Jumping feet first into planetary exploration is a scary proposition at the best of times, but most travellers soon develop their own coping strategies. I've tried war cries, running up mountains, treating myself and opting out, but perhaps one of the most effective has been to pack the right kit.
You see, it doesn't take long for the contents of your pack to become your friends. For example, I've travelled with the same Balinese sarong for 15 years and we've been through some really tough times together (I'm sure I paid over the odds for it in Kuta, but I still got my money's worth); I'm still using the same waterproof document wallets that I took on my first trip in 1995, and they're stained with ink and dirt from six continents, just like me; and although it's on its third incarnation, the Australian bush hat I'm wearing contains the same guiding spirit as the one I received as a Christmas gift in Melbourne in 1995. They're perhaps less of a mental crutch now that I'm no longer travelling solo, but there's no doubt that some of my travelling possessions are psychologically important.
One of my favourites over the years has been my water filter. I bought my first one in 1997 in Queensland just before I headed off to Southeast Asia, and although I didn't use it all the time, it gave me the freedom to head off anywhere without worrying about where to find drinking water. It could filter out all known viruses and bacteria using no more than elbow grease, and I loved it, only retiring it after six years once the cracks literally began to show. In preparation for this trip, I was at work, checking out the price of a new filter online, when the guy sitting opposite me casually mentioned that he'd once seen someone purify water simply by shining a torch at it for a minute. I didn't believe him at first, but a quick internet search led me to the Steripen website, and a whole new world of possibilities suddenly opened up.
The Steripen, which comes in a handful of models that all work on the same principle, is essentially an ultraviolet light that you dip into a bottle of suspect water for about 90 seconds. The UV doesn't kill the bacteria or viruses, but instead it scrambles their DNA, so they can't reproduce; this makes the water safe to drink, all in 90 seconds. Compared to 20 minutes for sterilising tablets and a fair amount of pumping effort for a water filter, this sounded almost too good to be true, so I worked out that the best model for me was the £50 Steripen Traveler and clicked 'Buy' without a second thought, added some high power rechargeable batteries and a charger to the pot, and settled back to wait for the postman.
When it popped through the door, I immediately tested it on a litre of tap water, and sure enough the little light came on and shut off 90 seconds later, leaving sterilised water in its wake. It was amazing; this little gadget suddenly meant we could safely drink tap water for our entire trip, as the UV lamp is good for 3000 treatments, which easily covers a year's worth of travelling. Sorted!
Except it hasn't quite turned out that way. The first thing I did when we arrived in Mexico was to fish out my Steripen and test it out on the local water. I pressed the button, immersed the light in the water, and... hey, that's not right, the lamp isn't coming on and the LED's gone red, not green. So out it comes and goes back in for another try after I've dried off the contacts, and this time the LED starts flashing a message: three red flashes followed by one green flash. Hang on, there's a little manual here that tells me what that means... let's see, three red then one green... oh. 'Lamp failure; replace lamp,' it says, and no matter how many times I try, it does the same thing.
So what might have been one of the coolest and most useful travelling items I've ever had has turned out to be completely and utterly useless before we've even got started. It definitely worked in the UK and it definitely doesn't work now, and there's nothing I can do because the only people who can fix the UV lamp are the manufacturer or a 'licensed technician', neither of whom hang out in Mexico. I carefully carried it in my hand luggage from London, but presumably it died somewhere in transit, from a severe case of manufacturing mediocrity.
So there you go: the Steripen Traveler. It clearly can't travel, and it's now Mexican landfill, less than an hour after our arrival. We'll just have to enjoy the fun of drinking bottled water for a year, and in the meantime I'm kicking myself for not buying a replacement for my good old water filter. We had some good times, and now I feel like an erring husband who's gone off with the secretary, only to find that it just isn't the same as life with the wife.
Sorry, water filter. I miss you, and so do sarong and bush hat...