When I was preparing to go trekking in Nepal, it was the kind of trip I had never done before. It was my first ‘true’ solo travel, for one. I was going trekking in Annapurna for 10 days, for another. While I hike occasionally, trekking is not really my speed. I wasn’t even meeting up with volunteers this time, unlike in the Maldives.

On top of all that, I was going to traverse north India by train. How would I even start to think about a packing list for Nepal and India? 

I am grateful to have had the benefit of the network of travellers that I’ve come to know in just the past six months. Today, what with the internet and various social platforms, travel is so much more facilitated. Fellow travellers can so easily communicate and mediate trust between tourist and local businesses, at a level that was never possible before. 

Here are my key resources for the physically packing-the-backpack part:

New Zealand North Island | scenic train route
The last time I made a multi-destination independent trip was to New Zealand, and it was not solo.

But this article is not about the packing list for what I am carrying in my backpack.

I realised something while packing for my trip to Nepal. There were other things that I was thinking of, and preparing for; essentially, ‘packing’. But they aren’t physical things.

This blog article is about the parallel packing list – the things I am bringing to Nepal that aren’t in my backpack!

2017 in review: How I became a solo female traveller

2017 verges on the miraculous, if I stop and think about it. If I’d thought that my Blue Period brought an astonishing rate of evolution, that was as nothing compared to this year.

I can’t quite recall at what point I resolved to go trekking in Annapurna. It can’t be much more than half a year ago. Certainly, the decision to cut across Uttar Pradesh afterwards – picking up both Varanasi and Delhi – was no earlier than that.

And it all happened because I took it into my head, that I would go to Easter Island for my birthday later this year.

She has gone mad!

…is what people would say if they weren’t secretly convinced I already am.

Indeed, to most people who knew me from before I completed my Blue Period, this recent spate of activity must seem out of the norm. And it is.

But, it’s also not.

This is actually what I had always done, in my mind – but could not do in practice, because of limitations. Not necessarily financial limitations or time; push came to shove, I could manage both. But I had different limitations – of mindset, and a secret social debilitation.

And I am growing beyond them.

All the new things – bring in on!

This trip is different from all my previous trips. It’s true, even though I played it down to my anxious mother.

Yes, I’ve travelled alone before – but never for this long (1 month!), and never to places generally admitted to be… let’s say, ‘indifferently supportive’ of one’s independent travel plans.

Yes, I had gone backpacking once, and had begun to dabble back into it. (And pleasantly surprised by the truly impressive backpack technical design that has happened in the interim. Did you know that circa the beginning of my Blue Period, it was not possible to buy women’s outdoor technical apparel and gear in Malaysia? They were often simply not sold.) But I can’t say that I am used to it, yet.

And while I have stayed at hostels before, it was only infrequently. Certainly I’ve not done it in the time after I began to feel like I have ‘caught up’. This would be my test.

Not to mention that I’m going trekking – did I mention over 10 days?? Even though I would have the assistance of a guide and porter, and I’m not in terrible shape, this is possibly the longest duration trek that I will have done. Certainly it’s the first time in the mountains. Where it’s cold. Even in August. And I am famously cold-unresistant.

New Zealand South Island | old mining town cliffside
Even New Zealand of nearly summer was cold

And then there’s the India part.

There’s a reason why India – the popular India – had previously not been at the top of my bucket list.

Oh, it’s on the list. Just not at the top of it. Crowds and introverts don’t really mix. And the part of India that I’m going to is famously dense, in multiple shades of the word and all that it means. Physically, emotionally, spiritually – dense in human energy. Though I’ve grown steadily more tolerant of it over the years, it’s still daunting.

And I’m going specifically to Varanasi and Delhi. Varanasi, which even my Indian expat colleague hesitantly and diplomatically warned me is very…. Indian, and are you sure?

Then there’s crossing the border between Nepal and India, by land. This may sound funny but I’ve never crossed international borders by land*. (Malaysia to Singapore does not really count. Nor that time when I went to the Wang Kelian border market, which may technically cut across the Thai border).

And while I’ve taken the train to places before, I’ve never done so for such a distance, alone, in an unfamiliar country.

In short, I can’t exactly say for sure that I can do any of these things. Let alone all of them, within the same trip.

The old me would have been held back by this lack of evidence. 

Perlis limestone hills on the horizon | Malaysia
What lies beyond?

Mak, Akak pergi berkelana*

What I can say, though, is that throngs of others have done it before me. And once I found some of these others and reached out, they have come through wonderfully. The knowledge even enabled me to take questions from concerned stakeholders like a PR rep.

No, I don’t need to wait to have someone come with me. I might meet up with people on the way who would. And if I don’t, that’s fine as well.

No, I don’t need to report at the Malaysian embassy in Kathmandu any more than I would do it if I were to go to Canada intending to visit Banff. I will be with Nepali people for most of it.

Yes, India is perfectly doable for a solo female traveller. The cultural norms, sensitivities and risks aren’t that far off for a Southeast Asian to understand. I have friends supplying me information to be prepared.

We are out of time for further questions.

How we perceive risk defines who we are.

Back in the day, before being colonised, the peoples of the Malay archipelago were voyagers. Granted, this was more applicable for the men than the women, due to the hazardous realities of those times. Nonetheless, having supplied the first woman admiral of the world, it cannot be said that there is a difference in spirit between Nusantara men and women.

Oftentimes something feels far too risky simply because we’ve not done it before, and don’t know anyone who has. Or we are fooled by biases about places and people that make us trust them less than others, even for pretty much the same circumstances. We distrust first, until there’s evidence to say otherwise.

There are probably good survival reasons for this norm to become the dominant one in many places. 

You could look at the sea, fear drowning and say, the sea is too dangerous – never approach it. Sure, that works.

Or you could understand the sea, learn to sail on it – even dive into it. And the world expands to the horizon.

A voyager nation exists because long ago, they had chosen the latter.

Residential street in Dhiffushi atoll | the Maldives
Street in Dhiffushi, a village on a tiny atoll surrounded by the Indian Ocean

Travelling inherently involves having to do new things, on the fly.

Therein lies travel’s value for accelerating maturity – because maturity involves being prepared to possibly having to do Very Important Things while possibly being insufficiently ready. (I have the sneaky suspicion that school prepares you for this by constantly putting you in exams for which you can never be sufficiently prepared. In this alternative reality, A students actually fail the deeper meaning of school, precisely by being successfully prepared for exams.)

The post-industrial human civilisation lays upon us the belief that life can be fully controlled and predicted, and that certain Important Things must never even be thought about until one is 100% ready, secure, and sure. Like marriage, or parenting.

How much negativity and confusion has been bred from such false pretensions! It isn’t true, and has never been true.

The truth is, nobody is every truly ‘ready’ for these things. The notion of waiting until you’re ‘ready’, that first you must have achieved this, or acquired that, or be earning such, before you can do milestone life things, is an illusion. The only ‘ready’ you need to be, is in your mind, and in your heart. 

It’s just another journey.

A very great one, certainly. But a journey nonetheless. You just need a packing list of some kind. Then find out you packed some really pointless crap, and try to exchange them or toss things out. Pick other things up along the way which are more useful, hope for the best. And be committed enough to ride through any storm.

Or be shipwrecked, cast ashore, and somehow – be equally committed to start again.

It’s life. How you travel it, is your character writ.

My unusual parallel packing list for Nepal (and India)

This ‘packing list’ is based on the realisation that packing the most important things you will bring, begins long before you start packing the backpack.

So what are these intangible things that I packed?

Taking down measurements in the Western Ghats forest

Preparing to pack for trekking and solo backpacking

This comes the most naturally for me, even if I may not do some of them very competently. After all, surely setting out a plan, determining what capabilities and information you require, is obvious and natural. These are the things you know you need to do, irrespective of whether you are good at actually doing them or not!

1. Prepare your physical conditioning

It is so easy to become indolent when living an urban lifestyle, particularly in Kuala Lumpur. I never did have the mental fortitude to adhere to any kind of fitness regimen that’s much more than er, ad hoc.

However, I was well aware that I need to at least maintain a minimum level of conditioning so that I would be able to enjoy being in beautiful Annapurna while trekking it. What would be the point of being in a spectacular natural setting, and be half-blind from exhaustion?

Oh, and checking that I have all the vaccinations I needed, of course.

2. Prepare a packing list

No, I don’t mean what things are in the packing list, to be ticked off. I mean, the packing list itself.

You see, despite all my previous travels, I never sat down to write the ‘default’ things that are always in the nominal suitcase, and which would always be replaced/replenished.

But backpacking travel has no tolerance for things that aren’t really needed. And if I’m intending to become a more sustainable traveller, I need to begin auditing how I travel. Without a list to start with, I can’t examine the things that I use and begin making changes.

3. Tap into a travel network

I was honestly blown away by how much of my preparation was smoothened and enhanced by random other people. Other travel bloggers for instance, and a random Indian diver I met in Dhigurah just earlier in March. They gave me visibility for the opaque parts of my journey, and enabled me to get a good feel for contingency plans.

In addition, when I decided I wanted to do Nepal as sustainably as I can, I thought it would extend to just my personal habits, and maybe the trekking. But, through the network, at least the Nepal part looks like it would be much more sustainable and enriched than I ever expected it would be.

New Zealand South Island | sunset

The mental travel packing list for the solo traveller

The mental condition of the traveller, especially a first-time solo traveller, is more usually under-appreciated. It’s often taken for granted, particularly in parts of the world that reduces existence to just material movements, and disbelieves in the importance of consciousness.

But if you intend to learn and change, if you must enter a world where the most important skill is adaptation, then you must cultivate mental strength. When you no longer have the exoskeleton of your culture to form the moulds that you simply pour into and rely on for structure, you must be able to hold your own self up.

It is then that we know whether our claimed identity is truly ours, for if we cannot emanate it from our own selves, and require its form to be propped and approved from all around us, then that is not who we are. And we cannot learn to be another way, if we aren’t even anything right now.

Change requires owning your agency.

1. Cultivate self-belief

If a toddler dwelt on all the reasons why it should not be able to walk, no child would ever run.

But a toddler eventually walks. She identifies with the people around her who do walk, and assume that she must be able to, as well. Eventually.

Every new thing is mastered through one necessary first step: that you believe you are the person who does this thing. Believe first – and the proof will come later.

2. Trust in the universe

You can’t travel light without a mindset of abundance. And you can’t have a mindset of abundance without an inherent trust in the wider universe.

Indeed the world can be a dangerous place. But ultimately, it is we who keep each other safe. This is more so with a backpacking sort of travel, where you yield more to the personal hospitality of the host nation rather than simply buying the expectation of security through a travel package.

3. Visualise the trip beforehand

Never has this been so feasible than in the present age. Places and crossings and journeys are vividly described and reviewed, such that you can get a reasonable feel for quite a lot of things.

This is what made me feel able to contemplate braving the busy pilgrimage city of Varanasi, and the crowded megapolis of Delhi. It allowed me to make peace in advance with the risks of both transport options from Kathmandu to Pokhara. It allowed me to feel comfortable with personal care expectations on the trek.

Annapurna in the Monsoon Day 5: Entering the Sanctuary | Annapurna Sanctuary nature | Gurung religion and rituals | Chomrong market village | Annapurna sacred precincts | Insects and flowers of Annapurna | Chomrong to Bamboo | Annapurna Base Camp trekking | hiking in Nepal | Asian female trekking | Malaysian in Nepal | Teja on the Horizon
Annapurna in the monsoon

The emotional travel packing list for the sustainable traveller

To be honest this list did not cross my mind, until much closer to the trip.

I consider myself to be relatively aware of world and sustainability issues in general. I know that Nepal is not a materially rich country, and I know that there is a great inequality in India. So I think I’m not naïve.

Still, there’s something to be said about watching for hubris.

A friend of mine went to Lombok recently. Admirably, he first stayed in the local village instead of the town. He only did a couple days, and wrote a starkly honest narrative of his experience and his reactive feelings. A vivid blend of humanity and compassion, recoil and discomfort, fraternity and disquiet.

And it made me think. I know about these things. I know people who have seen it firsthand. Yet I remember, from a close-but-still-aloof distance I had felt a glimmering of such conflict before, on the lahar plains of Pinatubo. I have only rarely seen, personally, the marks of deep poverty at close hand – if ever.

I do not know for sure how I would respond, emotionally, if the realities I knew were to approach me firsthand from all around, as might be the case at some point on this trip. Would I see from my heart, or my gut? Or might I be beaten back to habitual responses by confusion and distress?

You can’t prepare for everything. I could try to practice lists of awareness skills, and rehearse scenarios with the full force of the latest discoveries in psychology. 

But on the road, you will forget complicated plans. It is the heart that needs to be schooled, in order that this becomes natural instead of rehearsed.

So I turn to my faith, for what is unconditional in conduct towards people. 

1. Good manners towards others is paramount

The very first teaching of orthodox Muslim schooling is surprisingly not theology, let alone ‘shariah law’ (last in the syllabus, by the way). You’d not know it, given how some communities are like these days, but the priority step is in fact adab – good manners.

It sounds easy. And like many ‘easy’ things, it is underestimated. Everyone likes to think they have good manners. But manners aren’t about what you do ‘correctly’, but more about how the other person feels as a result.

To maintain that effect under any circumstances? Not so easy, anymore.

Pretty sure we can all think back to the last encounter with a super annoying person who made you forget your best intentions. Pretty sure it wasn’t that long ago. (We’ve all been there, right?) 

2. Have patience with whatever happens

Patience with others, for the realities they may be coming from. Patience with myself, for mine.

I’m not by nature a patient person. In fact, pretty much anyone who knew me any longer than a few years ago, would vouch for the opposite. One might even say, trigger-happy temper. But a couple decades of Ramadan eventually tempered a restraint into even that, and the forge of the Blue Period finished the shift – well, to at least not being impatient.

I think it’s best I expect myself to remember only two things, under possible conditions of duress. Hopefully that makes it easier to choose an action, that maintains both.

I think I’m packed!

parallel packing list | mental preparation | Nepal and India | Teja on the Horizon


*2019 edit: I still haven’t done it. It was only after I was nearly finished with the Nepal segment of my trip that I realised my tourist visa to India was an e-visa. This meant that I needed to arrive via one of the listed entry points that could process the e-visa, so crossing the land border was not possible. I had to buy a plane ticket and arrive via Delhi, transiting through to Varanasi. A lot of unnecessary travel, just because I forgot about the visa restrictions! Luckily, I checked before I left for the border!

**Translation: Mother, I am going wandering. 

Carbon offset information for this Nepal & India trip

Visiting Nepal to trek in the Annapurnas, then entering India via Delhi in order to cross Uttar Pradesh the way I did, could have been done more efficiently had I realised I could not cross the land border before booking the train tickets and my flight home from Delhi. 

Anyhow, to do it the way I did, flights from Kuala Lumpur-Kathmandu, then Kathmandu-Pokhara-Kathmandu (because I did not dare go with a bus in the monsoon season), then Kathmandu-Delhi-Varanasi, and returning home from Delhi, produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,366 lbs CO2e. The train segment (Varanasi-Lucknow-Delhi-Agra-Delhi) produces carbon emissions of approximately 209 lbs CO2e.

The total costs about $18 to offset. 

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Pin image for packing list article for first time solo travel | mental health and emotional awareness
Nepal and India: My Parallel Packing List | Teja on the Horizon | travel preparation | mental preparation | emotional preparation | packing list | mental fortitude | female solo travel

7 Responses

  1. Awwn. I liked how you sectioned the post. It was an easy read and I was able to jot down. I never paid much attention to my emotional needs, no wonder I get a bit temperamental whenever I’m under fatigue.

    • Teja says:

      Self-care is important! Especially as a traveler, we are always surrounded by others – other travelers, hosts, and people in the countries we visit. And you know, you can’t be sensitive to the emotional needs of others unless you learn to manage your own.

  2. neha says:

    It was an interesting read. By the way, I am from India. And I always find it interesting to see someone’s perspective about it , someone who doesn’t hail from India. I can understand why you were warned about Varanasi. And about that border – I walked a road where houses on one side belonged to India and on the other side to Nepal. Now, that is called real human unity!

    • Teja says:

      Hahah it must be so strange to you, that people are nervous about things so normal for you! But I guess, I could have written this for a lot of destinations – Easter Island, Peru, Mexico, Namibia… (did I just give away my bucket list?)

  3. Penny says:

    How we perceive risks tells us who we are. How we react to risks defines us!
    You are one hell of an inspiring lady. Nothing is ever going to get you down! I’m sure Nepal is going to be just fine.

    • Teja says:

      Hahah! Thanks! Rains forecast for a week at least! Those waterproof hiking pants I bought better be for real!

  4. Lydia Smith says:

    Thanks for this infotmative post. I’ll try to emulate your steps to see if I can achieve my goals of being a sustainable traveler

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