Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Farewell to Fidel

8:00 a.m. Departure Lounge, José Marti International Airport, Havana, Cuba

This has been an interesting morning so far. 

I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to shower and head out the door to the airport. Last night, my trusty guide Jesus insisted that a friend of his would be at my front door to take me there. Sure enough, Roberto was there at 6 a.m. sharp, and wedged my backpack into the trunk of his car, along with the well-worn spare tire and a freshly filled can of gasoline. I deduced this from the overpowering fumes and the greasy rags which had been used to soak up the puddle. He had yet to say a word to me.

Roberto appeared to be around 70 years old...about the same age as his car. The interior of his ancient automobile was so tiny that even in the fetal position I could barely close the door. When he finally did speak, he sounded as if he had a sock full of gravel in his mouth. Either that or he had just come from the dentist, which seemed unlikely at 6 in the morning. He asked me in Spanish "Which terminal are you going to?” I told him I was on the Cubana Air flight to Santo Domingo.

I then (mis)understood Roberto asking which AIRPORT I wanted to go to … that there were 5 airports in Havana. “That can’t be right! I can’t think of a single city on the planet with 5 international airports!" As the fog began to clear from my sleepy brain, and I remembered that the name of the airport was José Marti. This seemed to satisfy him and off we went.

It suddenly occurred to me that I had agreed to pay him $25 but that I only had five $10 notes, so I asked him if he had smaller bills. He didn’t. We promptly stopped at a roadside eatery and he hopped out to go get change. There were tables outside which were illuminated by harsh fluorescent tubes in the the pitch darkness, and the clientele seemed to consist entirely of prostitutes on their way home from the late shift, or beginning the early shift. Either that or it was “Dress Like a Slut” Thursday at work. There was nobody in line, but it seemed to take Roberto an eternity to get change.

Once again we set off, but it soon became evident that Roberto had never been to the airport in his life. Maybe because aviation was a relatively new invention when he was born, he thought that it was just a passing fad and had lost interest. Each time we’d a approach a road sign, he’d slow down to almost a complete stop to peruse it in a leisurely fashion. At least that's what I thought until I noticed he was squinting and that we probably should have a seeing-eye dog in the car. Pretty soon I decided it would be more efficient for me to read the signs and give him directions. The road was so full of potholes that when he swerved to avoid one we’d jump about a lane and a half to the left or right.

Not only was it dark, but we were heading into a dense fog. When we came upon a sign that said “Aeropuerto 2” with an arrow pointing to the right, I assumed the airport was 2 kilometers away. We pulled up to a mostly dark building with a deserted parking lot and a few silhouetted figures sitting in the dark outside. Roberto was obviously eager to be on his way, but I kept insisting that this was not the right place, so he suggested I go ask for directions. “So let me get this straight” I thought, “You live here, you speak Spanish fluently and I don’t, you’re the one driving, we're running late, we've arrived at this empty building and you want ME to ask for directions?!?!?!"

I saw a staircase with light emanating from the door at the top, so I dashed to the top and walked down a long corridor of dark offices repeating the word “Hola?...Hola?” But to no avail. When I came back downstairs, Roberto was trying to bum a light for his cigar from one of the people sitting in the dark. Thanks pal! Just then I saw a woman in a uniform with her shirt untucked as if she was just finishing the graveyard shift emerge from the shadows and I asked her in Spanish if she knew where the terminal for international departures was. She told me that it was terminal 3 and pointed off into the fog. I could tell that Roberto was really bummed not to be rid of me.

We meandered for a while, but eventually arrived at a large modern building surrounded by lots of cars and activity.  I saw some guys in uniform and suggested we stop and ask if this was the place. He rolled down the window and I did all the talking, while Roberto sat there mute. He pulled into the parking lot which was about 1000 yards from the entrance, rather than dropping me off at the front door. Oh…and when he got change earlier, he kept his portion of it, so I wasn’t able to “adjust” his fee. Thanks for everything man!

Inside, the lower floor was dark and deserted…clearly not where the ticket counters were located. I asked for directions and when I eventually arrived at the ticket counter there was already a LOOOONG line.  I was relieved to see a beautiful, smiling attendant behind the counter until I put my glasses on and realized that it was a life-sized photograph on the wall.

Instead, the counter was manned by three guys who were not pleased to be working at 6:45 a.m. I have seen glaciers that moved at a faster pace. In addition, the queue resembled a strand of mutating DNA…large groups of people would arrive, greet someone in line and insert themselves ahead of all the passengers behind them. One guy in particular had an entourage larger than Justin Bieber's which kept growing in size with each passing minute.

We had now entered geological time….minutes stretched into eons. By the time I reached the front fo the line, several people had celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and one woman had had a baby. After paying my departure tax and finding my gate, I sat down and finally exhaled. Total time elapsed since arriving at the airport…one and a half hours.

Please don't get me wrong. I absolutely loved my month in Cuba! If only the crumbling walls and flaking paint could speak, what tales they could tell of a man who liked to write and catch big fish named Ernest Hemingway, or the scraggly-bearded but devastatingly handsome revolutionary named Che Guevara, or America's Public Enemy Number One..the flamboyant gangster named Al Capone who played high stakes poker in Havana's casinos while enjoying Cuba's finest rum and cigars and señoritas.

I found almost everyone I encountered to be friendly, helpful and eager to talk to an American who had entered the country illegally through Mexico because our government is still holding a 50 year old grudge and doesn't allow Americans to travel to Cuba without special permission. Many people said "Welcome to Cuba!" to me and treated me like family when I stayed in their homes. 

If you ever have the chance to go, jump on it. It won't be long before the Cuba I visited will be taken over by McDonald's and Starbucks and KFC.  You'll have a blast...but when you get ready to leave, just make sure you take a map in case your driver is a guy by the name of Roberto.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

First World Problems

If you’re reading this on your iPad or smart phone, you’re probably a person who struggles with First World Problems.  

I’ve spent the past two years as a vagabond, sometimes staying in places with no running water, no air-conditioning or heat, sharing a room with as many as 7 other people and sharing a bathroom with 30 other people.  I've slept on the smelly floor of a dive shop or curled up in the fetal position on a sofa too short for my not quite 6 foot length, or lay awake listening to crowing roosters or car alarms or wailing from the loud-speakers of a nearby temple at all hours of the day and night.

When I'm traveling, I seem to have a much easier time adjusting to these discomforts and shrugging them off as part of the adventure...or the makings of a tall tale to tell later. I’m usually able to convince myself that it’s the trade-off for having an amazing lifestyle...trotting around the globe for the sheer joy of it, taking photographs for my own enjoyment, reading for pleasure, writing for fun and lapping up the incredible experiences that fill my charmed life.

I thought I had become pretty adept at letting go of expectations and not being too attached to creature comforts, but for some reason when I returned to "civilization”, I found myself feeling irritated about the smallest things.  Incidentally, I could make a pretty strong argument that what passes for civilization in the First World… instant gratification, decadence and over-consumption of every description, obesity, heart disease and an ever-increasing diet of reality TV and anti-depressants…isn’t really civilization at all.

When I'm whining about running out of breakfast cereal, I try to remind myself of the many people I’ve met during my travels who struggle daily with not having enough food to eat.  I bitch to myself about the barking dogs in the neighborhood where generous friends are letting me stay in their home, while on the other side of the globe there are people I've met who live each day hoping that they don't step on a land mine left behind from a forgotten war.  

I think of the the Kenyan taxi driver who sleeps in his car or the Cambodian parents who have to decide each day whether to send their kids to school during the day or out onto the streets at night to sell trinkets...or their innocence…in order to make ends meet, and I realize that most of the things that annoy me definitely fall under the category of “First World Problems”….

For example:

1.  When I play “Words With Friends” on Facebook I have to sit through a 15 second ad before I can make my next move.

2. The car my friend loaned me for free is hard to park and gets poor gas mileage.

3.  One of the places I’ve stayed (for free) since returning to the States was a luxury yacht, but to go ashore I had to step down at least three feet and walk two and half blocks to find anything to eat.  There were so many choices it was really frustrating.  

4.  I have so much music and so many photos , TV shows and movies on my computer that when I try to do a backup I get an error message that says there’s not enough room on my external hard drive.

5.  I recently got a sinus infection and when I went to pick up my prescription, I had to wait in line for at least 10 minutes at the pharmacy.  Plus, I really need to blow my nose, but I'm completely out of Kleenex.

6.  I’m not supposed to wear my new Invisalign braces while I’m drinking coffee or red wine, which makes it really difficult to wear them enough hours a day for them to actually straighten my teeth.

7. When I go to my rowing lessons in the morning it’s really chilly.  Sometimes the temperature is in the high 40’s...Brr!

8.  At my favorite coffee shop they don’t always leave enough room in the mug for milk.

9.  The “home” button on my new iPhone is harder to press than on my previous iPhone

10. Too many friends have treated me to so much food that all my clothes are too tight.  And scheduling all these meals and happy hours takes a lot of time.

For more First World Problems visit:

Monday, June 25, 2012

Dear Caroline

The following is an email exchange between me and a friend of mine who’s an extremely talented musician and who, in the 25 years I’ve known her, has done everything in her power NOT to share her amazing talent….

dear caroline:

your homework is due.

6 weeks ago i challenged you to perform one live gig and to line up another gig by today…and you accepted my challenge.

how was your gig? did you feel nervous? excited? both? was the audience receptive? did you receive a standing ovation? or did they boo? did you leave feeling proud...that you had done your best...or that you held something back?

if you didn't perform anywhere, and you haven't lined up a gig, then i renew my challenge. the venue can be anywhere...invite someone who's a friend to join you if that'll make it easier. but you need to have something at stake. that's the difference between a professional and an amateur.  put your guitar case on the ground with the top open. or a tip jar. or a coconut shell.  

do you accept?

if you didn't step up to the plate, i invite you to ask yourself the following questions:

1. why did i accept this challenge?
2. why didn't i deliver the goods?
3. do i think i have anything to offer a musical audience? in other i "good"?
4. if the answer to #3 is no, then why not?
5. do i really want to be a musician, or do i just like the idea of being a musician?
6. what are the possible outcomes if i perform solo in front of an audience?
a. they will think i suck and i'll be revealed as the no-talent impostor i think i am.
b. they'll boo and throw rotten tomatoes at me
c. they'll tell all their friends how bad i am and i'll never be able to pick up a guitar or sing in public or show my face in this town again.
d. i will die of shame
e. i'll be the next grammy award winning female vocalist and/or songwriter of the year
f. none of the above...i will simply have the experience of performing live, of taking the challenge, of throwing my hat in the ring, of getting in the game. and...i can say to myself "you did it!"  then i can decide whether i want to do it again.

btw, if the answer to #5 is no...i love music, i love playing music and being around musicians but i just don't want to be in the spotlight or i'm not ready to take this on right now or i just want to keep music as a hobby (which is a great idea...i can’t think of a more surefire way to whip the life and soul out of something you love doing than to do it for a living) then that is completely ok...

but if the answer is "yes, i want to be a REAL musician, then why am i making excuses, which may include, but are not limited to:
a. i've been busy moving house
b. when i come home from work i'm too tired
c. i've got a lot going on right now
d. i've been preoccupied with this, that or the other thing.

just so you know…all of those excuses are exactly that…excuses. they're a smoke screen for fear. fear of failure? or maybe fear of success?  what would happen if you are really as good as i think you are...then what?

do you feel upset right now? annoyed? unjustly accused? agitated? defensive? angry? if so, then maybe what i'm saying has some truth to it. if you're not having any of those responses, then you've either got a legitimate excuse, or you're dead. which is a legitimate excuse.

by now you're probably thinking "enough already....just leave me alone!"  if so, my response is:

1. i care about you and for as long as i've known you i've thought you were an amazing musician, guitar player, singer and song writer. the world would be a better place if more people heard you play and sing...or even if they heard other people play and sing music you've written...although that wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable. by not stepping up to the plate...even if it means complete "failure" (there is no such thing by the way)...then you are depriving the rest of us…you are being selfish with your talent.

2. here's the kicker....this is actually a letter to myself.

i'll leave you with a few quotes and a link to a friend's blog. he writes music and sings and performs all the time.  has for years…and he’d be the first to tell you it’s really scary.

much love...
"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to to look fear in the face ...You must do the thing you think you cannot do."
            :: Eleanor Roosevelt ::
            "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
            Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now."
            :: Goethe ::
            "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men
            as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."
            :: Helen Keller ::


hey caroline:

i sent you an email and haven't heard back from you.

are you ok?  alive?  in a ditch?  in the hospital?

talk to me....



dear john...

I apologize for my delay in responding to your heartfelt letter...I have been composing a response since I got it...but have been in the throes of...playing music!...

so many things you said confronted is a worthy challenge to anyone pursuing a creative path...I like what you said at the end about it being a letter to you, really :)

when my assignment was due, I can say that I succeeded, at least in part to your challenge...though not completely...I spent a weekend playing my original music at the Kerrville folk's not as informal a place as you might think, I played for some heavy hitters...I was singing non-stop and stepping up to the solo plate to perform for friends and strangers alike...including some very discriminating song circles...

your questions are so valid...and I do appreciate the supportive spirit of your "assignments" are quite's high time to step up...that's what I'm have had a part in nudging me...I am grateful my friend...
again, I'm sorry for the delay to your notes...I took it seriously, and wanted to reply when I could honor both of us properly...I didn't intend to take so long...


p.s. the very day I got your second challenge I was offered a solo gig in Austin playing for a private party...I performed last weekend with my friend Will Taylor who accompanied me on viola


wow! that's fantastic news! congratulations! salud! mazel tov!

i am so pleased and tickled to hear that you're "doing it"! you seemed almost apologetic that kerrville folk festival wasn't the real deal. it IS the real deal. i actually thought of kerrville as a possible venue from the very beginning.

and isn't it interesting that no sooner had you stepped out on the tight rope than your intention attracted another opportunity to perform. not at all coincidental in my humble opinion. and the fact that it was will taylor, who has played with some big names in the music world, is further validation that others, who know alot more about music than i do, also appreciate your talent.

and to further underscore the synchronicity of all this, i was feeling "guilty"....(i hate that word and that feeling) that i hadn't posted anything to my blog lately....and i was just proof reading my latest entry when i got your message.

how 'bout them apples?



love them apples! I don't think those opportunities, born from taking the tight-rope step, are coincidental either..."one thing can lead to doesn't take any sacrifice..." (james taylor, shower the people you love with love)...

I'm happy to say I'll be opening a show for Steve Weichert at the Cactus Cafe on Sat night...July 14th too...

btw, I'm looking into a train ride from austin to flagstaff, az and the grand canyon for my 50th birthday...that. is. my. intention!

you have been such a good friend to care enough to pester me you dear...thank you...


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Gone Fishing

The other day I was walking down the sandy street which is the main thoroughfare on the tiny island of Caye Caulker, Belize.  It's lined with stalls full of T-shirts and trinkets, wood carvings and what not, and vendors calling out to the sunburned tourists passing by.

Within 90 seconds of stepping off the ferry, 3 guys offered me accommodations, 2 guys in golf carts offered to transport me to my accommodations, 2 ladies offered me handwoven blankets and another guy promised the choicest ganja in all of Central America.

After politely declining their solicitations, I was approached by a guy with an offer he was absolutely certain I couldn't refuse... a sweet deal on a deep sea fishing excursion. 

His face fell when I told him that I associate fishing with Eternal Damnation.

My grandfather used to take my younger brother and me fishing in a bass boat which he pulled on a trailer with a Louisiana license plate that bore the motto “Sportman’s Paradise”.

Paradise was exactly what I longed for as we sat in the blazing summer heat wearing long sleeves and jeans to protect us from sunburn.  The oppressive temperature was magnified by the aluminum frying pan in which we were sitting, and the reflective surface of the lake,  only inches away, it beckoned us with the promise of cool relief.  Water, water everywhere…but for fishing only.  Not swimming.

We had to sit as still as statues, watching in tortured boredom as our red and white plastic floaters bobbed on the surface of the murky lake. Time slowed to a geological pace. After an eon or so, one of us would get a nibble and the floater would be pulled below the surface.  

Jerking on our bamboo pole and then feeling the line go slack, we invariably hoisted our hook from the water to see it glinting in the scorching sun…baitless. The catfish were simply toying with us. If, during these nano-seconds of grappling with what we imagined to be leviathans from the deep, we accidentally shuffled our feet
 or let out an exclamation of excitement, we received a heavy sigh 
and/or a reprimand for frightening the fish.  What fun!

When we finally abandoned our futile efforts and headed back to the green Ford LTD that had been baking in the scorching sun all afternoon, we had to endure a 2 hour nausea-inducing ride that was much like the seventh circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno.  Once we got home, we’d sit around in the back yard swatting mosquitoes while grand dad fired up a bubbling cauldron of oil, followed by a dinner of fried fillets full of tiny bones...washed down with iced tea, the house wine of the South.

Afterwards, there’d be the interminable wait while grand dad poured rock salt into the ice-cream maker and hand-cranked it for an eternity. Even as a child it baffled me why someone who was born before electricity was in wide-spread use wouldn't want to take full advantage of it. Long after dark and the fireflies were headed home to bed, we’d have a taste of the gooey, runny white concoction which many people nostalgically remember as “home made vanilla ice cream”. 

All of that to say that when someone invites me on a fishing trip, I’d rather sign up for 8 hours stuck in an elevator with an insurance salesman followed by a colonoscopy. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

I've Dived and Gone to Heaven

Can you spot the shark in this photo before it spots you? ©

As I descended the buoy line into the increasingly cold, dark and murky abyss...unable to see the bottom, or more than 10 feet in front of me, I could hear only the sound of my breathing and feel the bubbles rising past my ears as I exhaled through my regulator.
I felt like a flag flapping in the wind as my body swung perpendicular to the rope in the powerful current. I was already shivering when my mask began to fill with icy water.  The thought went through my mind that if I lost my grip I’d be swept into the middle of the Pacific Ocean where the likelihood of anyone finding me would be slim.  I was reminded of the poster for the movie “Alien”….In outer space no one can hear you scream.

The four of us finally reached the bottom...125 feet below the surface.  Letting go of the rope and clinging precariously to the rocks, we inched our way hand over hand until we reached a lookout point frequented by large reef sharks.  Peering down from our perch atop an underwater cliff, the rocky wall below us plunged into a deeper, darker pit of blackness.  

To make matters worse, the dive computer strapped to my wrist was beeping manically, alerting me that I needed to head to the surface NOW.  The deeper you dive, the more slowly you need to ascend in order to avoid the risk of decompression sickness, paralysis or even death. But I didn't have much choice....I could either leave the group and take a chance on not being able to find my way back in the semi-twilight terrain around me, or I could stay until the rest of the group was ready to ascend.  But at that depth and chilly temperature, combined with the effort required to advance into the powerful current, I was consuming a lot more air than usual.

Meanwhile, my dive computer continued to rack up the number of minutes I would need to ascend in order to get rid of the nitrogen that was rapidly accumulating in my tissues and bloodstream.  It was like sitting in a taxi in the middle of a traffic jam watching the fare climb higher and higher without getting any closer to your destination.  To continue to ignore it would not only put me in serious danger but would also render my computer useless for subsequent dives, since it to "punishes" you by shutting down completely for 24 hours if you disregard the warnings for too long.
When we finally began our ascent, without having seen a single shark, my computer indicated that I needed 16 minutes to ascend 125 feet.  That's the equivalent of walking at a pace of 2 steps per minute on a chilly day wearing nothing but your underwear.  That’s slow.  And cold!  Oh...and don't forget...there was an increasingly high probability that I would run out of air.  I watched the needle on my pressure gauge drop from 200 to 150 to 100.  As we inched our way up the buoy line, I narrowly avoided impaling my hand on the rusty barbs of a fish hook that was imbedded in the rope.  Needless to say, I made it back to the surface safely, albeit with a tank that was almost empty.  I loved every minute of it.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve dived in water so crystal clear that it created the optical illusion that the boat was hovering in mid-air above the ocean floor. The water temperature was like taking a bath as the sunlight played on the coral and the schools of multi-colored fish that swarmed around us. 

The feeling of gliding effortlessly and weightlessly through a world that is inhabited by creatures which bear absolutely no resemblance to their terrestrial counterparts is like no other.  White-tipped reef sharks that stopped evolving a million years ago because they reached the apex of efficiency with regard to killing their prey.   Yellow and black and white striped angel fish swimming in pairs with long streamers trailing from their dorsal and pectoral fins.  

Lobsters and octopi hiding in the cracks and crevices of rocks.  Moray eels as thick as your upper arm with faces that would make an atheist believe in The Devil.  Graceful sea turtles gliding by as if in slow motion....which you soon discover is not the case if you try to follow one.  Kind of like watching a plane land, their speed is deceptive.  Puffer fish, squirrel fish, clown fish, tarpin.  Slow-moving, slack-jawed grouper that look like the village idiots compared to all the clever or comical looking fish around them. 

Huge sea fans and coral with ridges and grooves that look like a massive brain.  Tube sponges of neon red and yellow and green. Starfish of every size and description and picturesquely peaceful outcroppings on the faces of underwater cliffs that make you want to build an underwater house and live there.

There's a sensation of flying, of being on another planet, of being in an altered state of consciousness...of dreaming and yet feeling completely lucid. The colors and shapes that defy description.  The strange beings that look like aliens...manta rays, sting rays, eagle rays...creatures that would boggle the imagination of Dr. Seuss.

The sense of camaraderie you feel with those in your dive group...knowing that you're looking out for them and they're looking out for you.  At least that's the idea, anyway. The sense of danger and the need to stay alert and to keep your wits about you. The hyper-awareness of everything around you but also the sense that if you pay attention, if you check your equipment, if you stay close to your buddy and you don't do something careless or stupid, it really is a safe sport. Having done over two hundred dives I've seen very few mishaps…and most of those were the result of my own carelessness.

Whether I’m diving in claustrophobic caves, or the deep, dark depths, swimming with sharks, navigating by flashlight while night diving, struggling against strong currents, swimming through shipwrecks with the ghosts of drowned sailors, enjoying a bird’s eye view of the reef below, or descending through a coral archway as shafts of blue sunlight play on the surreal landscape and the creatures who’ve allowed me share their company, diving is a portal to an amazing and alternate universe. 

"All fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals carry within their veins the elements of sodium, potassium, and calcium in almost the same proportions as the oceans. The "sea" within us has the same saltiness as the Precambrian seas of three billion years ago. Rachel Carson, in her book The Sea Around Us, gives us a clue to our origins: "When the animals went ashore to take up life on land, they carried part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they passed on to their children and which even today links each land animal with its origins in the ancient sea."  :: Prentice K. Stout

Sunday, May 13, 2012

My Top 10 Favorite Things

Preface:  Unless you're passionate about traveling and love gadgets, you won't enjoy reading this blog post. However, if you're a geek like me, strap on your money belt with the secret compartment and check out these cool tools...

There are certain personal belongings everyone loves to have with them when they travel.  

For some it might be a blow-dryer or a set of golf clubs.  For others, a scented candle or a chainsaw for that special occasion.  And if you're an international spy,  don’t leave home without a white dinner jacket and a pair of night vision goggles.

As I begin my 21st month of travel, having culled my worldly possessions down to about 100 items ( today I got rid of a pair of shoes, a wind-breaker, a wool cap, a pair of gloves and a thermal undershirt) here's a list of my favorites: 

#1 and #2: iPhone with Mophie Juice Pack

These are the two most useful items I own….they have saved my bacon more times than I can count.  I can access Google maps, check my email, verify foreign currency exchange rates, translate any language and read books I've downloaded.  

I much prefer turning the pages of an actual book, but it's not practical to lug them around.  I have almost 150 books on my phone which enables me to make use of time on trains, planes and automobiles.  Plus, it's slightly less obvious that I'm a clueless tourist when I discreetly consult my Lonely Planet guide on my phone rather than ostentatiously unfolding a map that's 2 feet square.

When I arrive in a new country, the first thing I do after going to the ATM machine at the airport is to buy a local pre-paid SIM card.  This only works if your phone is "unlocked".  Chances are your phone ISN'T unlocked unless you purchased it without signing a contract, or you paid someone to unlock it. Once it's unlocked, it will work with with any SIM card anywhere.

Beware:  Unlocking your phone will void the warranty and means you won't be able upgrade  phone's software without running the risk of having problems with your phone. You'll need your passport to buy a phone or a SIM card. 

If you're a short term traveler, this isn't a practical solution.  What you CAN do is download apps like Skype or Viber which allow you to make phone calls to any number anywhere for very little money or even for free.  The only hitch is that you have to be in a wifi environment for this to work.  The other solution is to buy an inexpensive local phone and then remove the SIM card and give the phone away when you leave.  Or, you can try to sell or trade it. (I traded one in Fiji for a massage!)  

Because many of the applications mentioned above put a lot of drain on the phone's battery, the Mophie Juice Pack is a extremely handy accessory which fits snugly around the phone like a stream-lined case, and is an external battery.  When not in use, it can be turned off, and can be charged via a USB cable from your computer.

#3 and #4: 13" MacBook Pro and Verbatim External Hard Drives 

I love it in a way that is unnatural for a man to love a machine. I love it for its ability to do all of the above, plus it’s the repository for all my thoughts, travel schedule, emails and photos. It has enough horse-power and hard drive space for me to run Adobe Photoshop and to store hundreds of high resolution photos.  It's not the lightest or least expensive computer on the market, so you might want to consider one of the options below.

I see a lot of other travelers whose primary need for a computer is to check email and store photos.  There are very small laptops made by Acer and Hewlett Packard as well as the ubiquitous iPad.  There's now an iPad case which even includes an external keyboard.

Equally handy are my two 500GB external hard drives...the smallest ones money can buy....made by Verbatim.  I make a double back up of all my photos and keep them in a separate place from my computer.  I hear so many travelers talking about losing all their photos when the have their camera stolen.  The question is not "will I lose/break my camera/memory card?" but "when?".  Like death and taxes, it is inevitable.

A battery powered toothbrush?  Seriously? You bet.  

I used to think this was quite an least until I stayed in a dorm recently with a Dutch couple who had "his and hers" ultra-sonic toothbrushes with plug in chargers and matching carrying cases.  Now THAT's some serious oral hygiene.

I've heard you're supposed to brush your teeth for two minutes.  That's about as much time as it takes to sing all 6 stanzas of "Amazing Grace."  I'm lucky if I make through a rushed version of "Happy Birthday" before I spit in the sink and call it a day.  But what I lack in quality I make up for in quantity. So I brush several times a day.

At age 53 I still don’t like to brush or floss my teeth, so an electric toothbrush makes that chore a little more palatable.

Wherever I lay my head, or whenever I fly, I can absolutely guarantee you that one of the following will begin within 30 seconds:

• A dog howling
• A cat fight
• A rooster sounding the 3 a.m.
• A circular saw
• A pile driver
• A jack hammer
• A sledge hammer
• A baby screaming
• A woman screaming

The question I'm asked most frequently is "What kind of camera do you use?"  The answer is the Canon PowerShot G12.

When I first started my trip I had two digital SLR bodies, 3 lenses, an external flash, a monopod, an underwater housing and an underwater flash.  After three months, I got tired of lugging all that stuff around, and I found that for the vast majority of situations, I was using my compact camera. 

It's small enough to fit in my pocket so I can carry it all times, which means I'm able to capture a lot more of those "fleeting moments" than I would if I were fumbling to get my SLR out of the bag and find the right lens.  Not to mention the fact that I'm a lot less conspicuous, making me less of a target for theft

I always ask someone if I can take their photo, unless they're far enough away that they won't be recognizable, and if they still decline after a few polite attempts to persuade them, I don't try to "sneak" a photo.  During my travels I've had a few people try to take photos of me without asking, and it's a really creepy feeling. 

The great thing about the internet and digital photography is that if someone has an email address, it's a simple matter to send the photos to them.  But please don't promise to do that if you're not going to follow through.  It gives the rest of us a bad name.

I’m on my 4th Canon G12 because I keep dropping them, losing them and scratching them.  I've learned my lesson and I now keep mine on a lanyard that I made from heavy duty nylon rope that I keep clipped to my belt  when not in use.  I also keep the strap around my wrist when using the camera, not only to avoid dropping it, but to minimize the risk of someone snatching it out of my hand and making a dash for it.  Unless you've actually won a medal for sprinting, and have some advanced qualification in martial arts, beware if a stranger approaches asking if you'd like them to take a photo of you with your own camera.  Many an unsuspecting tourist has lost their camera this way.

Really handy when walking at night where the sidewalks are uneven, or full of 6 foot deep holes, or where there are no sidewalks.  

Also particularly handy when there's a power failure in the middle of the night.  

I keep mine on the bedside table or in within easy reach it's dark.  And by the way, you look like a dork if you wear it during the daytime, so don't forget to take it off when you wake up.

A bit on the heavy side, but handy to have.  It has every tool from a saw to a Phillips head screw driver to an awl for punching holes in leather, should you need to tighten your belt.  

Within the past week I’ve used the corkscrew for medicinal purposes, the pliers to adjust the settings on an air-conditioner that had all the knobs broken off (classy place), the beer opener (some people refer to this as a “bottle opener”), the scissors for opening a pesky package on a bar of soap, and the knife blade for spreading peanut butter.  

But I always have to remember to put it in my checked luggage when I'm on my way to the airport.  I missed a flight once because I got nabbed by security for having it in my carry-on, and it's too expensive to throw away.

These are ideal for shampoo, sunscreen, vodka, vitamins, ibuprofen etc.

We've all had the experience of arriving at our destination, opening our toilet kit and finding a gooey mess because something has exploded all over everything.  I don't know why product manufacturers package ANYTHING intended for travel in a container that doesn't have a screw-on lid.

The other option is to pack everything in plastic bags, but when your bottles leak, and they will, you still have to rinse out the bag, wait for it to dry, or find a new one.  When you're on the move as much as I am, that's just no fun.

There's only thing that's really missing from my travel accoutrements and that is a quiver of...

Ideally, these would each be filled with a different dose of extra strength horse tranquilizer...starting with just a few drops for screaming children sitting near me on airplanes, departure lounges and in restaurants.  A slightly larger dose would quiet the barking dog next door.  And an adult dose to restore the peace and quiet that has been disrupted by the guy who insists on hammering before 7 a.m.

Footnote: I just realized that 6 of my 10 items require batteries...and one of them IS a battery!  When there's no way to charge them, they become very expensive paper weights...with the exception of the toothbrush, which can still be used as a weapon or a jaunty fashion accessory. 

What would Robinson Crusoe say...if he had access to email or a cell phone?