Can't Sleep While Abroad? One Travel Writer's Secret Weapon

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Sleep_10_PillsIllustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
When you’re on the road, there are some things you just can’t bring with you. Your own bed — one that’s exactly the right ratio of dust mites and pillow-top padding. A cat curled around your head like a feline ushanka. The dulcet tones of your better half’s chainsaw snoring.

Thankfully, there are a few sleep-easy solutions that easily fit in my pocket. First and foremost, I always pack a cloth eye mask. Not only is it essential for blocking out the light on overnight flights, but it’s a low-tech solution to my genetic inability to operate high-tech, electronic window blinds. (Seriously, why do some hotels feel the need to replace simple curtains with a whizbang control panel complex enough to remotely pilot a space shuttle?)

To help me unwind before bedtime, I also tote a small stash of caffeine-free tea. Most hotels provide a teapot or coffeemaker to conjure hot water, and usually these devices are simple enough for even Laughinghouse the Luddite to operate without ringing the front desk for step-by-step instructions.

But, there is one thing I absolutely cannot sleep without: white noise. It soothes me like a mellow whiskey haze, wrapping me in the auditory equivalent of cotton wool and escorting me gently to the Land of Nod. Whenever I travel, I use an app titled (aptly enough) White Noise. The free “lite” version always did the trick, distracting me from the clunking of ice machines in the corridor, the urgent dinging of an approaching elevator, and the unintelligible babble of the television next door. Once, I even stayed in a hotel with walls so thin, I swear I could hear my neighbors brushing their teeth. But, as long as I could listen to the tuneless lullaby of static, I knew the sweet senselessness of somnolence awaited me.

Then, one night, tragedy struck. My app decided I’d been cadging free white noise long enough and demanded that I upgrade. The problem? I had no Wi-Fi, so I couldn’t download an update. Suddenly, every nocturnal noise — every hacking cough in the hallway, every bump in the night (thank you, amorous neighbors) — seemed as amplified as Metallica singing in my ear…through a megaphone.

In desperation, I thumbed through all the other forgotten apps I’d downloaded, finally hitting upon one that I thought would be my salvation: Sleep Pillow.

So, what were my choices? Rain, like a dripping faucet. Wind, rain, and booming thunder. Waves washing on a beach. Waves crashing on the beach with the addition of droning spa music. Perfect if I wanted to run to the bathroom every 10 minutes. Well, then, how about the crackling of a blazing fire? Lovely. I could dream of my hotel room burning down. Whales, possibly in heat. No, thanks. If I wanted to listen to moaning, I had my neighbors. How about the tedious ticking of a clock or a chiming rendition of “Go To Sleep” that impaled my brain like an ice-cream headache? Um…pass. Finally, I settled for my own version of Sleep Pillow — as in, a pillow over my head. The possibility of suffocating to death seemed imminently more amenable than any other option available.

Today, I’m pleased to report, I’m the proud (and well-rested) owner of the fully loaded version of White Noise, with all the bells and whistles. Although, thankfully, there are no actual bells and whistles, but there is a mind-boggling selection of other noises that, often inexplicably, are meant to induce a restful state of mind. Like Sleep Pillow, White Noise offers a vast catalog of a variety of moisture: "ocean waves crashing," "beach waves crashing" (really, is there a difference?), "thunderstorm," "rain on car roof," "rain storm," "light rain with birds," "heavy rain pouring," "extreme rain pouring," etc. etc. Basically, everything you could ever need to promote nocturnal incontinence.

There is also a deafening collection of animal noises. "Purring cat” puts Merlin, whose Guinness Book of World Records-holding motor clocks in at an improbable 100 decibels, to shame. As a cat owner myself, I love the sound of a contented kitty — but not one that purrs as loudly as a passing subway train. Meanwhile, “Amazon jungle,” with its symphony of unidentifiable squeaks and squawks, puts me in mind of nothing so much as leeches in my underwear.

More puzzling still are the machine sounds, like the unrelenting hiss of “hairdryer blowing.” Really, is it advisable to train yourself to fall asleep whilst drying your hair? Ditto for “cars driving.” I’ve frequently been the victim of “carcolepsy” (the sleepy state induced by automobile travel) — although, only in the passenger seat. Still, I feel that associating driving with sleep might somehow be unwise.

So, why, then, am I such a huge fan of the White Noise app? Because it offers FIVE variations of actual white noise, each with a different pitch: white noise, pink noise, blue noise, violet noise, and, my favorite, brown noise. Ah, blessed brown noise! It’s like the sound that chocolate would make if it could, or soft velvet snuggled against your eardrums. It is angels humming on sunset-tinged clouds. It is...

Oh, sorry. Drifted off there for a minute. [Wipes drool from cheek.] Here’s to happy trails — and sweet dreams.