One of the things I’ve noticed a lot on Twitter lately is people saying that they “don’t have enough time” or they’re “too busy”. Not that unusual really when you consider the stressful world we live in, where people are constantly trying to balance their job with their home life, hobbies and other commitments. But what I’ve found interesting about many of those who are finding their days filled with tasks is that they’re not the office workers I used to spend 12 hours a day sitting next to, but travellers living the dream life.
Now I know – and I completely understand – that everyone needs to make a living. For people who have chosen long-term travel as a way of life, you’ve got to get the cash in somehow and for many, technology plays an essential part in that.
Thanks to laptaps, Internet connections and Wi Fi, your office can now be anywhere in the world. You can answer emails from beachside bars, post blog entries from remote villages and even tweet from mountaintops.
But I can’t help thinking isn’t this what we were trying to get away from?
Don’t get me wrong. I love technology and the benefits it brings. I blogged regularly on my 30b430 trip, updated my friends on my whereabouts via Facebook and discovered that Skype reduces stress levels massively when compared to the old-school pay phone traumas I endured for years. But the biggest change I noticed when travelling in 2012, following a break of seven years, is how much technology has taken over every aspect of travelling. And I can’t help feeling that some of the good stuff about the freedom of being on the road, some of the things I absolutely loved and cherished, is getting lost along the way.
During the nine months I was away I saw people who are so immersed in their laptops they didn’t even look up to say hello when somebody else walked into the room; I met travellers who would only eat in restaurants which had been recommended on TripAdvisor and I was amazed to discover some visitors who rely purely on maps on their mobiles to get them from A to B.
Sometimes I wanted to physically remove somebody’s phone from their hand and tell them to look up and around, to go and speak to a local, to sit in a restaurant and watch the world go by. To do nothing.
I know that technology is now firmly a part of our lives and that will never change. But I do think that we all need a break from it every now and again, particularly when we’re travelling. So if you feel like you’re spending just as much time attached to your computer now as you did when you were working the 9 till 5, then it might be time to cut down a bit. If you’re not sure where to start, here’s my beginner’s guide to a technology detox:
Ditch the laptop and talk to other travellers
This was the biggest change I noticed in hostels – people don’t talk anymore! I would walk into dining rooms and lounges and be amazed at how quiet they were as everyone sat concentrating on the small screens in front of them. I’ve never eaten so many silent breakfasts in my life! Sure, that’s a big generalisation and, of course, I did meet some brilliant people in hostels along the way but I did find that it was often harder to start conversations with people as it feels as though you are interrupting when someone is furiously tapping away on a computer.
For me talking to other people, hearing their stories and getting tips about where to go next, is such a huge part of travelling and something people are seriously missing out on if they don’t make the effort to have a chat.
Forget the tweets, enjoy the moment
I love Twitter and use it a lot. I love the fact that it’s instant and that its travel community is so friendly. But I also think there’s a time and a place to use it. I’ve read some people’s tweets from jungle treks and desert island getaways and while I think it’s nice to document your adventures for other people I also believe you need to live in the moment. Enjoy that feeling you have as you look out over Machu Picchu or stand in front of Iguazu Falls, because you’ll only have it once and after that it will be just be a memory. And you don’t want to look back at your time on the Great Wall of China and just remember how frustrating it was that you couldn’t get reception.
Personally, I’ll be happy to wait until you get back to the hotel for your update.
The world won’t end if you put your phone away
This often horrifies many people I meet on the road but I mostly travel without a phone. Although I have an old one in my backpack for emergencies I rarely take it out with me when I’m out and about during the day. In my old job as a journalist I spent most of my life with a phone attached to my ear so I actually like the freedom of not having one. I know that’s definitely not for everyone and many people need their phones for work, contacting home, as a security etc. But I’m still surprised at the extent to which people rely on them on a trip. A couple of years ago I was in Colombia and agreed to meet another traveller for dinner after we’d done our own things during the day. Despite the fact that we arranged to meet at 7pm he was genuinely very confused as to how I would manage to keep that arrangement without a phone (what if I got lost/was running late/changed my mind). It was funny reminding him that’s exactly how we used to meet people ten years ago and, as promised, I was there on the dot of 7pm. I actually think not having a phone to make the excuse that I’m running late makes me much more organised than I am back at home.
My other bugbear is when people insist on using maps on their phones rather than just asking for directions. I understand that sometimes it can be helpful to have an interactive map but I also think you miss out on some of the lovely moments when locals will go out of their way to help you. I’ve had little old ladies walking miles to help me get to the right place in Japan, people stopping in the street in China to check we’re not lost and even offering us a lift in Burma. I truly believe you see the kindness of strangers when you ask for help.
Leave the kindle at home and use book swaps
I was talking to someone on Twitter about this the other day. I said that I love book swaps because you always find some hidden gems. He agreed but replied that the only down-side is when you get stuck with a Jackie Collins. But in a way, I love that. I love that sometimes you’ll have absolutely nothing to read and you end up getting stuck with a terrible book. Because to me, that’s what travelling is about: making do with what you have. On my 30b430 trip I kept a list of all of the books I read and looking back at it there are a couple of complete duds I was forced to read – because I would die without a book – but there are also some brilliant ones that I would never have even picked up had I had a list of my favourite authors to hand.
Send postcards rather than emails
At the end of the day, everyone loves a postcard. Yes, of course, you can say everything you want to say in an email which will arrive instantly, but it’s just not the same is it? Isn’t there something lovely about getting something through the post which isn’t a bill? Something that makes you smile just to know that someone thousands of miles away is thinking about you?
I also believe that writing in such a condensed space always makes you think carefully about the important stuff. I always remember my old journalism tutor saying “Don’t say something in a paragraph if you can say it in a sentence.” One of my friend’s suggestions for my 30b430 list was to write myself a postcard from every country I visited. I wrote each one in the airport as I was about to leave for the next place and I love looking back at them as them sum up in a very concise way exactly how I felt about each country.
In conclusion, please don’t see this as a rant against technology. By all means use it for work, to contact your friends and family and to keep up to date with what’s going on in the world. But don’t forget that’s sometimes it’s ok to slow down and switch off. After all, isn’t that what travelling is all about?