Thursday, April 19, 2012

Top 5 clothing picks for women traveling to hot, conservative countries

If you're worried about looking like a dork abroad, know that not dressing appropriately in a conservative country is worse than looking silly, you'll also be acting like a jerk. I'm talking about most of Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, Asia, Morocco, Tunisia, small villages in Central and South America and more - in other words, those parts of the world that maintain a modest dress code without requiring something more hardcore like a burqa.

Figuring out what to wear while maintaining some style dignity can be hard for travelers, especially women, who have to cover up much more than men and who are more closely scrutinized. The question is, how does one dress conservatively, look a little nice and avoid overheating at the same time? After over 20 years of travel in these parts of the world and looking pretty awful through most of it, I've finally acquired a few key pieces that I feel keep the balance between comfort, appropriateness and fashion.

Here are my top 5 essentials:

The peasant top

Try to find one in a feather-weight, crinkly cotton that's not too see-through. Three quarter sleeves are best and make sure if there's a tie at the neck the keyhole part doesn't show any cleavage. Avoid mid-weight or heavy fabrics and any tight elastic. Think, breathable and keep it simple without a lot of flamboyant embroidery or other standout features.

Here's a current favorite of mine from Old Navy.


A good cut here is key. I hate boxy shirts that add a few pounds to my look but too tight is a no-no. I go for the lightest cotton possible that's still opaque, sleeves that are longer than a cap sleeve but shorter than three-quarters and loose enough to breath. Also make sure it's long enough that you're not going to bare any waistline when bending over etc. I personally like a mellow-colored print like ikat or tie-dye stripes to hide stains.

Capri pants

If these go out of fashion again I may die. Mid-calf in a lightweight sturdy fabric is a must. A drawstring waist is another plus since you'll be able to adjust them so they'll stay up properly without a belt through all the stretching and washings and un-washings they will surely go through - as well as any waistline changes travel may bring to your midriff. I have a pair right now that are my all-time favorite: they have good button cargo pockets and are made of a fabric that looks like cotton but is actually a 100% silk weave that's cool, soft and sturdy. Go for dark colors. I like fairly low-waisted styles because these look better on me, but if you can pull off the "natural waist" look without looking like you were on a $2 budget at Goodwill or got a bitchin' Christmas gift from your grandmother from Royal Robbins, then go for it.

Here are my favorite capris from Hei Hei but unfortunately they don't make them anymore.

Mid-calf length skirt

I actually don't pack these anymore since I find they're not practical for anything remotely active but if you're going to be hanging out in a city a lot or plan on needing to dress nicely at night, this can be an essential. Again, find a lightweight fabric that won't need ironing and don't get a skirt so full that it may get blown up by wind and give the conservative world a peek at your underpants. Length should be mid-calf.

Long pants

In general, I only wear long pants for insect protection, cold or because they're the only clean thing I have left to wear. I also wear them on the plane so they need to be stretchy enough to sleep in and look nice enough that if by some miracle of fate I get upgraded, I won't look too sloppy to sit in business class. I like light, soft cotton or Tencel with something elastic-like in the waist that won't pinch or stretch. Again, I think "natural waist" is a sin, but that's a matter of taste. Straight leg works best; anything with a flared leg will get caught in stuff and provide a tunnel for bugs to crawl up and skinny pants will be too sexy and cling to your humid skin like soggy plastic wrap. Go for dark colored. I'm partial to slate grey.

Bonus Piece: Silk scarf

Find the biggest one you can find that can compress into the smallest folded square. I keep one in my purse at all times on the road in case I need extra arm coverage or something over my hair for religious temples or particularly conservative places. It also can be used as a real scarf to add a little flair to your outfit (think: business class) and can provide warmth in unexpected air-con disaster areas like buses and cinemas.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Happy Island Kids

It's Friday the 13th today so I thought I'd dig up some pictures from the depths of my (mostly unused) photo archives, of kids on islands frolicking, not worrying about bad luck and superstition and generally having a blast. I actually didn't take the first and second photos - these two were snapped by my husband Josh Humbert who is much more of a pro at this photography stuff than me. Both were taken on Bunaken Island off of Northern Sulawesi, Indonesia. I love that in the second one these kids look like they're about to land on a bunch of rebar - don't worry, they didn't.

I took this next photo on Ko Phayam in Thailand in around 2008. I went back last year and this kid is now a great big tall man but I still recognized him. Unfortunately, I didn't see the dog. Hopefully the burying him in the sand thing didn't get out of hand. He told me at the time that the dog liked be buried because it kept him cool.

It was just me and these three kids hanging out on the wee island of Namu'a in Samoa for a few hours. We spent at least an hour of this taking silly pictures and after each one they'd shout "Wanna see! Wanna see!" I wore out my camera battery flipping through all of the pictures. It was really fun.

Here is my son gracefully leaping off the oyster platform at my family's pearl farm in Ahe, French Polynesia. Speaking of kids growing into big tall men, this was taken a little over a year ago and now he's my height.

You may remember this scene from another post a few weeks ago. These boys in American Samoa were leaping into this pit of spiky lava with a huge and powerful swell heaving in and out of it. Danger was everywhere but they couldn't have given a flying and of course no one got hurt.

And last, I love this boy. What a character and I hope you can tell from this photo. This is in Ovalau, Fiji. I stayed in a homestay and "Billy Boy," besides cracking jokes and constantly getting into trouble also knew how to drive the boat, fix the motor, cook, clean and sing loud and clear at church. He's a great kid. He's 12 years old.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Samoan fale: The world's happiest place to stay

I'm not easily surprised by weird accommodation. Tree houses, cave dwellings and undersea lairs tend to make their way into my travel literature if they haven't made it in to my real life, and in most cases I'm in a country to get out and do things not hang out at my hotel. But Samoa's fale not only astounded me, they won me over so much I will confidently say that they are my favorite type of holiday lodging. Period. They are part of the Samoan experience as much as eating the food or seeing the sights.

I'd read about fale before I got to Samoa. The Lonely Planet said they were traditional style, simple open-air structures on stilts. This is exactly what they are but the simplicity of the description didn't get into my head and form an image of what a fale might actually look like. They sounded rustic, that was all.

After a few days at a mediocre hotel in Apia I set off to drive around the island. On my first night I decided to stay on a small private island called Namu'a that got rave reviews. On the way I drove past several of the most colorful villages I've ever seen, and all of them were made up mostly of the traditional-type fale I'd read about. These family-sized fale are elongated gazebo-like structures rounded at the edges with a semi-octagon shape and are usually about 20ft long by 10ft wide; palm thatched louvers are the only walls and these can be lowered or raised depending on how much ventilation or privacy is needed.

All the structures are painted the brightest greens, pinks, blues and yellows and are surrounded by gardens of flowers, tropical fruit and ornamental greenery. You can see right inside them where the floors are covered with woven mats, there is minimal furniture and usually a few people lounging inside. Still, it didn't occur to me that these were the same types of houses tourists would sleep in.

It wasn't till I reached the beach of Namu'a in my host's tiny aluminum outboard boat that it hit me. There on the most perfect, palm-lined white sand beach you can imagine were about ten small, unpainted, palm-thatched roof fale on stilts. Mine had been prepared for me with a mat on the floor as well as a mattress and a mosquito net. And that's it. The highlight of course is that sleeping in these is like camping in the open air without having to actually camp, and the fale are usually only steps from 80 degree clear blue water. At night, after a tasty meal of fresh fish, I was given an oil lamp -- the perfect light by which to drink a beer, gaze at the stars, play guitar and revel in the bliss of the moment. It's not fancy, it's not expensive, but even the most luxurious accommodation in the world cannot compare.

As I continued around the rest of the main island, I found family fale operations everywhere, usually on the very best beaches. Every one is owned by sweet local people offering meals (average price to stay is about US$35-50 per person per night including breakfast and dinner). Some fale are a little fancier than others and may include waist-high walls, whole walls or even electricity; some are out in the middle of nowhere while others are clustered together in beach villages. Valuables can be often kept in safes but the family is almost always there watching so, as long as the place was run by good people, I never felt like my stuff was going to be ripped off or that unwanted guests would come into my fale at night. Bathrooms are shared in most cases and showers are cold.

There's something about sleeping and living outdoors that raises happiness levels. Add the sound of the surf all night, always knowing the phase of the moon and feeling familiar with the stars and energy levels skyrocket - not necessarily in the way that makes you want to get up and run around, but in a way that makes you like everyone and makes them like you too. It's a natural high I suppose.

I admit that after a few days it felt good to sleep in a hotel again with a hot shower but if I had my choice of a resort or those fale on Namu'a I wouldn't even have to consider - it would be those budget fale on Namu'a every time.


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