Field work in the tropics

As I prepare for summer field work, here’s what I tell my research assistants to bring to Liberia and Uganda:

  1. One very nice set of clothes. My first field work abroad, in Tamil Nadu, I unexpectedly visited a minister in Chennai, partied at the French consulate in Pondi, attended a wedding in Madurai, and threw a party for my survey enumerators. I was glad to have a (wrinkled) suit for all of them.
  2. A functional hat (read: dorky) that keeps the sun off your face and neck.
  3. Clothes you don’t love. The Umo washing powder and rock hard scrubbing surface will take the life out of your favorite shirt in three washings. Filene’s Basement and Old Navy fill my luggage. That is, when I carry luggage. I now keep a rucksack of clothes in Kitgum and Monrovia and bring carry-on only. Paradise!
  4. One of those stain removal sticks (for the suit or the clothes you did love and brought anyways)
  5. A tropical weight sleeping bag, for the dodgier hotel rooms and overnight stays in farflung villages.
  6. A portable mosquito net, for the same. (Bring your own nail.)
  7. An all-purpose tool (Jeannie bought me a small plier/knife/screwdriver/hammer doodad from Eddie Bauer)
  8. A quick-dry (microfiber) towel. Don’t believe the packaging: they will eventually smell. Maybe get two.
  9. A headlamp.
  10. A light and cheapo computer. They have half-size $400 numbers nowadays.
  11. A computer charger with attachments that let you plug into car lighters and airplane seats (yes, airplane seats have outlets–you just need the right thingamajig).
  12. A big flash drive (e.g. 16 GB) to back up all your files. Do not keep it in the same bag as your computer.
  13. An unlocked cell phone with the simplest (read: least battery consuming) LCD display. I’ve used a cheapo Nokia for years. (I might upgrade, however, to something that gets e-mail. Data plans are CHEAP in Liberia.)
  14. Candy, pens and Canadian flag pins to give to kids. NOT. (Seriously, if you ever do this you are banned from reading this blog for life.)
  15. Notebooks. Ruled moleskins are my favorite. You can pretend you’re Pablo Neruda while you take notes at a meeting or make your shopping list.
  16. A pair of light leather hiking shoes that could take you up a mountain one day and (clean) do you for an NGO meeting the next.
  17. Crazy glue.
  18. A suitcase lock (since they are needed and legal in every country but this one). From experience, I can yell you your luggage will be opened in the Casablanca and Lagos luggage terminals.
  19. A first aid kit with one dose cipro, malaria rapid test kits (available abroad), one malaria treatment dose (coartem recommended), anti-diarrheal tablets, and a thermometer. Carry all on your return flight home.
  20. A travel docs holder. I have a nice zipper case for tickets, passport, etc that keeps me ever-so-organized.
  21. A money belt that’s actually a belt! Genius!
  22. A spare credit card kept in something other than my wallet.
  23. Handkerchiefs! Almost as useful as towels (see Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) but less bulky
  24. A sleeping mask and earplugs for, among other things, the acursed roosters.

Believe it or not, it all fits in one bag.

What’s in your suitcase?

Update: The comments below are excellent. Also, see a more recent addendum to my list here.