Travel. Adventure. Putting your boots on foreign soil.
It’s something we all aspire to do, but for the writer travel can serve a unique need. Inspiration, for example, or research for a new project. Distance and breathing space is another worthy goal. Or perhaps, like me, you just want to see the world and jam it into your notebook.
But in my new life as an expat writer, I’m finding that my travel kit has changed significantly – because it turns out writers need a few different tools than your average backpacker.
Since I’m packing for India and it’s on my mind, here’s my new kit for writing across the globe:
Carry The Right Bags
I’m a proponent of carry-on baggage – large bags don’t do well in crowds or on trains, and I find it’s better to do laundry halfway than overpack. Plus, if you’re a writer you’re probably not swimming in hard currency, and it’s nice to save on baggage fees and be able to stay in a smaller room. Ideally, I only use my suitcase for clothes, relegating everything else to a large backpack, and a smaller day pack I keep stowed when it’s not in use. My suitcase of choice is an old Zero Halliburton I inherited from my dad. It’s small, stylish, crazy maneuverable and the aluminum shell could stop bullets. Hell, they’re so cool James Goddamn Bond uses them and the DoD chose it to carry the Nuclear football. If you don’t want to blow an entire paycheck on one, you can pick them up cheap on Ebay.
Recently when my dad and grandmother passed away, I found myself wishing they’d kept journals. Both of them saw so many places and witnessed so much history, and all of it disappeared when they passed away. Determined that the same won’t happen to my experiences, I’ve become a dedicated journal writer on trips – both so I can remember where I’ve been, and so my (currently theoretical) kids can still benefit from my wandering days when I’m gone. Besides that though, journaling gives me a depth of vision I wouldn’t have otherwise. Patterns emerge, and you get to know both yourself and the place better – and of course, it’s a great place to pull details from when you’re writing.
“But wait,” I hear you say. “Don’t you already have a notebook?”
“No,” I reply. “I already have a journal.”
“WTF semantics!” you say. “That’s the same thing.”
But no, it’s not. My journal is where I download my experiences at the end of the day, my notebook’s what travels in my pocket. If my journal is the big, double-barreled Get Off My Lawn elephant gun, my travel notebook is a concealed pistol. Let’s be honest here: you don’t want to carry your travel journal around, it’s too much risk. You could lose it, it could get stolen with your bag or drenched in a sudden downpour. Your memories from three trips, gone in a blink. So carry a second, portable notebook that’s for jotting notes you use to craft your journal entries in the evening.
I know that there’s a big movement right now to, “OMG, get off the internet and find yourself!” But listen, speaking as a former security analyst, there’s some places you don’t want to disconnect. Last month I took a 17 day trip to Thailand and Cambodia, both of which are in the middle of major political instability. In Thailand we were connected to local media in real-time via Twitter and managed to keep abreast of events and avoid the protests (except one march that passed our hotel). But in Cambodia I made a bad decision: I didn’t get a tourist SIM, reasoning that our hotel would keep us informed, and it would be good for me to get away from social media.
Big mistake. When we asked, the hotel desk said everything was fine. When the army beat striking garment workers and the police opened fire on protesters with AK-47s, the hotel hid the morning paper. After I pressed the concierge for information, he incorrectly informed me where the major protest site was, and as a result my wife and I wandered into a full-on government crackdown, complete with armored riot cops and military police carrying loaded assault rifles.
Keep your phone working and monitor local news – both for safety and intellectual curiosity.
A Phrase Card
Visitors can have a bad habit of visiting a place but ignoring its people, and as a writer people should always be your primary concern. Language, of course, often stands in the way of getting to know others when you’re abroad, but a little can go a long way. When I was in Thailand, I created a file on my iPhone listing basic Thai phrases like “hello,” “thank you,” and “how much is it?” and started referring to it regularly. It’s amazing the difference that it made in my interactions – vendors smiled at me more, people took extra time to help me, taxis offered fairer prices and the hawkers lost interest in me. In short, people were more genuine rather than maintaining the facade that holds sway in tourist areas. This led to conversations that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
I’m carrying on this tradition in India by making a pocket-sized card with basic Hindi phrases. It may not be the silver bullet that it proved in Thailand and Cambodia, but it’s respectful nonetheless.
Laptop and Power Adapters
I’m of two minds about the laptop. While I’d love to bring it along to write on a trip, in reality I always end up back-filling journal entries rather than working on fiction. (Besides, I’ve learned from experience that I find writing on the road unpleasant.) Add in the possibility that it might get lost or stolen, and a laptop comes off as a liability. On the other hand, a laptop is crucial for researching tour bookings, restaurants or other local entertainment on the fly and connecting with family should something bad happen overseas. Our standard procedure is to bring my wife’s laptop, and if I feel like writing I do it in the cloud, pulling stories I’ve uploaded to Google Drive or Dropbox.
A word of warning though: many countries have different plugs, voltages and frequencies. Remember to do your research and bring adapters if necessary.
Last month I took a speedboat down the Mekong from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. Five hours jammed into a fiberglass tube with no ventilation, zero escape exits and the worst squat toilet in Asia. It was actually more pleasant to ride on top of the passenger compartment, but to get there you had to shimmy along a six-inch ledge holding onto a railing until you came to the rebar ladder.
Did I mention this boat was going 60 miles per hour? As I hung there, feeling the wake spraying my legs and watching stilt villages whip by, I was suddenly very glad that I’d secured my iPhone and notebook in Ziploc bags. There are less dramatic reasons to do that of course – rain and splashes for example – but a good Ziploc is especially important if you’re traveling by boat. You could get a real dry bag if you want, but I find Ziplocs do fine as long as you’re not submerging them.
Rather than explaining all the local news events I reference in my travel journal, I just pick up some cheap scissors and clip articles from local papers. That bigass pocket at the back of a Mokleskine has to be good for something, right?
Magellan Outdoors Wear
I’ve worn Magellan outfits on two archaeological digs and in four countries. They’re tough, light and have mesh netting so you don’t have to worry about your underthings going swampy in the heat. The pants also can convert into shorts within sixty seconds and they have so many pockets for notebooks and pens it borders on absurdity (many with zippers and dry pouches). And because they’re basically swimsuit material, in a pinch you can wash them in a bathtub and let them air-dry overnight.
Writers like to read – stereotypical but true. And when traveling, I find it enlightening to bring along a book about the country. In Thailand it was a collection of short stories called Bangkok Noir. In Cambodia I picked up several history books about the Angkor period. When I was in London seven years ago, I burned time on trains reading Henry Fielding. For India, I’ve loaded my Kindle up with Rudyard Kipling, and will pick up a book from a local author when I’m there. Not only does reading this give you a better sense of place, it also keeps your own writing fresh since it’s likely written from a different cultural perspective than you’re used to.
Obvious, right? Not everything can be captured in words, sometimes you have to see something amazing so you can reference it in a story later, or keep it just so you can Facebook your friends and say, Holy turdmuffin guys, look at this – there are five kids riding this damn moped and two of them are asleep.
That’s about it for my gear. How about you guys? Anyone got a cool gadget that helps them write on the road or keep a travel journal? Any tips or tricks I missed? FILL THE COMMENTS WITH YOUR KNOWLEDGE.