Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Travelling light and... buying the right pack

 I bought a North Face pack here in Phnom Penh last year.  It’s not a ‘real’ North Face of course but it’s a pretty decent copy with lots of features and the latest aircell frame for ventilation.  It worked well and I’m still using it but by the end of 4 months in Africa the frame was poking out through the seams.  Despite getting it sewn up at the local tailor back here in Phnom Penh, the writing is on the wall and the tear is still slowly getting worse. Can't say I blame it as I’ve lugged it through some tough going and to be fair, it was only $10.  

In the end though, you get what you pay for.   I was using my 25 year old Karrimor pack the other day to carry groceries back from the supermarket and reflected on the value of buying quality.  This pack is looking a bit tired now and is a bit frayed around the edges so not really up to 24/7 travel usage but is still going strong for day to day stuff.  It has a tiny tear at the strap seams which I put on there last year when I used it for a month as my only bag and loaded it up with 15kg to travel for a month through Asia, US and Australia.  The tear is probably my fault because I prefer travelling with only carry-on luggage so was swinging it around ultra-casually in front of the airline check-in clerks to make it look like it weighed more like 7 kg than the 17kg it actually weighed.  I used to wonder about the strength of the overhead lockers in planes but now I know – they are plenty strong lol. 

You may be wondering how I manage to avoid having the bag weighed and having to put it into the hold...  Well, I did get caught out many years ago but since then I have perfected the craft with a sentence. "You're welcome to weigh the bag but most of the contents are going to be handed over to a friend who is meeting me here a the airport." And if in transit in the secure area "I'm meeting a colleague on flight XYZ to give him back his laptop and some documents" (having glanced at the arrivals board on the way to the transit desk). They know you're lying of course but not much that they can do about it (but shhhhh... don't tell anyone else this trick OK?).

At any rate, it’s become apparent from comparing my original Karrimor to my North Face pack from the Russian Markets in Phnom Penh that spending $100 on a pack that lasts 25 years is better value than $10 on a pack that lasts 6 months.  Hence I’ve going searching for a replacement quality day pack to use as my primary travel bag.  And I think I’ve found it.  The Osprey Atmos 35.

I’ve been a fan of Osprey packs for a while now and my number one hiking pack is an Osprey Aether that I bought new on eBay a few years ago.  There are a number (a small number) of companies that make truly high quality packs but none better (IMHO) than Osprey.  Hence when the time came to go looking for a travel pack I went back to eBay.  I woke up this morning to find that I’d been the highest bidder on a secondhand one in mint condition. GBP70 delivered which is about 20 quid cheaper than I could get one delivered new from the US or UK so I’m pretty happy with that.   I’ll report back later with a field report when I’ve had a chance to load it with 20kg and put it into an overhead locker somewhere.

The Atmos is a worthy successor to the Karrimor but in many respects they are chalk and cheese.  The Osprey is a state of the art lightweight daypack with a fabulous frame and lots of features.  The Karrimor is an ultralight nylon sack with 3 outside pockets and two basic shoulder straps.  Years ago I replaced the original frame by cutting down and folding over a foam sleeping pad which made for a great backing and gave me an insulated sleeping mat in emergencies.   I love how simple and light the Karrimor is but I can also appreciate the benefits of a decent harness and some extra features.

In terms of travelling light, I think I can pretty much claim to have got the hang of it. I can travel now indefinitely with just carry on luggage and in any climates.  The blue bag in the second picture is my Karrimor in Bangkok airport at the end of a month of travel.  Even with laptop, camera, business suit and four changes of clothes that was all I carried for the month.  The camera case is there beside it for comparison. The size of bag is pretty typical of how it was for most of the trip with the camera case inside but when the picture was taken I’d stocked up on nuts and seeds to bring back to Cambodia so although it fitted inside OK, I was was carrying the camera separately.

So what do I carry in a bag that size?

  • Toiletries in a plastic ziplock bag including sample size toothpaste tube which I refill and a 20ml bottle of shaving oil (which works better than shave cream and only needs 2 or 3 drops
  • Business suit
  • 2 x business shirts
  • 2 x ties
  • Columbia zip off trousers (‘Titanium’ range - perfect for travel as it dries in hotel bathroom overnight)
  • Columbia longsleeve shirt (Titanium)
  • Shorts
  • hat
  • Walking sandals or running shoes
  • 2 x polo shirts
  • thermal t-shirt
  • thermal pants
  • thermal longsleeve t-shirt
  • ultralight down jacket
  • Goretex paclite raincoat
  • 15” Macbook, cables, powersupply, gadets, ipod etc
  • Canon 5D MkII camera
  • 4 x socks
  • Book(s)
Jeans, cotton business shirt and black elastic sided riding boots (which go with suit or jeans) are the standard travel attire.   If I left out the suit, laptop and DSLR camera the load comes down to well under 10kg but frankly I’d rather leave spare clothes behind than travel without the MacBook & the 5D.
I often carry less than that and could write more on this but a guy called Tynan has already done a great job.  His list isn’t exactly how I’d go but it’s got some great ideas  http://tynan.net/the-gear-of-life-nomadic

The suit I happily leave behind whenever I can. In fact, I usually avoid ‘urban camouflage’ at all costs.  Not that they are uncomfortable – on the contrary they are very comfy but all that dry cleaning and pressing is not for us nomads.  I was at Phnom Penh airport recently waiting for friends to disembark and watching businessmen getting off the plane  wearing suits into 35 degrees and 100% humidity.   It could be just my biases and maybe they are happy as Larry but I felt sorry for them.  Frankly, if you had any other option at all, would you choose to fly into Phnom Penh in a suit? Perhaps they had good reason but in any case I somehow had to wonder if they were trapped by their jobs or even just their own lack of imagination.  A bit like me thinking that I need to wear suits to give a presentation eh?   I guess I just need to work on my limiting beliefs a little more :-)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Back in the Penh...

The sun’s coming up over a Phnom Penh skyline and the sounds of the city are starting to stir.  Soon the noise of beeping horns and traffic will become constant background but in the early morning light the air is cool, clean and relatively quiet.  It’s my favourite time of day and somehow restful to gaze out over the skyline from my bedroom window. I scratch and yawn with arms outstretched as I look down on a few passing pushbikes and a scooter crossing the intersection down the street.  Other than a security guard outside a building site and an old woman sweeping in front of her shop, the street is deserted.  That's not uncommon at this time of day but is such a contrast to what I know is coming.

I walked for miles yesterday just exploring some new streets on the way to a couple of coffee shops that friends had recommended.  I like working from coffee shops and luckily for me, Phnom Penh has an abundance to choose from. My local is only 150m from my apartment but peregrinating is my favourite way to traverse this bustling but relatively small Asian city.  The search for great coffee and new places to do some writing is my pretext to explore and get a bit of exercise.  With only 2 million people, the streets of Phnom Penh are busy but unlike Bangkok and Jakarta with 20 million occupants, this place is still pedestrian friendly.  Not that you’d want to take anything for granted here.  The traffic comes at you from all directions and is probably the most chaotic, least organised and self-regulated I've come across anywhere.

Motos, bicycles, cars and rickshaws move in both directions on both sides of the road.  And I mean that literally.  For all intents and purposes there are no road rules. Most traffic drives on the left hand side of the road but by no means all of it.  You drive on whichever side of the road suits your purpose at the time. Stepping off the pavement to cross a road or get around the frequent obstructions requires looking in both direction before you put so much as a single foot into the road.  Failure to do so has a high likelihood of leading directly to a hospital visit.

So far as I can tell after my months in the Penh, there are only two rules for driving or walking in this city.  Rule number one: maintain situational awareness and eternal vigilance whether driving or on foot.  Rule number two is probably the most important rule however: be predictable.   You could (I suspect) walk blindfold in complete safety throughout the streets of this city crossing roads at random so long as you follow rule number two. If you step out in a predictable steady fashion and don’t make any sudden changes in speed or direction, the traffic will adjust and flow around you.  As simple as that.  

Rule number two is what enables traffic to flow in this city, and flow is the operative word.  If you study an intersection for any length of time, you’ll see the vehicles flowing around each other like leaves floating around rocks in a river.  Effortlessly and with rare pause.  Not that this is a silver bullet for survival here. Rule number one is important also.  I’ve seen more than a few accidents, bingles and injuries on the road.  Occasionally scooter vs scooter or scooter vs pedestrian but more typically scooter vs car. Sometimes, as happened to a friend who forgot rule 1 recently, you’ll be unseen by a car driver (who can more safely disregard rules 1 & 2) until they hit you.  In my friends case, the driver was either wealthy or well-connected enough to not feel the need to get out of the car after knocking her off her scooter.  The driver did at least drive around her rather than over her but such is the absence of rules 3 or higher including details such as stopping at the scene of an accident...   

Cambodia isn't all motor traffic accidents and great cafe's though.  Life is pretty easy here for an expat.    In the first 24 hours I caught up with 3 friends, made up for lack of sleep after 27 hours in airports and planes, and revisited some favourite haunts.  Last night was a pleasantly and typically relaxing evening after churning through some emails and taxation matters during the day at Gasolina cafe. 'Hurt Locker' DVD: USD$1.60, vegetable thali delivered to my door: USD$3.50, 2 glasses of Penfolds CabSav: $4.50.  Quiet evening at home: Priceless...  :-)