Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Packing List for a Questionably Sane Traveling Writer

Posted on 5/31/03
Updated on 12/2/04

12/2/04: Tunes, Security, Footwear & Suitcase.

6/9/04: Tunes & Footwear

So, you’re probably saying to yourself, “What does a kook in his early thirties, who quits his job, sells his house and blasts off on a foolhardy endeavor to make a living as a travel writer pack for his journey?”

Well, since you asked…

Travel writing in 2003 is a very high tech, brainy, savvy job. We’re a dime a dozen, so to start out, one must be freakishly smart, interesting and funny. If one is lacking in one or more of these qualities, one can compensate by trying to out-geek the other writers with choice hardware, software and apparel, like I plan to do.

The following are some of the more pertinent items on my packing list, which by the way, is copyrighted, patent pending trademarked and whatever else I can get, so go get your own packing list you poseurs!

· Kick ass laptop - In my case I have the Dell Latitude X200. Technically, it’s a “notebook,” but chances are that it can still out-run whatever machine you’re using right now to read this. Despite being about as thick as a piece of toast and less than 3 lbs, the Latitude comes standard with a 933 megahertz processor, a 30 gig hard drive, 128 MB of RAM memory and a crystal clear 12 inch, color, active matrix screen. The beauty of buying from Dell is that after the basics, they let you roll your own system, so I averted my eyes from the price column and went nuts. No self-respecting geek would walk away without the media docking station loaded with 3.5 floppy and Read/Write CD/DVD drives. It wasn’t cheap, but being a geek rarely is. When your Latitude is docked with the media station, the final product is about as thick as a Krispy Kream doughnut and more dynamic than Batman and Robin on speed. I also picked up a spare battery so that I would have the juice to write for four hours and watch the deluxe DVD edition of “Pulp Fiction” during lengthy plane and train rides.

· Camera - You can forget about ever selling your travelogues without pictures to go with them, so you’ll be needing a very small digital camera, packed with an impossible number of bells and whistles. It doesn’t get any smaller or more bell and whistle-laden than the Canon S400. This bad boy can take a four mega pixel picture of a moving cat that is so clear and lifelike that your dog will freak out and attack your monitor when I send it to you in an e-mail. It also takes digital video clips for as long as the memory card will endure. I splurged for the 128 megabyte, multi-media flash card to swap with the pathetic 32 megabyte card that came with the camera. If you’re a photography moron like I am, you can just turn this thing on, point and shoot and still get magazine quality pictures. Those of you who know your way around a camera beyond the power and shutter buttons will lose all bladder control when you see the mind numbing amount of functions, options and tweaks that you can manually make with the countless menus built into the S400. Flash timing, shutter speed, white balance, ISO speed (whatever the hell that is), light metering and exposure compensation to name a few. It can shoot macro shots of interesting bugs from two inches away or zoom in on the Hilton sisters sun tanning topless on their yacht in Cannes with the physical and digitally assisted 11X zoom. You get several continuous shooting options, adjustable timer, picture stitching for taking super-wide, panoramic shots… You can even edit your digital video clips while they are still in the goddamn camera! All this in a package that is so small that you could probably swallow it whole if you wanted.

· Tunes - Anyone who is committing to being on the road for 12 months or longer needs to have his music to keep him happy and motivated. I was coached into buying the Archos MP3 Jukebox Recorder 20. As in 20 gigabytes beeotch! If music is all you need, then this is where you can park approximately 200 of your favorite CDs. But if you're a paranoid, security freak like I am, you can also use the Jukebox as a back up hard drive for all of those irreplaceable, brilliant pieces of writing and the pictures that go with them. And that's not all! The Jukebox also has a built-in microphone that one can use to take oral notes as they stagger glassy-eyed through awe-inspiring, European historical sites or if one is simply too drunk to type on one's Timeport (see below).
UPDATE: 6/9/04 - I am now on my third Archos MP3 player. The first one lasted all of two weeks, just long enough for me to spend about 15 hours uploading all of my music into the thing - mysteriously while my otherwise kick ass laptop has four USB ports for me to chose from when I want to upload music, none of the four are high-speed USB ports, so the upload speed is fantastically slow - it unceremoniously died. After lengthy troubleshooting on my own – the manual and online support were useless – I surmised that while the rechargeable batteries were in perfect condition, the internal charging circuits had smoked themselves. Since I had been a cheapskate, idiot and purchased the player through a bargain electronics web site, the exchange process was painful, long and required ridiculous amounts of my personal time, which ultimately required me to buy a new player off their site, so I could package up the old one in the new packaging, as they demanded (silly me, since I was selling my house and all my belongings and preparing to flee the country at the time, I was a tad impulsive and threw out the original packaging when the player arrived.) and then spend an afternoon during my visit to New York on the NYC subway out to the furthest reaches of Brooklyn to personally return the old unit and get assurances I would be refunded for the old unit before the place went out of business, which it did months later.
UPDATE: 12/2/04 – The fourth and final Archos Jukebox died, in the exact manner as the previous three last week in Sydney, Australia. It lasted through a mere five months of occasional usage. I have been in hopeless email contact with Archos Europe and they can do nothing for me, short of asking me to send the unit to France, what with the surprising weight of this piece of shit, would cost me about $50, including tracking and insurance. F*ck that! I will try to give it to an enterprising electronics nut who might like to try to fix it, otherwise I’m in the market for a iPod. I’m told that iPods are cheaper than Bangkok hooker throughout most of Southeast Asia, so I will suck it up and wait until I get there (about two months from now) before I start shopping.

The second player lasted seven months, before suffering the exact same fate. The fricking thing actually let out a puff a smoke and enriched my hostel room in Almeria, Spain with the stench of burning wiring when it flamed out. I started what ended up being five months of emails and phone calls and hoop jumping to get the thing replaced. After being ignored and given totally useless advice from the American online tech support idiot for months, I sent an email to their customer service department that was far short of patience and courteousness, ripping a new asshole for this tech guy, before they finally got off their asses and referred me to Archos France (I was living in Spain at the time and I sure as hell wasn’t going to send home a piece of shit MP3 player to the U.S. on my own dime). Despite what could have been weeks of bureaucracy, considering that I purchased the unit in the U.S., the French got me set up with a new player in two weeks, perhaps the only instance in recorded history where French customer service has outdone its American counterparts. I’m expecting this third unit to cack the instant I step foot in Asia, making it impossible for me to replace the thing. Since I will not want to haul around this useless hunk of metal for six months until I get back to a Archos-friendly country, I will ceremoniously destroy it with whatever local custom that applies (I’m hoping for “Death By Samari Sword”) and buy an iPod like I should have done in the first place. To sum up, Archos products are shit and their online tech support is being manned by an dope smoking, moron who couldn’t support his way out of butter knife failure, with the communication skills of a quadriplegic screamer monkey with no tongue.

· A PDA for PWCWs. People Who Can’t Write (PWCW) have been rescued from the trend of PDAs such as the dreaded Palm Pilot, that require you to input on-the-spot notes with a stylist, in a sans script that was developed by a team of nerds with no social life. Even without the paging, two way e-mail service and the news, sports, weather and stock market info drops that you have to leave behind with your States-side identity, the Motorola Timeport is still the answer for those of us who cannot write our names legibly much less take quick hand written notes that will be translated accurately by a Palm. The Timeport has a small keyboard for thumb typing in the calendar, address book, memo pad, task list, alarm clock and calculator. Like any PDA, there are games to play while you’re standing in line or if you are musically inclined, you can compose your own alert music. If you must associate yourself with a Palm user, fear not, the Timeport will send and receive data with any Palm compatible device via it's infra-red transmitter/receiver.

· A secure and safe way to transport your conglomeration of techno-nerd items - Like the geek tool that I am, at Dell's recommendation I bought the Targus "Sport" Laptop Backpack. I was not disappointed. This mofo has a cushy, specially designed space for your notebook/media docking station, cords, accessories and manuals in addition to a dazzling number of extra compartments, pockets, zipper spaces and cinch-cord recesses where you can secure all the extra components, media and medication that you're too chicken to pack in your checked luggage or leave unattended in the train baggage rack. I've nick-named it "The Office." If you're like me and have a back that is as delicate as oriental, single-ply worm silk, you'll be happy to hear that the Targus "Sport" Laptop Backpack is fitted with your standard load easing, back support mechanisms such as the padded, double adjustable shoulder straps and a waist belt that keeps things from knocking around as you do you best hangover sprint through the airport to catch your 7:15am plane.

· A mobile security net - When your entire livelihood depends on the crap you have written on hard drives and memory cards in your Targus "Sport" Laptop Backpack (Hey, I'm trying to score some sponsorship here, OK?), you need to protect this equipment with the best mobile means that you can muster. I have accomplished this with a combination of several, high-end luggage locks and two Targus Defcon 1 Ultra mobile alarms. The luggage locks are steel, four-digit dial combination locks. With their relative size and thickness, these locks aren't going to last long if someone takes a hammer and a chisel to them, but unlike most luggage locks, they can't simply be snapped off in two seconds with a needle-nose pliers. Of course, any thief with serious intent and a very sharp knife can slash right through the canvas in your Targus "Sport" Laptop Backpack to get past your luggage locks and lay hands on your goodies. If the thief has the gonads to get this far, he'll have to do battle with my dual Targus Defcon 1 Ultras. The Defcon 1 has a steel-wire security cord that wraps over, around and through your valuables. If the wire is cut, which can only be accomplished with conspicuously large wire or bolt cutter, it will scream like a wounded banshee. The icing is that the Defcon 1 also has a motion sensor that will instill profound regret in any thief that decides to do the grab-and-run with your backpack. If the motion sensor is tickled for more than five seconds, the thief will hear several warning chirp before the Defcon 1 unloads on him with it's 110 decibel alarm. If the thief still has control of his sphincter at this point and tries to disable the alarm by wrenching open the battery compartment, more bad news. The battery door is automatically locked down when the alarm is armed and can only be opened by entering your four-digit dial lock combination! Ha ha!
UPDATE: 12/2/04 - In anticipation of my travels through Southeast Asia where in many places hostel security is reportedly minimal to zero, I have added a Pac-Safe to my security net. A Pac-Safe is a steel wire net bag, in which you place whatever items that you do not want burgled, that cinches closed at the top and is secured with a steel lock the size of a cigarette lighter. The Pac-Safes come in several sizes, with the smallest size running about US$50. I had observed people using this device throughout Europe last year and was in doubt about its practicality. First, although the instructions say otherwise, it is no small matter getting your bag into one of these things and locking it up, meaning something as simple as retrieving a toothbrush or, say your snake anti-venom kit, out of a Pac-Safed bag could take a good 20 minutes (or, in the case of the anti-venom, 12 minutes of desperate struggling followed by death). Additionally, there’s the justifiable argument that moseying around town with your bag encased in a Pac-Safe could very well draw considerably more attention from budding thieves than if you just had an unsecured, non-descript bag. After careful consideration and a solicitation for advice from an online travel discussion group, I decided to purchase a Pac-Safe, only for use when leaving my bags in hostels or other potentially criminal prone area (left luggage centers, trains, opium dens, etc.) and continue to rely on paranoid vigilance for bag security while on the move.

· Footwear - I have backpacked through Europe twice before and your body takes a serious beating when you walk for miles with a 70 lb bag on your back. Obviously, your back and your feet take the brunt of the abuse. I have replaced my torturous backpack with a very large suitcase on wheels (so technically, I am not backpacking through Europe, I am "suitcase-wheeling" through Europe). The foot abuse can only be alleviated by investing in the most comfortable shoes money can buy. For the days of hardcore hiking and city stomping, I have the air cushioned Merrill hiking shoes. They are light, with about an inch and a half of super gripping, rubber soles that makes you feel as if you are walking on a very supportive cloud. Sandals are indispensable for everyday, summer time footwear in Europe, but they can also be the death of you if you are forced to traverse the city during a sudden transit strike or if you are simply too drunk to find your way back to your hostel. Again, I forked over huge bling for my Receptor Ecco sandals with heavenly arch support and felt covered straps that won't cause a bunch of over-developed, unsightly calluses to form on several strange places on your feet and ankles.
UPDATE: 6/9/04 - My very expensive Merrell hiking shoes started to fall apart after less than five months. Now, I’ll concede that I was putting serious miles on the things. I was on my feet for anywhere from two to 10 hours, walking anywhere from three to 20 miles, each day while exploring the streets of Europe (rough guesses, but probably accurate), but for these over-priced hunks of crap to start self-destructing after such a short period of time, considering what I paid, was ludicrous. By comparison, I’ve had several pairs of Hi-Tech boots that I’ve worn through a minimum of two, punishing Minnesota winters and they have come out looking next to new. I assume that if I could have reached Merrell, they might have done something about it, but their web site’s “Contact Us” page only provides an 800 number, which, if you’ve ever been out of the U.S., you know is totally useless. I briefly tried to contact them by guessing email addresses (i.e info@merrell.com & help@merrell.com), but soon gave up. Instead, I continued to wear the Merrells, not only for the sheer stubbornness of getting my money’s worth out of the effing things, but also so I could act as sort of a walking advertisement of how cheaply made the shoes were. By the six month mark, there were sock-revealing holes in the toes of both shoes. By the eighth month, the right shoe could have accommodated an exit by my entire foot if the laces hadn’t been in the way. I’m finally getting new shoes in the dirt-cheap, shoe making utopia of Romania when I get there later this month.
UPDATE: 12/2/04 – I tossed the Merrels, limped through Romania on a pair of “Patrol” shoes, a Romanian brand, and finally reinvested in decent shoes in the States. I am now sporting Columbia hiking shoes. I didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter. Through some gaff of incredible ineptitude, the shoes stores in the Mall of America, a place where one should be able to buy just about any conceivable item, barely had enough of a selection in outdoor footwear for me to have any say in the matter. I visited five stores and only one offered decent hiking shoes and that store had such a pathetic stock, that my choices were limited to buy another pair of Merrels (not in this lifetime) or the Columbias, which I knew nothing about, but again, I didn’t have any other options. If these fall apart unusually fast, I will be sure to post the details here.

· Suitcase – As I mentioned before I've done the backpacking thing and I still have lingering back spasms 10 years later. I don't care how much static I get from those backpack punks, I am going to shamelessly suitcase-wheel my way across Europe and love every minute of it. The only secret here is to find the biggest suitcase that you can haul up four flights of incredibly narrow, 200 year old, spiral hostel stairs all by yourself. Above all else, make sure that your suitcase has guaranteed indestructible wheels. European street and sidewalk design hasn't improved much from Roman times and those surfaces will shred anything weaker than industrial strength rubber in no time.
UPDATE: 12/2/04 – I have made a brilliant suitcase upgrade. I dumped my old, gigantic, backbreaking wheelie bag (A.K.A. “The Barge”) while I was in Minneapolis for a Victorinox E-Motion 360, by Swiss Army Brands. It’s a backpack, wheelie-bag hybrid, made of light-weight, space age materials, has a keyless, remote lockdown system and wheels itself along behind me, like a tame dog, using an artificial intelligence navigator chip. OK, that’s not true, but hauling this bag around is pure joy. Much lighter than the Barge, more maneuverable, and when the going gets rough (e.g. dirt roads or the Madrid metro), I can put it on my back (meaning I would have to carry the Office in my hand or hang it off my front, either way, much improved). The 360 is the largest of this style of bag, though it only has about 2/3 the internal space of the Barge, which forced me to reconsider the depth and breadth of my wardrobe and beauty kit, I mean sack of condoms (or bible if my mom is reading this). Between the weight reduction of the bag itself and my smaller load of crap, this bag is nearly the same weight as the Office, which is still pretty heavy, but feather-light compared to the full weight of the Barge. I get ooos and ahs and long gazes from envious travelers wherever I go. Assuming it holds together, this is the greatest thing to happen to backpacking since, well, since me. Ahem.

Well, without getting into socks, underwear and extra large condoms, that about wraps up the highlights of my European packing list. Keep in mind that I am only questionably sane on the best of days and I planned all of this in less than two weeks while in between Happy Pills. ;-)



The Office

Mouse over the items below for a description
(Not pictured: My super awesome Canon S400, cause I used it to take this picture.)

The laptop and media docing station.  Isn't it cute? The Targus “Sport” Laptop Backpack Spare laptop battery James Bond style, push-button extending unbrella random straps for securing the countles cords Ear plugs DVD collection Timeport Timeport charger and PC synch terminal System  and file back-up CD case Not one, but TWO internation plug converter kits.  Hey, when EVERYTHING you have needs to be recharged constantly, one converter kit just won't cut it. Spanish/English dictionary. Archos Jukebox and carrying case Archos user guide Official Federal Reserve Bank Hand mirror High grade luggage locks Wet/dry bag Passport case Karabiner key chain a extra luggage lock Targus Defcon 1 Ultra laptop lock Extra batteries for Targus Defcon 1 Ultra Felt pen for labeling CDs and writing e-mail address on people's hands Chapstick.  I have dry lips Listerine Mint Strips hip looking wrist watch with stop watch glow-in-the-dark numbers nice headphones Smaller, but not so nice headphones Headphone jack splitter so you and the honey you met on the train can watch a DVD together, privately

© Leif Pettersen 2003

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