A List of Things That Have Saved My Ass

I’ve been meaning to append one of these travelogues with some tricks of the trade I’ve picked up over my years of travel, but the practicality of it came off as a real buzzkill after my other musings. So, this time around I’ll lay out my tips for hitting the road and resume my normal pontificating in a couple of weeks. Aside from a few U.S. road trips, I’ve seen most of Europe plus some time in Israel and a few countries south of the Equator. I’ve roughed it hostel-style when I motorcycled through the U.K. and Ireland, traveled business class on the company dime (back when I was a respected professional, before I decided to piss away my fortune on this whole writing thing) and settled down for a time in different places—Dublin, London, and my current ex-pat home, Bolivia. Traveling in style or on a budget have plenty of their own unique pitfalls, plus a few in common.

Don’t be an idiot. I know that sounds obvious, but it takes practice. In all of my travels, I’ve never been assaulted or pickpocketed or in any kind of local trouble. I was robbed once at a youth hostel (I left money in my jacket pocket while in the shower, i.e., I was an idiot) and have been hustled by a few cab drivers (counterfeit change; jacked-up rates). But that’s all. I’ve had some interesting-in-italics things happen to me, but never anything really dangerous.

Here’s a simple way to exercise this: Don’t do anything abroad that you’d never do at home. It’s amazing how people flush their common sense down the sewer while traveling. If you stepped off the bus in your home town and some street urchin offered to help you with your bag, would you accept? If a total stranger in your home town asked you to watch his bag while he “runs inside for a moment,” would you? Ladies, if a handsome stranger sat down next to you at a bar and handed you a drink you didn’t order, would you accept it? Guys, some too-beautiful-to-be-real woman who’s all by herself sits down next to you and offers you, well, whatever, in your home town, would you think to yourself, “Wow, this is my lucky night?” Of course not, to all of the above. I hope, anyway. Yet people do it abroad all the time and they wind up broke, in jail or in a trunk. Don’t be an idiot.

Don’t base your travels around your guidebook. A heresy, I know, but hear me out. Guidebooks are just that: guides. They don’t tell the whole story. I’ve read plenty of guidebooks for plenty of places from plenty of publishers, and I know everybody’s got their favorite. Everybody but me. Guidebooks are best when laying out the practical basics your destination: currency, customs, transportation, airports, safety, prices; plus the rundown on the prominent tourist attractions and some other essential locations, i.e., hospitals, post offices, embassies, tourist info, etc. And that’s it. As for their recommendations on hotels, restaurants or nightspots, they’re only as good as the information they get from their sources abroad and as such, they tend to be redundant and self-perpetuating. Recommendations for hotels and hostels have been wrong as often as they’ve been right, in my travels. The list of nightspots and bars will likely point you to a place full of other foreigners, because they’re all reading the same guidebooks, going to the same places, and sending feedback to the publishers that perpetuates the stranglehold. Alex Garland’s narrator in The Beach said something like, “What’s so lonely about Kho San Road?” He was right.

Try this: grab a guidebook for your own city and look at the recommendations for bars, restaurants and cafes. Now, ask yourself, how many of those places do I frequent? And how many of my favorite places are on that list? Exactly.

Learn the language. At least as much as appropriate. If you’re staying just a few days, at least learn the local words for hello, goodbye, please, thank you, telephone and bathroom. A few key phrases such as How much? How do you say…? and the like will also help. Longer than a few days, make an effort. And making an effort doesn’t mean learning Do you speak English? in the local language. Oh, and repeating yourself slowly in a loud voice doesn’t help. Really.

Have some of the local currency in cash before you land. I know, you can use your ATM card and you have traveler’s checks. How nice. But have some of the local currency before you land. Think how inconvenient it is to not have any pocket cash on a normal night out; now multiply that by a thousand because you’re in a place you don’t know that uses a language you don’t speak; you’re jetlagged, you and your significant other probably just got over the first of several fights you’re going to have on your vacation. And have all of your luggage in tow. Just get over the surcharge and get some cash before your flight. What? You’ll just go the foreign exchange when you land? You might not land during banking hours and if you do, you don’t know if you’re landing on some obscure bank holiday unique to that country (I’ve made this mistake more times than I care to admit). Get some of the local currency in cash before you land. This will also get you familiar with the currency before you arrive so you can be savvy to the counterfeits.

The same goes for returning home. In all my years of travel, I’m always baffled that when landing at the international terminal of LAX, you go through immigration, baggage claim, customs, then out to the curb. Not a single currency exchange or ATM in the whole goddamned arrivals terminal. So, you end up strung out from a twelve-hour flight (during which, if traveling with your significant other, you had another fight, possibly your last) and now you’re standing on outside in the smog with a pocket full of rupees. That blows.

Deal with the exchange rates. I’ve heard all sorts of arguments about which banks or travel services have better exchange rates, how this or that traveler’s check is better or worse, etc. I’ve never understood this. People are going to make money off you exchanging your money; it’s a business. Sure, don’t be an idiot (see above), shop around a little, but being obsessive about it is pointless.

Know the taxi rates. Find out ahead of time about fixed taxi rates from specific destinations. If you’re staying at a hotel, they should be able to tell you how much it is from the airport. And know the laws about when and how taxis can solicit fares. Illegal taxis and overcharging from legitimate taxis are common scams.

Copy your travel information. Before you leave, make photocopies: all your contact info (email, hotels, etc.); flight itinerary; traveler’s checks; passport and any other critical documents and leave them with at least two friends. If you’re traveling with your laptop, back up your hard drive before you go. I know, duh, but if you’re relying on some sort of remote backup system, you should remember that internet connectivity—especially wireless—will likely not be as good as what you’re used to (if it’s accessible at all) and it might be extremely expensive. So, yeah, back up your drive and keep a thumb drive with you for routine backups while traveling.

Don’t look like a tourist. Where ever you go, you’re not going to look like a local. That’s cool, because you’re not. The trick is to look like a traveler, not a tourist. There’s a big difference. Travelers are there for the experience, tourists treat foreign countries like Disneyland, as though everything’s on display for their benefit. So when it comes to basic safety, like splitting your money and traveler’s checks into different pockets, please ditch the fanny pack. Not only is the word “fanny” virtually unprintable in the U.K. because it has a completely different meaning, but fanny packs also, a) are the among the most heinous fashion crimes/practical jokes every played on the general public and b) a beacon to thieves.

Splitting up your valuables is pointless when you’re wearing a big sign that says, “I have a bunch of valuables, don’t speak the language and don’t know my way around. Please rob me, steal my kidneys, leave me for dead and ship my wife and daughters off to the highest bidder. Thank you for your cooperation.” Because that stupid pouch hanging below your beer gut and above your gonads says exactly that in every language in the world.

Likewise for walking around with your map out or being overly conspicuous with your camera. Want to buy an I Heart Romania t-shirt? Go for it. Me, I’m a sucker for all that stuff. Grew up road-tripping with the family and count myself among the world’s heavyweight truck stop souvenir knick-knack crap shoppers. However, if you plan on wearing your I Heart Romania shirt while in and around Romania, along with, say, your Prague is for Lovers baseball cap, make sure you have your blood type and trunk size available for your kidnappers, along with birth dates, bra size and natural hair color of your wife and daughters.

I got rid of my motorcycle years ago, but not the motorcycle wallet. It’s never been picked, and I’ve never dropped it or left it out accidentally. I swear by it, and I’m not sure why more travel guides don’t recommend them. Sure, it’s a bit conspicuous in a lot of countries but, face it, everybody knows you’ve got some kind of wallet on you, right? In my experience, getting robbed is less about conspicuous displays of wealth and more about conspicuous displays of stupidity (i.e., drunkenness, unfamiliarity or general vulnerability). The worst that’s ever happened because of my biker wallet was when I took it out during the security screening at a South African airport. One of the cops picked it up and called all of his buddies over. They were all black; my wallet says White Trash. They had good long laugh, gave it back and sent me on my way.

Know where you’re going and know the nearby regions. That may sound obvious, but allow me some examples: There is no “h” in Wales, and every time another American asked me about my motorcycle trip and said, “So, what did you think of Whales?” I found myself looking for sharp objects. There is no such country as “Southern Ireland.” Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom; the Republic of Ireland, or simply Ireland, is a sovereign country. There is no such place as “Czechoslovakia” and there hasn’t been since 1993. There is the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. Who knows, they could be Czechoslovakia again in the very near future but right now, they’re not.

Keep your shaving kit and any critical meds in your carry-on luggage. There’s a minor chance your checked bags will be lost and, with each new leg of each new trip, that minor chance becomes an inevitability. It might be a few hours or a few days before they’re recovered, but in any event you’ll want your toiletries and meds with you, along with any other critical stuff like power adaptors, etc. At least one clean shirt in your carry-on is a good idea, especially if you’ve got an important meeting upon landing and your luggage is AWOL. Black turtlenecks are great for travel and can be mixed with most anything so you can go to a meeting or hit the town while your luggage finds its way home.

You’ll want a pocket-sized notebook and pen with you at all times. Forget about your PDA, iPhone, or whatever. Both power and internet reception can be sketchy; batteries can mutiny; software can spontaneously brick; PDA’s take your focus off your surroundings for too long and they flash your wealth. And nothing, nothing, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates have ever or will ever invent is as fast, efficient and self-contained as a paper and pen. I use a Moleskine ruled reporter notebook. I’ve been accused of snobbery when it comes to my Moleskines and those accusations are completely accurate. I’m a snob. My notebook can beat up your notebook. I’ve heard complaints that Moleskines are expensive. True because, like a lot of expensive things, they don’t suck. The bindings are stitched like hardcover books, the paper is archival quality; they can take a round of buckshot and not fall apart. Is your notebook a Moleskine? No? Then your notebook blows. I prefer the reporter style because you can hold it with one hand while you write, which is mighty handy when you’ve got a pay phone receiver clamped to one ear, a bag over your shoulder and your foot on the strap of another bag and you’re shouting ¿Como? over the traffic noise. You will constantly be writing down phone flight details when your itinerary gets changed, phone numbers, addresses or any manner of emergency information. One of my most common uses for a pocket notebook is when landing in a foreign country where I not only didn’t know the language, but attempting to pronounce words like street names was fruitless (this happened a lot in Scandinavia). I’d write down the name and address of my hotel in big block letters and flash it to the cab driver. Problem solved.

Most everything above is applicable for both business travelers and backpackers; the rest of this list is mainly for the latter category. There’s a scene in Contact where they give Jodie Foster a suicide pill to keep with her just before her trip. “We can think of a hundred reasons you might need this,” they tell her, “but most of all, it’s for the reasons we can’t.” Your notebook—and the rest of this list—is a lot like that. And not only are these things good for all those reasons I can’t think of, but they’re all extremely versatile, lightweight and take up very little space. In fact, everything on this List of Things That Have Saved My Ass could be squeezed into a single fanny pack. But you won’t do that now, will you?

A knife. Traveling with a knife is trickier than it used to be, so you may need to purchase something when you land. A Leatherman would be ideal, I suppose, but they’re heavy. Most books recommend a Swiss Army Knife or some variant, as you’ve also got a corkscrew, bottle opener and other swell attachments. I travel with mil-spec folding knife from Emerson. It’s got a three-inch blade, a solid locking mechanism, a sturdy feel and I’m convinced it was hammered out of scrap from the Roswell crash. Sure, I need a separate bottle opener and whatnot, but this fucker can cut through sheet metal. I could explain why you should travel with a knife but if you don’t know, I suggest burning your passport and staying home. Indoors. Forever.

Sturdy nylon cord. About twenty or thirty feet. As I said above, I can think of a lot of reasons for this, but it’s also for the ones I can’t. What I can think of (and have done): laundry line, temporarily securing a ruptured bag, and hanging a mosquito net, among others.

Ziplock Bags. Their utility and versatility defy a simple paragraph, here. Bring two or three; they weigh nothing, take up zero space and will either save your own ass and/or make you a hero. Think ice and severed thumb.

Elastic Hair Bands. Some people are happy with rubber bands, but I find elastic bands to be much more durable. What for? For about a billion-and-one reasons you’ll need to hold some shit together in a pinch.

Plastic Zip Ties. Like the kind you use to herd your computer cables into some semblance of order. Some folks use Velcro, but I go for plastic because they’re much stronger and more secure. Yeah, you can only use them once but again, they’re small and light enough that you can bring a dozen or so with no drawback. Why? Like the elastic hair bands, for the infinite number of reasons you’ll need to fasten something. More ruptured luggage; securing bags on a long trip (the kind where you’re sitting on an empty fruit crate in a bus full of loose chickens); or in my most recent case… my room is in an old adobe structure (actual adobe, not stucco over sheetrock) so I couldn’t hammer any nails. I had to get really creative with securing my mosquito net (pipes, windows with missing panes, etc.), and the zip ties (wait for it…) saved my ass.

Carabiner. You probably use one for your keys, like I do. They’re not actual carabiners for mountaineering, but they do the job outside of that. But an extra one (they’re less than a buck) and slap it onto one of the spare D-rings that are most certainly dangling from your backpack or knapsack. Again, more luggage securing, holding shit together, etc. At one point my shoulder bag was barely too full to close, and the carabiner was enough to bridge the gap between both closures.

Bandanas. Three or four, at least. I’ve probably used these more than anything else, and so will you. A sweatband (head, neck or wrist); something with which to blow your nose (because nothing ruins your adventurer’s credibility like a travel pack of tissues) or stop it from bleeding; a bandage; a blindfold if it’s too bright to sleep; a washcloth; something to dry your hands with if you don’t trust the restroom (or there isn’t anything); a dust mask. The list goes on, and I’ve done them all. They’re a buck or two at an army surplus store, so grab a few.

Passport Photocopies. Not the ones you left behind with two friends (you did that, right?), but two or three extras for yourself. Make them before you go, just in case, but ideally you’ll want to do so after you arrive so as to include your visa. You always want your passport with you, but it isn’t always a good idea to have your original on your person (note: if your hotel or hostel has a safe, use it). While you’ll need your original for bank transactions, identification at bars and such, a photocopy is usually good enough if some local official asks to “see your papers.” If you’re in any kind of trouble, having a photocopy of your passport is the difference between having to report to a police station the next day with your original versus waiting in jail while a friend retrieves it for you. I keep one in my wallet, one in the (extremely handy) pocket of (my totally asskickingly awesome) Moleskine, and one in my jacket pocket. That way, I never forget it. Because you know, the one time you don’t have your passport or a copy with you is the one time you’ll find yourself answering questions from a guy sporting a flak vest and a shotgun after the bar fight you didn’t start gets brought under control.

Extra Passport Photos. Get another set taken when you get them for your passport (or just swing by, well, anywhere, and get another set if you’ve already got a passport). Some countries (like where I am now) require one for a visa, and they’re handy if you want to get a temporary international driver’s license or… well, a lot of other things. And again, they’re cheap and take up no space.

Sunblock and Mosquito Repellent. Self-explanatory, I trust. A small travel size should do, unless you’re spending a lot of time outdoors. But even if you’re not camping, pack some anyway. They’ll (drumroll) save your ass on those day trips you hadn’t planned. And isn’t that one of the benefits of being a traveler instead of a tourist?

Immodium. You might not need this but, like losing your luggage, it’s a matter of time. And ditch any notion that you only need it in Mexico, Central or South America. Sure, some places have sketchier plumbing and sanitation than others, but the truth is that the microorganisms in other countries are different than what your system is used to, regardless of their quantity. The hands-down worst bacterial coup d’état I’ve ever experienced was in jolly old London upon arrival. A round of bad luck, no doubt, but it proves my point. Don’t think being in Western, urban civilization negates this particular hazard.

Water Purifier Tablets. For all the obvious reasons. Case in point: where I live, you gotta boil the drinking water. There is no immunity; even the locals do so. But the stoves also run on propane and sometimes you run out. So, the tablets will save your ass. And if you’re getting acclimated somewhere, using bottled water to brush your teeth is recommended, and water purifier tablets are cheaper than buying the bottled stuff.

Aspirin. Unless you have a specific medical condition which prohibits taking aspirin, then bring aspirin. Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, etc., are all well and good, but their hazards are no greater than aspirin. Yes, it hurts your stomach lining, but that’s in extreme excess. And anything can hurt you in excess, including ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Or vitamin A. Or any other pill that isn’t homeopathic (because homeopathic pills are pure placebos). Aspirin is as organic and natural as any bullshit the hippie markets will sell you; it’s the extract of a tree bark, plain and simple, and is the best all-purpose fever reducer, pain reliever and anti-inflammatory you can buy.

Antihistamines. General purpose, over the counter stuff. Handy for airborne allergens and—so I’ve heard—certain insect or spider bites (some of them are histamines which cause the severe reaction).

Electrolyte Supplements. You can find these at camping and outdoor supply stores. Water alone isn’t enough to cure dehydration. Electrolytes control your body’s absorption of water and if you’re dehydrated from any number of travel-related illnesses (such as the ones that call for Immodium, or drinking too much, or the altitude sickness I wrestled with during my first few days in Bolivia) then guzzling water alone won’t do the job, at least not as effectively. And remember, if you’re in the Third World, drinking water might not be as plentiful as you need.

This list is not comprehensive, by any measure. But it is comprised (mostly) of things that have indeed saved my ass at one time or another. Back to the novel, for now. I’ll return in due course with more cultural observations, quasi-political rants and all-around hilarity.

Happy trails.


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