When it sinks in that you're living abroad

When you get your hair cut in a foreign country.

Pros: The $5 cut by a very professional stylist compares favorably to the $50 cut you usually get in San Francisco.
Cons: It also comes with an unexpected, semi-consensual 20-minute face massage, with lotion, in a darkened room. (15 minutes in, Page was fairly sure I was being held for ransom.)

No Absolutes

When traveling, there are rules you are supposed to follow. There are certain things you are supposed to never do.

  • You shouldn’t let touts talk to you, or lead you around. But then you are in a big market in a strange city, and some guy asks where you are from, then leads you round the market, and then helps you find where the bun bo hue vendors are hidden, and joins you for lunch. In the end, he doesn’t ask for anything.
  • You shouldn’t let someone approach, then take your picture, as it’s probably a scam. But sometimes it really is just a little girl on a school trip who wants her picture taken with some white folks, and afterwards, in perfect English, thanks you and shakes your hand solemnly.
  • You should have a quick rule for for finding a hotel in a new city so you don’t agonize over it, something like “always get the 'Our pick’ of the Lonely Planet midrange hotels,” or “always choose the affordable option from the Luxe Guide.” But none of these rules work all of the time. Sometimes one of the hotel options is great, and sometimes one is way wrong and the other great. But both of them are sometimes the wrong choice.

When you are in a strange place, dealing with a lot of unknown things, you want to be smart. You want to close yourself in, follow specific rules, be careful, stick to a plan and simple rules.

But in reality, travel doesn’t work that way. What you actually need to do is have guidelines, but not rules. You have to approach each situation with a careful mind, but an open mind, and see how things unfold.

Learning how to have this approach, and not deal in absolutes, has been a challenge for me.

Notes on Travel Technology

This is the first time that I’ve travelled with really any form of technology. Usually, on a trip, I want to get away from absolutely everything. But, in this case, I’m going to be gone for a rather long time, and space is at a premium, so things digital are along for the ride.

Things learned thus far:

Travel Guidebooks in PDF and on the Kindle. This has turned out to be surprisingly useful. Guidebooks are heavy and unwieldy, and when you’re going to 12+ countries, it’s not reasonable to have them all on hand. Even when you’re out for a single day, though, the book is pretty heavy. Since I, of course, need to maintain my sartorial standing, I couldn’t possibly carry a bag or pack, which means the book inevitably ends up in Page’s purse, which ultimately leads to: frown Page. Given all this, I gave PDF guidebooks a shot. Lonely Planet sells PDF versions of nearly all of its books, and a few others are following along slowly.

On my laptop, the PDF guidebook is great: you can search for content, view maps, and save bookmarks. Loaded on the Kindle, the PDF guidebook (even without reformatting) is passable. You can view maps, look up a section you forgot, and generally use it as a reference. You wouldn’t want to use it exclusively on the Kindle, as the pages are slow to load and a pain to turn. But, as an outboard reference while you’re out and about, it’s great. (A Kindle DX would be perfect for this, due to typical PDF resolution. However, I’m mixed on using the iPad for this. I’m sure iPad or Apple fans like Pat would think it is perfect, but my impression is that it would be a little more bulky, and that the backlit screen would make you a significant theft target when you are walking down a dark street. The Kindle is much more discreet.)

Protip 1: Landscape orientation is helpful for PDFs. (Press a..A button.)
Protip 2: You can easily print out webpages or text documents to PDF and save them on the Kindle as well.

Smartphone. Bring one. Use it. For $10, I got Internet service on my phone, and immediately navigating the barely-named, unnumbered streets and businesses of Bangkok became far easier. It’s worth the hassle to spend 20 minutes in a phone shop to set this up: it will save you a million times later.

Wireless tethering on Android is also super helpful. Internet goes out in your hotel (as it already has 3 times to us) and you need to book a flight? No problem.

Protip: Turn off Background Data on your Android phone. This allows you to use minute-based Internet phone plans, which are very cheap.

Scan all your documents beforehand. Perhaps obvious to this fairly techie audience, but extremely helpful. This has already saved my cookies a few times. Having copies of both of your passports, documents, ID cards, credit cards, etc. in PDF on your laptop is tres useful. Easy to do with a high-end photocopier.

You can then also upload these PDFs to your Google Docs account, which is great peace of mind, since even if you lose every physical thing you have, as long as you remember your password, you can get all your vital docs.

Travel email account. If you don’t work in technology and/or have a 2D barcode tattooed on your left cheek, you might not be aware that public computers in any setting are Dangerous. They are especially questionable in places like: the third world, internet cafes, hotel lobbies.

Basically, these computers are as shady as the dude outside saying “No temple close today, come ride tuk-tuk.” It is abundantly likely that they have a keystroke logger (which will copy your password) and a trojan horse/proxy/botnet (which will send that delicious password onto a friendly man in Russia). If you have your bank hooked up to your primary email account, that means that with a simple “password reset” link, our Russian friend is now thoughtfully rearranging your accounts into a more suitable distribution.

So, what to do? Well, the easy thing to do is to create a new email account (say with Gmail), and give it a password that you are NOT WORRIED ABOUT anyone having. In other words, not that I would imply that you might possibly re-use your password from other places, but for this password, make it something you wouldn’t mind yelling out in a crowded Bangkok train station.

Because, that’s basically what you’re doing each time you log in from a public computer. But, if it’s a separate account, with a password you don’t care about, and the only things hooked up to the account are confirmations or contacts related to your trip, like the plane ticket you just bought or the hotel room you just booked, you’re golden. The account is useless to someone else, and thus safe for you to use in a public setting.

Note that you don’t have to use this account for your inter-human correspondence: you can keep using your normal account for that. Just use this special account for anything trip related, and then only ever log in with that travel account from the cafes.

Protip 1: If you need an account name, adding the word “travel” to the end of your existing account name usually works.
Protip 2: If you do in fact have a barcode on your left cheek, a helpful thing you can do is to have the travel account keep a copy, but also forward, all mail received to your normal account. Then you never need log into the travel account unless you are on a machine of Colin Farrell-esque popularity.

Macbook Air. Best laptop I have ever used, period.