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.

46 thoughts on “Field work in the tropics

  1. in addition to your list:
    – several photocopies of my passport, flight itineraries, phone # for embassy/consulate/place I’m staying, and tons of maps. massive redundancy is good in these things.
    – a couple thick books to make slightly less boredom
    – anti-fungal cream – when it’s humid, things happen
    – anti-mosquito stuff – when it’s humid, bugs happen
    – business cards – essential, at least in status-conscious south asia, or anywhere where people could use a reminder of what your name is exactly.
    – an amount of dollars in cash, discreetly hidden in the depths of shoe or suitcase flap, that would be useful in a pinch, without being a huge pain if stolen

  2. Fantastic list, although with two serious omissions:

    *duct tape and
    *ziploc bags

    Duct tape for everything from backpack repair to second-skin blister replacement to engine fixing (drivers in Mongolia like to bring a roll of tape up under the hood – I was too scared to go find out what they actually did with it) and ziplocs for… the rare cases when duct tape doesn’t have you covered.

  3. Great list. All that + a travel alarm clock, a book or two, sunglasses, some pleasurable reading material, an absurd amount of chewable pepto, some granola/energy bars (just in case), some way of treating the water + flavor packets to make it taste less disgusting, flip flops.

  4. I would be gald to see your list when you travel to others countries in the north.

    Besides some stuff really related to the tropics (like a hat), most of the things you need at tropics you will need at otherplaces as well, dont you think?

  5. Great list. I always take a plastic file folder; comes in handy for all the documents I collect and the inevitable stack of brochures, business cards, etc. people hand me that I don’t want to get rid of just yet.

    Pepto is essential, as is a clean needle kit. (Having spent time in too many central African hospital, it’s worth the extra 3 ounces.) I also take flat duct tape (check around, it’s cheap and easy) and a needle and thread on a piece of cardboard.

    Make sure that all-purpose tool has scissors. And I’m partial to the unruled Moleskin notebooks. :)

  6. Second on the duct tape and ziploc bags. Add safety pins and twine, and you can basically Macgyver anything in the field…

    For clothes: bring minimal and get them tailored *in country*. Wherever you go, there are tailors, and in a day or two you can have yourself a few shirts and trousers cheaply that use fabrics far more appropriate for the heat. Plus, they’ll fit you better.

    For cellphones, note that data plans are relatively cheap and (at least in rural Ghana) you can set yourself up with a tethered modem really easily–i.e communications in the field without concern for electrical outages! YAY!

    As for copies of documents: I scan and email to myself image files of passports, visa pages, credit cards, etc. If you lose that stuff, you generally have to get to a place that has an internet connection to deal with replacement and damage control. It’s far easier to handle than scraps of paper.

    Protect your feet and let them breathe with the smartly engineered and affordable shoes that Keen makes (http://www.keenfootwear.com/wall/shoes/men). You can hike with them AND wear them to meetings AND not have sweaty feet ever. It’s brilliant.

  7. better yet, scan in your passport and email it to your gmail account along with lists of important phone numbers

  8. One more – as a woman, I’ve found a scarf more useful than handkerchiefs. Serves the same function, but you can use it to dress up a skirt and top when needed. And take wet wipes in case, like me, you were lucky enough to arrive in Goma when the running water went out for three weeks and it became inexplicably hard to get washing water from the enormous body of water three blocks away. They have nice little flat packages of them at Target.

    Totally with Jasonized on the Keens. They have some cute Mary Janes with solid soles that can handle just about everything from rocks and mountains to meeting officials or going to church (which everyone who does political fieldwork in Africa should do – they cover politics every single Sunday). Add a pair of flip flops for nasty showers.

  9. I always travels with a sarong because it dries quickly, light to carry and can be made into a dress.

    I too suggest flip flops for the shower and casual wear.

    I always carry a visine bottle that is clearly marked with bleach to add to water. I also found that the teeth whitening gel that you can brush on consists of peroxide and is great for your first aid kit.

    I worked many years on the equator where it would rain every few hours so I too suggest ziplock bags to put your clothing and items in if you need to do some travelling in the field. It also makes your pack more manageable.

  10. Just out of curiosity, when will you be in Uganda? I’ll be doing some research all around Buganda and Hoima this summer and will spend some time up in Gulu/Kitgum with some friends.

  11. Have yourself ordained as a minister, free online, for example with the Universal Life Church ( http://www.themonastary.org ) and pay 3 bucks for a nice ID card to be sent to you, which identifies you as Rev. (your name here). (if you pay more, you can become all sorts of things, one of my favourites is ‘Universal Philosopher of Absolute Reality’.) Becoming a minister involves little more than having a name and address. Then, not only can you perform marriages and baptisms on the side (in select states), but when you get trapped at some sort of checkpoint or other annoying situation which involves somebody illegitimately demanding money from you, whip out the card and you’ll likely be instant best friends with, and significantly more respect from, whomever is trying to take advantage of you. And it is great at parties

  12. I’d add: a quality bag. My $300 backpack, with its thoughtful weight distribution, numerous compartments, hidden pockets, and textbook ruggedness, is worth more to me than whatever I carry inside it.

    (I’m also the kind of guy who appends backpacking adventures to overseas placements, so take this advice with a grain of salt.)

  13. Great list and comments. I head back to Uganda on Monday. Always have my US $100’s to exchange, 2005 or newer. A quirk that I never grow tired of. And the banks at home love this request. You know, because sorting through a few $100’s to help out a client is so onerous. Isn’t it my time for a break?

  14. @Gwen – while a clergy card may be "great at parties," it's definitely NOT going to endear you to a certain group of people in Central Asia, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Indonesia, southern Phillipines .. (you get the idea). Leave it at home.

  15. Great list Chris.
    About n#3, I still carry (with love) the shirts you gave in your late 20s me because they wouldn’t fit you anymore.

    My comments:
    – moleskin ruled notebooks rock
    – I have been resisting #20 for years.not sure why. I use a big ziploc bag instead (as for everything else).
    – I don’t like to carry a big roll of duct tape. So I take 4-5 pens and I wrap around each of them one inch of duct tape and them put them in various locations in my luggage: I hate to look too long for duck tape when I need it, and hate to look around too much for pens. Same thing for energy bars: spread them everywhere.
    – my advice of the day: have a pelican case 1510-carry-on as you’re main carry-on on the plane (http://www.pelican.com/cases_detail.php?Case=1510). Take the foam out, just use ziploc as separators if needed. It is fully water resistant, shock resistant, rhum resistant, you can sit on it during in long line ups or dusty air ports, can use it as a working table. I also use it as a portable safe box with two big “masters” lock on each side. Before leaving any hotel or house rooms for a day of work, I throw (literally) all my important stuff/docs in it and lock it. If you are slightly paranoid as I am, the psychological effect only is worth the investment. I’ve had one for years, and they are impossible to destroy. On my last story in Cuba, I got back to my Hotel room at night after a day of torrential rain to find rain pouring everywhere also IN my room, and most precisely over the pelican case: every thing in the room was ruined except my laptop (and not a light and cheapo) and my backup cameras. all safe and dry. Lastly, if you happen to travel with western military once in a while, the pelican case makes you look very cool and gain you immediate respect (no joke). If you look scruffy enough and spit out some key jargon very quickly, they might even think you are some kind of weird special forces or other secret services which is better because then they’ll stop trying to impress you, might even stop talking to you. But don’t take out the moleskin notebook, that would be a definite and painful sell out.

  16. Fabulous post. I also recommend a pagne (wrap around skirt, 2 yard piece of cloth) for women. Can serve as a towel, a skirt, a bedsheet ( if the sheets where you are staying are dodgy), a blanket, a veil (when visiting Muslim dignitaries etc), a scarf, and even, and most importantly, as a screen for when you need to pee or sth else in the middle of nowhere, and no trees or other natural or manmade screens are available and there are people who would wish to look your way.

  17. small kleenex packs for tp. They fit in a pocket plus you can take the layers apart and stretch usage a lo-o-ong way. Also a copy of Where There Is No Doctor is you are going to be way out there and also helpful if you are packing meds either for yourself for a long time or a group. Available on the web if it’s not on amazon.

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  21. 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.

    Research economists should have the money and the brains to use one of the many cloud backup services as well.

  22. It all fits in one suitcase

    I like to pack in a bunch of things that will be used up (someone mentioned T.P.). This means when I’m stuffing my bag at the start, neatly folding and so on, I’m already building in room for the flustered packing at the end when i won’t calmly & accurately fold anything. (Or maybe I acquired something to bring back.)

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  24. Great post. I would also add bug spray, advil, mini alarm clock and sani wipes to the list. Also, ziplocs filled with cashews and almonds has saved many a day for me — so I would bring those for days when protein sources or food is scarce.

  25. Instead of a mosquito net (and a nail) I can highly recommend a mosquito tend. Very easy to build up (half a minute) and safe from all sides (including the bottom). Can be placed on top of every bed (also useful if you have a filthy mattress)

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  29. I am being hosted by a local university. Do you recommend bringing my academic hosts gifts? If so, of what nature?
    Thanks!

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