now that i have returned from my magnificent journey, i thought i’d pass on a few titles of books i read while on the road as well as some handy tips for any of you considering long-term travel, i.e., what to bring that will save oodles of headaches along the way and what you don’t really need to bring along but which other travellers perhaps found necessary.
i read a LOT of books last year. it’s not that i had nothing but idle time on my hands, rather i had a substantial amount of in-transit time and time loafing on various beaches without strenous activities to partake in while soaking up the sun. some notable books i read are as follows: ‘jonathan strange and mr. norrell’ by susanna clarke – it’s all about magic, olde worlde style. an eloquently written first novel by clarke, a fat volume, and which made the otherwise quirky topic of early 19th century magic enjoyable for me (thank you Mr.L for the loan); ‘shantaram’ by gregory david roberts – another fat volume (a whopping @950 pages!) of an autobiographical nature vividly describing the life and times of an aussie ex-con on the lam in bombay’s mafia. fascinating and gritty. i mentally plugged my nose at his descriptions of bombay’s slums; ‘no country for old men’ by cormac mccarthy - having read ‘the road’ i knew i’d enjoy this tragic tale of the battle between texas outlaws and sheriffs; ‘eat pray love’ by elizabeth gilbert – a must read for all solo female travellers. a bit righteous on her ‘god-seeking’ path, but not too preachy. funny and insightful as can be.
‘khul khaal’ by various female authors – five short stories by five low to middle class egyptian women sharing their very personal experiences of hardship and joy living in strict muslim, paternalistic society in egypt. a khul khaal is a silver or gold anklet, not unlike a shackle, worn by married women. it’s symbolic of the placement of women in egyptian society. these gals were beyond brave. ‘the alchemist’, ‘veronica decides to die’, ‘by the river piedras i sat down and wept’ and ‘the zahir’ by paulo coelho – all beautiful, emotionally charged, happy then sad then happy stories simply written and yet each one thought-provoking. ‘the bhagavad gita, as it is’ by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada – how to obtain krishna consciousness from the original sanskrit. this one i got about 1/3 of the way through before giving up. it’s very hard to follow as a novice of hindu religious studies. even my balinese hindu friend couldn’t grasp all of the concepts completely…and he is a practicing hindu! the koran by, uh, god i guess. or allah’s typist. i haven’t read the entire koran but did make it through ‘the pillars of islam’ and another condensed version of the koran (or quran, depending on where you live) just to see what all the fuss is about. the 5 tenets of islam are fairly straightforward. the folks i met who follow the tenets with great loyalty are pretty content to include the 5-times daily observations in their day-to-day lives without any inconvenience to managing other human tasks like eating, sleeping, child-rearing, etc. ‘paint it black’ by janet fitch. this is the same author who penned ‘white oleander’ and is a dark tale about a couple of young lovers from very different backgrounds in early 80s LA and one of them commits suicide and the other struggles to rebuild her life after the loss of her boyfriend. the interesting thing about this one is that it takes place in LA when punk was huge and band names (the germs, x, etc.) and club and other hip locations in hollywood are mentioned that i recognize and recall with fond memories, even if i wasn’t there at least i could appreciate the atmosphere and feeling of the era of the story. “the kite runner” and “a thousand splendid suns” by khaled hosseini – the first one i listened to on tapes when i had eye surgery in 2007, read by hosseini, yet thought i’d read the book too. very enjoyable account of riches to rags and the effects of war on a kid and his family in afghanistan banana-stand. the second one is another story of similar hardships in afghanistan during wartime but from a female perspective. both were great and beautifully descriptive of life in a hard place and in hard times.
there were several others, like the one by the english guy who grew up in south africa with hardly another white family in a 10 mile radius not to mention all the various travel guides i perused in order to find lodging and directions to various locations around the world. often, lonely planet did not let me down although at times they were indeed way off the mark either with an eatery or hostel that no longer exists after the 2006 edition was published or a hostel that did exist but which was listed as “clean and comfortable” where i happened upon a few uninvited guests to my room in the form of bedbugs. hmm, yeah, there were a few of those along the way, but overall LP was a decent referral guide – as it’s meant to be. by all means, don’t EVER follow these or any other guidebooks to the letter, and better yet, don’t bother to use one at all is my best advice. just go. learn a couple words in the language of your country(countries) of choice, and approach one or 2 nice-looking folks and ask for the information you seek – hotel, restaurant with the BEST food in town, how to get to the bus/train station, what it costs for a taxi to xyz destination (the local price, of course), and so on. if all else fails, grab a taxi and hope for a driver who speaks a bit of english and just ask him your questions! besides getting the best local information, you’ll get some inside scoop and hints at local customs and culture that no guidebook will ever provide you with. if you come up against a particularly high language barrier, you might consider a “wordless” communicator. my friend CJ gave me a little plastic book with nothing but pictures in it. it’s divided into sections for lodging, food, transit, car repairs and covers just about every situation you might need when traveling where you don’t know the language and english isn’t widely spoken. when in a shop, all i had to do was point to what i needed and the sales person could nod or shake her head whether or not they carried such item. easier than drawing (for me as my sketch skills are mediocre at best) and less confusing or misunderstood than hand-gesture cherades.
the best thing about staying in hostels and guesthouses, besides they are significantly cheaper than hotels, is that more often than not they have a book exchange. when you’re finished reading one, simply leave it there and grab another one from their shelf. even if nothing particularly grabs your interest from their selection, you will need something to read and you may discover a mystery or historic novel that you never would’ve thought interesting had you not started the one you picked up.
next: some invaluable tools for the trip. first, a good backpack. mine is a gregory ladies pack with few bells and whistles, no detatchable parts, but lots of small zipped pockets all around and a very comfy waist and chest clasp. it’s sturdy. it’s lightweight. it’s reliable. it’s seafoam green! flashlights. i couldn’t have made it without a Mag light and headlamp. sturdy is best because they get smooshed in quick-pack jobs. resealable plastic bags. perfect for damp clothing and keeping unmentionables separate and therefore protected from other clothing. my dad gave me a few of these and although i only used one, the one i used was a lifesaver in many ways. lots of mesh drawstring bags. great for separating (so you can easily find them) things within the pack. rain jacket, lightweight. monsoons are a drag without one. it’s hot and it’s raining. you’re sweaty and you would like to stay dry. an umbrella is cumbersome. use a rain jacket. sleepsheet. forget about a bulky sleeping bag/pillow if you intend to stay in hostels/hotels/bungalows the whole time and not camp. mine is silk and fits into a tiny little packet that gets shoved into a side pocket in the pack and saved me endless worries about bedbugs and other unknown funky stuff in hostel beds. antibiotic cream and mosquito repellent. both absolutely essential in all developing countries especially near beaches and jungles. even the drier savannah of africa had its fair share of mosquitos, and malarial no less, so spray was a must-have. there is no substitute for getting vaccinated against certain diseases, of course, like malaria and yellow fever, and no amount of bug bite salve will cure you of rabies should you be bitten by a dog/cat/rat/bat harboring the disease, but for the smaller things you can get by with a good mozzie repellent for day-to-day use. extra passport sized photos. essential for some visas on arrival and to give to friends you make along the way as a gift/reminder of your fine self. visas. i learned the hard way that india requires a visa before arrival. taiwan and korea have the same policy from what i am told (although i cannot confirm this for these countries or any other, for that matter). before you blame your poor, long-suffering travel agent for not telling you that you needed to buy a visa before you even left, make sure you researched each country’s visa policies at least a couple weeks before you get there. a reusable water bottle. the scourge of plastic waste invades most developing countries. don’t add to it if you can avoid it. pepto bismol tablets and rehydration salts. you can’t get pepto abroad but you can and probably will get travellers gut (bali belly, delhi belly, etc. – it all amounts to diahhroea and puking) and these little pink babies will make things a bazillion times easier going through the illness. rehydration salts are available most places, and are cheap, and you must, must, must remember to use them to keep from becoming dehydrated. if it’s hot and you’re sweating a lot, you need to rehydrate often and water just won’t cut it. you need water, of course, and lots of it but you also have to keep the water in where it’s helping your guts work properly. rehydration salts keep everything moving smoothly internally and often the flavors of the packets are quite tasty – lime, raspberry, orange – it’s like a refreshing citrus drink you can make at home that costs next to nothing. a good idea is to keep a well stocked first aid kit. you can get small, fold up, easy and light-weight kits at travel goods shops already stocked with band-aids, topical remedies, and various pain killers and bug/snake bite salves that are especially handy for treks where some critter or other gets all up in your pants business and decides to feast on your vitamin rich blood. again, do get vaccinated for at the minimum malaria and tetanus before you depart the civilized world (i was given a supply of anti-malarial medication from my county health department that somehow or other dwindled to a dosage that proved insufficient against malaria. whether the pills fell out of their container and got lost or someone somewhere found them and helped herself to them, i am unsure…at any rate, i was not protected and yet thankfully the cruel critters carrying the potentially fatal disease never got me and i came away from malarial zones unscathed. oh i got bitten by skeeters, alright, just not the bad ones. going away to the developing world where malaria may be prevalent without medication in my kit is a chance i’d rather not take again and so urge my readers to get yourself supplied with anti-malarial medicine before you go). some countries require proof of an inoculation. yellow fever, for instance, is all over the place in africa. get your shots, is all i’m saying. you don’t need everything on offer even if you’re going to places where you can catch certain diseases. i opted not to get shots for japanese encephilitis (sp?) or rabies, for instance, because each series was around $500 apiece. this was a sizeable chunk of my travel budget and i felt that i’d take my chances and stay a good distance away from livestock and areas where these problems are common. no harm came to me and i was happy to have the extra cash. if i had gotten bitten by a rabid animal, more than likely i could’ve found a clinic nearby that could help stop the immediate danger and then i could arrange to be airlifted to a hospital in a developed nation (england, america) for proper care. since i never stayed on any farms or out in such remote places for long enough to worry, i figured i could get help easily enough to warrant not getting the extra shots. this brings up the need for travel insurance. get a policy that covers the basics and also covers emergency airlift evacuation to a developed country where you can get adequate emergency medical care should the need arise. thankfully, i never needed mine but you never know what will happen to you far from home and it’s best to be prepared.
without exception, it’s crucial to have a good comfy pair of walking shoes or boots. i had 1 pair of all-terrain sandals and walking sneakers that i could tie to the outside of my pack saving precious inner-chamber space for other, less durable items like clothes. aside from those, flip-flops are good for shared showers and the beach. a warm jacket (fleece is best) that you can pack easily but use on cold nights in transit or in the mountains is good. i also brought a longjohn shirt, easy to make very small, that came in very handy in the mountains in northern vietnam as well as chilly south africa. adding to this, 1 pair of socks was enough. i packed several and didn’t need more than 1 pair. undies were 5 pair in the beginning and 4 in the end (mysterious disappearance of 1), and 2 bras. ladies, forget the thongs and extra fancy bras. if you’re spending lots of time at the beach, like i did, you will likely wake up in the morning, throw on the bathing suit, cover it up with shorts/t-shirts/sarongs for jaunts to the village or restaurant, and will be unlikely to even don a bra and panties except for the times when you’re not planning to swim and/or sunbathe. on the flipside, if you’re spending many hours in transit, sleeping on trains or buses, comfort is essential and this includes undergarments. who needs to be adjusting when you’re crammed into a tiny bunk/seat trying to sleep on a train lurching side to side for 12 hours! this then brings me to earplugs and sleep mask. they’re small, they take up little space, and if you’re suffering from post-beach party daytime sleeping syndrome, you’ll want a sleep mask to keep that wicked mr.sun out of your puffy red eyes as you sleep off the night before. earplugs i found particularly useful on those long haul trips on buses, planes and trains as well as those early nights to bed when the gap-year raver kids in the dorm room next door came bustling in late and full of booze and recaps of their night of of shenanigans in loud voices and in various languages. the kind i use are the gummy waxy kind that you can mold to the shape of your ear and that tend to stay put better than those weird orange ones that always fall out in my sleep. finally, a good lock and chain long enough to chain up the whole enchilada on the train or in the hostel dorm room. even if you have all of your valuables (passport, money, iPod, camera) on your body like a vest or something otherwise impossible to remove without waking you up, you need to make sure your other stuff is secure too. there are lots of fast fingered theft jobs on public transport in developing countries and you need to be sure your stuff doesn’t get ripped off especially if you plan on sleeping through part or all of the journey. i had a combination lock and solid wire chain, which eventually got stolen at a baggage handling area of an airport, but used it diligently on many occasions. even the fact that you bother to lock your pack up next to where you’re going to sleep lets everyone onboard know you mean business with your stuff and if someone has any notion of helping herself to your goods, they should consider moving along to someone with lesser standards of security than you. there are plenty of careless travellers who’s packs are more easily tampered with than your locked, secure pack that they might try their luck on. for those valuables, i always kept the important things under or beside my head when i slept. intrusion is easier to sense when you’ve got your valuables next to your face.
one thing i did NOT need that i lugged around for months was a mosquito net. i just never needed it because i always found rooms where a net was provided in a mossie-filled area, but was glad to have it along just in case and it took up very little space. i could’ve managed without many of the “just in case” items i lugged around like water purification drops and collapseable bottle. because i had a hiker’s bottle and clean water was available everywhere i went (sadly, it was unavoidable to add to the plastic scourge everywhere but in airports where i could fill up at the water fountains), i didn’t need these types extreme sickness preventatives and space saving devices. i suppose if you’re trekking up and down mountains where clean water is scarce and you must rely on stream water, these would be essential. i, however, didn’t find the energy to climb any himalayas and found it very easy to obtain clean water with sold seals (watch out for resealed bottles with broken or missing plastic security seals. don’t ever buy a bottle that hasn’t got that little plastic band intact because it’s likely been tampered with and possibly filled with local tap water rather than clean, and you really don’t want to take a chance) everywhere. you may see cheap water in a stall with a dubious looking seal. steer clear. sure, the folks may be poor and to shave off a penny or two will fill the bottles with tap water. unfortunately, that tap water is probably filled with all manner of funky bacteria that your guts will reject wholeheartedly and put you straight onto the bog for several days.
probably the very best tools are the ones that come from within: smile and be patient. don’t force your “ways” onto others because they (a) probably won’t get your meaning and (b) will welcome you much more warmly if you adapt to their culture rather than expecting to bring them around to yours. finally, let yourself go with the program and learn to trust strangers without any prior knowledge about them, either individually or generally. don’t be paranoid, just be smart and use your intuition (if you have any) to the best of your ability. if you’re not the intuitive type and tend to err on the side of extreme caution, i would avise that you begin by talking to other travellers about their experiences with local guides, cab drivers and hoteliers and find out how often they’ve been kidnapped at gunpoint for simply following them to the nearest ATM machine. chances are the answer will be zero times. don’t be afraid (except in obviously creepy neighborhoods after dark) to venture out alone, but do make sure to dress appropriately so as to not draw unnecessary attention to yourself and inadvertently offend the locals. this isn’t to say you need to run out and buy a burqa and don it in 100 degree middle eastern heat just to go to the corner store, so you can “blend in” with women who are accustomed to dressing this way, but do look around you and see how others are dressed and try to emulate them without going to extremes. if you don’t see anyone wearing tiny tops or just a swimsuit and shorty-shorts walking down the main roads, then you can be fairly certain if you do so someone will look at you with some measure of disdain and recognize that you’ve just shown blatant disrespect for local customs. most developing countries are conservative when it comes to fashion. if you try to be as unobtrusive and polite as possible, your chances of meeting and talking to locals and garnering the respect of same will increase 10-fold. irregardless of what your travel wardrobe consists of or how long it’s been since you handwashed last, the more covered up you are the better your chances of getting a good reception will be. the first step, however, is to get out and explore. bring the camera but don’t shove it in people’s faces. ask permission to take a picture of someone BEFORE you start snapping away. bring a notebook or journal. you’ll forget what you did and how things looked or smelled unless you write it down (or unless it’s durian – one could never forget that smell, believe me).
there’s so much to learn and experience in this big, wild, crazy, amazing world and from its inhabitants. you wouldn’t want to miss out on some incredible adventures because you were too chickenshit to leave your hotel room, would you? of course you wouldn’t. pack your nerve and sense of humor and go for it!