four bags to be exact. Packed after one year of sabbatical. The full inventory of my life for the new start of my professional life can be summarized on two sheets of paper…

One computer bag, one small backpack. Both carry-on luggage. One duffle bag and a backpack with my clothes, toiletry and some basic medical supplies. All together maybe 30 kg. My life compacted to 30 kg…

Here is the deal: after my sabbatical, I am starting my professional life as if it were a white sheet of paper. You can look at the white sheet of paper in a negative, or in a positive way. You can say ‘empty’, ‘no information’, so.. ‘worthless’? ‘Lacking something’?

Or you could say ‘virgin territory’, ‘potential’, ‘opportunity’.. After all a white sheet of paper could become an item of high value if Picasso drew something on it. Or if Monet painted one of his summer landscapes on it . Or if Tolkien had written the introduction to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ on it.. Or it could just become a worthless piece of scribbled notes. Folded a certain way, it could fly. Or propped to a ball, it could be kicked into a wastebasket.

I look at the new start of work in the ‘potential’ way. I start afresh. When I left home after my sabbatical, I had no clue yet as to what job the organisation I work for, would ask me to do. Nor where. Could have been anything, and literally anywhere in the world. Only one thing I knew: I will come home early July to go on holiday with the family. Between now and then, the space is filled with blanks. Blank pages. Blank sheets of paper. Could be I was off to Darfur in a week. Or Colombia. Or Cambodia, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Timor or Nicaragua. Or I could be asked to stay in our HQ, in Rome for two months.

So how do you pack for something like that? Not knowing where you are going? What did I pack?
Well, it is the normal stuff I usually pack. My personal “secret” supplies, and some multi-purpose clothing. Plus one pair of sandals, one pair of shoes, one sweater, a rain jacket, and oh, I packed my sailing gloves too. You never know…

All in four bags. My life. Packed in two hours. I did not loose the habit, the touch to pack fast, even though stuff was spread over all the closets in the house this time. Different from the previous times I was at home, in my “two months work, one month break” regime. Then I did not bother to unpack when I arrived home, as each time I was only in Belgium for a few days before going on holiday with Tine and the kids. So I literally lived out of these bags for.. how long now? Since Kosovo, 1999. No, this time, I was properly unpacked.

I know the contents of my bags by heart. I packed these bags hundreds of times already, as of years, I was on the move all the time. During certain trips never staying anywhere for more than a couple of days. Phnom Penh one day, Vietnamese border town the next, transiting in Bangkok two days later, Vientiane after that, and then Jakarta. Hotel in, guesthouse out. These bags have been hauled into cargo planes, trucks, 4x4s, boats, and long distance commercial passenger planes. They have been checked in, lost in transit in Cairo, thrown off trucks in Albania, attacked by mad monkeys in the Kenyan bush and pulled out of my hands by bell boys in the New York hotels.

As I packed this time, I took the trouble of going through the contents… I amazed myself by the ‘small habits’ I have grown to have. Small things I counted on, to have with me, and who have saved the day so many times already. These are my ‘secret supplies’. The things I assembled along the way during tens of thousands of miles, hundreds of trips. And so many countries, I do not care to count anymore…

So what are my secret supplies? The things that make the life of an aid worker, a “globetrotter by necessity”, sustainable? Here is a grab of them. Just the tip of the iceberg:

Music – my iPod and Bose headset.
Music soothes my spirit. It lifts me up when I feel down. Pumps me up when I am low on energy. Calms me down before going to bed. Or lifts me up when taking a shower. Most of my memories in life is connected to music. To songs, to artists, to tunes. And my iPod is the core of my musical existence. All the music I have, is on this iPod (plus the full backup of the most critical data on my laptop!). It is a 60 Gbyte iPod which I bought in Dubai some years ago. It has 4,000 songs on it. From hardcore dance music to classical. From weird ambient music, to pop music. Reggae, R&B, soul, oldies and newbie’s. I dig it all. I have not many accessories for it. Just the power supply and USB cable. A plug-on gimmick that has the iPod broadcast music on the FM band, so I can pick it up on a car stereo or a portable radio (I don’t carry speakers with me, so sometimes need a bit of volume), a car charger for those long road trips, and that is it.
Plus my secret weapon, a must for each iPod fan: My Bose headset (, the QuietComfort 2. It is an expensive piece of kit, a bit bulky to travel with, but worth it. Works on batteries. If you don’t play music, and just switch it on, it kills all the ambient noise. Practical on a plane or anywhere where the surrounding noise annoys you. It sits really comfortable with soft air pads. The Bose headset has a set of adapters fitting almost any audio plug and a switch-able high and low capacity input, so you can use it with almost any audio device. Plus last but not least, the audio is really high quality.

Crocodile clamps
Going from hi-tech to low-tech. I always carry a set of wires with crocodile clamps. Easy to make connections between incompatible cables or ways to bridge video/audio/telephone connections, or to test almost any connection. Last time I used them extensively was on the boat trip we made from the UK to the Canaries, where lightning took out most of the electronics. I used the crocodile clamps to test the shortwave transmitter, the radio fax receiving software, and the boat’s antenna tuner. Don’t leave home without it.

Power supplies and cables, cables, cables…
And these, I could do without. Power supplies and connecting cables. Those take up most of the space in my computer bag. Why does each device come with its own power supply, each having its own voltage, and connector? I have one for my laptop, my GPS, my iPod, my digital camera, my digital video camera and my mobile phone. Plus a computer connector cable for each. Except for the video camera which comes with three cables. Plus one cable for my Palmpilot. Oh, and of course a 12 volt cigarette lighter adapter cables for my mobile phone and GPS too. Pfft. It is time for a digital revolution favouring the frequent traveler: one adapter cable and one power supply for all. Please!

Modem cable with a twist – eh with a spring-…
A cable I would not want to loose is a small extractable modem cable. I used to have a normal modem cable, but the plastic clips of the connectors always got hooked onto another cable as I pulled it out my computer bag compartment full of power supplies and cables. Do you curse those small RJ jacks too? Once those plastic clips break, you can never make a reliable modem connection anymore or the connector would just drop out of the wall plug. Argh. Until I found this small gimmick from Targus, which rolls itself up onto the central coil, up to the point where the connectors slide into their small holders.

My converter power plug
Most of my power supplies and accessories have European power plugs. Well, there is no European standard, but let me call it the power plug that works in most European countries. This little gimmick converts the ‘European’ power plug to any other standard, fitting my stuff to 95% of the power outlets in the world. Just plug the European plug in the middle, turn the dial to the output you want and plug it into the wall. The plugs which are not used, are not life, so no chance to get electrocuted. A must for any traveler.

Stone Age technology: My Palm Pilot III.
You won't believe this. I bought my PDA back in 1997. Yep, my Palm Pilot III is ten years old this year... And I still could not live without it.
It stores ALL data for my personal and business contacts. I don't keep business cards.. Just enter the relevant data and throw the card away. I think there are 2,000 contacts in there. It is the ONLY calendar tool I use.
In 10 years, it never hick-ed up once. I always keep it in one of the breast pockets of my safari jacket (see tomorrow's post). So it has been handled rough. Several times it fell on the ground, its cover unlatching, flying all over the ground. I lost the stylus three times, so wrote on it with the back of a ball point for a while. And it kept on working.
Does anyone else still use this Stone Age Technology? I would not be able to do without it.

The jacket… ahhh.. the jacket!
And then there is this trusted companion. My safari jacket. It is a custom made model with our organisation’s logo on the front and the back. It has 13 pockets. Most of my valuables are in it. Money (protected in an air sickness bag from, lemme see, Virgin Express, so it can not get wet). Plane tickets, business cards, my PDA, passports, ID card, yellow fever vaccination card, an envelope with pass photos, sunglasses, peppermints, a lighter and cigarettes, the keys to the mini locks on my luggage, access badges, pens, a small notebook, a set of earplugs and a little cord to fix my glasses around my neck. That is all still pretty normal. But then we have the weird stuff: a whistle on a cord. Not only to be used to annoy traffic cops when drunk, but it is also an excellent tool in case you get into trouble anywhere. And a small mini flash Maglite. Always handy when the power is cut in your guesthouse. And a small piece of rope. Dunno why. Had it in there for years. Mats used it for a while when we went sailing when he forgot the safety cord for his glasses once again ;-)
Yep, when traveling, I wear the safari jacket ALL the time. Once I had a jacket that got repaired so many times, stitched up to the max, cleaned until the linen almost became transparent with small holes from battery acid, and stains from engine oil -or was it that mean ketchup they used to serve in Macedonia?-. That jacket became an icon. Guys in the office used to make jokes about it, but I kept it until I found a suitable replacement. It is not easy to find a jacket with 13 pockets. When I finally found a new one, I dumped the old jacket. My guys secretly retrieved it from my waste basket, framed it, and hung it on the wall in the office…
I guess that jacket went through more countries in three years than any normal person would do in three life times.. And somewhere, it does deserve a spot on the wall, as it stands as a symbol for our life as an aid worker. Worn to the bone. Stitched up and repaired to get going again. A soul stained with memories.

More bags anyone?
Apart from my big four big bags, I also carry some small bags with goodies. Mostly stuff only to be used in emergencies. One small bag with sterile syringes and plastic tubes, in case one needs a blood transfusion in not so hygienic circumstances. One with my spare glasses and sunglasses, a compass, a mirror (a mirror is a great way to attract attention when u are stuck somewhere and want to signal a passing car or plane), a small roll of strong nylon thread (to hang up a mosquito net in a hotel, or to block the door of your hotel, - yeah, I know what you are thinking, but it works though!-). Another bag with matches, a small toothbrush, toothpaste, spare ear plugs, bandages. And the last small bag has some medical supplies.

In the computer bag…
You think I am weird? Probably I am.. What if I told you of the secrets I hide in my computer bag? A permanent marker, pens, spare AA and AAA batteries, tie wraps (to secure bags for all too curious luggage handlers at Kenyata airport in Nairobi), diplomatic cargo stickers to put on my luggage (for those nosy customs people at Kigali airport), a bag of funny money with left over banknotes from my previous field trips (and in case I encounter anyone who collects funny money), my digital pin pass for electronic banking, a small notepad, all my power supplies, connecting cables. And some small pins I use as a gift for people who do me a favour, in places where pins are rare..

Conclusion: Now that I summed up most of the goodies I travel with, I have two thoughts:- how did I ever fit all of that into thirty -only- kilos of luggage and hauled it so many times around the globe?- from the whistle in my safari jacket to a pair of test wires in my computer bag and funny money in a air sickness bag.. I seem to be very rigidly emotionally attached to the weirdest things.

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Anonymous,  12 August, 2009 00:12  

Greetings from Los Angeles! Thanks for the great post, I need a jacket like yours.

All the best

Peter 12 August, 2009 06:45  

Hi Neil,

I think several relief agencies sell it as visibility item... I am not sure if you can order it mail order, though...


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