Joan Leong is a mummy, reality television producer and photographer. She watches an insane amount of dramas and comedies in her spare time. Her idea of taking a break is undisturbed time in the plane where there is no network access. She gets very much excited over handbags as well as the next big tech thing. Her life and photographs can be found at www.valska.com.
(All photographs featured in this post are courtesy of Joan Leong, while credit goes to Mae Ang for the illustrations)
Growing up, I always told my dad that my greatest wish was to travel the world. One night, after dinner, we were wandering around a mall (as most Singaporeans do). I was trying to convince my dad to take us on a family holiday when he asked me to step into the empty market hall in the middle of the mall.
“Here you go. You can go anywhere in the world you want.”
At my feet was a map of the world, covering the entire floor space of the market hall. (It was quite funny, on hindsight, not so much then.) My dad has never been an avid traveller – he often got sick, did not enjoy the food and very much missed the comforts of his home whenever we were away.
I never imagined the day would come that I become a reality television producer, working on multiple versions of The Amazing Race television show. That was a childhood dream come true for me.
The first time I went on the Race, I was filled with romantic notions of finally seeing the world but did not have a clue where to begin filling my suitcase to start my journey. While I’ve travelled before, I wasn’t sure of the appropriate method of packing for multiple countries. “Do we run around with giant backpacks like the contestants?” I asked a dear friend who was a colleague.
That was of concern, because the last time I travelled with a backpack, I went on an impromptu hike up Mount Kinabalu, planned just three days before. In a bid to travel light as I was carrying my bag up the mountain, I brought the least clothing and underwear as I could possibly manage with. What I did not count on was to get hit by a massive bout of food poisoning that left me expelling from both ends – I ended up going through my wardrobe much faster than I planned. These days, I travel with enough underwear to help cover the decency of a small nation.
Through the years of packing for more than a month at a time, for extreme ends of the weather, I have mastered the art of getting my suitcase organised to survive on (yes! We have the luxury of having wheelies) and be able to check in on all airlines without having to empty half of it out into plastic bags, which one would have to shamefully carry on board.
So here I share my tips, for the traveller, seasoned or otherwise. They should be able to carry you through the common emergency situations travelers face.
Never underestimate the many uses of ziplock bags
Roll your clothes, put them in the ziplock bag, squeeze the air out, and voila! You now have a 1cm high stack of clothes instead of 10cm of folder t-shirts.
It is also great for packing shoes. For the OCD traveller like me, you do not have to worry about dirt being transferred around your bag and onto other things, nor about the smell wafting through too.
Your belongings are also saved the wrath of a leaky shampoo bottle, from not closing it tightly enough. I once held up a meeting in Hong Kong because I was trying to wash out soap from my clothes while standing knee deep in bubbles in the toilet.
I also have this morbid principle that should I survive a plane crash and swim with my suitcase to shore, my belongings would at least be dry.
Always get juiced up
I used to think I was smart by travelling with a power strip that had three to four outlets. Till a multi-adapter with three outlets nearly hit me on the head – far lighter, far smaller. If you’re like me, this will come in handy when I have to charge my multiple i-devices at night. Invest in a dual USB charger so that you can halve the number of charging heads required too.
Ensconce your phone also, in a battery pack cover. It usually provides enough juice for one more charging cycle, for that emergency call should you have fallen in a ditch.
I once thought it was a good idea to leave my phone turned on in airplane mode in a flight to London. Upon landing, I realised the battery was completely wiped out and had to crouch in a corner at the airport, to charge my phone via my laptop to get enough juice to call my friend’s husband who was picking me up.
Do not be caught high and dry
Being a Singaporean, I have never been tuned to check the weather before I go out. It is guaranteed to be hot and it rains sometimes. Experiencing a ten degrees Celsius drop in temperature within a day was surreal the first time. It was a Race shoot day in Prague, where I had an outdoor location. Many of us producers were caught off guard by the sharp turn in the weather, that crew who came by distributed their cold weather gear lest we turned to popsicles. Thus, always check the weather before travelling, and check again before heading outdoors. Do not dismiss the age old tip – layer!
Carry an “emergency” kit on board
Remember the Tom Hanks movie where he was stuck in the airport? This WILL happen to you at some point if you’re travelling a long distance. I was once flying through Dubai on my way to Nice. We were routed to Al Ain (I had absolutely no idea where I was) nearby because of a sandstorm in Dubai, and sat on the tarmac for at least an hour. I missed the connecting flight to Nice, got re-routed via Zurich, but the flight got further delayed because of bad weather in Zurich.
So I missed that other connecting flight to Nice and ended up spending the night Zurich, but my suitcase was held in airport cargo. I finally made my way to Nice, only twenty hours later than scheduled. Imagine not even having the time to send in your clothes for express laundry service. Yep, that was not fun. And that was not even the first time. It would be wise to have a spare set of clothes, wet-wipes, make-up and deodorant on board. You can always get travel-sized versions of your beauty regime from your regular beauty counter too.
On the subject of emergency, a concise medical kit covering common ailments such as diarrhea, flu, nausea, fever and inflammation is an absolute must-have.
Most importantly, do not look like a tourist!
Do not set yourself up as an easy target by walking around with a fanny pack and a distinctive bulge of a travel wallet sticking through your shirt. Or looking like a wide-eyed bambi upon arrival at the airport. Dress to blend in with your environment and carry yourself with an air of understated confidence. Nothing screams tourist more like a person with a large crumpled map, standing on a sidewalk and looking mighty confused, and carrying a large camera bag.
I was once in Cannes and looking for an old church. I was standing in some quiet alley in a housing area, staring intently at the map app on my phone. Clearly, I was lost. A man rode up on a bike and offered to take me on a tour – which all seemed very nice at first – till he ended off saying, with a smile and a strange glint in his eye, “I like Chinese.”
When he turned to park his bike, I ran like Forrest Gump ran. I ran through cobbled streets without falling on my face, I ran down steps without breaking an ankle and stopped only when I reached a busy street crossing. As I was gasping for air, that very same man rode up on his bike and asked where I was headed! I said a firm and polite “goodbye” and thanked my lucky stars that some higher being up there allowed me to channel Usain Bolt for once, into the safety of crowds.
Travelling is always fun. I am always in search of the next best way to travel – lighter bags, advanced packing systems or the next slimmest power charger. However, most of all, is to make sure you always travel safe. Keep your wits about you and always make sure you do your research before you leave. I always carry a small amount of local currency in my pocket so that I am not whipping out my wallet each time.
However, the most important thing of all is to have a great time and keep an open mind to absorb new cultures and experiences.
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