It could be the most important piece of kit you take on your trip, yet it takes up the least amount of space. No, I’m not talking about your id (unless your id is spongy, divided in two and comes out of your ears), I’m talking about earplugs, without which I would have been deprived of many a night’s sleep in the past 20 years.
Of course, if you’re the sort of person that can sleep through a Napalm Death gig (as I did once in a Birmingham nightclub (although the several alcoholic beverages I had consumed may have contributed to my sleepiness at that time)) you are now only reading this for the thoroughly entertaining anecdote that will inevitably follow this wafer-thin introduction.
[In fact, let’s just dispense with the pretence altogether – they’re soft bits of foam you stick in your ears; how much difference can there be between a good pair and a bad pair? I haven’t even tried the Lifeventure ones; I usually buy mine from the chemist. My secret’s out: this blog is a sham. For shame, for shame!]
Of course there can be major differences between good and bad earplugs (the foam compound; the ergonomic shape etc) but that’s not the point. The point is that earplugs are essential equipment for a bad sleeper like myself. Nodding off should be one of the simplest things in the world, yet after 42 years I still haven’t got the hang of it. Add to that the variety of berths and comfort levels encountered on your average third-world sojourn and I’m lucky I ever get a full night’s rest.
Trying to get a bit of shuteye on trains, planes and automobiles is bad enough, but stray dogs are the worst. Ah, street hounds – the bane of the developing world. In every city, in every country in Africa, South America or Asia (except Singapore) you’ll hear the chorus: the initial brief bark, inspired by God-knows-what, taken up immediately by all the surrounding mutts and amplified like the ripple of an earthquake, the epicentre unfailingly right outside my bloody window!
And then there’s the other phenomenon – the soloist. In this scenario a particularly persistent pavement special will repeatedly emit a short, sharp bark at three-second intervals for the entire night. I can’t believe the doggedness of some of these creatures: every three seconds – all night. How is anyone supposed to relax while anticipating the next instalment? It’s like a Chinese water torture.
As you can see, I’ve spent a good while contemplating these variations. Well, I’ve had plenty of time to do so, time also spent berating myself for forgetting to pack my earplugs.
Stray dogs aren’t just an aural menace though - they can be downright dangerous. One early morning in the Rajasthani city of Jaisalmir, India, springs to mind. As usual, I had to leave my accommodation at around 5am to get to the bus station, which was outside the city walls. Despite being prolific to the point of infestation during the day time there’s never a bloody auto-rickshaw around when you actually need one, so I began walking to the station.
Pretty soon I heard the patter of tiny feet behind me - a mutt looking for a scrap of food, so I ignored it. The paws were joined by others – news travels fast – but still I paid them no heed. The pre-dawn streets were dark and completely empty of humans but the occasional street light was all I needed to navigate to the city gate. Even so, I started to feel uneasy at my unwanted entourage. As the pack grew it became emboldened and I heard the first growls from behind me.
‘What’s all that about?’ I was wondering, when all of a sudden it occurred to me that they might be growling at me. Surely they wouldn’t be threatening me, a human, in the middle of a city? They wouldn’t dare, the mangy curs! Oh, but they would. The growling increased, as did my pace. I’d never considered the danger of being attacked by a pack of stray dogs before. What a way to go!
The rumbling of growls was constant now and some daring individuals began to make initial forays towards my person, and not for the purpose of licking my hand. They were clearly on the verge of attack. Shit was getting serious and I was really starting to think about initiating the first stages of crapping myself when the monumental stone archway that marked the boundary of Jaisalmir hove into view. I literally bounded through it. Outside was just as dark and deserted but, as I’d hoped, the urban wolves respected the limit of their territory and hung back, deprived of their breakfast.
And that’s the closest I’ve ever come to being devoured by a pack of hungry dogs!