Of all the high-tech tools out there, it's a simple cell phone that is the most important gadget for me overseas. Well, perhaps not so simple: The T-Mobile GSM mobile phone is also a BlackBerry, and it works in an amazing array of faraway countries. I've placed phone calls from a fishing boat off the coast of Sri Lanka and deep in the Syrian desert near the Iraqi border.
One of the best -- and worst -- things about this phone is that I receive calls as if I were in Washington: Callers simply dial a number with a 202 area code.
That can mean being a bit too connected. This year I was in the Gaza Strip photographing Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian presidential candidate. We were just arriving at a campaign stop when the phone rang. It was my tax preparer, and he needed me to fax a document to him right away. Then gunfire erupted -- nothing dangerous, just the standard celebratory kind.
"Sorry, I'm in Gaza and they're shooting. I'll have to call you back," I said -- something of a surprise to someone who thought he had called me at home in Washington.
Because the telephone also functions as a BlackBerry, I often use it in place of a computer, sending and receiving e-mails and reading the news online. If I'm not filing video or photos for the Web site, I won't even bother hooking up my computer.
The data function doesn't work in as many places as the voice part of the phone, but I've used it all over Europe, in Israel and the occupied territories, and in Egypt. I first learned of the Indian Ocean tsunami while traveling in Transylvania, Romania -- I read the first reports on the telephone version of the BBC's Web site.
There are places where my wonder-phone doesn't work. In Iraq and Afghanistan, I depended on satellite, not cellular, technology.
Although I have carried others, the Thuraya is the satellite telephone of choice for voice communication. It looks like an early cell phone, one of those that resemble a brick, though at half a pound it's not quite as heavy. As long as you keep its long antenna extended toward the southern sky, you can make and receive calls from central Asia, the Middle East and most of Africa.
For Internet access, I rely on the Inmarsat Regional BGAN. This neat device means you have near-broadband-speed Internet access in the same region the Thuraya covers. It's about the size of a laptop computer but is much lighter -- 4.1 pounds -- and runs on batteries.
I am able to file my video and photographs to washingtonpost.com wherever I have Internet access. Most of the time, that means a hotel room or an Internet cafe. Using the BGAN, I have filed from Afghanistan during a power outage and from a small village in southern Sri Lanka.
The 2003 war in Iraq was the most difficult environment for working and transmitting. I was working independent of the military in southern Iraq for most of the war. My home was an SUV filled with satellite phones, a computer, and plenty of extra cables and spare batteries.
For two days as the war began, the SUV was parked quite literally in the middle of the desert at the Kuwaiti border, where I and other journalists searched for ways to sneak across into Iraq. From this vantage point, I photographed British soldiers heading into war, stuck the satellite phones straight up in the desert sand and within minutes, the pictures were back in Washington.
This arrangement was repeated as we moved north toward Baghdad. A cheap converter from Radio Shack meant that as long as we had gasoline, we could charge the computer's and telephone's batteries through the car's cigarette lighter.
Then the gasoline ran out, and our food was also getting low. Gas stations were closed. The U.S. military had the only fuel and food in southern Iraq.
It was the satellite phone that enabled us to get fuel to recharge batteries and continue north. In a bartering arrangement with the military, we gave the soldiers phone calls to Mother (and, yes, they always called Mom), and in return, they offered us fuel and food, and we were able to keep transmitting stories to Washington.
Once you add everything up, my photography and transmission equipment weighs nearly 70 pounds, the limit for checked luggage on international flights. It's a strain to haul this gear around the world, but it's worth it to be able to send news and images back home almost instantly -- though it took me a while to get back to my tax preparer.
Travis Fox is a video journalist for washingtonpost.com. His three-part video, "Inside Egypt's Opposition," begins tomorrow on www.washingtonpost.com.