Spending my Saturday!

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Usually our Saturdays are spent adventuring in mountains, exercising etc. But today Eduardo had to stay at his mom’s jewelry store all day so I stayed at the house all day.

I researched social work in Mexico. Finally, after days and days of researching I found what I had been looking for forever: the facts about how many social workers are employed in Mexico and generally where they are employed.

Then it started pouring and I had the pleasure of running to check all over the house to make sure that nothing was getting wet. I found an expensive, giant stereo being soaked by rain – that was moved 🙂

I have also been able to play with Cleo, a little scared mutt that Eduardo’s family has. She is so sweet, but is almost always terrified of people. I have gotten her to climb on me, let me pick her up.

Overall a good day!

PS: I also finished my blanket a few weeks ago!IMG_4173

 

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Day Trip to Naolinco!

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Eduardo and I decided to visit Naolinco this past Friday. This little Pueblo Mágico is very cute. During the weekday mornings the town is quiet, cool, with a bit of sun. Avoid Naolinco in the afternoons; it tends to rain. When I say ‘rain’, I really mean it pours, the streets become rivers, and you will be stuck wherever you are when the rain started.

But one of the reasons I love this little town is that it is a perfect little getaway for a day. There are some restaurants, a lot of shopping, some hiking if that is what you would like to do, and some cultural festivities if you time your visit right.

First, the journey to Naolinco from Xalapa. If you are in Xalapa, you will go to the ATB Bus Terminal near El Centro and go to the ticket counter. Ask for the Direct route to Naolinco – it has limited extra stops along the way, making it the faster route. This generally leaves on the half hour, but you can also take the indirect route, which takes just a bit longer. Climb on board, and enjoy the 1.5 hour bus ride through the Mexican wilderness. I take Dramamine for every trip. The curves and hills and falls in the road just make me so sick. When you arrive to the terminal, head left, right and straight for a few blocks and you will be el zócolo of Naolinco.

If you are looking for a place to eat, you can start with Doña Josefina. This restaurant opens with a mountain of native sweets, like jamoncillo (a Mexican fudge made with nuts) that is molded like marzipan into animals, corn cobs (elotes), etc., ate (fruit gelatin), coconut shapes with other flavors and rolled in sugar, and coconut filled figs (higos). They also sell fried chiles and pork. Doña Josefina is renowned for these sweets, as well as for mole. I really enjoyed the gordita that I ate!

Naolinco is also a great place to:

– Purchase suede/cured skin/leather for any projects, like knife sheaths, bracelets, bags etc.

– Purchase leather goods like shoes, boots, belts, purses, wallets, literally, anything

– See the waterfalls

– Eat good, local food

LYCHEES!

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Hello everyone!

I thought I would never get real lychees again, unless I flew back to Vietnam. In Mexico, you can often find ‘lychees’ – really longans – from street venders. They are very delicious, but lychees are my favorite.

Longans

Lychees/rambutans

 

Some recommendations for purchasing fruit off the street:

–  Venders will first give you the price for a half kilo of lyches/rambutans/longans. I feel comfortable paying 15 – 20 pesos for a half kilo.

– When you get home, wash the lyches/rambutans/longans either with anti-microbial disinfectant, or just plain dish soap, with some warm water. Rinse well.

– Peel the fruits and enjoy 🙂

Mexican Comida: Dos, Don’ts, and Disfrútenla

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(Disfrútenla = Enjoy the food!)

Living under a budget and in the apartment with Eduardo, it has not been necessary or economical to eat out. But this experience has still left me with some recommendations when it comes to food. Now, every region in Mexico has its own cuisine, their own names for food (sometimes the same food, just with a different name), and the recommendations I may provide here are focused on the Xalapa/Veracruz region.

Salsa roja – This is a salsa made with red types of chiles. I find it spicier, and less satisfying than other salsas, though really that observation is based on lack of exposure. It is equally as delicious as all the other salsas. Salsa roja will come as either a liquidy salsa, kind of like salsa in the U.S., or as a ground, thicker salsa (the consistency of mustard).

Salsa verde – I love salsa verde, the liquidy U.S. salsa type. I love the flavor, and it can be less or super spicy.

Salsa chipotle – A sweeter type of salsa, usually orange or brown, and the mustard consistency type.

Be careful with salsas. I know there will be some hotshots out there (pun intended) that think they can take SPICEY. You know nothing about spicy until you have eaten something with spice you were not expecting. Taste just a little bit before piling the salsa on your food.

My favorite food here is gorditas/picadas. They are rounded tortillas with sides (made like a boat) and cooked in oil, topped with salsa roja/verde, frijoles, queso, chicken – almost anything really. I love them because they always taste wonderful, wherever you order them, and they are pretty much made the same wherever you order them. *Please see photo below; these are true gorditas/picadas*

Un tamal; los tamales – Anywhere in Mexico, tamales will be delicious. You can have any kind, traditional or unique – that is, chile and frijole, or pizza. You can also have dessert tamales – my favorite being coconut. I would feel safe eating these from restaurants, or from trusted homes. It is made with maza, a dough made with ground corn flour, and can include just about anything, the most common that I know are salsa verde/roja, frijole, pork or chicken.The maza is then wrapped up in a corn husk or other leaf, tied shut, and steamed/boiled until cooked. It is not a good tamal if you do not get to unwrap it yourself.

Pozole – This is a very rich soup/stew that is more like a delicacy. It is commonly made for important occasions and uses quite a lot of ingredients, including radishes, chickpeas, and lime juice. You eat it with tostadas/corn chips. It is tasty, but I would never really choose to order it at a restaurant.

Tacos – Do no confuse tacos you buy from TacoBell, or the boxed tacos you buy from the supermarket, with REAL FRICKEN TACOS. Real tacos come with a soft corn tortilla, usually smaller – the size of a large palm – opened flat with meat, onions, cilantro, and fresh squeezed lime juice to taste. If you want to have a delicious taco experience, order tacos al pastor. Pastor is a seasoned meat that is lumped up and cooked over an open flame, usually with pineapple juice dripping over it, sliced to taco order. It is so yummy. Do not forget to squeeze those lime slices; it makes all the flavor difference in the world.

Enchiladas/enfrijoladas/enmoladas – Again, do not confuse what you make in your U.S. home with real enchiladas/enfrijoladas. Enchiladas are tortillas filled with chicken, cheese or other meat, fried, and soaked with a chile sauce. Enfrijoladas are the same, but soaked in frijoles. They will look like teeny tiny burritos in a load of salsa verde/roja, or beans, and topped with shredded cheese. *Do not confuse either of the aforementioned dishes with enmoladas, or the above, but instead slathered and drowned in the spice-filled sauce called ‘mole’. *See mole described below*  This picture below is of enchiladas with salsa verde.

Mole – This is a special sauce that comes in MANY varieties, the best being Xiqueño (from Xico) and Poblano (from Puebla). Mole is a thick sauce made from ground chiles, spices, fruits, tomatoes, nuts, sugar, you name it, mole contains it. The many varieties differ in ingredients (upwards of 30/40/50 ingredients), and flavor, from chocolatey, to vinegar, to pure sugar. The color will also vary depending on the ingredients. *I do not like eating mole. Many of the restaurants put so much mole on one plate, with just a little bit of chicken, or a few enmoladas. I become OVERWHELMED by the sauce. However, if you come to Mexico, you should try it at least one…maybe off another person’s plate, the one person who decides to order it…*

If you are ordering a sandwich/torta/baguette just be careful what it comes with (lettuce, tomato, onions). You can almost NEVER be sure that a restaurant has effectively disinfected the vegetables. You may get sick. Also, never and I do mean NEVER purchase a pre-made sandwich from a street vendor or small side store/tienda. They could be sitting out in the heat for goodness knows how long, with mayo and cheese and meat just sweating in bacteria. Tortas made with cuernos, or soft, buttery, slightly sweet bread baked into a croissant shape are delicious, buy tons if you are not sure what to eat. Below is a standard cuernito, but it can come in very many different forms.

My favorite eating past-time/pasatiempo is drinking some café/coffee with some sweet breads. My two favorites are chamucos, a cookie like sweet called the devil, and piñon, a type of sweet bread that is shaped like a ball, etched with a patchwork of ridges, rolled in sugar on the outside, and filled with a brown sugar crumble. A bakery will never fail you. There you will find your pies, cakes, cookies, pan dulce for tea and coffee, the croissant-like cuernos and cuernitos, sandwich bread, chocolate cupcakes.

Or go in search of snacks/snaks/bocadillos. The Xalapa area has some delicious snacks. Some you may think to avoid, but really, they are yummy. There are vendors of sliced fruit and jicama (a flavorless white fruit vegetable); the fruit is good, fresh, but unless you want some spicy, don’t use the spicy salsa they offer. You can get fresh fried potato chips, churros, or salted nuts, candies, or puffed potato snacks rolled in red power (usually tasty, sometimes spicy). While snacks can sometimes have some seriously questionable looks and name flavors, they are yummy.

Ice cream. It is always delicious. They sell it in the street, and in any and all flavors, and it is creamy and delicious. If you want it in a store, search for nevería, like Tepoznieves or Michoacan.

Use these recommendations for your own needs. Try food, try as much as you can, because the diet is very different, and I know you will enjoy it. !Disfrútenla!

What living abroad is really like

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It has been a while since I posted on my travel blog. The reality for me is that I do not know how to share my experiences with others. What is an experience others want to hear about? What is important about my experiences?

So much happens here in Xalapa, with me living here, and yet, it feels like nothing at all happens. For example, I am living in Xalapa in an apartment I share with Eduardo. During the week I have a ‘day job’, working with the kids at Matraca, I return to the apartment to relax and eat, hang out with Eduardo, meet with a friend, get some work done on my laptop, watch Netflix, go running in the evening in Los Berros (under the shade of the trees), and end my evenings usually in the apartment working or watching movies with Eduardo, reading, knitting, or going out to concerts or other events. This routine does not carry with it very exciting events. I also cook my own meals in the apartment, and rarely eat out.

Upon reflecting upon my experiences over the last four weeks (a full month has passed), there are some realities about living abroad that I thought I would share.

There are different types of living abroad, and each comes with their own experiences. For example, a vacation abroad will be filled more with adventure and activity, and less in-depth cultural experience, whereas a semester studying abroad will focus on attending classes, hanging out with students, language learning, adventures and cultural experiences, and in-depth, reflective experience. Now, I have a long-term stint LIVING abroad. That changes everything. I am not taking classes and do not readily have school work. All of my language learning is coming from conversations. I have a daily obligation that has turned into a routine (like a real job), and living on a budget means that adventures need to be considered before undertaken. Living with my partner, who is a native, means that I too become accustomed to a Mexican rhythm, a routine. While Eduardo goes to Muay Thai training in the evenings, I work or hang out with friends, exercise. On Friday nights we also go to his mother’s house to spend the weekend. If Eduardo runs on the Saturday morning with the Muay Thai group, I go along and run too. Saturdays are our adventure days: we have canyoned in Xico, hiked and caved in Volcancillo, rappelled in Piyata (just outside Xalapa). Sundays are our days off to play with the dogs, sleep in, make breakfast, eat and relax.

Living in a place means that you begin to create a life, a routine, and also begin to incorporate things you would do in home country, to your life here, usually having to customize habits to what is available. I needed shaving cream, and I had to go to three different stores to find some. I got a total face rash and went directly to a dermatology specialist, obtaining a consult and script on the spot. I toast bagels on a camping stove, clean the floor with PineSOL, a rag and a rubber squeegee pole, dry clothes, towels and shoes on our tiny balcony, and live without paper towels. Life is different in Mexico, and slightly weirder for me. The only frozen things that are in my diet are frozen chicken nuggets (we have only eaten them one) and popsicles. Everything else is fresh (or rather, not frozen): bread (why are we so scared of carbs?), goat cheese, Oaxacan cheese (string cheese), tomatoes, ham, milk, fruit and juice, yogurt. I eat far better here than in the U.S. But you cannot avoid your upbringing. Within the first two weeks here I bought a feather-down pillow, a shower mat, and butter.

Living in a new place also means that you get to share some of what you know and can do with others, while also learning what others know and can do. I baked a cheesecake for Eduardo’s family and for Matraca, and just today baked banana bread for Eduardo’s family. During recreation time, I show the kids how to play some games and some fun exercises. I have also learned how to make fresh French Fries, make the best cheese quesadillas, play Estop (a chasing game), make fruit juices (mmm pineapple), rappel, and tightrope walk. When I exercise in the park, I get to see some new exercises and adopt them.

Another observation about living abroad is that your life, your routine and experiences, varies based on who you surround yourself with. Living with Edo, I am surrounded by his middle/upper class family, larger house, and not necessarily fully Mexican family (culturally speaking), but also with mountain-goers, adventurers, kind people who accept everyone. With them, I will exercise more, and have the adventures on the weekends that I seek. With Eduardo’s mom, I will travel to Taxco again! I work with Matraca, so I learn the language and culture of this organization, its employees, workers, children and families, and get to venture out into colonias to interact with families. I also contacted my own Cultural Assistant and good friend, Olivia, with whom I will watch many good, beautiful movies. (If you want to watch an amazing commentary on God and religion and society, that is hysterically funny, watch the Hindi film, PK, available streaming online with English subtitles).

Finally, while living abroad, you have to be ready to not be perfect at the culture, and to know you never will know everything. Doing more routine things, like exercising on a regular basis, opens me up to doing things wrong, and doing more cultural things, like giving people the time or interacting with dogs and their owners. In our apartment, the sink started leaking. Me, I would have felt very different contacting the landlord about it, even more so after the plumber fixed it, and something else in the sink started leaking. I did not really know how to pay rent; note, pay in cash (efectivo), when you pay really depends on the landlord, and you may pay on the same day, or some day close to the same day, and you should get a receipt. I have experienced so many different things I never had last semester, and it made me think that I was being blind then. So many more men call me guera or guerrita (white girl), and I got super hit on by a much older man who already knew I had a boyfriend and was living with him (such a different male culture). A new language phrase I keep hearing now that I never heard before is: No manches, or stop kidding around, don’t kid with me, you have got to be kidding.

So, remember, as a stranger in a new land, you will always be a bit of a stranger, only learning a fraction of what the culture really has to offer.

*This weekend I went adventuring with Eduardo and the gang to Pitaya, where we hiked to a mountain, climbed our way up, and hung out all day rappelling, eating, talking. I was the only girl to walk the slack line/tight rope between the two rock faces and though I held on for dear life, I did NOT fall.

For full disclosure, the day was great, until it poured, I slipped down a muddy mountain side and had a comical fall, and had to army crawl under a barbed wire fence through a rain-river running underneath.

Arrival and my Mexican Digs!

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After leaving my grandparents’ house at 1:45am (EST), and traveling by two planes and a bus, I arrived in Xalapa, Veracruz at 8:30pm (EST). It was a brutal journey. Delta Air Lines, I do like you, but if you tell me to get to the airport 3 hours early, then you had better have staff at the counter to check my bag so I can actually get through security in a timely manner. Note: in BWI, Delta staff do no start working until 4am; also note they may have 30 minute morning meetings, so plan to stand in line until 4:30am.

I drank coffee Monday night to stay up. For me, drowsy Emily is ineffective Emily.  But staying up for over 27 hours straight has its issues. Easily frustrated, easily sickened by plane rides…but I got to sleep in Atlanta before my delayed flight took off for Mexico.

Then came el Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juarez. For foreign travelers: you will land in Terminal 2. If you need to take an ADO bus to some location outside of the Federal District, get through immigration, get your bags, get through security check , turn right, walk all the way to the end of the building and walk outside. Choose to ride the red bus with Terminal 1<<>>Terminal 2 on it (14 pesos), and get yourself to Terminal 1. Disembark the bus and walk into Terminal 1. Go upstairs. Take a bridge across the street you just arrived on and keep going until you find the ADO bus terminal. Feel free to ask airport security personnel if you feel comfortable with your Spanish skills, but if you do, be VERY SPECIFIC that you want a bus to *Location Here* or else they will keep telling you to go to different places. If an officer tells you to take the AirWalk in Terminal 2, you cannot take it unless you are going to board a plane in Terminal 1. Be aware.

But Eduardo met me at CAXA (El Centro de Autobuses en Xalapa) right when I got there. Thank goodness too because after that much traveling I was exhausted.

He drove me to our new apartment in Los Berros, just below the center of Xalapa. Below is a full panoramic shot of our studio apartment. It is hot. Summer in Xalapa sucks. If anyone remembers my stories of Vietnam, I am sweating like I did in Vietnam: dripping.

We have internet, 6 keys for the street entrance, the building entrance and our room entrance. Even though the word chapa means sheet metal, it also means locks (cerradura). I am very safe and secure here. We also have hot water if necessary (YES!!!) but I generally take cold showers.

I returned to Matraca this morning! It really was wonderful – everyone welcomed me back with open arms, even with my broken Spanish. I watched the movie Inside Out with them and I ALMOST cried; it is a super cute movie.

AT&T has made it possible for me to call home with my IPhone, text people, and even to have a bit of data to use outside the apartment in case of emergencies, all for $0 per month. So shout out to my carrier for being so supportive of my Mexican travels.

I will end with something I found pretty funny: I ran into one of my Matraca clients from last semester in the street, just passing by, and the first thing she said to me was: “Well you gained weight.”

kitchenbathbed

Travel Abroad: The 6 Step Guide to Travel Preparations

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  1. Packing.

Unpacking. Packing again, unpacking, and a final packing. This is not unusual. You may pack a bunch of extra clothing, random goodies, and then think again about what you need. Packing and unpacking is a process that will ultimately end in luggage that is lighter, more efficient and thoughtful, and that will serve you better abroad.

For me, I start packing weeks in advance. I start first with a short list for the check bag and for the carry on. Then I begin to set clothing and extras aside. I start the real packing at around 2-3 weeks before departure, giving myself enough time to keep using some of the items I will have to pack, and for rethinking my packing choices. Just talking with a close friend made me rethink the two pairs of jeans I packed for Mexico, and just to get a bit more room and limit how much I’m carrying, I nixed one pair. In unpacking the jeans, I realized that one of my goals is to discuss policy with someone in a government position, so I packed a pencil skirt and a dressier blouse, just in case. The skirt should be the only piece of clothing that is not worn weekly.

Finally, pack pieces that are either old, ready to be pitched or repurposed, or will give out after some travel wear and tear. Take a pair of shoes. If a pair is comfortable, but close to the end of its life, let it take up the space in your luggage, and pitch the pair before you leave. Clothing can also be donated to great causes, like at the agency I interned with, to open up more room in your luggage for other items.

  1. Plane ticket

I found a travel article that discovered that, when purchasing a plane ticket off of travel sites like Expedia, Hotwire, among others, the best time to purchase a cheap ticket is about 54-56 days prior to the departure date. This was true for me. I bought my one-way ticket to Mexico at about 54 days before I planned to leave on May 17th, and decreased my expected price by over $100. Plus, this allows me to wait to purchase my return ticket (given that I do not have a specific date in mind yet), and diminish my overall expenditure on plane tickets by over $200.

My advice is to also fly out of a bigger airport. Flying out of a small city airport, like Harrisburg, upped the price of a roundtrip ticket by $400. Flying out of a bigger airport, like Baltimore, slashed the roundtrip ticket price, and the one way price, by about 2/3.

Lastly, before you purchase your ticket from a travel site like Hotwire (my go-to site for cheap plane tickets), make sure of a few things:

– Who will be taking you to the airport for your flight, and/or picking up?

– How early/late must you get to the airport to have time for check-in and security, and/or what time will you arrive at the airport? Can your ride provide transportation to/from the airport safely?

– Is the day and time appropriate for you? For family, friends? Your airport chauffeur?

– What is the site’s cancellation or ticket changes policy? Hotwire has a 24 hours cancellation window after ticket purchase. Any change or cancellation after that 24 hour period does not provide a refund.

– After purchased, check on the airline website, and, using your confirmation code, find your boarding pass and flight information directly from the airline. This will ensure that you have received a valid ticket and all information is correct.

              3. Airport travel

Some of my advice for airport travel references my comments above. Early morning flights are a preference for me, given that I would travel all morning, land in D.F., Mexico, and take a bus to Xalapa, arriving at a time that Edo can pick me up. Traveling by night is riskier in my opinion, and I feel safer during the daytime.

However, a 6am flight means I have to be in the airport by 4am for check-in and to pass through security. Baltimore is 1.5 hours from my house. Who wants to drive me to the airport at 2:30am? My resolution was to be dropped off later the night before, and just work in the airport until my flight. However, others felt that this was not safe, and are determined to drive me to Baltimore at 2:30am. Given the ridiculousness of this, other family members want me to stay in a hotel room that evening, and take the shuttle to the airport in the wee hours of the morning. While the hotel cost does not fit into my budget, the responsibility for getting me to the airport is a burden on my ride. If you do not have ready access to a public transit, ubers, or taxis, and must rely on family and friends to get you to the airport, be considerate of their schedules.

Lastly, getting to the airport early is better than getting there too late. Regardless, getting to the airport 3 hours early for a flight at 6am is ridiculous. Getting there early is to make sure you can get through the security check lines. There will be no line at 3am, 4am, or 5am. With good weather conditions, and good life conditions, I would shoot for about 1.5 hours for travel to the terminal, check-in, checking luggage, and the security check. Bigger airports may or may not require more time, but even this is debatable given that the Atlanta airport has a metro to get passengers from terminal to terminal.

              4. In-country travel (upon arrival)

Once you land in the country, what do you do? How do you get to where you want to go? You can research some options online, but the best option is to talk with a country native. A good example is the Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City (MEX). I have had the pleasure of traveling by ADO bus from Xalapa to D.F., but have never had to purchase the tickets online, from the U.S., to travel from airport to Xalapa. Edo helped me to navigate the ADO terminals, avoiding the TAPO terminals for the one that I do not have to take a taxi to (the one housed within the airport), and for coordinating the timing of the bus departure to my plane arrival and immigration process, and traveling in the airport to the bus terminal.

If you are staying close to the airport, or in the same city, taxis are often cheap choices. However, research and/or ask airport personnel what taxis are certified or directly employed by the airport; these will be the safest and have the most stable charge rate.

If you are traveling outside of the main city, consider a bus. Outside of Mexico, I have no expertise in how to locate bus terminals. But my advice, from experience of feeling lost inside a terminal, trying to figure out what ticket to purchase, is to get to the counter and ask a teller for information.

              5. Where are you going to live? (upon arrival)

Where you are planning to spend your nights will impact what you choose for in-country travel upon arrival. If you are staying in a generally reputable hotel or youth hostel, consider contacting them directly to ask for transportation recommendations. They may even be able to secure a reputable taxi to pick you up from the airport (who knows?).

             6. What are you going to do there?

At least for the first few days, have an outline of the activities you plan to do. This could be skeletal, but having a few things you want to see in the area you are staying in upon arrival will get you out and into this new world. It should help you acclimate to the new culture and environment, and help you learn to navigate the transportation system, language, and geography.

Researching an area online for things to do can be a cumbersome task. Not only can it be difficult to find a comprehensive list of all the things a city/town has to offer, an unmanageable distance may not be discernible online, or a lack of transportation could become a relevant limitation once you arrive to the country. Visiting online websites that focus on specific towns can be the most valuable. For instance, instead of searching ‘things to do in Mexico’, search ‘things to do in Xalapa,’ or ‘things to do in Veracruz’. You are bound to get more activities that are within a reasonable distance or already have strong ties to the center city.

Example: A friend is preparing to travel to Germany later this summer. She has started thinking about packing early, especially since she will be packing for Germany and for a graduate school move, and is searching for ticket prices to compare. Although she could arrive by plane in the town where her host lives, the airport there is small and it is cheaper to fly into the bigger city airport of Frankfurt. This decision brings new complications for traveling upon arrival to where her host lives. Having this connection already knowledgeable about transportation has been useful in determining what train to take from the airport in order to arrive to where she plans to live, and how to purchase a ticket for the train. Furthermore, knowing that train transportation is extremely reliable and expansive in the region, my friend is planning some activities in Berlin, where she can travel to solo if necessary, and by train.

Words to the wise: You can never plan too much.

Merry travel preparations!