Top five travel gadgets NOT to take on your next trip (and what to pack instead)

gadget, gadgets
I’m in the throes of packing for a two-month journey to Ethiopia. I try to pack light, other than the inevitable pile of books. While some tech freaks pack a lot of travel gadgets, I find these to be more of a hindrance than a help. Here are five things that you might want to leave behind if you’re heading out for some adventure travel.

GPS
Yes, these are handy, but they can break with rough handling and are very attractive to thieves.
What to bring instead: A compass. It’s cheaper, much less likely to break or be stolen, and with a good map is just as useful. It also makes you notice the terrain more and become more aware of the lay of the land.

Ereader
Ebooks certainly save space, and many travelers like ebooks, but ereaders are far more stealable than some tattered old paperback. Plus you need to recharge your device and you can’t give or exchange books with the locals.
What to bring instead: A paperback or three. Preferably something you don’t mind trading or giving away.

IPod
Music is fun to have on the road, but it cuts you off from the sounds around you. I want to hear the muezzin’s call, the chatter of foreign languages, the local tunes blasting from shops and cafes. My playlist is part of my life back home, so I don’t need it while I’m away. I can listen to it when I get back.
What to bring instead: Nothing.Translation software
Translation software has improved a lot in recent few years. There’s even Word Lens, an iPhone app that overlays English onto foreign writing. When Jeremy Kressmann visited me in Madrid earlier this month we tried it on a menu. It was impressive but didn’t translate some of the culinary terms. I prefer learning a language the old-fashioned way. Except for France, all of the 31 countries I’ve visited are filled with people who want to help you learn their language. What better way to hook up with locals?
What to bring instead: A good dictionary and phrasebook. Also pack a good attitude.

Laptop
To be honest, I do take a laptop on some of my trips, but not on an adventure. My laptop means work, and while part of my work is travel writing, the best way for me to do that job is to focus on what’s going on around me. Computers can be a huge distraction and you always have to worry about them getting stolen or blasted by a power surge. If you do take your laptop to a developing country, pack a voltage regulator.
What to bring instead: A notebook and pen. Don’t worry, even Ethiopia has Internet cafes.

If there’s a theme to this, it’s that all of these gadgets distract you from the place and people you’re visiting. Doing without them for a month or two can be a welcome break, and your trip will be richer because of it. I didn’t need any of these things twenty years ago when I started doing adventure travel, and I don’t need them now that they exist.

[Photo courtesy user rkzerok via Gadling’s flickr pool]

Berlin’s latest attraction: The Computer Game Museum

Berlin, berlin, computer game, computer games, Pong, pongIf you’re under thirty, computer games have always been a part of your life, but for us old farts wise elders, we remember the first time we took hold of a joystick and moved a spaceship through an asteroid field, or ran a ravenous little yellow circle around a maze while being chased by ghosts. If you’re under twenty, you probably don’t even know what games I’m talking about.

Here’s your chance to learn. The Computer Game Museum has just opened in Berlin. The Computerspiele Museum, as it’s called in German, presents the history of gaming from its early days on room-sized computers in the 50s and 60s, through the arcade craze of the 80s and on up to today. There are even experimental installation pieces examining possibilities for the next generation of gaming, such as RaveSnake, an eight-player game controlled by cell phones via Bluetooth. The developers call this a new genre of “party games for the sidewalk.”

The museum has an archive of about 14,000 games, and some are set up so visitors can play them. According to a detailed article by Deutsche Welle, this is the second incarnation of the museum. It was previously open for a few years in the 90s before shutting down. In following years it created temporary exhibitions for other museums until it got a space of its own and opened on Friday.

In case you’re wondering, the screenshot is of Pong, a table tennis simulator that was one of the earliest games available to the general public, being released in 1972. That’s before even my time!

[Photo courtesy user Bumm13 via Wikimedia Commons]

Solar-powered computer for $35 or less

Developers in India have announced an iPad clone that costs only $35. Capable of basic web surfing, video conferencing, and word processing and using a Linux operating system, the cut-rate computer is targeted at India’s student population.

India has been undergoing an information technology boom for more than a decade now, and the most popular degree for students is in computer science.

Since the computer is still a prototype, it’s not clear what the cost will be when it finally goes on the market. The target is $35, but that may go as low as $10 with a few tweaks and the help of mass production.

The Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science, who developed the device, announced that international investors are interested in producing it for commercial distribution.

This could make the perfect travel computer–cheap enough that it doesn’t matter if it gets broken or stolen, and no need for a power converter and voltage regulator. Could this be the essential travel tool of the future? Tell us what you think in the comments section.


Photo of an iPad is courtesy Glenn Fleishman via Wikimedia Commons.

Worst travel mistakes of the 2000’s: Diplomatic Dipsticks


As we take time to count our travel sins of the past decade, I get all teary-eyed and indecisive. Where to begin? Couldn’t we just say “Iraq” and be done with it? And are we including food mistakes? ‘Cuz I got some real doozies: how about shrimp ceviche from a quaint Mexican beach cafe or fresh cut watermelon in India? Uh, those would be travel mistakes, no? But like, since we’re trying to refrain from the scatological (are we?), I choose to relate the following story of which I may or may not have played a small cameo role:

Once upon a time, there were two young men working in Brussels, preparing to embark on a business trip to poor, struggling, deprived Eastern Europe. Filled with kindness and goodwill, the two decided they would add a charitable purpose to their journey by driving across Europe in their vehicle–a beige, 1975 Mercedes with a good 250,000 km under her belt–and filling it with used office computers to give away to the lesser half of the digital divide.

in order to ease their way through the red tape of certain notorious Eastern European countries, the boss of the young men lent them a pair of expired diplomatic license plates, which (in Euro-capital Brussels) tends to grant you permission to do whatever you want: park on the sidewalk, speed a little bit, drive like a maniac, etc. So, the young men screwed on the two red license plates and set off on their grand cross-European adventure.

Feeling confident with their special diplomatic status, the young men parked in the city center of lovely Budapest for a break. They wandered about for hours sightseeing and upon returning, discovered not one, but TWO parking tickets fluttering from the car’s windshield wiper. As they wrung their hands with worry for this small misfortune, a Hungarian policeman approached them, pointing out the fresh car ticket and asking for additional information. Immediately after that, a second Hungarian policeman approached from the rear, pointing to the second parking ticket.The young men stood back and watched with awe as the two Hungarian policemen began to argue with each other. Both policeman had issued parking tickets, both wanted glory for punishing the foreign offenders and yet, upon closer look, they had in fact issued tickets to two different cars. The pair of diplomatic license plates were actually different number plates gleaned from different cars, and each cop had recorded only one of the numbers on the ticket. It was also soon revealed that both were expired plates. The young men could not respond to the policemen’s inquiry as to the actual registration number for their car. This led to the car getting towed to the outskirts of Budapest and a thorough search being conducted during which time, a dozen computers were found stashed in the backseat and trunk of the car.

To make a long story short, it was something of an international incident that required some top-level EU intervention to resolve. Anyone who traveled in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 2000s will remember the huge stolen car rackets that pervaded and made it nigh impossible to rent a car. After this little glitch, it was a miracle that the car was eventually released back to the young men and they were able to drive back to Brussels.

And so the moral of the story is: When in Budapest, make sure your back matches your front. Always.

Anti-wi-fi paint will make it harder to scam free Internet

The days of scamming free wireless Internet may soon be over.

Researchers at the University of Tokyo have developed a paint that blocks wifi signals. So if a room is painted with this stuff, only computers inside the room would be able to pick up a wireless signal originating there. At a projected cost of £10 ($16) a kilo, the paint would be a cheap way of keeping hackers and moochers from using your wireless to download dodgy files.

The paint is infused with an aluminum-iron oxide that blocks all radio signals at 100Ghz, the frequency at which wifi transmits.

As ingenious as this sounds, there are a couple of downsides. First, it won’t protect the user from online threats, and of more importance to travelers, it will stop people from scamming free Internet while on the go. In Madrid I can go to my local park, pop open my laptop, and surf the Internet on somebody else’s euro. I can do this in many other European capitals too. With all the new costs being added to airline tickets, it would be a shame if this travel freebie were to disappear.

Perhaps we should tell the nice folks at the University of Tokyo “thanks but no thanks”? Anybody know how to say that in Japanese?