Saturday, May 12, 2007

Three Essentials

Passport, money and clothes are all anyone really needs to travel. A guidebook helps, but isn’t essential. Nor are cell phones, iPods and cameras. A medical kit is a good idea, as is a good pair of sunglasses (sunnies the Australians call them). I’ve seen travelers break out portable speakers and hair dryers, hiking boots on the beach and designer clothes in the jungle. One woman carried a giant plastic plunger thingy to draw out venom from insect bites. I confess I carry too many books and a heavy tangle of cables and chargers.

With all of this in mind, though, there are three things I carry that have become essential tools in my arsenal. Each item is small, simple and ordinary, yet so useful I couldn’t travel a day without each one.

The first item on my list of traveling essentials is a headlamp. It’s a no-brainer that you should carry a flashlight when you travel. I recommend a headlamp instead. I brought a mini Maglite from the U.S., but found it difficult to carry in one hand while trying to find something in my pack with the other. When I was in Australia, my tour guides all had headlamps that left their hands free. I bought one in Adelaide before heading into the Outback and will never turn back. Whether it’s walking along a pitch-black track, looking at my watch in the middle of the night or rummaging through my pack in a dark hostel dorm, my Petzl was worth every Australian cent. My Irish friend Dean lost my Maglite somewhere in the Flinders Ranges, so I really have no choice. Thanks Dean.

I left the U.S. with a stack of black moleskin notebooks given to me by my friend Sarah. I used the notebooks every day during the first few weeks in Australia, filling the pages with notes, numbers and rough sketches of blog posts. The only problem was their size, about 5’ by 7’ and thin as a Necco wafer. I had to dig into my bag whenever I wanted to write something down. I bought a stack of mini spiral notepads somewhere outside of Adelaide and, again, will never look back. I keep a notepad and a pen in my pocket at all times, always ready to jot down notes, a phone number, directions or an email address. I rip out a page at a time to give new friends my blog URL. I’m surprised how many people not only travel without something to write on, they usually don’t even have something to write with. The spiral notebook is like oxygen to me.

My final essential item is exceedingly simple, concept and execution: foam earplugs. Being a traveler means putting yourself at the mercy of the world. Sometimes there’s no privacy, solitude or peace. Earplugs go a long way toward drowning out everything annoying, from screaming child on a bus to snoring roommate in a hostel. (If there were such a thing as noseplugs, I might use them too, but that’s a different story.) I use the squishy kind of earplugs, the ones you smash into a sliver and then jam into your ear. If inserted correctly, they expand to fill the canal and block a majority of the sound. It took me a long time to learn how to insert them properly – most of the time I’d wake up with one earplug in and the other tangled in the bedsheet. Now that I have a handle on the procedure, I sleep like a baby no matter where I lay my head.

Headlamp, Notepads and Earplugs

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