9 things that are worth the weight in your rucksack

Every good adventure includes a rucksack. It’s the standard wayfarer’s pack. It’s the modern-day bindle for the millennial yuppie traveling the winding roads between Paris and Rome or Hanoi and Bangkok.

I’m here to tell you that it sucks.

Nothing is worse than a heavy rucksack when you’ve been meandering around for six hours, even at a “slow pace” (and for those who’ve never met my most recent traveling companion, Katka, “slow pace” really means “quick jog or I’m leaving you behind”).

Katka is helping me write this post because it was a shared adventure (“And we both survived”) so the following advice comes from both of us.

Italics are Katka.

“Whatever, there is such heavy censorship here, I bet barely half of what I say is going to make it in.”

So, here are NINE THINGS THAT ARE WORTH THE WEIGHT in your traveling pack.

SNACKS

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Gelato Rose in Budapest. A good decision courtesy of one Cody Quigg.

Traveling is a hungry business. You’ll be tired, you’ll be excited, you’ll find yourself waiting in train stations and at bus stops and you’ll be hungry.

We suggest snacks.

“But not cheese.”

[*Katka would like to clarify that she loves cheese and that she’s upset that I’m not using exact quotes to convey how she feels.]

We packed a bunch of typical Czech snacks in Prague, including several small rounds of hermelin cheese, and stuffed them into the tops of our packs. Our train left at 5 a.m. and we later caught a bus that dropped us off in Bratislava, Slovakia around nine in the morning.

We were tired (probably mostly because we stayed up too late the night before binge-watching TV shows) and hungry. So we took out our Czech pastries, yogurts, crackers and fruit candies and had a veritable feast on a park bench.

As the week progressed, we refilled our snacks several times (the cheese didn’t make it but we didn’t manage to throw it out for an unfortunately long period of time). In Budapest I discovered Kinley Ginger Ale. Katka seemed to find watermelon in every town we stopped in. Sacks of coconut cookies and local candies found their way into our bags, though not for long.

The 2 liter bottle of ginger ale actually lasted quite some time, but, honestly, it was worth the weight.

UNNECESSARY PERSONAL HYGIENE ITEMS

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Katka enjoying the view in Budapest. “Looking dope.” 

The difference between travelers and tourists, they say, is in how much your luggage weighs.

(“Why are you using italics for that? Italics are my thing.”)

A traveler, someone who is going to explore and experience, has no room for things like makeup or hair dryers, they say.

(:Sigh: “Seriously?”)

We’re here to tell you that for your own comfort and peace of mind, it is so worth it to bring an unnecessary personal hygiene item.

“Speak for yourself, lady.”

I brought a curling iron. It’s small and light. I only used it twice. But it was there when I needed it. When did I need it? When Katka rolled out of bed looking like perfection for the fourth day in a row and I was just sitting there collecting dust and flies. So I showered in our rather difficult hostel restroom facilities, let my hair air dry (which took about two seconds in Budapest, or shall I say the fiery pit of hell, and then plugged in my curling iron. Ten minutes and two missing fingers later, I looked like a human again. It was just the pluck I needed to get out and follow Katka’s break-neck pace for another day.

Sometimes travel is exhausting and you need to look your best to feel your best. That’s not being a tourist, that’s being human. Bring the hair dryer.

NICE CLOTHES

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Candles in a cathedral in Vienna. I don’t know which cathedral because I wasn’t paying super close attention and Katka wanted to leave before I could get the pamphlet.

“You know, just this morning I thought of something else we could add to this list, but then I forgot it.”

Anyway.

For the most part, Katka and I couldn’t afford to eat three meals a day on the road, let alone go to nice places to consume nutrients. However, we did splurge once or twice.

We cleaned up and put on pretty skirts and walked around town without looking homeless.

It was lovely.

I think, to experience a city, you have to see the slums and the skyline. Places are orchestras, complete with harmonies in both treble and bass. To only listen to one piece of the melody would be to miss the song completely.

So do your hippie travel thing with your handkerchief scarves and ratty, been-there shoes. It’s a good way to get places.

But a set of nice clothes that you can stash in the bottom of your bag and pull out for a morning church service in the country or an evening in the pretty lights of a city will round out what you see in your travels.

A BOOK

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The Working Man in Bratislava. He and I connected on a real level.

This may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at how strong the urge is to leave it out when you test out your pack for the first time and realize that it weighs roughly that of a small elephant. When you begin pulling things out and asking yourself, “Will I really need this?” the answer to your book is yes.

I brought my copy of Noam Chomsky’s “Who Runs the World,” that I purchased in Iceland’s quaint excuse for an airport this summer. The book is frankly a mess, but it kept me engaged and interested during every lag in our trip.

“Hey, I was the one who kept you engaged and interested. Why do you think I even went along?”

For example, there was this one time when we were waiting for a train in the middle of absolutely nowhere (and by that, I mean Csopak, Hungary). We had 40 minutes and nothing but fields and a pub we couldn’t afford to eat in to keep us occupied.

Katka decided to go exploring. I stretched out on the grass, kicking off my shoes and diving into Chomsky’s oversimplified opinion of world affairs.

For the most part, Katka and I spent every waking minute together, rambling through the countryside and cityscapes of the former Habsburg Empire. But there were moments when we both needed a break from traveling – be it for the sake of our feet, our minds, “Or our mental health” – and during those moments, I’m so glad I was willing to lug around a book.

STUDENT ID

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From the Rose Garden in Vienna.

This may be one of those things you just don’t think to bring, especially if you are on summer break and would like to think about school never, ever again.

However, we would like to proposition the thought that taking advantage of that otherwise useless and bureaucratic piece of plastic may be the best decision you can make as a traveler (assuming, you are in fact a student).

Where did that ID get us? Into museums, onto buses, and into the sympathetic hearts of people hoping a more educated generation will not screw the world up as badly as we’re likely to.

Okay, cynicism aside, the ID was great. And worth stuffing into your wallet.

“I don’t want to say anything about student ID’s. I hate student ID’s. My picture is the stupidest ever and I just want to forget about it.”

RUNNING SHOES

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Hungarian roadside fowers.

I know what you’re thinking, or rather, how hard you’re laughing. Go running? On vacation? Or, like, ever? Ha. Hahahaha.

No.

HOWEVER, running did several important things for us.

“Really? Like what?”

It got us out of our hostel when we weren’t sure what else to do. When it’s hot and sticky and Budapest or Bratislava feels like the inside of a closed honey jar that’s been left out in the sun, it’s easy to think that waiting life out in your hostel is the best possible option.

But pushing yourself through a run will give you a good look at your new city and you’ll probably find the only breeze available (depending on how fast you run, of course. My run is a like a limpy trot, so not a lot of breeze there).

And you’ll cover a lot more ground than you would have otherwise. Go running on the first day. Get a glimpse of what’s out there to see. Then go back and walk through it all later.

“Also, going running will make you feel like a hero. I feel like a hero. And now my legs look nicer.”

HAND SANITIZER

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The view from a shore on Lake Balaton, Hungary.

Like, I shouldn’t even have to be telling you this. Hopefully this is already on your packing list. But if it’s not, it should be. The road is a dirty place and clean water, soap and towels are grossly underappreciated in America because we don’t realize that the rest of the world doesn’t just give them out for free.

So yeah, hand sanitizer.

That’s all I have to say.

(“If you’re Mary, you’ll bring like eight, at least. You always had hand sanitizer. Remember when that one crazy woman spit on you on the bus? And then you like bathed yourself in sanitizer? And people thought you were weird?”)

. . . That’s all I have to say.

SOMETHING FOR A FRIEND

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Katka and I not killing each other in Budapest.

I brought my crazy intense rucksack (“Oh, I thought you were gonna say ‘friend’”) because I am an American and I believe one should go big or go home. This meant that many of Katka’s belongings ended up temporarily or permanently housed in my pack. Things like running shoes, changes of clothes, weird food things and like, a lot of flack for it all.

Occasionally, during our semi-regular spats (which are par for the course when you travel with one person for more than two days), I considered dumping her things into the Danube or giving them to someone homeless and in need.

We’d walk the streets of wherever – Vienna or Brno – not talking because, you know, friendship tensions. (“Friendship tensions? I can’t believe you said that. Rude.”) Katka would be a half-mile ahead of me and I’d be meandering behind at my own jolly pace (carrying the 80 pound rucksack, mind you, darling). The streets would float away beneath my feet like a stream and I just had to keep following. And I realized anew in every city that we probably wouldn’t be getting lost. Because Katka knows what the heck she’s doing. It’s a new feeling for me, to get to follow the leader and not worry about where we’re going or how we’ll get there. In exchange for an extra pound or two of luggage, Katka lifted a huge weight off my mind. It was a fair trade.

“I can’t believe you’re saying nice things about me. Who are you?”

If you can help your travel buddies carry something, it should be the very least you do for them.

A SENSE OF ADVENTURE

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Vienna’s beautiful roses.

We’re interpreting this one broadly. Adventure could be the cheese we left in our bag for three days. It could be the liter of ginger ale we picked up in the Hungarian lake region. It could be wet clothes we repacked because we had no choice (honestly, 90 degrees all week and it rains the one day we decide to do laundry? What is life?). A sense of adventure, where the rucksack is concerned, is a go-with-the-flow kind of attitude and it has as much to do with you as with your pack (obviously).

Throw caution to the winds. Buy the sandwich. (“The sandwich? More like that whole bottle of wine we took down in Budapest.”) Bring the extra shoes. Carry the extra weight because it will make your back stronger and your memories … um, more intense?

It’ll be worth it. We promise.

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Lost in Budapest

We rang the doorbell a second time. After bouncing on anxious toes for a minute, we heard the crackly voice of a man over the intercom.

“Hello?”

I raced to the speaker right above the doorbell, both set into the old stone of a doorframe in Budapest, Hungary. It was almost midnight and it was still hot out.

“We have reservations for a room here but our bus was late and we missed check-in,” I said, the words hurrying out on a wave of concern.

“Sorry, hotel is closed,” said the man.

“No, but we have reservations,” I said. I could feel my blood pressure surging.

I’m getting pretty good at traveling. Contrary to what one might think, being good at traveling is not the ability to get from one place to another in a seamless fashion. Rather, it is the ability to remain seamless in composure as one encounters every conceivable disaster that inevitably accompanies leaving one’s comfort zone. Coming to Europe this summer, I was delayed for three hours in an airport, nearly missed a connection in Iceland, almost lost my luggage in Berlin and barely caught my bus to Prague, all while shouldering a 35 pound rucksack (how to pack a rucksack should be a post in itself). But what amazed me was how easy it all was. The last three years must have made me immune to the gut-churning, heart-pounding, eye-watering feeling of being lost (“It should be called being ‘creatively misplaced,’” a friend in Athens once told me). I have been creatively misplaced a lot.

But not having a room to sleep in at midnight in a strange city was a first for me.

There was no response on the intercom so my friend and I assumed he had hung up on us.

Katka and her family agreed to let me stay with them while I’m in Prague. She and I decided to take a week to see parts of Europe neither of us has been to yet.

Bratislava and Budapest

The bus that morning had taken us from a city we both consider home to the neighboring town of Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. Bratislava is nice enough, but it’s not Prague, and by 6:30 that evening we were on another bus headed for Budapest.

This was not a city I ever planned on going to. Three years ago I would have written it off completely (and did, several times), in the hopes of traveling to more refined locations like Rome, Madrid, Dresden, whatever. Budapest sounded like a ragtag city for wandering yuppies.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

-Ernest Hemingway

A little window slid open in the heavy wooden door we were standing beneath letting a broken beam of pale light out into the dark street.

“Hotel is closed, not open till weekend,” said the man from the intercom, who looked as blearily grumpy in person as his voice had suggested.

“But we have reservations,” I said again, a small whimper escaping my chapped lips.

“New hotel. Not open till weekend,” he repeated before shutting the window in our faces and taking with him the only real light on the street.

Katka and I looked at each other. We both enjoy a healthy dose of adventure, but this was a quite a spoonful and there didn’t seem to be anything sweet to help it go down.

We were both hot, sweaty, tired and sore (I’m in the middle of cross country training right now and Katka is making sure I get my miles in, so neither of us can feel our legs, which makes walking a difficulty).

“What do we do now?” asked Katka, her enormously large blue eyes blinking up at me with question and a trace of annoyance.

I had one job. Literally one. Book the hostel.

“Let’s walk back down the street,” I said. “Maybe we missed something.”

Back down the block, past the sleeping bums who had curled up in front of doorways, past the Sir Lancelot night club that seemed to be open but deserted, past the rows of silent trees and silent cars, past two taxi drivers…

Taxi drivers?

Taxi drivers know everything. If I ever decide to take over the world, I’m building my secret service entirely out of taxi drivers and waiters.

Katka doesn’t like taking the lead on talking to people we don’t know (because she’s smart and likely to be the last of the two of us to get kidnapped and murdered), so I walked up to the two men who seemed to be having a comfortable chat, leaning against the side of their cars.

One of them was thin and wiry, dragging on a cigarette, clothes too big for his frame. The other had a beefy belly and thick arms. His eyes seemed much more alert but a lot less kind. Neither seemed dangerous, but that was probably just because they were wearing capris.

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“Hi,” I said, approaching the duo, realizing that this too was something I would not have been comfortable doing three years ago. “We’re looking for our hostel but it’s not here.”

They spoke no English and the only Hungarian I have picked up so far is the word “Yes,” which I’m still fairly certain I’m mispronouncing.

But, like knights with glistening armor and gleaming swords, they came to our rescue. They talked amongst themselves for a moment before the skinny one pulled out his phone and looked up where our hostel should have been. He followed our well-beaten path down to the end of the block, had the same conversation with our grouchy doorman (but this time in Hungarian), and stopped some random guy entering his apartment to ask about the hostel (that dude didn’t speak Hungarian or English and we were all just like, well, okay, great then).

He made several phone calls, pulled up a number of webpages and addresses on his phone, showing me each in turn so I knew what valiant steps he was taking to help us.

Finally back at the taxi, the larger man gave his friend the smile that said, I think it’s cute that you found these two little strays, but you’re going to have to put them back where you found them eventually.

“We should just go to the McDonald’s and get internet,” said Katka. Neither of us have data and we both hate ourselves so much for it.

I offered our hero 1000 HUF (which is like two and half cents in USD, but infinitely cooler than American currency because they’re called forints, guys). He declined rather profusely and we scooted on our way so he could shuffle in the passengers coming up to the car. I hope he had a bumper night. I also hope one day he gets a castle.

The McDonald’s was basically a castle itself. Three floors overlapping each other with balconies and weird jetties decked with tables and booths climbed downward toward the register in center of the building like and inverse Mayan temple.

An unpleasant security guard (and the only unfriendly Hungarian I have met thus far) told us to order food before we used the internet (which, honestly, would have been reasonable to ask if he hadn’t done it with such lip). We got a large orange juice and pulled up our hostel booking.

“Oh no,” I said, feeling my stomach fall through my seat. “Katka, you will not believe what I did.”

“Really?” she said, calmly sipping the orange juice and looking up other hostels in the area. “Because at this point I think I’ll believe anything.”

“I booked the wrong day,” I said. “I guess I didn’t take into account that we wouldn’t be staying overnight in Bratislava. It was so last minute.”

Katka didn’t need excuses or explanations. She needed a place to sleep and a refill on the orange juice. The least I could do was the orange juice.

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When I came back with a second cup, she had found us a place to stay. Because she’s awesome.

“We might as well stay here the whole trip,” she said. “Can you cancel the other booking?”

I did, swallowing bitterly the 19 EUR deposit I had already paid for.

Once more, we shouldered our packs.

Our new digs were pretty nice and right in a lively pub area where lights and faint chatter carry out onto the street late into the night.

When Budapest woke us up the next morning, we were ready to meet it.

Coincidentally, this hostel (LOL Hostel, for those curious) serves the greatest cup of coffee I have tasted on this continent. Ever.

Budapest is beautiful, as can be expected. We lazed around in a Turkish bath for most of the scorching afternoon, found a quaint little spot for lunch, took a couple of pictures. Took a nap.

When the sun went down, Katka and I both strapped on our running shoes and headed down to the river.

We run at different paces (mine being a bit of a wobble at the moment, and Katka’s rather resembling that of a Cheetah racing to take down something small and innocent). I started off well enough, but she passed me quickly. I looked down at my phone and liked my time (I’m on Nike+ Running if anyone wants to add me – let’s race!). I’m learning that we all go at our own pace. If life is a competition, it is only with ourselves.

Around me, the city was aglow with the love-struck fever of summertime. Couples sat along the stone retainer on the river, their feet hanging over the edge. Families strolled along the path that runs along the bank and bikers and backpackers rested their weary limbs on the benches overlooking the water.

Night had transformed the murky green waters of the Danube into hushed currents of dark indigo that reflected lights from the ferries traversing the river between banks of shadows. A tram crossed over the glistening Chain Bridge, each window lit so that as it slid through the dark it looked like a procession of druids floating through the evening. The castle stood above it, still and lustrous.

Budapest surprised me with its beauty, its culture, its sense of self.

I finished my run with a new personal best time (don’t get excited, folks — my personal best is like a quick walk at this point). Katka was waiting for me on the bank of the river, her own run long completed. We both knew our legs would be sore in the morning.

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As a kid, I always wanted to be a traveler. As a teenager, I always wanted to be a runner. It’s taken a long time, but I’m finally turning into a bit of both.

Nothing else of who I am has been what I expected. I was hoping to turn into someone elegant and refined, much like this cities I once wanted to visit. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and wonder how on earth I ended up being this somewhat clumsy, somewhat lost, very self-deprecating anti-romantic with two half jobs and a tattoo. Sometimes I worry that I turned into the wrong person. Why am I not Paris? Why am I not Rome?

Maybe these are the critical musings of every twenty-something as we struggle to meet our own expectations in the face of a reality we hadn’t planned on.

But this week I realized that I am not as afraid as I used to be. I’m not afraid of getting lost, of losing things, of making mistakes. Because I’ve done all that. And this restless wanderer I have turned into has also made me stronger, bolder and insatiably curious.

So I feel a little like Budapest today, and it’s a nice surprise.