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This Tiny Packing Hack Might Save Your Ass on the Road

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The night before my buddy Dan and I set off across West Africa we decided the best preparation was to get so liquored-up that we could barely walk. We stumbled out of our favorite bar in the Ghanaian capital of Accra just before sunrise and headed for the bus station.

We were just a couple of recent university grads with a few weeks to kill in Africa, and instead of joining our friends somewhere typical -- Kenya, Zanzibar, or Timbuktu -- Dan and I got it in our heads that post-civil war Sierra Leone was the place to go. We were two idiots with almost zero experience in dangerous places, traveling by any means we could from Accra through Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia, with a final aim of Freetown, Sierra Leone.

We’d heard the beaches there were nice. And we kind of liked that we were defying everyone who’d told us ours was a nitwit plan.

The Canadian High Commission in Accra told us we weren’t allowed to go. The organization we worked for told us the trip wouldn’t be covered by our insurance and that if something went wrong we would be on our own. At 25 years old, we mentally flipped them off. We were sure we could make it without breaking a sweat.

We were correct -- for the first day or so. It wasn’t until the van we were in headed further north than expected in Cote d’Ivoire that I started to worry. When we crossed the demilitarized zone into rebel-held northern Cote d’Ivoire, I realized we were in over our heads. And when we were dragged out of the van, marched through a military compound and interrogated by a man who held our passports and yelled into a rotary phone that wasn’t even plugged into the wall, I knew we had made the biggest mistake of our lives.

To this day, though, I will swear to anyone who listens that we were saved by our decision to bring along some cigarettes. And if you ever think you could run into scrapes on your trips, I advise you to bring along a few packs of smokes, just in case. There are corners of the world -- and probably corners of your block -- where they’re worth more in social currency than the money you pay for them. They’re a thank-you, they’re a bribe, they’re an international translator. They belong in your backpack when you’re out in the world, even if, like me, you barely know which end to light.

Smoking: the ultimate social lubricant

If there are no atheists in foxholes then I doubt there are any nonsmokers in conflict zones. The journalist Deborah Campbell, who has reported from such countries as Iran, Syria, Israel, Palestine and Russia, told me cigarettes have often played a role in social situations on her travels. They “certainly were a way of thanking people who helped me, and lubricating social situations,” she said.

On our trip Dan and I found that passing around a couple smokes had a remarkable way of making a tense situation friendly, even if we weren’t partaking. Plus, when stress is high, you may very well need a smoke. Sebastian Junger, who spent months embedded with US soldiers in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, described this moment when a soldier admitted he was basically smoking at the suggestion of his doctor:

“I’ve only been here four months and I can’t believe how messed up I already am,” he said. “I went to the counselor and he asked if I smoked cigarettes and I told him no and he said, ‘Well, you may want to think about starting.’”

He lit a cigarette and inhaled.

“I hate these fuckin’ things,” he said.

How to use cigarettes to get out of the worst travel jams

When a child soldier in Cote d’Ivoire whacked me in the face with his AK-47, demanding $200 from each of us at gunpoint, cigarettes came to our rescue.

The kid first swung the gun through the open passenger side window and hit me across the face with the barrel. Then he jabbed me in the face a few times with the muzzle yelling, “Money! Money! Money!” All I could muster in return was, “Don’t shoot me in the face!”

I knew we had made the worst mistake of our lives.

He stuck his head through the open window beside my face, close enough for me to smell the alcohol and tobacco on his breath. He couldn’t have been older than 16. Enough years to yellow his nicotine-stained teeth.

The next 10 minutes involved more gun waving, yelling, and us telling him we weren’t going to give him any money. Then I pulled a handful of cigarettes from a crumpled pack, put them in his hand. Somehow, for reasons I’m still not sure I comprehend, that was the right answer. We headed on our way.

A pack of cigarettes was how we procured safe passage when we were dragged out of our traveling van and interrogated at some rebel-held military compound. Smokes is what we used to get through almost every single checkpoint we were stopped at.

I would never advise anyone to take up smoking, but I would tell you without any qualification that if you’re going to do something stupid while travelling, the least you can do to prepare yourself is pack some smokes.

The world’s universal currency

In Nicotine, Gregory Hens’ beautifully eloquent lament to a life spent smoking, the author rejects the notion of accepting payment for cigarettes. “It’s an offer that the receiver acknowledges but must ultimately reject in order to not come across as an extortioner,” he writes. “Smokers know from their own experience that in certain situations their fellow smokers would pay a lot more for a cigarette, they would give anything for one, but a code of honour prevents them from profiting from the addiction of others.”

It’s a high art of generosity to bum a smoke to a friend or stranger in need. But when the stakes get high, it’s important to remember the value of rolled tobacco.

You’re not going to be as stupid as I was. You’re not going to cross disputed borders and take shady turns into war zones. But at some point, somewhere in the world, you will lose your wallet and still need to bribe a bus driver to let you on. You will want to bribe the desk clerk at your hotel stay to get the upgrade to the suite. You will want to tip your bartender in a universal currency that all but ensures he’ll forget to charge you for that last round of shots, or show your appreciation to a fishing guide who put you on the best amberjack a gringo ever reeled into a trawler.

Or maybe you will do something really stupid one day. Your money will be no good. Your American-ness will be no good. And you’ll pat your chest pocket and realize that a $10 carton of cigarettes can get a pair of jackasses all the way from Accra to Freetown. I couldn’t even tell you the brand that bailed us out -- all I remember is the green packaging. Who knows, maybe another brand would have gotten us even farther. But I’m sure we went far enough.

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Calyn Shaw is a senior writer at CBC News Network. He received his MJ from the University of British Columbia, where he reported on violent land conflicts in Brazil for The New York Times as part of the International Reporting Program. He has worked as an HIV/AIDS educator for the Canadian International Development Agency, and a climate policy analyst with the Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. His work has also appeared in ESPN the Magazine, The Globe and Mail, Al-Jazeera, CBC.ca, and TheTyee.ca. He also tweets.