I backpacked around Europe by myself for a few months. I chose to go without a phone, partially because I wanted to rough it like my dad did back in the 70’s and partially because it’s really expensive and unnecessary to get new phones in each country. Below are five reasons why you should absolutely jump at the opportunity to leave your devices behind, even if it’s in your own country or city!
1. You have real human interactions.
Let’s face it, we live in a Yelp world. It’s easy to jump on your smartphone and find a nearby restaurant, bar, museum, whatever. But when you don’t have a phone, you have to talk to people. I learned a trick while in Paris that if you want to know where the freshest food is, ask the fisherman. I also practiced my French on them because most of them don’t speak any English and they appreciate when you try to communicate, even if it just means pantomiming. And actually, using your hands to describe what you want in any country is quite often your best solution. Back to my main point, you’re just more open to meeting new people, especially if you’re traveling solo, because you realize that you need other people to get around. Whether it’s for directions or recommendations, or sharing a laugh with a local on the street over a funny incident, you engage with others in a way you simply wouldn’t if you had a device to use as a crutch or a buddy to rely on. Sometimes they can offer their favorite spots, which you could have never discovered on your own. I can’t even imagine how many people I met abroad. Probably in the hundreds. Some weird, some incredible, and some I actually had mutual friends with. You just never know who is out there until you say hello.
2. You absorb your surroundings better.
When you don’t have a magic box to hold onto and distract yourself with, your eyes are “always on the horizon” as my dad says. You see the faces of the people around you, the hidden street art, the small child on the back of a bike, the smell of chestnuts roasting in a food cart… This also means that you will find places to go in between your destinations. I like to have a list of landmarks to hit in each city, places that structure my journey but don’t dictate it because I leave room for exploration. Sometimes that means crossing something off my list, but you learn to tap into your intuition if a place or opportunity speaks to you because you’re not dependent on Rick Steves to tell you where to go (I love you Rick). I remember every city vividly, the streets, colors, sounds, and energy, far more than I do when I visit a city in the US where I a) go directly between two points of interest or b) wander but engage in useless activities *cough*Instagram*cough* on my phone. This is also true of traveling by yourself or with a friend. When it’s just you and the world, you soak it up.
3. You’re less likely to get attacked.
When you’re more aware of your surroundings, you’re also aware of those around you. Having awareness means you’re less of a target. If I were a criminal I wouldn’t want to mess with me, not just because I’m tall and mean looking (you really do have to maintain a serious mug while being a solo female traveler in sketchy areas) or because I also looked kind of like a spy (or a scuba diver) in an all-black spandex ensemble complete with aviators. No, it was because I wasn’t distracted checking BuzzFeed, Googling last minute history lessons on the Hagia Sofia, or texting my mom. When you don’t have an expensive object in your hand to steal or monopolize your attention, your odds of being pick-pocketed or straight up mugged drop. (I can’t prove this but my gut says that I’m right). Who would you steal from? A clueless tourist on a phone or a person whose eyes were scanning the area? Exactly.
4. You get lost, and find things you never would have.
I found some of my favorite places because I was completely and utterly lost. When I have no idea where I am, I never panic. Why? Have you seen Gravity? No matter how bad it gets, unless you’re dead or lost in space, you can figure it out. On a lighter note, wandering quite often led me to exactly where I wanted to go. In Istanbul, I took an overnight flight, dropped my stuff at my friend’s apartment, then took the subway until I felt like getting off and began to roam. I immediately found a street lined with markets selling dried figs, my favorite food, then a graffiti covered corridor that was home to probably 25 stray cats (yeah…I love cats), which led to a neighborhood filled with vintage shops and specialty boutiques that could have been straight out of Brooklyn (in the good way). Then I happened to find a view of the river, buy some fish, and locate a station to get back home. I didn’t have a map, a plan, or any idea where I was going. Hell, I could barely see straight from taking a plane at 2am, but I’m a rallier. Moreso, in other cities I ended up getting lost and finding places that were on my must-see lists, on accident! An example being the artist commune Tacheles in Berlin which sadly shut down a few months after I was there in 2012. I just happened to walk past a warehouse covered in graffiti with a massive outdoor studio out back and so I walked in. Getting lost makes you use your intuition. You know that feeling when you’re “on” and everything is just right? Like some sort of cosmic gift because you keep running into the right people, finding your favorite things, so on and so forth? I fully believe that when you give up letting your head feel in control and trust your instincts, you can get to that place, even if it’s not sparkly or what you thought you wanted. Which goes into my last point…
5. You learn to live in the moment.
What I love most about travel is that every single second puts you fully into the present. You’re not on autopilot like you are on your morning commute or the places you go in your hometown. Everything is new and possibilities are endless. It’s exhilarating and overwhelming. Once, I was wandering the streets of Amsterdam after they lost the finals in soccer. The town felt very dreary, as did I because I was getting to the end of my trip and starting to feel lonely. As I was passing a bar a man in an orange jersey beckoned for me to come in. He was surrounded by friends, which made me think he couldn’t be that bad. “Me?” I asked. “Yes! Come have a drink!” I barely hesitated and walked in the door to join them. Over the next four hours we drank wine, exchanged stories, and took polaroid photos, one of which I still have. I never saw them after that. If I had been with friends I would have laughed and not gone in, but because I was embracing everything, I said to myself, “eff it!” and had a beautiful evening. Sometimes I turned down opportunities out of sheer exhaustion, but for the most part I learned to live fully in the now.
The hard part is to continue to incorporate these lessons and sensations into everyday existence when one returns from his or her travels. It is possible, but you have to tap into that wandering mindset! Be alert, be present, be open, and most of all, be authentic. Would you travel without your phone?