When I was 21, I packed my bags to volunteer in Calcutta for six months--or for however long I could until my money ran out. I had traveled abroad just once before: in high school, with my show choir, to London. That experience, complete with dance shoes and a sparkly unitard, did not help me much.
As my college ran an informal program to help students travel to and volunteer in Calcutta, I knew a handful of people who had been there before me. I met with them a few times, and they helped me figure out what to expect, where to stay, what to wear, what to pack.
I wish I had a packing list from way back then! The obvious things got thrown in: Non-form-fitting T-shirts that fell to my hips or below, rubber sandals, light hiking pants, my own mosquito net, a few hats, and a journal or two to capture all of my thoughts.
Amidst these expected items, I packed two things that really stand out as very funny to me now:
Somehow in the process of packing I had convinced myself that paper would not be available in Calcutta. Despite it being a thriving metropolis, I wasn't sure that I would be able to find paper on which I could write letters. And I am a letter-writing phenom. So I packed a plastic binder full of three reams of blank, lined (college rule, I'm sure) paper. On my second day in Calcutta, I pulled out this gigantic, heavy binder of blank paper to an empty table in the guest house in which I was staying to write a letter (I'm sure to my mom). An Italian man, in Calcutta to volunteer like me, sat with a group of his friends at the only other occupied table in the room looked over and saw me.
"Is that paper you have?" he called out across the room. He and his friends laughed so loudly at my paper, and I snuck back to my bed to write on my well-traveled paper feeling like the greenhorn traveler I was.
I quickly realized that I also packed my American desire for some privacy, so I moved out from the crowded guest house to a cheap hostel with a single (American) roommate.
In that cheap hostel were bugs--roaches. And I hate roaches. But luckily I brought along my own can of Raid. I'm not sure how it survived the pressure of the airplane, but it did. It was laughable then but sure came in handy when a creepy-crawly visitor wanted to live with me. Nope. I zapped the hell out of it with my enormous, American-sized can of Raid.
A few years later after I had unpacked my bags from Calcutta and packed another set for two years in Thailand with the Peace Corps, I did not pack years worth of stationary and cans of Raid. What can I say? I like to make new mistakes in this life of mine.