Katie Thompson is a student at the University of Michigan and an ISA Featured Blogger. Katie is currently studying and participating in service-learning abroad with ISA in San Jose, Costa Rica on a Summer Study + Service-Learning program.
Packing to live abroad is a nightmare. It is impossible to get it exactly right; you will pack things you will never use, and there will be that item sitting pretty in your room at home that is exactly what you realize you need a week into your trip.
The problem is you don’t know everything you’ll need, so as you’re packing you think “what if I need this?” Many girls, and anyone who’s seen the Jenna Marble’s video How Girls Pack A Suitcase, will know what I’m talking about. The first time you live abroad you are especially susceptible to this over-packing danger. When I studied abroad in Spain I packed way to much, and this was after I took 15 pounds worth of stuff out of my bag on the way there! Although I’ve fared better my second time around, for here in Costa Rica, I still fell to this dangerous over-preparedness syndrome. So here are a few tips I’ve learned that might help you out:
What to Pack
- A Belt – When you’re clothes don’t go through a dryer they don’t shrink back down. Also, you will have different eating and exercising habits, so you might just shed a few pounds. It’s easy to buy a belt, but it’s a small thing to pack and can be useful.
- Bags – First of all, you should bring a purse; even if you want to buy one there you’ll need one to tide you over until you get it. Second of all, a backpack is extremely useful; you can pack it full for weekend trips. A carry-on can work for weekend trips, especially in Europe, but won’t do for other places. My carry-on is practically useless in Costa Rica, but a backpack works great. Third of all, depending on how long you are staying abroad, you might want to pack an extra luggage bag. After being abroad for six months I had to buy another bag there to bring back all my souvenirs/presents for people. This last one isn’t necessary, but it’s something to think about.
- Shoes that are nearing the end of their cycle. If your tennis shoes are good enough to get you through your time abroad (a rough time abroad, mind you, you’ll be on your feet a lot), then bring them and throw them out before you return home. This concept works for anything, really, clothes, shoes, bags. Don’t worry you’ll have cute new things to replace them. And whenever anyone back home says “Oh, what a cute dress/shoes/bag,” you’ll get to reply, “Thanks, I got them in insert awesome corner of the world”.
What Not to Pack
- Heels – They’re so cute, and you want to hit the night scene, but they weigh a lot and, guess what, you’ll hardly wear them. There is a lot of walking involved while living abroad, and the sidewalks aren’t always going to be in great shape (and by aren’t always I mean practically never). In Spain it was uneven cobblestones, in Costa Rica it’s cracked sidewalks. It’s so hard not to pack them I even fell prey to this again. If you must pack heels, take only one pair. Better yet, don’t pack any and buy a cute pair abroad. Just trust me on this one.
- Too Many “American” Clothes – You’re going to want pictures in your university’s t-shirt, and tennis shoes are necessary for hiking, just don’t expect to wear things like this all the time. Athletic clothes and t-shirts with your sports team’s logo or Greek letters or anything from the States are going to stick out. You can wear them, but you’ll likely gravitate towards clothes that don’t make you stick out as much. Also, even though people may wear the exact same kind of clothing or shoes that you have, it will look different on you because you are American and they are natives.
- Clothes that Stain – If you are in a home-stay you have no control over your laundry. You will likely not even have the option of doing your laundry yourself. Everything can and will be thrown in together, and if you have something that bleeds, beware. Every host mom is different, so this might never become an issue, but I’ve had clothes stained both times I’ve lived in a host family. Also, your whites will end up greyer due to the differences in washing abroad. While you’re packing just keep in mind that everything you wear might be thrown in together to be washed.
Specific to Costa Rica
- Formality-wise – People here are not as formal as you would think. On the street almost everyone wears jeans. As for the service-learning part of my program (if you’re participating on a Study + Service-Learning program like me) it varies, but for many of the placements it is a lot less formal than the intro packet suggests. Casual Friday seems to be the norm for a lot of the placements here. Sun-dresses aren’t common, so you might look out of place, but they work great for the heat.
- Rain-wise – It’s the rainy season right now, and let me tell you it’s aptly named. An umbrella is a requirement, but it is really easy to buy one here, especially if you want a throw-away umbrella you won’t have to bring back home. As for a raincoat, don’t bring a big, bulky one. It’s rarely cold enough to want a coat, and an umbrella will take care of most of your rain-protection needs. However, you will go on rainforest hikes and the like, so a light raincoat can be useful.