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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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]

This location had absolutely tall!

Apologies for the insane article title, it’s one of the results of passing a piece of text through “Blahblahfish“, a fun yet useless re-translator.

The site takes any text you enter, and translates it to one of the 28 languages supported by the translation site, then translates that back to English again.

“This location had absolutely tall” is actually “this site is absolutely fantastic” in English to Croatian and back.

The purpose? None. But it makes for some absolutely hilarious results. The “highest rated” Blahblahfish translation managed to turn “Oh Shit!” into “Human waste of Ohio” when passed through English to Korean and back. Passing “George Bush” through a Latin translator, yields “Agricultural Shrub”.

Of course, if you need a way to justify wasting 10 minutes of your life on creating gobbledygook text, then you could always claim you are doing scientific research on automated translation sites, but the real lesson here is that online translation sites are horrible at doing their job, and that using them for anything serious might be a bad idea.

(Via our friends at Download Squad)

One for the Road – China: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

As a sidebar to this month’s Chinese Buffet series, throughout August, One for the Road will highlight travel guides, reference books and other recommended reads related to life or travel in China.

Did I mention that I read an entire book while on the train from Beijing to Shanghai? While browsing at the Foreign Language Bookstore on Wangfujing Dajie in Beijing, I came across a copy of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Since my backpack was already overloaded with guidebooks, I really had no business buying another book, but this tiny paperback was whispering to me. After I learned that the plot revolved around a secret trunk of forbidden books, I knew I had to have it.

The tale begins in the summer of 1968, when two boys, both sons of doctors, are sent to a “re-education camp” during the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The story revolves around their friendship, the beautiful little seamstress and a mysterious collection of Western classics, hidden in a suitcase in the home of their friend “Four Eyes”. Anyone with a passion for literature will probably find this historical novel to be a quick and enjoyable read. (It’s perfect reading material for an all day train trip through China too!) Written by Dai Sijie, a Chinese filmmaker who has lived in France since 1984, a movie version of the book opened the Cannes Film Festival in 2002.

One for the Road: Journey to the Land of Flies

Apart from Playboy’s new travel-inspired book, One for the Road focused on international literary translations this week. And to wrap things up, here’s a final suggestion that I spied over at Critical Mass. The National Book Critics Circle blog is asking writers to recommend foreign translations in support of Reading the World, and yesterday’s interview unearthed another travel-related translation from an Italian writer:

Journey to the Land of Flies and Other Travels is a collection of stories by former architect and publisher Aldo Buzzi. These witty musings about food, philosophy and 19th Century Russian literature are not what some would consider traditional travel writing. But Buzzi’s journeys to places like Jakarta, Sicily and Moscow do evoke his experience of each particular place, as he ponders vodka, cabbage and cockroaches from these distinct corners of the globe. I really like the sound of this one. Thank goodness for translators–Ciao!

One for the Road: Japan – A Traveler’s Literary Companion

Whereabouts Press publishes a small but well-done series of literary guides for only a dozen countries (like Mexico, Chile, Israel) and a few cities (Amsterdam and Prague). A few months ago I devoured their 2006-released Japan edition: Japan: A Traveler’s Literary Companion is a magical collection of original works by Japanese writers that have each been translated into English.

The stories are organized geographically, taking readers along on journeys to places like Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Kumano, Okinawa and Tokyo. Donald Richie’s foreword points to the concept of “furusato”, a term that carries more meaning than its translation “hometown”. This theme of revisiting or returning weaves through all the stories, as each one paints a picture for the reader of the deep relationship that exists between person and place.

There seems no better way to explore the culture of another country (besides actually being there) than by reading literature from a variety of voices native to the land. This is an excellent place to begin any journey through Japan.