Traveling with Technology

People have asked us what we have on us, in terms of gadgets, and we thought that it would be illuminating to do a post on technology. First, an inventory:

– MacBook laptop computer and charger
– 3 external hard drives
– stack of blank DVDs and CDs
– 1 FireWire cable
– 3 USB cables
– thumb drive

– Canon digital SLR camera
– four lenses
– filters, extra lens caps
– 5 backup batteries
– two chargers
– 14 GB in compact flash
– compact flash reader
– Canon S70 for backup, videos and underwater use
– underwater casing for the S70

– iPod touch and cable
– GPS unit for geocoding with two chargers (wall and car)
– two backup batteries for GPS unit
– Motorola cell phone and backup battery
– flashlights / headlamps
– two watches and an alarm clock
– various adaptors

How many outlets do we need in our hotel room? Only one, but that’s because we also carry a power strip.

A rundown:

A computer is pretty much essential for our trip. First, given the volume of photographs that Derek takes, it would be simply impracticable to store the photographs any other way than by carrying our own personal computer. The computer is also essential for processing the photographs, both for selling and for posting on the blog. Second, having the computer lets us write blog entries and emails offline, for uploading when there is an internet connection. Third, having our own computer along simplifies handling of our finances and other affairs back home. The choice of a MacBook was a no-brainer (especially helpful, Macs have great WiFi reception and handling). Why three external drives? One for supplemental space because our MacBook hard drive was not big enough (although we recently installed a new 320 GB drive), another (the only USB 2.0 drive, the others being FireWire) for backups and the third an emergency drive with the system and other essential software in case we have some sort of failure on the MacBook drive. The thumb drive is for moving files to/from internet cafe computers when we cannot hook up our laptop directly.

Getting our laptop online deserves perhaps its own discussion. The cheapest and most convenient access is, of course, free WiFi. We’ve found free WiFi not only in upscale cafes and restaurants all over the world but in some budget hotels. In relatively developed places, an open network can be found using our iPod Touch simply by walking down the street, and we’ve used such random open networks in cities such as Hamedan in Iran and Kashgar in China. In heavily touristed places, such as parts of India and Indonesia, and in some other relatively sophisticated places, such as Damascus and Kuala Lumpur, internet cafes have had desks set up for customer laptops–you simply connect via ethernet and pay the same rate as you would for a computer. Some Chinese hotels (including notably the Super 8 chain) offer free wired access, and in a couple instances we’ve paid the extortionate rates for access at more upscale hotels. Getting our own computer online is far more efficient than using an internet cafe computer, as you might imagine.

The camera equipment is pretty self-explanatory. We purchased a second charger in Iran because, a couple times, we found ourselves dangerously close to not having sufficient batteries charged and because the charger was a weak link–if something happened to it in a remote location, we would be without the use of our camera. Our backup camera uses the same battery as the SLR, allowing us to travel with one set of batteries and chargers.

The “others” category requires perhaps the most explanation:

– We use the iPod touch not only for listening to podcasts on long bus rides, but also as a WiFi detector. If we’re walking along a commercial street in a decent-sized city in a reasonably developed country, odds are not bad that someone will have left an open WiFi signal, and we can do some quick emailing and surfing using the iPod itself or sit down and take out our MacBook. The iPod touch is also a great tool for photo show-and-tell.
– We purchased a Wintec G-Rays 2 GPS logger in Taipei and use it in combination with HoudahGPS and HoudahGeo to geotag all our photos. We aren’t currently doing anything with the GPS data, but we figure, in the future, we can put together some interesting displays using the data. The GPS battery lasts only one day and is our “weakest link,” power-wise, and so we carry around a car-charger for it as well (which we used in Tajikistan).
– We decided to carry a phone for a few reasons. For one, we thought it useful in case of an emergency. Second, while roaming rates for calls are too expensive for casual use, we can use the phone to send/receive SMSs to/from friends and family, or people we meet on the road (since other long-term travelers also generally have phones). Finally, in countries where we are staying for a few weeks, we buy local SIM cards (generally quite cheap) and use the phone to make local calls, such as for making hotel reservations. We chose a Motorola phone that can be charged through our computer over USB so that we would not have to carry a separate charger.
– We carry around two headlamps and one flashlight, all LEDs.

We may be able to trim one hard drive, but all of our other gear is pretty essential to what we want to accomplish on the road. Every time we settle into a room, we take stock of what needs to be charged; if we are without power for a day or two (such as remote locations or overnight transport), we are even more careful the next day. The weight is considerable–probably more than our clothes, although perhaps less than the books we carry. Theft risk means that we are extremely careful, carrying on our person or storing in our hotel room the most valuable items depending on the risk profile of a given country. Ever since meeting in Ethiopia a Japanese couple that had had their laptop (with thousands of photos and many months of journal entries) stolen from their Egyptian hotel room, we tend to err on the side of carrying it on our person (trading risk of hotel theft for increased risk of physical damage). When packing we take care to separate redundant systems into separate packs in case one is lost or stolen.

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