Travel Technology: It’s What It *Does*, Stupid

MikeachimThe Everyday16 Comments

Fevered Mutterings image - Mystery Bag, by JD Hancock - Flickr

What stuff do you need to go travelling?

Let’s pretend we’re back at school, and that’s an essay question. What are we trained to do? Break down. (The question, I mean). We disassemble into its component concepts, in search of the tricksiest.

And what’s the troublesome word here?


I have a real problem with that word – because I’m needy. Not in the “talk to me or I’m going to bawl into a tub of ice-cream” way. In the sense that I find everything fascinating.

No, really. Have you ever really, truly looked at [insert some mundane object here]? It’s AMAZING. We live in a world of invisible, endlessly entertaining miracles. Have something you want to sell me? I’m sold! In fact I’d be the perfect consumer, were it not for the tragic fact that I have no money. Everything commands my attention, which is why I often neurologically short out in public and stand there, drooling and gently soiling myself.

It’s because the world is so fascinating.

For this reason, I’m bewildered when people use the word “bored”. Are we occupying the same reality? Hey, Bored Person, here’s a list of things you should do before you are allowed to use the b-word – and yes, I’m sorry it’s rather long, it’s because there’s Absolutely Everything on it. Off you pop now.

Not everyone is as easily impressed as me – but it’s a fact that we’re all overwhelmed with desirable objects. We just can’t cram things into our lives fast enough. And that’s the way other people like it. Out there are fabulously clever folk who know how to design, make and promote things that instantly become necessities the moment we start playing. (My most recent example? Evernote. What did I do before Evernote? It probably involved banging rocks together). Such marvels feel like they complete us, by erasing our older memories of feeling complete. It’s mystical and magical.

It’s also how to end up travelling the world with useless crap.

Fevered Mutterings Image - Eternal Wanderer, by mamnaimie - Flickr

The problem arises when the emotional component of “need” swamps the practical one. Case in point: last month, my beloved Kindle was either mislaid or stolen at Heathrow Airport. I discovered it was gone when I boarded my flight to Frankfurt and reached into my bag, ready to let George RR Martin take away my flight nerves. I rummaged. I dug. I turfed everything out. Gone. Gone. I slid into a miserable funk. When the inflight drinks arrived and I was handed orange juice, I asked the air hostess for something stronger. She gave me stronger orange juice. (And they say Germans don’t have a sense of humour). Sober and utterly without reading material, I resorted to playing a game that involved applying just enough knee-pressure to the seat in front for the occupant to shift uncomfortably, but not enough for them to realise I was to blame. This passed the time nicely. (The lesson: misanthropic psychological warfare is a great way to get over a fear of flying).

In Austria, I downloaded Kindle for Android, and all the books I was reading (ta, Amazon).

And in doing so…I realised I didn’t really need a Kindle anymore.

Oh, I wanted one. I wanted one so bad that its absence was like emotional toothache. Inwardly I pined and wailed – but I still read my books on my phone. And you know what? It was fine. No, it was great. It was everything I needed from an ebook reader. And I shudder to say this, but…it still is everything I need.

Sure, I want a new Kindle – but I can survive without one, thankyouverymuch.

It’s a difficult process, stripping away the layers of want to find that kernal of need. Context is important. That’s why travelling is a great way to find out if something is useless, cumbersome crap. It’s also a great way to lug useless, cumbersome crap around, having seasoned travellers and hotel staff laugh at you pityingly until the day you lose your patience and stuff the offending article in a stranger’s half-open bin. Nothing breeds self-contempt like an unnecessarily heavy backpack or suitcase. (In Greece, I ended throwing away my suitcase, choosing the lesser evil of a single  rucksack so overladen it was nearly spherical).

That approach is best avoided. You’re better off deciding what you need in advance.

But how?

My best answer is one that the beauty-loving part of me hates. It’s a grimly mechanical view of the world. It’s utilitarian – and I hate utilitarian. It’s the following simple question:

What does it do?

If I’m going travelling, my rule of thumb is to choose function over form. Does it do the same job as something larger and heavier, equally if not more reliably? Then I don’t care how it looks. I don’t care if it’s a piece of Hello Kitty merchandise, or plastered with Justin Bieber’s intensely irritating face – it goes in. And nuts to my social credibility (if I have any left, that is).

Fevered Mutterings image - Hunny Bunny, by Lita Bosch - Flickr

And there’s another benefit to uglifying your possessions, as Shannon O’Donnell notesthey’re less likely to get stolen. Have an expensive camera? Wind duct-tape around it until it’s an eyesore. Smartphone? Make it look it’s freshly repaired by an idiot who clearly knows nothing about technology, ie. you. Visually brand yourself as the kind of person who wouldn’t carry anything worth stealing.

I’ll admit – I find all this tough. I love gadgets and oddities, and I’m easily prone to daydreams of how I’d use them when I travel (“YES, this Inflatable Turkey would be just *perfect* for…hell, I don’t care, I just want it!”). I’m a hoarder. But most of my squirrelling tendencies, born of immediately being smitten with the idea of something rather than the reality of something, can’t survive the What Does It Do line of enquiry. That’s how I best spot unneceessary crap before it has a chance to clamber onto my shoulders…

So what about you? How do you decide what you really, truly need to pack?

Image: mamnamie, Lita Bosch and JD Hancock.