So you are going to travel the World, or at least spend a few months away from Western civilization, detox yourself from a computer-led lifestyle and from the stress of the city. Thumbs up! That’s the best thing you can do. And you are planning to travel light, filling your backpack with only essential things – 3 t-shits, some underwear, a couple of pairs of trousers, no make up or other useless things and so on. Even better!
As for my personal experience, though, there are a few small things, that don’t take much space and weight close to zero, that especially if you are a woman planning to venture outside the borders of civilisation-as-we-know it, you should have with you. Because sooner or later you are going to need them. And sometimes, looking for them, either in the Amazon forest or in the desolated beaches of Gujarat, might be difficult.
True, we live in a postmodern globalised world, and you can find even Italian pesto sauce and Vegemite in the streets of the old town in Varanasi, but having these little treasures in your backpack can save you a big hassle and make you feel ok with yourself wherever you go.
I’m talking about those things generally labeled under the category of make up and beauty products.
One of the most exciting/scaring/destabilizing pre-departure thoughts for a city girl is leaving at home all her make up and beauty paraphernalia. Especially if you live in a big city (London, in this case) you are constantly reminded by advertising and press what a “beautiful woman” should look like and pushed to look “pretty” in every moment, so that beauty products become an invisible part of our routine. And the idea of not having to care about straighten your hair every morning or carefully applying layers and layers of foundation on your skin to achieve that “natural look” that’s so en vogue right now is rather liberating.
However, you are going to meet so many other Western backpackers in your adventures and, will it or not, judge and be judged following the same standards you are used to in this other side of the World (though with a far lesser degree of bitchiness and obsessiveness).
Let’s face it, if you are going to travel on the roof top of local buses for hours (yes, in India that’s prohibited, but in Nepal it’s still allowed!) and climb mountains, breathe dust and be slathered in mud for most of your time, being clean is just impossible. But at least looking clean and neat is essential for any sort of inter-relation anywhere in the World.
You don’t have to turn your room into a beauty salon (and trust, you will never want to), but it could happen that you will be taken by one of those vanity raptures (don’t be ashamed, thay are legitimate after months living like a sadhu) and want to look “pretty” for no reason.
So here is the essential beauty kit for the woman-backpacker.
A small manicure/pedicure kit and one nailpolish
We all agree that make up is totally unnecessary whist traveling, but this doesn’t mean you don’t have to look after your extremities.
As that awesome Joni Mitchell song goes, my finger nails have been filthy for more than 6 months in my last trip to India, and I’ve had beach tar on my feet for at least 3 of them (and I’ve loved every minute of that carefree shabbiness). However, one day, looking at your crooked fingernails will horrify you, and covering up the aforementioned filth with a thick layer of bright nail polish could quickly make up feel better with yourself, even pampered by this “luxurious” treatment you will do to yourself, at cost zero.
Sure, getting a mani-pedi is Manali is just as easy as finding apples or marijuana fields by the streets of the town (that is, EASY). But why spending almost the price you would spend home for the same service at home, when you could do it yourself? Also, remember: nail polish remover is almost impossible to find. And you don’t want to use stain remover for your nails. I have to say it works, but it’s just better not. And remember also to bring some cotton balls to remove it. Just keep them for this occasion, once squeezed in the bag, the space taken will be zero.
Razors/bikini wax strips
I can assure you can have unexpected blissful experiences with an almost complete stranger at 5000 mt, after 10 days of no-toilet-no-shower during a trek on the Annapurna chain. And no one really cares in those occasions if your legs aren’t as smooth as baby skin. Still, if you are going to spend two weeks on the South Eastern coast of India, you will feel ‘wrong’ in wearing your bikini if down there the situation is a bit out of control.
Tweezers/pluckers and little mirror
For the same reasons as above, you don’t need to pull a Frida Kalo to mingle with the locals if you are planning to travel Mexico. Also because you are most likely to “mingle” with the Swedish cute backpacker of your same guesthouse in Yucatan. And if facial hair is an issue that affects you, bring also one of those waxing kit for ‘tasches. Once in a while, you’ll get to the point in which you are tempted to shave your face with a man’s razor, and that’s not what you want for your face. (I talk for direct experience, it’s NOT good for your skin). However, if you find yourself in South East Asia, try threading. It’s the best treatment for your eyebrows: it’s less damaging than plucking and hey, these chicks know how to roll with a thread!
Well, let’s not get into details. But tampons are much more comfortable than those big granny-style sanitary pads that sell in shops in the most remote village of Himachal Pradesh. Tampons are difficult to find, and you don’t want to spend almost the same amount you will spend at home, but in rupees (that is, LOADS) for them, so it’s always good to have some supplies in your bag.
In addition to all this, here are a couple of other life-saving all-purpose little treasuresthat not only any woman but also any man should have in her/his bag from the first day.
Safety pins and sewing kit
Sure, we are 21st century women and we are not required to know how to sew things. But while you will necessarily learn this practice whilst on travel, having some safety pins with you could save your life in many situations. Also, Indian men are the best tailors I’ve met in my life, but hey, there’s no need to beg them to sew the button of your shirt or mend that little hole in your trousers if that’s something that you could easily do yourself. After all, we’ve got punk in our DNA (either because we grew up in those days or because we were listening to Johnny Lydon while our friends were melting for Coldplay), and we definitely know how to use safety pins. They can lend themselves to the most disparate uses. I even pierced my nose with one of them, and it gave me no infection whatsoever.
If you are a smoker (first of all, you should be aware of the fact that it’s really bad for you but) having matches with you can save you from a mental breakdown outside airports in India. Because if you can easily get away with carrying three lighters in your pocket at the London custom (despite all the paradoxical – and at times, nonsensical – anti-terrorism measures going on here), in India lighters are a no-no on airplanes, and if smoking a fag as soon as you get off the plane is what you are already dreaming of as soon you step onto the aformentioned internal flight, having a box of matches in your pocket is always wise.
And last but not least buy a real head torch before leaving! Head torches can be found everywhere in India and especially Nepal (they are a trekker’s must-have) but you might agree that a Swiss head torch that you can buy in any specialised high-street shop at home offers more guarantees of quality than a made-in-China one that you buy on the Himalayan mountains. You simply don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and find out that your head torch is not working, especially in Ladakh. Have you ever experienced Ladakhi toilets? Well, a head torch is essential in those occasions.
As for other things, you’ll happily learn how to do without (comb, shoes, even toilet paper, if it occurs), or you’ll easily find them on the way. Facial moisturizers from Himalaya Herbal Healthcare, that you can buy anywhere in India and South East Asia, are far better than any overpriced cream you can find in our high street stores, and you can get medicines in any pharmacy (though, it’s definitely clever to have your own med kit, of course). Still, these little tips could sort you out in more than one occasion, and once back you will smile at the efforts nurtured by advertising campaigns to promote the “natural” look with tons of makeup.
If you are an expert woman backpacker you might benignly smile at all this, but if you are a city girl like me suddenly fed up with the 9-to-5 routine of a (kind of) steady job and decide to leave everything to embrace freedom for quite possibly the first time in your life (but still want to have fun while discovering different side of the World and cultures), then you might find this information quite useful.
If you are a man, on the other hand, you might not understand this, because generally these little manoeuvres pass unnoticed to your eyes, but you are surely going to appreciate them. And you’ll be happy to know that we don’t really care about the way you look as long as you have that Indiana Jones thing in you that makes us feel safe in the North Andaman jungle (then, the fact that most of the time it’s us who have to defeat the “evil forces” – that is, gently push away the cheeky cockroach who wants to have a taste of our food supplies because you are about to have a panic attack at the sole sight of it – is another story). However, men-backpackers, the only suggestion I feel to give to you is: have a shower at least once a day, if you’ve got the opportunity to and, useless to say, bring condoms. If we make all these efforts, please do your bits too.