Pack light, but not lightly

Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2003

Packing for a vacation to a warm and sunny place should be a breeze. What do you need - shorts, couple of T-shirts, one white billowy dress, sunglasses, a book or two. That's fine, but what if? What if you have to deal with a lack complimentary professional laundry service, contact with any of a list of really unpleasant insects or situations involving epoxy-class natural goo? I've run into a few of those what-ifs over the years and have learned to pack for them.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at

Let's talk about laundry first. Before you put any garment in your suitcase, imagine it worn too long, stuffed back in your bag, then hand-washed in cold water with any old kind of soap, wrung out and draped over bushes to dry. How does it look? How will you look? Sure you could pack an iron, but do you really want to iron on your vacation? No, you want clothes that wash easily and dry quickly and hold their shape. Things you can scrub mud and blood out of and will dry before you have to pack them again.

In Central America, there must be a few automatic washers and dryers, but I've never seen them. Everyone washes by hand. Women in many communities go to the river, wade in to a rocky spot and beat the clothes on the rocks or wedge a scrub board in the rocks on laundry day. They wring by hand and hang everything on a line next to their house. Most clotheslines are works of art, all garments pinned to dry in the desired shape and organized by size or color. Women without a convenient river use a tub in the yard, closer to the clothesline. You, the traveler, may be new to washing by hand or not have the facilities, so you'll be washing things out as well as you can in a sink or puddle and hanging them over porch rails. Probably not a work of art.

Two of the things brochures from warm and sunny places don't tell you about are the serrated edges and thorns on all the plants. It's easy to picture yourself in shorts and little white anklets stepping into the lush jungle to get a picture of beautiful flowers or exotic birds. Once in the brush, you'll notice you're cut to ribbons and bleeding and realize you'll get cut up even more getting out. You'll be happy you packed major bleeding supplies in your first aid kit and a bleaching laundry soap for your socks. Until you heal, I suggest you not wade into the river but use a tub to scrub those socks.

The red mud not discussed in travel literature appears as soon as it rains and percolates up around your feet and splashes onto your clothes until the sun bakes in back into a solid. It is a very assertive mud and requires assertive scrubbing to remove from the hem of the white billowy dress. But, hey, there's more to a vacation than laundry!

Five billion other things not mentioned in brochures are the tiny little no-se-um kind of bugs that easily pass through all gauges of vacation window screen. They bite and leave a raised pink welt. We met some Albertans last year using the popular lotion that also advertises itself as a bug repellent, but they were covered in pink bites. Locals don't have window screens, but they also say it takes about six months to build up an immunity and not get bitten anymore. Another bad bug not advertised is the doctor fly. We were advised never to get bitten by one, but if you do, they say, it will probably get infected. That's all I need to know and I carry a 55-gallon drum of industrial strength bug repellent.

The point is, you have to pack for the everyday hazards that can make you miserable and detract from your vacation. Take enough sunscreen to be able to laugh when you spill or misplace it. Take enough bug repellent - let's say, double whatever you think is enough. Take clothes that start out the color and shape you know they'll end up. Put a good antibacterial or a bushel of sphagnum moss in your first aid kit. Better, take both.

I am really looking forward to this year's vacation trip and packing carefully. What new adventure will I need to deal with? Last year it was a scorpion sting and some incredibly smelly tar-like stuff I totally packed my sandal treads with. It's easy to tweak my first aid kit, but I don't think the TSA will let me on the airplane with a weed burner.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at

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