"Women are the guardians of continuity. If the hearth moves, they move with it. Remember, it is the gypsy women who keep their men on the road."

~"Boomerang Love," Jimmy Buffett

Rock 'n Roll Part II: How to Live Out of a Backpack for a Month

Several months ago, I described the systematic purging of my belongings in order to both meet the baggage requirements and pack for 9 months in a foreign country. It was a surgical process that took place over a series of several days. Recently, I had the opportunity to take a month to work my way down the Southern cone, bringing me all the way down to the southernmost point of the planet. Considering this journey’s extreme level of epic-ness, the packing process could not have been any more different or haphazard. I suppose all these Latin siestas are beginning to rub off on me. Confident in our abilities to speedily stuff a backpack, Selene and I put off packing and shopping for our trip until the day of our departure. Specifically, we waited until a few hours before our bus left to purchase any last minute items. Nothing important, just… you know… coats and stuff.

In March, the biggest challenge was predicting the range of climate extremes that I might face throughout the year, and trying to be prepared for every situation. This time, we knew exactly what type of weather we would be facing: cold. We were on a fool’s errand to head to Antarctica in the dead of winter. We would be facing the elements – mountains, wind, snow, and possibly elephant seals. No, we knew what we were up against. The challenge here was figuring out the most efficient way to pack bulky winter clothes in order to meet the dual goals of offsetting crippling hypothermia while also keeping everything under one backpack. Having spent the last 6 winters in Austin, the most extreme cold I had to deal with were the trips between my car and indoor central heating. As such, I have always been a big proponent of wearing several thin, removable layers, as opposed to one or two genuinely warm ones. It was my hope that this system wouldn’t fail me now.

Keeping in mind that Argentina isn’t necessarily renowned for its high-quality textile industry (every item of clothing I have purchased in this country has unraveled, faded, torn or otherwise failed me. In fact, I had to devote a day in Uruguay to sewing and mending a pile of clothing so high that it could have inspired an animated Disney princess song), and that buying actual Northface or Patagonia wintergear would literally cost me a month’s rent, I had to be strategic in selecting my clothing. I adopted a formulaic template for layers which I followed throughout the duration of the trip: a thin tank top, a thin long-sleeved undershirt, a top t-shirt, [optional additional sweater or jacket], and overcoat. The bottom half was even simpler: shorts or leggings under a thicker pair of pants. None of these items were particularly high quality – most of my shirts were purchased at outlet malls and most of the pants were purchased at either Old Navy or Wal-mart (yes, I know, the child labor unions are crying). The Argentine coats and hats were purchased at flea markets, and it was doubtful that they would last beyond the duration of the trip. In fact, it is possible that the most valuable (and probably highest quality) items were the Longhorn memorabilia I brought for the express purpose of photographing myself flashing the horns in exotic locations.

The logic was that a firm foundation of thin, tight-fitting underclothes would provide sufficient insulation to retain heat from the subsequent layers which would otherwise be completely inadequate to provide any actual warmth. It was the theory that the whole would be stronger than the sum of its parts, or some other syllogism which may or may not have any solid grounding in the laws of physics. Either way, I was banking on this strategy to protect me from the severest cold that my poor Texas soul had ever faced. To my relief, it worked out beautifully. On days we spent outdoors, we either had the good fortune of direct sunlight or just made sure to move at a fast enough clip to keep our core temperature elevated.

So now that I have established that a few discount t-shirts actually can brave the cold of Ushuaia, allow me to explain the actual packing process. This method works so easily, you have to make an active, deliberate effort to mess it up. I was lucky in that I had a solid backpack that lent itself to intuitive, no-brainer packing. Pretty much, I packed inside out: burying the most valuable items tightly and deeply, progressively expanding out with more expendable items.
  1. Super-secret pocket: This goes back to knowing the anatomy of your luggage. But as with my suitcases, my backpack had an interior zipper that opened up to the skeleton of the pack. I tied the pouch with my passport, money, credit cards, and keys to the internal frame and kept them hidden away for most of the trip. The only way somebody was going to reach them would be to steal the entire backpack, which wasn't going to happen on my watch.

  2. Main compartments: Again, I packed my clothing in accordance with the Rolling Method. The main difference this time was that instead of dividing them into bundles according to type (ie, a tank top pile, a t-shirt pile, etc), I made sure that each “roll” contained a couple types of each item. In accordance with my “no outfit rule,” I tried to pick articles that were essentially interchangeable. Theoretically, I could randomly peel a couple layers from the pack, throw them on, and walk out the door without looking like a complete hot mess. At most, it would’ve been an endearing level of dorky, semi-fashion forward tackiness.

    As a sidenote, I should mention that in matching (or mismatching) my clothing this way, I had stumbled upon a system which ensured a steady stream of clothing that would be recycled for the duration of the trip. In the traditional school of unwashed backpacker thought, you should stick with a single article of clothing and continue wearing it as long as your personal sense of hygiene and dignity will allow you to “rough it” so comfortably. For whatever reason, I decided to defy logic and experiment with changing my clothes on a daily basis like normal. Rather than keeping a stock of valuable fresh clothes and a few truly filthy pieces of clothing, I decided to split the difference and keep a steady supply of lightly worn, possibly slightly dirty, but generally wearable clothing at all times. Admittedly, there was a psychological motive – by constantly rotating out my clothes, I had a hard time keeping track how many times I’d worn each item, probably psyching myself out on how dirty they actually were. This stroke of Ender Wiggins-style backwards brilliance resulted in an almost foolproof method for dressing myself. As an added bonus, by constantly cycling through my clothing, I never had to deal with a bulky laundry bag of dirtied clothes taking up space in my pack.
  3. Fill in the blanks:After rolling up the primary pieces of clothing, I indiscriminately filled up the empty spaces with amorphous, squishable items (socks, bras, paperback novels, etc). If possible, you want to create a snug fit to keep things from moving around, but loosely enough that things can be shuffled around if you need to add to your pack. You never want it to be so full that you’re forced to stuff, since that almost always guarantees that something will be lost or misplaced.

  4. Outside pockets (side, front):Pretty much, these compartments were filled with trivial little items that I had no qualms parting with: toiletries, pens, postcards, dirty underwear. Although, I had no intention of leaving my bag unsupervised, if somebody were to sneak into the compartments, the insecure outside pockets would make for the easiest access. Really, coupling my level of robbery paranoia with a seemingly contradictory tendency to lose and spill things, it was just as probable that these things would have fallen out of pure carelessness, which is another reason I didn’t keep anything irreplaceable on the outside.

The end result: After just a couple days of traveling, I had nailed down the system of rolling and stuffing that I could unload and re-pack the entire thing in 5 minutes, including the souvenirs that accumulated along the way. Aside from occasionally having to handwash my panties at night, I only had to do one load of laundry in the entire 4 weeks. And besides an occasional sniffly nose from being outdoors for extended periods, I managed to make it through the whole trip with my immune system intact. To pull a Colbert, I think I can declare my mission to backpack to the end of the world a “capital V” Victory. Tierra del Fuego: owned.

It's Raining Ash... Hallelujah? Springtime in the Garden State of Argentina

When I initially received my assignment from Fulbright, I had never heard of Tucumán. As any self-respecting millennial would do, I immediately set out to snoop around with my Googling and Wikipedia-ing skills. The information available was scanty, but the nickname that kept popping up was El Jardín de la República ("The Garden of the Republic").  My first reaction? “Great, I’m going to live in the Jersey of Argentina.” To be fair, I have never been to New Jersey, but through various media outlets, I have gathered that it is the punchline of almost all New York jokes, and there is an explicable infatuation with jagerbombs, housewives, Zach Braff, and people with epithets like "Snooky" and “The Situation.” As yet, I have yet to see any references to actual gardening.

It was the same… ahem… situation when I initially arrived in the province. Apart from the green hills of Yerba Buena and San Javier nearby, there did not seem to be much in the way of flora or exceptional produce. Although it took nearly 6 months, Tucumán, at least, is finally beginning to live up to its nickname. Spring is in the air – birds are chirping, the days are longerl the stores are liquidating their winter collections; huge, plump strawberries are being sold by the kilo; and perhaps most notably, the flowers are in bloom.  Suddenly, the city has erupted in a burst of bright yellows, pinks, and oranges. Naturally, being from the Northern hemisphere (they refer to all Americans as yanquis, regardless of their actual home state), I mentally categorize these hues as “Easter colors,” despite the fact that it is September.  Some of the streets are lined with rows and rows of lapacho trees, creating an endless stretch of pink, which delights the girly girl deep inside of me (very deep). The end result is magnificent.

Additionally, in a stroke of administrative genius (rare in these parts), somebody had the brilliant idea to plant orange trees around the city. The oranges themselves are inedible, so my theory is that they were planted for the express purpose of providing citizens with enjoyment when the azahares (orange blossoms) bloom in the spring. These creamy white flowers emit the most intoxicating, mouthwatering scent – its’ like vanilla mixed with jasmine mixed with honey, and a hit of citrus. It’s romantic and sexy and spicy all at the same time. Every time I chance to stroll underneath its branches (which is easy for me, because I’m short), I close my eyes and inhale deeply.

So it’s probably no wonder that I have been hacking up a dry storm at night for the last couple weeks. You see, in addition to being the season for pretty flowers, pleasant outdoor constitutionals, and holding hands, spring is also the time that farmers prepare their sugarcane for harvesting. Tucumán is actually one of the largest producers of sugarcane in the world. So what is the fastest, most efficient way of processing large quantities of it? Why, burning acres and acres of field, of course.  As a result, even on the sunniest days, there is an unpleasant grey haze of dust and smoke that lingers in the air (I guess the Jersey metaphor goes both ways).
That's not precipitation or fog. That's smoke. 
On windy days, the particles in the air are painful to the point that people wear sunglasses and scarves to protect their eyes. On calmer days, the debris settles on the ground, sidewalks, windows, and cars creating an oppressive film of dust on every flat surface. It has become such a hazard that Weather.com sometimes lists the Tucumán forecast as “smoke.”
 An actual screenshot of a Tucumán weather forecast. 
As luck would have it, my body seems particularly sensitive to these climactic abnormalities.  There have been several nights where I’ve been racked with a violent dry cough that keeps me from falling back asleep. Some mornings, I wake up too congested to breathe comfortably, or I have a sore throat that results in my speaking in a husky, drag queen type voice. At first, I was worried that these symptoms might be indicators of a chronic cold or something, but without fail, they subside as the day goes on. It really is just worst at night and in the morning. As a by-product of trying to determine the initial cause, however, I have stumbled upon some consistent patterns that have proven to be reliable predictors of the weather. For example, congestion usually means a drop in pressure, likely indicating rain or a cold front coming.  Coughing means that I should prepare myself for a particularly intense day of smoke or dust, while sniffles just mean that there is crap in the air, but it will still be sunny and pleasant outside. It’s almost as if my overactive immune system has developed  Wolverine-like heightened senses.  So while it’s unfortunate that my last couple of months in Tucumán will be plagued with unpleasant side effects, my fantasy of having a mutant superpower has finally been fulfilled. It’s not nearly as glamorous as I would have hoped.