The SteriPEN, the oversized swizzle stick of a microbe-fighting UV light, is quickly becoming one of my all-time favorite travel gadgets. Its premise? Fight nature with nature.
Unless you've spent the majority of your life indoors, chances are probably good that at one point in your life, you've had a terrible sunburn. My poor Scotch-Irish skin doesn't fare well under the California sun, and more than once my dad has told me that the red splotches that spatter my torso resemble a spawned-out salmon (Alaskans, and maybe those from New England, will understand this joke). And if you paid attention during high school science, you might recall the words "mild," "radiation," and "poisoning" fitting neatly together under the heading "UV Light and Its Relation to Biological Organisms."
So why not harness the power of UV rays and use them to off all those pesky intestinal microbes in the drinking supply?
Why not indeed.
Without going into too much detail, I've had my fair share of incidents and illnesses that have rendered me too bedridden to even watch television. After bouts with Montezuma's revenge, swine flu, and a nearly-fatal brush with pneumonia, I don't much care to take chances with my health while abroad.
Depending on where one travels, drinkable solutions might only come in bottles—and anyone traveling during the Mediterranean summer can testify how quickly buying water can add up (not to mention the waste of plastic). For all of the marvels of modern plumbing, tap water isn't always a sure thing: disease-inducing microbes are notorious for sneeking into the kitchen sink with such fervency that paranoid experts (who are, I'm guessing, not members of the "Just Rub Dirt On It" school of parenting) actually recommend against even brushing one's teeth with regular tap.
Cautionary tales against brushing teeth with local tap may be a little far-fetched, but like I already said: I won't take my chances. I'd been eyeing a SteriPEN for a while, and my recent jaunt through Ecuador proved a perfect excuse to pick one up. After all, it did make the list of "Countries In Which To Brush One's Teeth Only With Dasani, Gatorade, or Beer."
As much fun as it sounds to brush your teeth with beer (it's not), having clean water both for hygiene and hydration is well worth the cost of a SteriPEN, especially (a) in hotter climates and (b) for trips longer than two weeks.
If you're on the fence about picking one up for yourself, just think about all of the little cholera bugs (remember Oregon Trail?) that'd love to spend some quality time with you as you're bedridden in your 10-bed hostel dorm for a week.
Unless, of course, you're feeling lucky, punk.
UPDATE: The SteriPEN is not a good substitute for establishing a base tan. Unless you have approximately 6,000 AA batteries.
UPDATE #2: Remember to use lithium batteries, not alkaline: your batteries will drain very quickly if you don't.