On a month long tour around Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos I noticed a frequent pattern amongst the thirty people I was traveling, me included. We all noticed it, and laughed at ourselves for it. Arriving at any hotel we did not look the amenities, or consider the comfort of our beds, or even delight at putting our bags down briefly. Entering a restaurant, food or drink were not foremost on our minds, and the menu not the first thing we read. No, murmurs of wifi, wifi, a flurry of clicks, the password spreading like playground gossip, and suddenly we were all happy again, connected to the world wide web and able to read emails, check twitter, and crucially read updates on Facebook, and update them on our travels, posting photos and updates to make our friends (however loosely defined) jealous of the AMAZING time we are having. Whilst this kind of reliance on technology comes with a desire for validation and a need to know, and a certain level of narcissism, and we are frequently reminded of how those less addicted to technology are more rounded, better people, can technology actually help our travels?
The Internet and its content is constantly changing, unlike a guidebook which can highlight a select few sights that must be long lasting and appeal to many. Being able to view not only the top tourist sites and museums but new daily events, latest cultural listings, and the activities being created and visited by local people means that we can choose to do things outside of the typical trip, engaging in of the moment activities that we would be less likely to find otherwise. Guide books are written by travel experts, but they are not necessarily you experts, and the chances are that if you want to know what your blonde haired, gummi bear obsessed, sticker collecting counterpart (as an example) in the country you are visiting are up to, you can.
There is a downside to this. Those of us with FOMO (fear of missing out) spend out whole time planning what we could (or worse should) be doing rather than getting out and doing it. Removing all elements of surprise leaves us with even more barriers up against discovering a place authentically. It’s important not to waste time when somewhere for a limited period, but if out minds are too focused and a plan too rigid we miss the spontaneous surprises that travel offers and that can often make a trip not just a holiday but a revelation. Conversely, the web is a tool that makes it easy to change plans, contact people as you go, and be responsive to new suggestions or altering circumstances. Seeing posters or picking up flyers I can Google an event or place without being restricted to what my guidebook says.
Google maps has been a life saver I think to myself. But has it? Sure it has definitely meant I get back to my bus before it leaves, having marched from in the complete opposite direction from where I should be going before I thought to check the direction of the little blue arrow. It has meant that I don’t go off trekking to a temple that on the hand drawn map looks to be in close proximity but is google reveals is actually 51km away from my current location.
But then I think to pre-smartphone days (which weren’t that long ago for me, Luddite I am) I wonder am I actually helped by having his extra knowledge. Would a quick quest to the shop in a village near Iguazu Falls have resulted in bar hopping in a thunderstorm and being driven from place to place by local people who did not speak a word of English if we had checked the location and weather beforehand? Had I used an accommodation booking app on discovering the train between Serbia and Montenegro would take four hours longer than specified (the timetables not having been updated for many years and reflecting the Yugoslavian timetable without border restrictions) would I have ended up consuming three bottles of Johnnie Walker, numerous beers, munching champagne marmite on toast and singing Jolene with all the vocal capacity my lungs could muster in large villa outside Bar with a Montenegrin woman, her English boyfriend who grew up a few miles from my hometown, an Irish millionaire driving a lorry around Eastern Europe just for the thrill of it and my then boyfriend, the two of us on a quick travel jaunt having just graduated. In Rome it was a meander through back alleys and a refusal to use a map that led us to the best pizza I have ever experienced in Italy, and a (finally) happy ten year old sister.
The web is home to many sites that make travel easier and more thrilling. Not only is it possible to read reviews of all food, activity and accommodation options available (and get sucked into the vortex that this kind of discussion opens up) but numerous services have been set up. Many of my best nights when away have been with people met via meetup, couch surfing or travels by locals, an opportunity to discover a place with people who know it rather than other backpackers in your hostel, or a tour group. Sites such as World Mate or Trip It save your plans and email updates. Having your boarding pass on your phone is handier than hundreds of bits of paper, and housing insurance details, hotel reservations and itineraries on the cloud has left me m arginally less weighed down, and of course reduces paper consumption. Until my battery runs out of course. There’s apps highlighting the nearest gigs or mapping trekking routes, so you can get on with getting to them. I can book flights or accommodation with a few clicks, and converse with locals by looking up a phrase or two. (I can even file a story whilst on a bus traveling on the flyover on between the two Bangkok airports).
Technology for me certainly makes travel easier. But we must not forget what you miss out on when your eyes are on your screen, rather than gazing on the world around us, (I just looked up, I am missing cars and smog) or who you could be meeting were you not commenting on posts from people you may have never met. (No one, it is 5am and I am a lone traveller on this bus). We all get frustrad at those who experience life through a camera lens or an iPad screen, yet succumb so readily ourselves. Travel offers us the opportunity to get outside ourselves, transcend our everyday lives and experience a new world. Let’s make sure that we don’t get straight into a piece of technology and only experience that.