Thursday, June 9, 2016

New blog address!

Hi Readers,
Here's the link for my new and improved blog, hosted by WordPress.

I promise that someday I will spend the time to figure out how to redirect you autimatically, but in the meantime, please update your bookmark and accept my apology.

Thank you, and kalimera from Greece!

-Colleen   :)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


By Colleen Sinsky

Sometimes, after a goodbye or a big decision to leave town again, I'm stopped by a cold feeling in my gut. The first few times it happened, I didn't know what it was. I didn't have a word for that empty ache that wrenched my stomach into an icy question mark.

Instead of examining that emotion, I'd subconsciously reach for the instant dopamine rush in my iPhone. I hid that strange, raw, empty feeling with notifications and texts that gave me the illusion of connection.

Sometimes, I think that my brain insulates itself from pain by skimming over those feelings that I'm more comfortable avoiding.

One recent sunny afternoon I said goodbye to a close friend who I won't see until I return sometime in late summer. I'll be a different person by then, and he probably will be too. I knew that we were saying a bigger goodbye than we let on in the moment, but I didn't let myself fully realize that until the door was safely shut behind him and I was alone.

Alone. That's what that cold, vacuous feeling is. Lonely. Lonesome. Alone. Solo. Lonely.

I slumped on the basement couch and let this newly named feeling wash over me. I didn't reach for my iPhone. I just sat there in the lonesome and wondered again why I do this to myself.

There's a fulfilling rush in vagabonding as I have been for the past 20 months, but there are also these crushing moments of lonesomeness. The world I know keeps spinning along happily without me, and each time I step off, I feel myself getting further away from it's cozy gravity.

I'm noticing crows feet starting to gather at the corner of my eyes, friends pairing off into beautiful partnerships, pursuing masters degrees, and leaning a bit more intentionally into their communities and families.

Instead, I'm glancing at these new wrinkles in dozens of different mirrors, in different countries, alone, and mailing in my regrets to friends' weddings that I'll be abroad for. I can't lean into a community of friends when I've elected to be a vagabond. I'm hanging onto the outer rung of every crew I'm ever part of, and choosing to spin away from any romantic relationship that threatens to pull me into the fold.

It's lonely out here, I've realized, now that I have a word for it. Sometimes that loneliness is a heavy, cold cloud that pushes you down into the basement couch and forces you to question why you're always unpacking and repacking and saying goodbye.

Logically, I know that I'm growing in these moments of being alone. I make friends and forge new connections easily, and I've learned more about myself and the world than I imagined possible two years ago. I've blown away by all of the amazing people I've met out here, and how much each of them has given me.

Logically, I know that I've got an amazingly supportive, loving, and hilarious family. Distance has got nothing on us Sinskys/McCarthys. And I'm lucky to have close friends who hug my stressed out bones, call me out when I deserve it, and assure me that I'm not ever as far away as I think I am.

Logically, I know that a solid romantic partnership will happen when I've put my own work in, and am good and ready to share my awesomeness with another great human. I joke about it, but I've never actually been worried about 'dying alone.'

When I left my Portland life initially nearly two years ago, I blogged about how I resonated with the great sage Winnie the Pooh, who supposedly said "How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard."  Ugh. That sentiment still so true for me. Though I've got a one-way ticket booked to Athens at the end of the month, so I'm definitely continuing on this vagabonding lifestyle a bit longer.

Leaving, whether I'm leaving Alaska, Lesvos, San Diego, or Portland, really never gets any easier. There are too many wonderful people to say goodbye to everywhere I go.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Taking Trauma Home

By Colleen Sinsky

I showed up on Lesvos a little cocky maybe. I’d done crisis social work for years, seen plenty of dead bodies doing trauma intervention on accident scenes, and generally spent my adult career sitting in the trenches with members of my community who were marginalized by homelessness. I hadn't thought of the emotional impact that being in the refugee crisis would have on me.

I’m realizing though, that continual witnessing of this trauma, even when processed in a healthy, supported way, doesn’t necessarily build an emotional suit of armor to let you keep doing the work unaffected. Instead, there’s a compounding effect, as my awareness of injustices increases. My heart breaks a little more with each cup of coffee or tea I distribute, and each donated hat I give to a cold person- whether on Lesvos or in Old Town Portland. Each sad story I hear, or infected wound I wash, or wool blanket I pass out, chips away at my optimistic world view. In the moment, I’m strong, I’m smiling, and entertaining the kids. The moment isn’t about me and my emotions.

But when I let myself reflect alone afterwards, it’s hard not to continually come back to the realization of “the world fucking sucks.”  On my good days, I can justify, rationalize, forget, distract, convince myself otherwise. I can see the good in individuals. I can operate out of hope and continue to function as an effective helper and storyteller.

But then some afternoons are like today, when I’m blindsided by a black wall of despair while eating lunch in a grocery store. I was sitting alone, near two men also eating lunch. One was severely disabled and in an electric wheelchair. The other lovingly and patiently helped him eat. It took a long time, but I heard kind words and laughter, and smiled to myself at the bond they obviously shared.

Then, a lightning bolt of memory came out of nowhere to sharply illuminate a moment from the beaches of Lesvos that I’d apparently buried.

It’s hard to think about.
It’s hard to write about.

We’d just brought a full raft safely to shore, and had passed the babies and small kids to dry land, steadied men and women as they waded up the rocky shore, and helped toss backpacks to their relieved owners up on the beach. The last two on the raft were young men, probably my age, sitting and waiting for help off. The younger of the two, we realized, was paraplegic.

The volunteer operation moved unbelievably efficiently to build a makeshift ramp on the crowded beach. Four languages were being shouted overhead, parents were crying and praying thanks on the beach, the black raft lurched around slowly in the waves, and kids stared at their busy new surroundings, tugging their lifejackets off. The two men waited patiently on the raft as other passengers and volunteers crowded around to help the paralyzed man to shore. Within minutes, a ramp made of the wooden wreckage from another boat tied on top of lifejackets linked the raft to dry land, and several men carried him to the beach.

Everything happened so fast. I don’t even remember what I did, though I’m sure I was involved in the scene. I remember it as if I were a disjointed head floating around the beach, noticing details, but not really taking in the logical timing. I must have gone from the raft to helping parents get their kids into dry clothes, because that’s what I always did, but it all blurs together now.

I didn’t even watch to see how that man got from the beach to a camp. That wasn’t my job in the scene. I didn’t even stop moving to wonder at his bravery, or at his companion’s dedication. Were they brothers? Where had they come from? What unimaginable terror could drive someone to leave their home, their family, their wheelchair behind, in a desperate effort to find a better, safer life? I didn’t have any of these thoughts that day- I just went on to the next task at hand, because that’s what you have to do in order to function. But today, on a mundane Monday a few months later, I suddenly remember his pursed lips, and sunken, whiskery cheeks. I remember seeing more determination and grit than I’ll ever have, as he entered the European Union for the first time, carried by fellow refugees and volunteers from around the world.

If you’re a volunteer, or have worked in social service, you know this feeling. You probably have hundreds of faces that flicker unbidden across your consciousness. Shadow memories of places and faces and stories that invade a pleasant brunch or leave you weeping silently behind your sunglasses at a stoplight.

I hear the voice of the pregnant Syrian woman, who came up to me in a chaotic scene of dozens of just-arrived refugees to quietly whisper “Help. I think I lost my baby. I’ve been bleeding for days.”  And in that moment, you don’t think about how shitty the world is to allow this, you just get her and her family into your car and get them to the field medic station, and then dive back into the chaos on the beach. If you pause to think, you’ll be overwhelmed.

But then months later, at a bar back home, a friend asks you how Lesvos was, and you accidentally slip out of character from your usual canned response because all you can hear is that Syrian woman’s voice, and all you can tell your friend is how shitty the world is to allow this.

And reading the news about the deteriorating crisis kills you a little bit because those statistics have smiles you know, stories you’ve heard, and hands you’ve held. You’ve opened up your heart to feel the unimaginable impact of war and terror on humans, and you can’t go back to being the blissful person you were before this.

I don’t think you ever really leave Lesvos, or Idomeni, or Zaatari. I don’t think you can ever unsee urban poverty in the backyard of your own city once you’ve looked at it with a vulnerable and open heart. I think that that’s okay. Let what you’ve seen become part of who you are.

Dean Brackley, an inspiring Jesuit who I’m fortunate to have gotten to meet in war-torn El Salvador before his death, says this. “let us teach solidarity, walking with the victims, serving and loving.  I offer this for you to consider – downward mobility.
And I would say in this enterprise there is a great deal of hope.
Have the courage to lose control.
Have the courage to feel useless.
Have the courage to listen.
Have the courage to receive.
Have the courage to let your heart be broken.
Have the courage to feel.
Have the courage to fall in love.
Have the courage to get ruined for life.
Have the courage to make a friend.”

I’ve got a seldom-seen tattoo on my thigh of the words “Ruined For Life.” The thirteen letters are each in the handwriting of a different close friend, community member, or other person who somehow influenced me in being able to embark on this life that feels more authentic. It’s a reminder that I’m not “ruined” in the popular sense of the word, but rather a “ruined” version of the person I was before I ever had a conversation with someone experiencing homelessness, or peeked behind the curtain of what the media tells us about Islam. For the past several years, it’s been a physical reminder of my aspirations to be counter-cultural, to examine my role in the world, and to act against injustices where I can. I have so much to learn, but am fortunate to know so many people who I can learn from, and who inspire me to try to be as “ruined” as I can be.
So while I’m seeing a therapist, and reading and journaling about the effects of secondary trauma on helpers like myself, I’m also okay with embodying some of that emotional burden. I don’t think that I would be an effective service provider if I didn’t emotionally engage, and it would be impossible to not carry some of that home with me.
I’m going to keep on loving and working and taking care of myself. I’ll keep writing about it, in the hope that this resonates with someone, and I’ll keep engaging where I can be effective in providing direct service and in storytelling- whatever that looks like.
The world is pretty shitty and unjust, and I don’t know what else I can do besides keep on.

(And sometimes cute dogs give you kisses by the river and everything is fine.)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Returning to Lesvos

It's recently been confirmed that I’m going back to Lesvos. I will be there from mid-April to June as a volunteer coordinator for the Norwegian group “A Drop In The Ocean”- the same organization who I spent last November-December volunteering with. Though it's largely fallen out of mainstream news, the refugee situation in Greece has gotten considerably worse since I was there a few months ago.

I’ll be on Lesvos working with "the Drops" coordinating, training, and supporting our volunteers 24/7.  I’m so grateful that I happened to run into their coordinator at the time, back on that first day I showed up to Lesvos alone and without a plan. This time, I’ll be a liaison between “the Drops” and other organizations, local authorities, and the Norwegian directors back in Oslo.  I’ll be doing the same work as before with refugees on the beaches, and in the overcrowded camps, but now that I have the background and more time to spend, I’ll be facilitating shorter term volunteers as well. 

I'll be crowdfunding to support some of my travel expenses and to have a flexible source of funding that I can use to buy supplies directly for refugees from Greek locals. I'm working on setting up a site to sell some photography so that you can support me by buying some art too! More on that soon.

I’ll also be identifying project needs for the American group, “Sea of Solidarity” founded by my friend and fellow Drop volunteer, Adam Rosser, a DC-based immigration attorney. His organization is fantastic in that it very directly supports ongoing volunteer efforts in areas of acute need. “SOS” responds with amazing flexibility- funneling money donated in the US directly through volunteers who can respond swiftly to emerging needs on the ground. For example, filling a need for food in camp by arranging for a daily delivery of oranges from a local Greek farmer. (If you would like to make a donation to a US-based 501(c)(3) for tax purposes, please visit them.)

As a freelancer, and for both of these organizations, I’ll continue to share photographs and stories of the reality on the ground. In life, I’ll always be primarily a direct service provider, but I’ve recognized the growing importance of digital storytelling as a tool for social justice. I’ve realized that I have the combination of access to, and interest in these social justice causes (whether refugees or Portland’s homeless community), an eye for photography, and a conscientious voice for storytelling. Taking the time to “zoom out” to the larger story is growing increasingly important to me, especially as a way to combat the feeling of helplessness when I’m overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the crisis I’m working in, and the awful way the mainstream media is twisting the story. My last piece here on the blog was geared towards new volunteers called "An Emotional Guide to Lesvos" has been incorporated into new volunteer training and viewed several thousand times. Last time I was on Lesvos, I shared a few stories from working on the ground that essentially went viral. I would like to continue to produce that type of intentional, impactful writing.

Leaving home (again) for such a long time is tough. I’m missing my little sister Emily’s high school graduation and some close friends’ weddings. I’m involved in some really inspiring anti-poverty, social justice organizations here in Portland, and I’m an idiot for leaving. My financial future, career, and opportunity for security are all up in the air. Sometimes I wish that I’d never gotten involved in the refugee crisis, and that I didn’t have so many faces and stories to flesh out each violent article I read. But I went.  Now, for better or worse, I’m emotionally in it. The political situation is deteriorating, humanitarian aid is woefully inadequate, and the number of desperate arriving refugees is only increasing. Greece needs the support of the international community, and volunteers who are able to bring in direct funding from outside. I don’t mean to overdramatize my small role, but I know that there is a huge, unmet need for humanitarian assistance, and I can show up.

I'm wading through intense emotions about all of this. Guilt for not being here for my friends and family. Fear of going into a crisis zone on a one-way ticket. The frustration and desolation that comes with feeling so closely allied with the individuals trapped in a complicated and violent crisis. Self-doubt, if I'm making the right choice and can really have enough of an impact to merit asking for financial help. Self-doubt also around my skills as a writer, organizer, photographer, advocate, medic, peer support, traveler, etc.  Motivation, to dive back into the gritty work and feel the purposeful connection that keeps me going through long nights and emotionally wrenching scenes.

Despite some lagging doubt, I know logically that I'm in a good place to have a positive ripple effect in this overwhelming crisis. I’m in a place where I’ve got the social work experience, emergency medical training, volunteer coordinating experience, political and situational awareness, photography gear, and a desire to be in the middle of it. I’m single, I’m not on a lease, and I have the time to spend on this.

I am planning on just buying a one-way ticket, because depending on funding, I would like to leave the possibility open of going to continue working in Turkey or elsewhere when my EU tourist visa expires. There’s a disturbingly huge need for support and raised awareness across a large part of the world right now, and I’m willing to stay involved in the crisis wherever I’m needed, as long as I can. I would also like to be a more committed source of information from the ground for Americans and Europeans.

Ugh. Sometimes words fail me. In my car this morning, one of NPR's top stories was on the deteriorating conditions for refugees in Greece as more borders close and refugees continue to arrive on the beaches. I don't have any great insights or ideas. I'm just sad about it all. Sad and overwhelmed, but looking forward to being back in the place where I can process those feelings by doing physical work to mitigate, in a small way, the unjust conditions. 

Here's a great article from the Wall Street Journal on what's happening now. (Tip: Don't read the comments. Ever.)

Oh, and because this IS a personal blog, I'll give a quick update on what I've been up to in Portland. Working at Street Roots, an awesome social justice focused weekly newspaper I've long been a fan of. Doing photography and writing for the Welcome Home Coalition to humanize the issue of affordable housing for Oregonians. I've been coaching after school tennis with the USTA, which is super fun. I've also continued to manage the reservation system for the Talkeetna Hostel in Alaska, and help with the transition to the new manager who will take over for me this season. I've been doing dog sitting gigs, driving gigs, and working on setting up a site for a photography portfolio, and generally learning about and practicing photography. I'm working on migrating this blog to a Wordpress hosted site and learning more than I thought I ever would about digital media from YouTube. It's been a great time to reconnect with friends, and this community where I've felt so rooted and supported for such a long time. As always, it's hard to leave Portland. I'll also have two weeks in April to hang out with my family before I leave for Greece. 

Traveling Light

By Colleen Sinsky

*Edit: link updated to the correct Mountain Hardware bag I travel with. 45L, not 60L.

Here's an uncharacteristically *travel bloggy* post from me. I wrote this on request from a number of folks who've asked how I travel with just a carry on. Two years ago, my chronically overpacking self would never have believed I would someday be able to spend three and a half months between Santorini beaches, Muslim countries, cold mountainous regions, refugee camps on Lesvos, and the occasional fancy Spanish dinner- out of the same carry-on sized bag. It’s totally possible, but does take a bit of planning to get there comfortably.

I’m not an expert traveler by any means, but I’ve been on enough of a diversity of trips to have developed a philosophy and corresponding packing list that work for me. These tips on traveling light are based partly on my backcountry travel experience, a desire to only ever have a carry-on bag, and my tendency to visit a variety of climates on a single trip. I’ve learned by trial and error, and am constantly researching and making improvements, so feel free to share your tips in the comments!

1. People manage to live in the places you are traveling to.

Even if they speak a different language, they probably have similar hygiene needs to you. You can almost always buy what you need abroad- especially in the large city that you fly into. Seeking out a local grocery store to buy a big bottle of 2 in 1 shampoo/conditioner and a tube of toothpaste has become a fun tradition in my travel routine.

2. Don’t worry so much about how you look. 
Easier said than done, right? Especially if you’re heavily documenting the whole trip on social media. Most of my trips look like one long day, where I switched between the same two shirts. But that’s not what I’m noticing when I look back at pictures. Embrace the fact that you might not have the perfect shoes or purse for every event. Do you really notice what others are wearing that much? It’s freeing really. After spending time living out of a small backpack, you might find yourself craving simplified choices once you return to your overwhelming closet back home.

3. The more you own, the more it owns you.  
This is true in travel and in life.  If you own something that you're going to spend your whole trip worrying about, don't bring it! Really, whether it's a laptop, DSLR camera, latest iPhone- leave it safely at home.  I travel expecting that my electronics will be lost/stolen, and plan ahead accordingly. I only buy refurbished or used electronic gear, and so while I do take care of my stuff, my trip wouldn’t be ruined if my backed-up $180 early model, used iPad got stolen. Same for my camera. I love that thing to death, but I intentionally bought a model that I could afford to replace if needed, rather than be convinced into a fancier, more expensive model. I think it’s also worth noting here to invest in protective cases for your electronics. My iPhone and iPad have been around the world with me and are both in LifeProof cases, so I really don’t have to worry about damaging them (and I've taken some cool underwater photos!) I also bring a folding bluetooth keyboard so that I can type onto my iPad.

(This setup is how I produce all blog posts when I'm traveling.)

I recently upgraded to a nice, interchangeable lens camera. To me, it’s become worth enduring the added stress to try my hand at exploring photography, but don’t automatically be convinced that you NEED to own a DSLR camera to document your trip. Smartphones take great photos, and it’s a wonderful thing to not have to worry about. With that said, as an entry-level photographer who's into light travel and a tight budget, I love my mirrorless Sony A5000. Among other features, the built-in wifi is nice so that I can transfer photos to my iPhone and to edit in Instagram and PhotoShop mobile wirelessly. 

4. Be smart. Prepare for the worst.
This means planning ahead. Bring photocopies of your passport, a few passport-sized headshots, hide a stash of USD somewhere in your bag, register with the US state department, buy travel insurance, do your research, keep your bag in sight or preferably on your person, spread out your valuables & cash, learn from locals, have a plan for when you lose your wallet.  My wallet has been lost/stolen twice while on long-term trips, and neither time was it a very big deal. Why? Because I kept a backup credit card that I could use to access cash in a separate place, didn’t keep a lot of cash on me in the first place, and was able to make arrangements to electronically transfer money to nearby friends who could withdraw cash for me. When I had to go to a hospital in Nepal for a kidney infection, it also wasn’t a huge deal because I’d already researched where the nearest hospital was, and I was confident in my evacuation insurance if it came to it.  I think that it’s worth spending time prepping for worst case scenarios so that you can worry less while you’re actually on your trip. I've spent months abroad alone in developing countries, and have never experienced the slightest travel hiccup- which I think is due largely to my pre-trip prep.

5. Bring a UV water purifier.
Unless I’m traveling only in so-called “developed” countries, this is the top of my packing list. I prefer the CamelBack UV filter, which, like the SteriPen takes about 90 seconds to kill contaminants in a liter of water. At $75, you might initially balk at the price, but know that after 4 liters/day of drinking water & brushing your teeth, it’ll pay for itself in roughly 15-18 days of travel, plus you’ll be saving that many water bottles from being added to landfills. I usually travel with a duct-tape wrapped Nalgene, where I do the actual purifying (and, inside a sock, it can be used as a hot water bottle to warm up your bed or sleeping bag), and will buy a plastic bottle that I can refill with my purified water. UV filters can be used in the backcountry in the US as well, and are a great addition to your zombie apocalypse/earthquake preparedness kit (paired with a portable solar charger). Mine goes for about 4 days without a charge, and has the added bonus of ensuring hilarity when you have to explain through sign language what bizarro witchcraft you’re doing with your illuminated water in the corner of the Tibetan tea house.  
You can buy a proprietary mesh filter, or just filter through a t-shirt if your water source is less than ideal. You know not to drink the tap water in certain places, but also beware of ice in drinks, smoothies, and of being served food on improperly dried dishes. Even so, travelers diarrhea is inevitable. Be cautious, but not paranoid. Don’t be like my sister who ate unrefrigerated “train” chicken in Thailand and ended up REALLY sick, but also don’t let the fear of being sick keep you from trying local food.  Bring anti-diarrheal meds (I bring a generic OTC as well as the Rx only Lomotil...just in case).  When you do get sick, remember to stay well hydrated, including rehydration salts or a Gatorade type beverage as well. Ask for help if you need it. I always bring an antibiotic regimen with me as well.

(Mysterious Morroccan mountain berries- did not get sick.)

(Greek wine- always on tap)

(Roasted guinea pig, or "cuy" in the mountains of Ecuador is tastier than you'd expect.)

(And sometimes, food is just calories in.)

5. Bring a paperback.
One you’re not too attached to, and can trade out at a hostel book library when you’re done with. I like to have a digital subscription to The Economist, which I read on my iPad, as well as a few other downloaded books, but it’s nice to just have a paperback fun read. I also always have a journal, and a few pre-downloaded movies or documentaries on my iPad. Note: if you’re traveling with someone, a headphone splitter is an awesome thing to have.  When I traveled through Morocco with a boyfriend, we loved being able to listen to podcasts together on long bus rides. I’m all for this kind of escapism entertainment on a long trip, just be sure that you’re isolating yourself occasionally for the right reasons (like diarrhea), and not hiding from experiences and exposures you should be having. Maybe it’s time to challenge yourself by leaving your camera in your room and forcing yourself to journal about what you see, rather than taking a picture of it.

(Pondering the map on the Manaslu Circuit Trek in Nepal)

6. Creature Comforts
Even when packing light, there are a few things that I don’t skip on. One is a mini bluetooth speaker, like this.  (It’s way cheaper on Amazon if you actually decide to buy that one)  For an impromptu dance party, using a white noise app to drown out loud ambient noise when I’m trying to sleep, or just listening to a podcast while I do my physical therapy & workout routine in the evening, it’s awesome. Just be conscientious of not drowning out the sounds you should be experiencing, or of being that obnoxious person blasting their music. I also like to bring a scented candle (in a tin, not glass), or at least buying a cheap pack of candles upon arrival. Your bag might get searched at airport security, but they’ll let you and your candle through. The hotel manager may not love it, but if you’re careful and don’t burn the place down, they’ll never know, and you’ll have some delightfully cozy ambiance. I also bring my electric toothbrush. Don’t laugh. Dental hygiene is important! Maybe your thing is a deck of cards, your watercolors, or your favorite perfume. Whatever. If it’s small and brings you joy, pack it.

7. Research Ahead
One of my best trips was to Ecuador, when I bought a last minute ticket on miles and spent almost NO time researching before I left. But, (and this is the part that doesn’t make it on Facebook), I feel like I had to make up for my lack of preparation once I was there. In Quito, I had to spend several hours holed up in a restaurant, flipping through my Lonely Planet and scrolling through my iPhone, trying to decide which city to go to next, rather than exploring the vibrant city. It was fine, of course, but in hindsight, I’d have benefitted from a better balance of spontaneity and planning- even if that planning meant just having skimmed through the Lonely Planet ahead of time.

(This is the scene that was waiting for me once I ventured outside in Quito.)

In contrast, when I went to Cambodia, I’d had months of prep time and had read a few books about the history of the country, and departed home armed with knowledge of the Khmer Rouge massacres, the historical, spiritual, and artistic significance of Angkor Wat, and a bit of the Khmer language. I’d read this great book about being an ethical tourist in Cambodia, and we were able to seek out the businesses that empowered local communities. I feel like I get so much more out of travel when I have the background to be able to appreciate what I’m seeing, and have put in the work to be as ethical and conscientious as a privileged American tourist can be.

I’m also a proponent of learning as much of the local language as possible. This can be overwhelming, especially if you’re country-hopping, but the few hours spent on YouTube and taking notes will pay off in a richer experience for you, and more positive experience for your hosts. Some phrases I like to learn, after greetings of course are “Excuse me, do you speak English?  My name is Colleen, I am from California, USA. What is your name?  Thank you. This food is delicious. Where is …...?  How much?  That is beautiful. I love your country. Can I take a picture?”  People will generally also love to teach you how to say things, if you ask nicely.  In Nepal, I found a local my age who I paid to give me daily Nepali lessons over chai, and I ended up having a valuable experience learning about Nepali culture in addition to the language.

8. Lady People Only
I’m not going to delve into the whole philosophy of solo gal travel, other than to say “heck yeah!” People will try to scare you, because your fearlessness scares them. Don’t give in.  The world isn’t nearly as dangerous as ‘they’ want us to believe.  Trust your gut, follow the lead of locals, find allies, and don’t be hard on yourself if you feel best and safest springing on a decent hotel room, locking your door, and reading yourself to sleep, rather than forcing yourself to explore the night scene. Inform yourself, be aware and confident, and do what you’re comfortable with. Be “married” if you want to, by wearing a fake wedding ring and lying when forward guys ask, but I’ve learned that that usually won’t deter macho dudes anyways. “So what you have a husband? He’s in America. This is Ecuador! You’re free!”   (I couldn’t help but feel defensive on behalf of my imaginary husband back home.)  Read travel blogs by other solo gal travelers and embrace it.

Master a hairstyle that hides a few days without a shower. Mine is the side frenchbraid swept into a bun- which takes about three minutes once you get the hang of frenchbraiding your own hair. Add some local swoopy earrings, and you're set! Simplify your makeup routine. I opt for tinted sunscreen (repackaged into a smaller container) + a brushful of Bare Minerals + mascara. Actually, that's become my daily routine since returning from travel too!

If you’re switching to a new method of birth control, talk to your doctor, and allow several months for your body to adjust before travel. I’ve heard a horror story or two of disastrous complications there. Tampons can be hard to find. I got sick of dealing with my period, so went from 3-month birth control, and then to an IUD, and now I don’t have to deal with it at all while traveling. But as a result, I don’t have a whole lot of helpful advice about dealing with your period on the road. Friends say great things about using a DivaCup, but I imagine that keeping it clean while backpacking would be tough. Maybe I’m wrong. Reviews and various communities online will have more information than I do. I’m a fan of the “Go-Girl” which I affectionately call "my purple penis.”  I think that it has more limited application than advertisements would claim. If you’re on a long river trip, in a harness for a long time, or otherwise in a place where you can’t just pop a squat, it’s great, and you can pee standing up alongside the road like the best of them. But unless you’re in one of those situations, just pop the squat. On that note, once I got used to them, I began to actually prefer squat toilets to our Western ones. I always carry baby wipes with me (and dudes should too!)
(Image stolen from here, because I never think to take pictures of this type of important thing. Honestly, now that I'm used to using these squat toilets, I choose them over Western toilets when given the choice.)

I found a bra I love and I’ll never wear anything else. This started out as my “travel” bra, but I’ve since been converted and now solely wear this Patagonia bra. I bring two for long trips. Why are bras so expensive? It’s not fair.

Leave your razor at home. Or don’t.

9. Laundry
I always bring at least one container of Dr. Bronners multi-use soap. It’s great for washing clothes in the sink, or yourself, or your Chacos, or anything else. That, plus a solid length of parachute cord, plus a carabiner to make a clothesline, and you’re set!  (The biner/p-cord setup can have a variety of applications, including keeping food off the floor of the rat-infested stone shack you’re sleeping in at 16,000 feet).

 I’ve found laundry readily available everywhere I’ve traveled, whether I've had to spend a few hours near the laundromat, or a pay-per-kilo drop off and pick up deal. It’s a good thing we don’t have that service as readily available and inexpensive here in the US, or I’d never do my own laundry.
I plan on doing laundry about once every 7-10 days and pack accordingly. I wash undergarments in the sink in between. I’m generally pretty desperate and stinky by the time it's laundry day. Sorry I'm not sorry.

10. Don’t Overpack

In order to travel for a long time with minimal stuff comfortably, some clothing staples are important. For me, it’s these trail runner shoes (lighter than hiking boots, sturdier than tennis shoes, cuter- in my opinion- than the average outdoorsy shoe) Chaco type sandals, a long skirt, a few basic colored v-neck t-shirts, a decent cardigan, lightweight hiking pants (bonus points if convertable to capris), long wool underwear (mine double as black leggings), a basic wool thin zippered jacket, collared shirt (for dudes), a shell (aka raincoat. aim for a GoreTex-like material), jeans (some lightweight advocates would say to skip this, but I couldn’t go without), thin wool socks, a beanie-style hat, black workout capris (for sleeping or working out), maybe shorts, a versatile dress like this, maybe a fleece jacket, tank top in a basic color, and a lightweight down jacket (plus a pillowcase stolen from the plane=pillow! Note that the one I linked to is REALLY expensive. I got mine half off, but probably would have endured the full price in hindsight. Looking back at my photos, I'm wearing it in nearly every trip I've done in the past few years.) It’s fun to buy a local scarf or shawl type thing. I usually bring rain pants, a watch, and a few pairs of sunglasses. I also like to have a travel towel, a combo lock, and not one, but two headlamps . Naturally if you’re doing an expedition of some kind, or will be doing something off the grid, you’d have major adjustments and additions. Keep in mind though, that rentals are often available, wherever you go. 

I use this Mountain Hardware duffel in small (45 liters). It’s stealthy black. It’s nearly waterproof. It’s been strapped to yaks, camels, tossed into tiny planes and the back of dusty pickups, and it's always kept my gear safe. I take advantage of the internal compression strap inside to really squash my gear in, and use the mesh side pockets for my little stuff.  I managed to get mine for half off at the MH employee store, but even with the steep $140 price tag, I’d actually call this a good investment.
To organize, and pseudo-vacuum seal my clothes, I use dry bags picked up at the REI used gear sale. (Separated by tops/bottoms/underwear/laundry).  I also always have my REI 18L flashpack.

Usually I start the trip with this rolled up inside my backpack, but will inevitably expand to fill this as well. It’s nice to have a separate pack for day hikes, and this one isn’t much of a volume or financial commitment. Mine has gone on so many adventures that the purple has faded to a dirty lavender, but it’s still running strong. I usually keep a few plastic grocery bags in the internal pocket, in case it starts raining, so that I'm able to protect my camera or other gear.

(Flashpack rolled up for storage, sunglasses for size comparison.)

(Bonus points if your purse matches your comforter.)
For walking around cities, and for travel days, I like a zippered over-the-shoulder purse that’s made out of a material that allows me to roll it up and pack it when I’m not using it. I got mine for $2 at a thrift store and surreptitiously clip a figure-8 biner between the main zipper and the shoulder strap to act as a small deterrent for pickpockets. I also like having an external pocket or two for a water bottle and for the trash I pick up. For toiletries, I like this North Face bagI also bought a small, premade first aid kit and modified to my preferences.

Whew. Overwhelmed yet? I am. This might all seem totally unattainable. If so, know that it took me YEARS, and a lot of trial and error, and a lot of failed trips to the REI used gear store before I feel like I got a system that works for me. I'm fortunate that Portland has a great used gear store, Next Adventure, and I am able to take advantage of friends' connections and my own access to pro deals. People have been traveling for thousands of years before GoreTex was developed, and people continually manage to survive without DWR-coated down. Having the latest and greatest gear is nice, but don't let access to that stop you from exploring. If you don't want to invest in this gear, or don't care about traveling as light as I like to, that's awesome too! There's no right way to do anything.

Happy traveling! Comment or email me if you have further suggestions or questions.