In which the author tells you how to run your life -- or at least how to make the most of the fun parts of it.

For instance, inside these pages you will learn how to weather a mortar attack in good spirits; how to avoid booking yourself on the Internet into a bed and breakfast full of twee quilts and dusty tchotkes; and how to plan a dinner party that will stun your guests with deliciousness and style and not destroy your will to live with the amount of work you have to do to pull it off.

These are things I know firsthand, and things people who know me often ask me about (though I usually just book them into bed and breakfasts myself -- identifying ruffled death traps is an acquired skill). I am almost always right about everything (food, style and travel-related, anyway, and often many other things) and if everyone would just do as I say, dinner would taste better, cupcakes would not be dry, your parties would be more fun (for you), and mortar attacks... well, they always suck. I can't do anything about them.

*except laundry. I can't manage my own laundry, much less yours.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Updated! How To Prep for a Dangerous Foreign Assignment, in 11 Easy Steps

My boyfriend is heading off to Haiti for a jealousy-inducing-and-possibly-cholera-getting reporting assignment, and I keep sending him emails reliving my Glory Days telling him what to do, whom to talk to etc.

I figured I'd capture it here for posterity. So here's how to prep if you are off to a war, or to a humanitarian disaster or to play pool and inadvertently inflame a religious riot because you are not wearing long sleeves:

Handy tips!

1. Make lots of lists. You need a list of stuff you are bringing for daily hygiene, equipment for work, emergency rations -- Luna bars will do it, and iodine tablets for water just in case -- and clothes. To make the lists, imagine yourself waking up in the morning and then going through every step of your day: how will you wake up? (cell phone alarm? do you have an additional battery?), how will you wash? (baby wipes if no shower), what will you wear? what credentials will you put on? what will you eat? When you do your work, what will you use to take notes on? etc etc. Every step, until you get to bed (a silk sleep sack is no a bad thing to have in a yucky bed). One of the most useful things I brought with me to Iraq and Afghanistan was a big men's oxford and boxer shorts, which covered me enough to go to and from public baths and showers on military outposts without having to completely dress or wear a robe.)

2. Commit to carrying less in the form of clothing. You don't need to be decked out, and you want to be easily mobile. That means trying to keep your belongings to a good backpack, perhaps one with a padded pocket for carrying the lap top. This one looks fancy:

3. Bring cargo pants or one of those ridiculous safari vest that Dan Rather always used to wear. Useful to have pockets when you are juggling pens, tape recorder, camera, batteries, notebooks...Hands free is frequently necessary.. when you are exiting a burning vehicle or pressed up against a wall to avoid gunfire around the corner. Also, wear long sleeves. Prevents religious riots (see above) and protects you from the sun and bugs. And don't forget some flip flops suitable for the shower.

(above: cargo pants and Iraqi soldiers, and one Marine. I had terrible menstrual cramps in this picture. Always have Ibuprofen ON YOUR BODY. It was remarkable I was upright. Notice the sweat. 120 degrees!)

4. Get all the shots you need. Google travelers medical clinic; they will fix you up with everything you need (including a course of Cipro, in case you get a bacterial infection). With God As Your Witness You Will Never Get Yellow Fever Again!

5. Download all the background information you could ever need -- recent news, history, profiles of leaders, geographic information -- onto the thumb drives you will be carrying around your neck. If you get separated from your computer, you can always prevail on someone to plug your thumb drive into your computer to send a story or a report back via the Internet. You might also want to print out copies of everything you downloaded and carry it with you for easy reference.

(this is disgusting but made me laugh.)

6. Make multiple copies of all your documents: travel docs, credentials, passports, visas etc -- leave them with responsible parties at home and at work, and scan them and email them to yourself AND to your thumb drive.

7. Like Blanche, rely on the kindness of strangers. Call ahead to everyone you can think of -- experts who can give you advice or information before you go, people on the ground who will help you when you get there,m people who have just returned -- and upon whose mercy you may very well have to throw yourself. It's better to throw yourself on the mercy of someone you have engaged in good e-mail banter.

8. You will probably need a fixer. Don't take recommendations from your hotel -- you don't know if they are just trying to hook you up with their brother and are g etting a kick back. Get contacts from NGOs and people who have come before you. Your fixer literally has your life in his hands. You have power too -- you will be passing his info on to others, so that means big wages and steady employment for him in the future. (A fixer, for the unitiated, is often a driver and interpreter but mostly knows local people, arranges interviews for you, helps you with logistics and decisions about what to do next, guides you, keeps you safe. At least, the good ones do. The bad ones leave you waiting on a Baghdad street corner at 10 pm for 40 minutes.)

9. If you are really going, contact me in comments and I'll tell you how to hide your cash in your clothes so even if you are mugged at gunpoint, they won't get it and won't even know you have it. First step: acquire an Exacto knife.

10. Leave your fear behind. Fear serves a great purpose: to warn you off stupid things. Going where you are going is probably stupid. It's dangerous, it's unknown, it could get you killed or sick or maimed. But if you're going anyway, fear is no longer your friend. You're ignoring it. So don't give in to it (before you go. Just go. Then, keep an eye on your fear as your personal alarm system. Respect it. Your brain picks up on cues you may not consciously notice). Most people are good.

11. Don't obsess over travel warnings. They are for tourists, not badasses like yourselves.

Here's a partial checklist:


  • Meds -- including Cipro, Ibuprofen or aspirin (Ibu is better in case you twist something -- an anti-inflammatory), anti-diarrhea meds.
  • Feminine needs (trust me.. .they can be hard to come by in rougher parts of the world)
  • Medical kit: band aids, syringe, Moleskin for blisters
  • antimicrobial wipes (like Purell) in individual packages (can take them on the plane, and can toss them in your bag without fear of a Purell container opening on everything
  • Baby wipes -- it's wonderful to have a clean butt when you're otherwise disgusting. Also good for feet and face and body
  • Toothpaste, brush, dental floss etc.
  • Bug spray, sunscreen (they have it in stick form -- which is good especially when your hands are dirty)
  • bandanna (good for all manner of things)


  • Extra batteries for everything
  • Moleskine notebooks (expensive but they can take a real beating without losing pages. Plus you look cool. Somewhat douchey, but cool.)
  • computer, digital recorder, camera, a phone that works where you are going
  • pens, notebooks (if not Moleskines)
  • thumb drive on a lariat
  • UPDATE: a roll of duct tape: good for taping up broken luggage, as sutures in a pinch
  • UPDATE: a couple of mini0bungee cords -- you can strap things together to further free your hands.


  • Cargo pants or a vest, shower-worthy flip flops. The rest is up to you.

Hit me in comments if there is anything I'm forgetting!


  1. Wait...I'm going to be shot at?

  2. I cannot imagine you've forgotten anything.
    I'll forward this to my brother (the Wilderness First Responder) and add a few items to the bag I carry IN THE CITY every day.
    Good thinking.

  3. @Steve: no, kitten! Your biggest concerns are machetes, flaming tires around your neck, and cholera. Cheers!

    @blackbird: hello again. Do more Toast posts!

    i'm sure your urban survival kit is just fine (unless zombies attack again, in which case I think you just need running shoes).

  4. Okay, I'm going on a journey. How do I hide money in my clothes?

  5. YOu'll need an exacto knife, a steay hand, and some crisp 100s. I hid about $10,000 on my body this way in various pieces of clothing.

    Cut the tiniest slice into the hem of your skirt, collar, pants etc. It should only go through one layer of fabric.
    Roll your 100 dollar bill as tightly as possible -- like if you were a coke fiend, but not.
    Slip the rolled bill into the hem through the tiny opening you've made. Continue until the hem is full of 100s. Sew a couple of sticjes by hand to close up the hole (this is an added measure of security. My money never came out, until I put it through an Iraqi laundry, and they returned every crisp 100, ironed, in a pile on my folded laundry.