Travel Items That Matter

Over the last few years we’ve invested a considerable amount of money in travel equipment, from luggage and packing systems to gadgets and single-purpose tools. Here are some that have been the most useful pound for pound.

The Pack by Pack Gear

Possibly our most-used travel item for sheer number of days used, the pack is our go-to for organising and storing clothes on the road. Each pack has a carry handle, hooks for hanging over a door or railing, and 6 compartments for clothing or items. Essentially you have a small backpack/carryon sized chest of drawers. I use the small compartments at the bottom for socks and underwear, and generally have one or two compartments each for shirts, pants, and weather specific items.

The first generation packs closed with clips, and I hate using the one we have because small items will squeeze out the gaps. The second and subsequent generations of The Pack brought the option to have compartments close with zippers. We bought three and haven’t regretted it for a second.

Power bricks

Although there is no particular brand to which I am devoted, over the years of travel the item I have most missed when forgotten is a good portable power pack. Although they don’t have much direct utility (some come with a small LED light that you can use to find things in the dark), there is something to be said for the peace of mind knowing that if your mobile device is about to run out of battery, you can always plug it in to charge while you continue to explore. This is also great for anything that charges or runs off of USB power – including camera battery chargers, portable fans, and Darcey has recently acquired an electric spinning wheel that will probably be coming on future trips with us.


It’s a library that fits in a suit pocket. If that doesn’t amaze you, you need to read more books.

Mogics Power Donut

One of my favourite new travel items from the past few years, the Mogics Power Donut/Bagel combines a plug adapter, USB power adapter, and a 5 outlet power strip with a meter long cord into a single device the size of a bagel. This means that a single wall outlet can charge two phones, and any combination of 5 laptops or other devices that run off of standard plugs. This is a life-saver when staying in hotels or guest rooms with limited socket access.

Tilley Hat

Although I sadly lost my original Tilley visible in the picture above – or perhaps some envious individual pilfered it while I wasn’t paying attention – I still love these hats. My first one lasted about a decade, and a few travel stains aside was still comfortable and in great condition. They keep the sun off, they keep rain off, they float, and they’re backed by one of the most comprehensive warranties around. Hopefully I will keep my new one even longer than the first.

Cotton Handkerchiefs

Saving the best for last, these are probably my most used everyday carry item. I usually try to bring at least three or four on any extended trip: they’re good for mopping up spills, cleaning dirty children, drying wet hands when washing in areas without towel dispensers or hand dryers, wrapping up leftover food or snacks, and even keeping cool when it gets hot out.

This is one of my favourite travel/survival hacks. Just wet the handkerchief and twist or roll it diagonally until you have a long thin strip of damp cloth. Wrap it around your neck snugly, but not so tight it’s uncomfortable. Evaporation keeps the cloth cooler than your skin, which in turn cools the blood in the major veins and arteries in your neck.

I still have a few handkerchiefs that I bought from a dollar store when I worked at a summer camp more than a decade ago: they last forever, and get softer with use.

Summer 2019 – Part 1 – MD

In July we flew from Beijing to Toronto, and after a brief overnight, on to Washington DC and thence to Maryland. There’s not a lot out there, but there are always some neat bugs, and occasionally some other critters around.

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And, of course, the cats.

Photography Abroad

Taking pictures can serve a multitude of purposes: an external record of a sight or place, capturing a moment, creating something visually beautiful or interesting. I started taking pictures with disposable point-and-shoot film cameras, before tackling the artistic (and scientific) challenges of first pinhole and later 35mm film cameras, before moving on to digital point-and-shoot and eventually interchangeable lens cameras. Through this process I have encountered many frustrations – mostly trying to make technology do things the technology was not designed to accomplish – and learned a lot.

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Rhesus Macaque; 2012; Mussoorie, India.

I learned, taking the above photo, that monkeys do not distinguish between intentional staring of a dominance contest and the studied look of a photographer trying to focus perfectly. I captured that image, and the next was slightly blurred as the monkey charged down the branch it was sitting on and hissed at me. I’ll blame “camera shake” for that.

I learned (painfully slowly) about how to reduce and limit noise in an image, and just because the thing you want to capture in an image is in the middle of your frame, it doesn’t mean you have framed it properly (both issues exemplified in the Taj image below).

And I learned that just because something is impressive to see, it does not necessarily translate into an impressive image, as Ramses the Great demonstrates here.

Perhaps the most striking are the images I captured that have an element of excellence, but now looking back at them I can see how to do something with that potential – if only I were standing there again. I’ll never forget these places, but without these images I would certainly have lost some of the details to the fog of time and age.

Yet every now and then, I’ll find an image that is sharp and clear and shows me a sight that brings back all of the memories – the adrenaline of nearly dropping a camera because of a terrifying, tiny monkey; the sweltering Indian heat and pressing crowds giving way to awe at the first glimpse of the building known as a monument to love; the burning skies of Egypt and the gaze of a king dead for three thousand years.

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Ramses; 2013; Abu Simbel, Egypt

Now I can look at those older images – some going back a decade or more – and see what mistakes I made. And sometimes I wish I was back there – with my new gear, and my new knowledge, and my new skills – to retake those old photographs. Because I know I can do better, and make better art from what I saw.

All I can do is move forwards, and plan for the next place I will visit, and the next pictures I will take. And while I wait, I will look back at these images, and remember the adventures hidden in the light I once captured.

Taj Mahal; 2011; Agra, India

Living in “foreign parts” is largely a question of mindset. The people who are the most successful at adapting to the expat life – or who are the most successful immigrants, if we are going to try to be a little less elitist in our description of those of us who move out of the west to work in other parts of the world – are those who are able to adapt to uncertainty and uncanny circumstances.

Life is not necessarily more difficult as an economic migrant; we leave our homes to pursue work for various reasons, but simply finding the right kind of work is a powerful motivator. Many find that they enjoy new lives in new places – humanity’s history is one of migration and finding new places and ways to live, from the first steps of our ancestors out of a valley in Africa. Many new places offer excitement,

Uncertainty, however, is guaranteed. Much of this comes from culture shock – the disorientation and discomfort of suddenly having a heap of new, tacit, confusing rules thrust upon you as you enter another culture. Some aspects of this can be mitigated by simply visiting a place for a time before moving there, but there will be difficulties with facets of life that will not occur to you until you are setting up a household and going about daily routines.

When we moved to India, some of the biggest issues were simply realities of what was and was not available there. Items like maple syrup were prohibitively expensive, beef was wholly unavailable for much of our time there. Cheese was available intermittently. Vegetables varied in quality and availability depending on weather and seasons. Some items were only available if one was willing to make a multi-hour long trip into the nearest city.

China is a different story – we are in a Metropolis here, so everything can be had for a price, if you know where to look. But it can be difficult finding out where exactly to look, since everything is in a language in which I am still – despite three years of practice – functionally illiterate. Language was an occasional irritation in India, but here it can border on being a debilitating restriction. We function largely through the help of our ayi, whose ability to understand us is the byproduct of years of familiarity. She in turn is tasked with many of the more complicated errands that involve dealing with customer service reps or vocabulary that moves beyond my infant/toddler level grasp of “this,” “that,” and a few basic nouns.

Both of these challenges – and the challenges that would be encountered moving to any other culture – come back to uncertainty, and how we manage it. Uncertainty in communication, material goods, relationships, all contribute stress. If you can tolerate the uncertainty, you will find a way to overcome any of the other difficulties.

CW: mentions of surgical procedures, with accompanying grossness.

So I have had the displeasure of needing several medical procedures recently, first at the beginning of February my lower wisdom teeth were removed, and more recently I have had an infected sebaceous cyst removed from my back.

Having medical procedures done is never going to be a fun experience (unless you love puns and the procedure involves your humerus), and can be even more stressful when in a country where your native language is not the same as the majority of medical personnel.

Procedures are done around you and to you, but you’re not really part of the process. Conversations happen over your head both literally and metaphorically.

While the medical professionals have all been pleasant and personable in their interactions with me, there is an undeniable disconnection between when they are Talking To The Patient, and when they are talking to communicate.

I sit while a loud discussion happens as they drill through a molar. They seem upset – something isn’t happening the way it should? Someone is doing something wrong? I catch a word in four – it’s enough to know a thing is doing another thing, but I can’t follow the accents at that speed, and probably don’t know the vocabulary in any case.

By the time they finish extracting the first tooth I feel fine. But it took three times as long as they expected. They had to give about six extra injections of local anaesthetic. Apparently I’m resistant. The dentist asks if I’m a heavy drinker – apparently that’s a cause.

I feel fine.

The Next extraction takes longer, hurts more, and when they finish it takes some time for the bleeding to stop. I feel wrung out. I don’t bounce back like the previous day. I can’t feel half my tongue, which is normal with the local anaesthetic. But it doesn’t wear off. They tell me this might take months to go away. 

The surgery on my back is faster, but infinitely less pleasant. A series of sharp pains as local anaesthetic fills the painful swelling on my back.

“Does that hurt?”


“Is there pain here?”


“Does this?”

“Quite a bit, yes.”

“Ok. There.”

“That hurts immensely.”

“Ok. This will hurt. Just hold still.”

The conversation continues, but I think we’re both just making noises. Different species flashing colours and making noises that the other doesn’t quite understand or seem to register. I feel like I am literally being stabbed in the back. Which, to be fair, is exactly what is happening, since the first three exchanges were accompanied by rapid incisions. I assume they are being done with a scalpel, but for all I know it could be a chisel.

The surgeon tells me that the anaesthetic is less effective because of the infection and swelling. While I appreciate the information, this does little to lessen the pain.

It gets worse as the surgeon begins to remove the pus from the swollen, infected cyst. At some point he stops probing the abscess and carves the cyst tissue out of my back. The sensation is not much different.

My hands are shaking from clenching in pain. The adrenaline is probably not helping. I wonder how much longer it will take. I can’t tell how long this has taken.

By the time they irrigate the wound to try and wash as much pus and necrotic tissue from the wound as possible, it’s actually a relief. The sting of the antiseptic as they clean up is a welcome pain because it means the procedure is over.

The wound is packed with gauze – eight pieces. The surgeon is sure to conscientiously confirm this with the nurse to ensure that when I return they are all properly removed. A massive gauze pad covers my back. A piece of plastic adhesive sheeting holds everything in place.

They leave me lying on the hospital bed, and tell me to wait twenty minutes for observation. Half an hour later I put on my shirt, I take my backpack, and I go home.



Before I say anything else, I will start by saying this is hard. Perhaps nearly impossible. Learning a language requires practice, and if your child is not practicing with you, it is much more difficult have any kind of input on the process.

At the same time, my own children are learning both English and Mandarin, and I have had the dubious pleasure of having my own pronunciation corrected by my daughter in not one but two different languages, as she had learned a fair bit of Hindi before we left India.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that language development is slow when seen from day to day, yet it can seem rapid when viewed from a little distance. Rohan seemed to have difficulty expressing himself, and although he is still not to the level Asha was at his age, he has made incredible progress in the last few months. He makes mistakes in English that may be common, but are also emblematic of errors made by English language learners whose first language is Mandarin.

Based on observations I have made of my students, children with monolingual parents are at a notable disadvantage in learning a second language compared with their peers whose parents are able to practice a second language with them and provide support. Perhaps the most important aspect of this is simply showing kids it’s ok to make mistakes. I practice my mandarin in front of Rohan and Asha, and although this means that Rohan is convinced I can’t really speak his language, they are both willing to speak with me, and make mistakes of their own.

Show your kids that something is important to you, and it will be important to them too.


Review: Red Wing Boots

These boots are one of my favourite pairs of footwear of all time. They took a long time to break in – they were still giving me sore toes where they were a little tight almost a month after I bought them – but once broken in they are comfortable and seemingly indestructible. I have owned them for about three years now, and they haven’t changed much in appearance in the last two and a half years. At some point I may need to replace the rubber outsoles, but other than that (and the laces, which I’ve replaced twice) these are still going strong.

I haven’t worn them much in the last few months, as I had to leave them in Canada over the summer in order to meet weight restrictions when flying home. As soon as I was back in Canada I pulled them out of storage and fell in love with them all over again.

There is something special about the leather soles and upper and welted construction that makes these boots feel like they are something special. They can take me on adventures, or will last through my life and tell the story of every footstep on every journey – or perhaps it’s just the three years of wear that have shaped them almost perfectly to my feet until they fit like a glove.



Showing their age, but still going strong. Might be time for a polish, though. 

Christmas in Canada

For obvious reasons I could not write this post before Christmas, and with the chaos and effort of travelling to another continent and back (not to mention the start of a new term at school with all the accompanying chaos), it’s taken a few days to get back in the swing of things.

This past year we decided to give a very special Christmas gift: surprise surprise grandkids. The grandmas are always asking when they can have more time with Asha and Rohan, so last year around February Darcey suggested that we could fly back at Christmas and surprise my mother. I knew she would love it – Christmas is her thing, and she always wants to have the family together. I’ll see if I can find photos of her Santa collection later, but trust me, she goes in for all the trappings the season has to offer: wreaths, garlands, lights, bells, baking, cooking, gifts under the tree (and around the tree, because GIFTS!)… the whole kit and caboodle.

The problem (for anyone who knows my mother) was keeping her in Toronto without promising to bring the kids home. She is prone to spontaneous fits of international travel, and is not above flying to another continent for a bit of excitement or to see her family.

We had to concoct an elaborate set of excuses in order to convince her that we were going to visit friends in Australia, and as we would be relying on our friends’ hospitality, we could not possibly invite her to join us. My father was enlisted to ensure that she did not decide to book another vacation on her own – no small feat, I’m sure, since she retired in September and had nothing but free time to travel.

My sister was brought into the loop to make sure that she would be home to see us. This became especially awkward over the summer when we did not travel to St. Louis to see Claire, knowing we would be seeing her in December… but of course we could not tell my mother that.

My mother in law was also informed – we wanted her to be able to come up to see the grandkids too, and it would obviously require a little more planning on her part to drive up to Canada from her home in Maryland – and at one point had to stop communicating with my parents because she was worried she would let the cat out of the bag. At the same time she had to be in frequent communication with my father to make sure she could arrange their visit.

The close calls were numerous. At one point, my father asked if he ought to buy some steak “for when Adam and Darcey visit.” My mother did think it was odd that he’d buy meat in November for the following summer.

Finally, the day of our arrival came. 3 hours in the airport, 12 hours in the plane, dragging our carry-on luggage – that we had crammed three weeks of clothing and a small pile of Christmas presents into in order to avoid having to wait for checked baggage – through the hallways of Pearson International Airport, through customs, and out to find my father waiting in the crowd.

My sister called my dad while we were in the car from the airport. “Mom has no idea. I just talked to her, and when I asked where [my dad was], she said ‘I have no idea! He said he was going out to get a Christmas gift at Cloverdale (a nearby mall)! He had better get home soon, we have a party to get to!”

And so we arrived and rang the doorbell. My mother opened the door and looked in stunned silence from one face to the next for several seconds, before Asha yelled “Grandma!” and my mom realised that we were really there, and neither some hallucination nor mirage nor troupe of impostors.

A few minutes later she told me, sitting on the stairs in the front hall, that “there are some gifts that are so special you never forget them. Thank you.”

Flint and Tinder 10 Year Hoodie

I have two of these now, and I love them. They feel built to last, and a couple(? few? I need to check when I bought them) years into owning them, I believe they will live up to their name.

The Flint and Tinder hoodies, now a whole line of items guaranteed for a decade, started as a Kickstarter several years ago, and became something of a phenomenon, raising over a million dollars in initial orders. There were (of course) immediate imitators and a number of brands have grown up in the last decade offering quality goods built to last, more than brand labels and logos. The idea of buying something to last rather than as a disposable fashion of the moment is itself something of a fad – it remains to be seen how much society will subscribe to the ideals of fashion that is meant to last for more than a moment.

But to speak of the hoodie itself, it is a great item of clothing, and one of my regular staples when relaxing at home. The thickness of the fabric makes it feel substantial, and lends it an air of solidity and protection without feeling overly bulky. The zippers are good quality, and the stitching and drawstrings all seem well done. The pockets are big enough to keep hands warm without being overly spacious, but if you have a hand in you’ll need to think of somewhere else to keep anything larger than a pen or small set of keys. The inside cell pocket is a nice touch, too, and makes the hoodie feel almost more like a light jacket.

My only quibbles about these hoodies are the price and the fit. For the former, I think the product is well worth what they ask in exchange for the quality, and easily within the range you would pay for entry-level brand name clothing like GAP or L. L. Bean. My only other issue is that the sleeves run a bit snug, especially for their length. I think this may also have to do with the style of wearing sleeves ruched up, which is just something I don’t really do, but simply folding the cuff back on itself once makes everything just about perfect.

Two Years In Beijing


That is probably half grammar errors, but I did type it entirely from memory, without needing to look up any words. And I even corrected a couple of characters where the computer suggested the wrong character. So it turns out I can learn languages, even if its not a particular area of strength for me.

My Mandarin is still barely strong enough to explain simple ideas to someone who is trying to understand what I am saying. I can follow maybe half of a basic conversation, and I am proud when I am occasionally able to make some basic concept understood to a native speaker. And despite this progress, after two years in Beijing, I still feel like a foreigner in a way that I didn’t in India. I don’t really have any personal connections with shop keepers or service people here like I did there. Some of that has to do with being in a city – Beijing has a thousand times more people than Mussoorie, and that scale translates into anonymity – but it is partially a reflection of the degree to which I don’t interact with anyone outside of the school community.

At the same time, everyone else in the family is feeling pretty well at home by this point. Rohan is the most localised, having arrived at less than a year of age means he doesn’t remember anything else, and he is a little 北京人 (Beijinger) in his own words. Asha is keeping up with him on the language front, and is able to carry on conversations with her predominantly Chinese-speaking classmates.

If it seems like I am focusing overmuch on language, I think part of the reason is that this was the greatest single aspect of culture shock that I wrestled with – and continue to wrestle with. India – for all that there are over 600 languages scattered around the country – is still a product of it’s colonial history. The British left deep scars on the country, and for all that they may have done that resulted in a stronger, more unified nation, the legacy of English in India is profound. But it means that almost anything official involves someone who speaks English, and English labeling on products is pervasive.

China, on the whole has been great – I’m still here two and a half years in, and despite some stresses and disappointments, it’s an incredible place that has changed how I look at the world.