Now there’s a hoopy frood who really knows where her sarong is!
Is there any book more quotable than The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Probably. But Douglas Adams’ absurdist tale of the hapless Arthur Dent and his journeys across the stars has to rate pretty highly. Whether it’s the meaning of life (42, of course), a plummeting whale, or a drink that’s like being hit in the head with a lemon wrapped in a brick, Adams’ wit is eminently quotable, and strangely relevant to a thousand situations.
But while I’m on the road, there’s one part of the Guide that comes to mind more than any other – Adams’ ode to the towel.
The many uses of the towel
A towel, Adams asserts, is the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can carry. It has a myriad of uses, both practical and psychological, from escaping hungry beasts on strange faraway planets, to convincing non-hitchhikers that the hitchhiker is really a person of integrity, to even drying one’s self off with it, if it’s still clean enough. A towel is so useful, Adams explains, that it’s created a whole new phrase in the hitchhiking lexicon – now there’s a hoopy frood who really knows where their towel is! (hoopy = really together person, frood = really amazingly together person).
Towels are, I agree, a very useful item, but for the modern, non-interstellar backpacker, I would like to make a slight alteration to Adams’ idea – it’s not a towel you need to bring, it’s a sarong.
The Swiss army knife of clothing
A sarong is the most useful item you can have in your backpack. It’s the Swiss army knife of clothing items. You can wear it, obviously, but it’s so much more than a skirt. With a little creativity or youtubing, you can figure out how to make your sarong into trousers, a shirt, a cardigan, a vest, a belt, a hat, different styles of dress or skirt, and nearly anything else you can think of. And it’s not just for women – there are many sarongs with designs aimed at men, and many ways for both sexes to wear them. In fact, sarongs are standard menswear in countries like Fiji, Thailand and Cambodia, just to name a few.
A sarong can also be used like a towel. You can lay on it on the Sihanoukville beach in southern Cambodia, or spread it out as a picnic blanket in Central Park, New York. You can dry off with it on the beach or at the hostel on Caye Caulker, Belize, or string it up for some shade while island hopping the Caribbean. It could be a flag or a sail or a banner or an emergency signal. You can wrap things up in it, from your wet swimmers on the Gold Coast to some groceries in Hanoi to your laundry in Greece, and with a few careful knots you can turn it into a bag or even a little backpack. It’s a perfect blanket for an overly air-conditioned bus cruising down the Pan-American Highway in Mexico, or an unexpectedly cold hostel room in eastern Malaysia. You could do yoga on it overlooking the beach in Fiji. You could use it as a rope. And after all that, it will still fold up small enough to fit into a handbag or even a pocket.
A sarong should be the first thing you put in your backpack, or the first thing you buy on Khao San Road. I even advocate taking a sarong on winter-climate trips. You might not want to wear it as a dress when it’s -3 degrees in Moscow, but you could still wear it as a scarf, wrap things up in it, or use it as a quick cover-up as you sprint across the snow to the hot springs in Scandinavia.
But there’s more to it than that
But, just as with Adams’ towel, a sarong’s value is not just practical but psychological. Sometimes, travel is really hard. We tend to focus on the amazing bits – the beach selfies, the beautiful jungles, the elegant colonial cities with their cobblestoned streets. We forget the rough bits – the tears when we can’t locate the right bus among a sea of unhelpful people speaking an unfamiliar language, the fear when we find ourselves on a dark road in a part of town we really shouldn’t be in, the loneliness when we end up in a party hostel where everyone else seems to know each other and we just don’t quite fit in. A sarong, in these situations, can become like a familiar blanket, something you can literally wrap yourself up in and feel just a little safer, more snug, and secure. When you’re trying to sleep in a place that just doesn’t feel quite right, be it a hostel, an airport or a bus, snuggling up to something that’s yours, something that’s familiar and belongs to you, can improve things a lot.
Pack a sarong. It will be your best packing decision.