Gearing Up For Bhutan: One Perspective on packing for International Travel

As I have shared in the past, traveling across the world presents some special and very unique challenges when weight limits are less than 40 pounds.  In fact, I am fascinated by the fact that much of what we carry is often redundant to our experience.  In years past, I have taken both too much and too little.  Getting just the right balance takes some practice.

Traveling minimally and well requires practice.  Most of that practice can happen at home in a bedroom, packing and repacking clothing, gear, and etc.  The thing is, however, we often make the same choices over and over again often refusing to limit the numbers of shirts, pants, or skirts we take along for the ride.  My daughter says, “I need choices!”  Exactly!  Yet having too many choices can lead us to a more stressful experience once the travel has begun!

The trick is to take exactly what you need and not one thing more.  Literally not one thing more.

I start with the best bag for travel.  The one that I settled on is the EBAG.  The site I use is and it includes just about everything you need to pack efficiently.  Similarly, I have used the web site One Bag to hone my packing skills.  Combing these two sites and the information included, I have been able to pack well for a three week trip using one bag.

The bag I use is the TLS Motherlode Weekender (yea, I know).  Here is what this bag has that others do not…or at least, do not do as well:  an outside front pocket for easy access to papers, journals, pens, etc.  An inner sleeve for a laptop or other large electronic device.  Top pocket for essentials.  A single open space used for packing all clothing and etc. The other nice feature is that the backpack straps completely disappear in a inner pocket, making the bag easy to toss on the top of a bus or van when you have to make sure that your bag doesn’t get hung up on someone else’s luggage.

TLS Motherlode Weekender


Notice that FRONT pocket?  Nice feature.


Notice how the interior has a mesh pocket on top and straps with a central fabric divider….I’ve never used the divider, and it lays flat for packing.

Interior View

The key, however, to packing well is packing cubes.  These lightweight, zippered containers make getting all of what you need IN the bag.

Check out the packing…efficient.

Using this method of packing cubes, the right bag, and the one bag approach to packing, you CAN get what you need in a bag that is easy to carry anywhere, anytime.

Can you see I’m already excited to get on the plane and head to Bhutan?  I begin my packing process months in advance, knowing what weather I will encounter and getting any items I need to make the trip easy for me.  As trip leader, that makes a huge difference in both my experience and the experience of my fellow travelers.  Making sure I have what is necessary positively impacts everyone’s trip.

Bicycling Kyoto

For the longest time I have wanted to bicycle around Kyoto and this year the plan is set.  Bicycling in Kyoto is one of the easiest ways to see the sights in the city and do it in such a way that you can be at street level everywhere.  Traveling by bicycle, in any city, is a way to actually see more and experience more than by walking or bus.  Here’s my reasoning; on a bicycle you can cover more ground than by walking AND since you are traveling a a reasonable speed, you have the chance to see what you are passing.  By bus, the city flies by from street to street and it’s hard to be a part of knowing the city well.

Ginkaku-ji Temple

In Kyoto, our plan is to ride to each of the sights on the plan by bike.  Our first ride will be from the bike rental shop on the Kamo-gawa River to Gingakuji Temple.  The park around the temple is wonderful and this trip gets our first step into traditional Japanese culture.

Kinkaku-ji Temple
Ryoan-ji Garden

Our second excursion will take us around the city proper and to a series of locations including Nijo Castle, the home of the Shoguns, then on to the Hirano Shrine and along the road to the famous Kinkakuji Temple.  From Kinkaku-ji we head to the wonderful Ryoanji temple and rock garden.  These sites are among the most visited in the city and are worth the time spent.  Along the way we will stop for snacks and make a leisurely day of being in this remarkable city,.

Of course, to participate in this adventure, you will need to be comfortable on a bicycle, be familiar with riding near traffic, and be careful to watch each other as we ride through the city.  Keep in mind that modest dress is required for the visiting some of these sites. (More on that later)

Medium Format Film Photography

I grew up in the film era.  By film, I mean film photography.  Sure, movies were (and some still are) constructed using film, however, my experience comes from shooting 35 and 120 MM black and white film.  While I have maintained my interest in and development of film, I was seduced by the dark side: digital photography for a while.  OK, so yea, digital photography is NOT some kind of short cut to photography; however, the lessons I learned in film photography are not necessarily inherent in digital photography…..with cameras that adjust for any light source or environmental conditions, the shot is all about the snapshot….with no concern for the number of shots left or cost, digital photography can expand into a near video shoot of still scenes.  Even the iPhone has a software feature that takes stills photos and gives them a slight video feel.

Beginning a few years I ago, I decided to re-establish my film photography.  I shot film in Japan in 2008 during a trip to the country and found the process really enjoyable.  I left behind the strong desire to “see” my instantaneous image and instead relied on my knowledge and instinct to grab the shot I wanted.  More recently, I committed to the Hasselblad and 120MM photography.  My partner gave me a Hasselblad 500 C/M as a wedding gift in 1997 and I am forever grateful for Katie opening the door to medium format photography.  The Hasselblad really forces me to slow my photographic process waaay down…I spend time using a light meter, framing the shot, and clicking off one of 12 stills on a single roll.

The other less talked about but equally important part of working with a medium format film camera is the weight of the beast.  With a 50MM lens attached to the camera, the Hasselblad weighs in at almost 6 pounds.  Add to that a bag to carry film, film backs, and an extra lens and BOOM serious weight considerations!  Just holding the camera is a real trick; on a recent trip, I noticed about 5 out of 60 shots completely out of focus….probably because of shaking during the shoot.

One of the more interesting parts of modern film photography is that IF you want to share images with folks electronically, you have to scan those images.  I’m lucky in that I have a place to develop my film for free; however, getting that film into digital form takes real effort.  A flatbed scanner is the cheapest solution, AND the time commitment is huge; in my case, roughly 3-5 minutes per scan!  Commercial scanning is available and runs roughly $20 per roll (with development)! Yikees!

Enough drivel for today; on to the show!  Included here are a few images from last summer’s trip to Japan and Bhutan.  I am still processing film and scanning images…these photos give you a glimpse into both the process and the place.

For those interested, all of these images were shot on Ilford HP5 in 120MM format with the Hasselblad 500 C/M, 80mm lens.




Asian Studies Program

Beginning with two travel opportunities next year, our History Department is developing an Asian Studies curriculum and travel based on studies in History, Language, and Science.  Our small group of intrepid scholars are working on a plan and, in particular, integrating curriculum with travel.

Beginning with the program started by the History department in 2006, the Language, History, and Science departments are gearing up for an elaborate program in China that involves curricular components with international travel.  With the trips to Japan and Bhutan, my goal was to design a program that involved learning culture, history, and language.  So, in the History department we integrated information in classes and in study outside of the classroom including parents and students in a rich learning environment.

Ying Ding, Mandarin teacher at our school, is following the model and expanding on it by including a wide variety of experiences and interactions with students and business leaders in China.  Beginning next year, this program will be in place and include students in the Mandarin program.

All of these ideas have helped focus and guide the international travel we are doing in the History department.  As a result, we are reframing international travel as a study program rather than as a trip to another country.  The difference is an important one.  Rather than touring in the traditional sense, we building a set of knowledge for students and parents about the places we visit and the people we encounter.  Our goal is more than seeing sites; it’s about engaging in dialogue and conversation.

So, in the upcoming travel to Japan and Bhutan, we will engage in the best of travel; meeting, talking, laughing, playing, all of the pieces of interaction that make an experience something worth being a part of.  That idea, in a nutshell, is the plan.

Planning: Bhutan 2018

I have a whole series of posts dedicated to my thread on the nature of mind.  Those posts will have to wait a while, as I work on my planning for international travel in 2018.  My original plan was to travel to Bhutan and Japan this summer with a small group of students.  Sadly, a couple of folks had to drop out making the travel almost impossible and prohibitively expensive.  As a result, we rearranged our plans for a summer 2018 trip.

Planning a trip to Asia takes a lot of time and a decent amount of pre-planning.  The time commitment includes finding places to stay, monitoring plane flights, and creating a daily plan for the trip.  Namgay at Illuminating Tours has been my go to trip expert in Bhutan and he and I work on a plan for travel that students will enjoy.  For Japan, all of the work comes from my own research and searches for the best possible experience for middle and high school students.

Planning a trip with students can be a daunting task.  Many of us use tours companies like EF or ACIS, or other groups to simplify the process.  While those companies offer great options, I am more interested in creating experiences that involve students getting to know a place.  That is one reason why when we travel to Japan, we stay in one location, getting to know a neighborhood, families who live there, and making daily decisions about what we want to do on that day.

This shift from packaged tours with large groups of people to small groups making adhoc decisions has been wonderful and stressful.  For example, being in a place and finding that the one place you planned to go to on that day is closed.   That approach is one of the risks of traveling with students internationally without a very specific itinerary in place.

My approach to planning, then, involves putting together an idea of what we can do and letting students and parents know that some of the things we planned may change.  For example, on a recent trip to Kyoto, the weather was so hot that we chose to avoid a long hike through the Arashiyama area and instead stayed closer to town.

When it comes down to it, I create international travel based on a couple of driving principles: can I offer students an experience that is unique and exceptional, and will that experience linger past the few days after we return home.  Simply put, I have made a lasting impact on the hearts and minds of the people who travel with me to Asia?

In 2018, we return to Kyoto and the home stay in the machiya district not far from Gion.  We will stay in the Juichi-an and Aotake-an residences.  In addition, I’ve scheduled a couple of bicycle tours of Kyoto which will allow us to see a bit more of the city.TGF_2673

Also, for this upcoming trip, the Bhutan piece will include a trip to Mongar and Lhuntse.  I want students to meet with weavers and connect with the folks who make their living from textiles.  This ancient practice transcends culture and time, extending back into the distant past.  Arguably, textile production was among the first types of production developed after intensive agriculture.  In many ways, intensive agriculture and textile production went hand in hand as communities developed.  In Bhutan, such production is spread across the country and some of the silk textiles made in Bhutan are produced in Lhuntse.  For some detailed information, check out: Lhuntse.

I will continue to update the plan for travel to Asia in the coming weeks.  The entire plan will be finalized by April.  More to come soon….