The Joy Of Traveling Unplugged

by MacKenzie Berg Mar 24, 2008
Are you a slave to technology miles away from home? Here’s how to break the chains.

Are you addicted to tech? Photo by Adrian Sampson

As travelers, we like to think of ourselves as intrepid, independent, and adaptive. We forgo modern comforts in return for experiences and relationships that are difficult to find within our own societies.

Many of us are trying to find answers, find a purpose, or find ourselves, away from the “noise” of daily lives which have become mundane and unfulfilling.

Yet even as we scorn the rat race, pitying our cubicle-slaving peers, I say that many of us remain slaves to technology miles away from home.

In this way, travel can remind us how inundated our lives are with the distractions of modern conveniences. Backpacking this past December, I rediscovered the freedom of being unplugged, and came home with a renewed desire to downsize my digital addictions, both at home and on the road.

Here’s a look at five tech vices that can be difficult to ditch on the road, and how giving them up can help us rediscover some of the most important rewards of travel.

#5: The Television

Travel can remind us how inundated our lives are with the distractions of modern conveniences.

Most of us probably don’t have a real hard time giving up TV, but occasionally we long to feel connected to something familiar.

During my first solo trip to Thailand, there came a point where the seclusion of the journey took its inevitable toll- I found myself aching to flip on the tube just to hear another voice that spoke my language.

Fortunately, there wasn’t a TV screen be found, and so I was forced to gather my courage, leave the hostel, and do what I’d come to Thailand to do: explore life, people, and myself in a new part of the world.

The result: while walking down a random sidewalk in Bangkok, I ran into Pete, my old neighbor from college whom I hadn’t seen for four years.

Serendipity: 1 Technology: 0.

#4: The Cell Phone

Lately, it’s begun to seem as if the human species has evolved an extra limb: the ubiquitous mobile device, in all shapes, sizes, and ringtones. SIM cards and GSM rentals let you stay connected whether you’re in Paris or Ulaanbaatar.

My advice: unless you absolutely have to be on call with the office, don’t waste your money on these.

When I worked in Thailand last year, using the internet for a quick “Hi, I’m alive!” was easier (and much cheaper) than the $30 plastic hand-held I initially bought.

But more importantly, part of the idea in traveling is the level of detachment that goes with it. If your intent is to get properly lost in the non-Western world, you won’t want the safety blanket of having familiar voices available at the push of a button-even when you terribly miss your friends and family.

The longer you can keep the worries and doubts of friends and family at bay, the louder your inner dialogue will become. You will reflect deeper, write more expressively, and grow thicker skin by not having that easy outlet when the road gets frustrating.

#3: The Internet

Photo by ppdigital

It seems silly to advocate Internet abstinence since you’re reading this on a web magazine, but hear me out.

Let’s face it: our culture is web-obsessed. We do everything online these days, from paying bills to making friends, to broadcasting the innumerable updates of our daily lives on our Facebook profiles. I count myself among the guilty.

In order to achieve the full renewal and enlightenment that travel affords, I suggest you try rediscovering life before the Era of Internet. You’ll be surprised at how freeing this is.

Send your friends postcards or snail-mail letters. Say no to search engines and instead, ask locals for restaurant suggestions, or to draw you a map of what they think are the hidden gems of their city.

With luck, you’ll be sent to eat so-and-so’s-friend’s-mother’s famous home cooked meal, or discover a tucked-away treasure that most other travelers miss. Even if you end up in the wrong place, you’ll likely have some great writing material.

You say you have to work from the road? Why not try and leave your laptop with someone you trust for a few days, and use a journal or sketchbook instead. You’ll have the opportunity to observe life happening around you, with all your senses, and be alive in the moment of your journey.

My point is that not only can you survive without all those online resources you’ve come to love, but it’s also important to literally and mentally unplug your life whenever you have the chance.

#2: The Digital Camera

Have you ever taken 147 photos of the same bridge? I have.

When I later found that very few of my photos were worth saving, I realized that the bridge and its surroundings had been mesmerizing, but instead of finding the source of its magic with my own eyes, I had tried to capture it with my camera.

If I had pried my face away from the viewfinder and used my senses to reflect on the beauty around me, I might remember the setting that has since faded from memory.

If I had pried my face away from the viewfinder and used all my senses to reflect on the beauty around me, I might better remember the sounds, smells, and mood of the setting that have since faded from my memory.

Knee-deep in the inevitable culture-shock and romance of backpacking the third world, or touring the neighborhoods of Paris, it’s easy to get trigger happy, filling flash cards with every shot that seems “exotic” or “authentic.” We want evidence of our authentic experiences in the real, raw world.

Yet, we’ve all said “the pictures don’t do it justice,” because it’s true-our memories are never going to mean as much to someone else as they do to us.

Next time you have the urge to start snapping away, pause. Keep the lens cover on, transcend the desire to capture life in a frame, and take a minute to focus on what’s captivating your attention. Preserve it in your memory by absorbing more details than you would through a 3×5 snapshot.

#1: The MP3 Player

You lash your pack to the bus roof, near a crate of squawking poultry, and settle into the seat that will cradle your tookus for the next ten hours.

As you switch on your iPod for some copious out-the-window-staring, the romance of your overland trip suddenly disintegrates when you realize that your batteries have gone dead. If you’re anything like me, you may even be hyperventilating at this point.

Portable music is my hardest vice to give up. That said, I’ve done it and I urge you to try this one too.

If you’re truly looking to make connections with your surroundings in a foreign place, be it with local people, other travelers, or simply the new environment, you’ll have a difficult time doing so with headphones on.

Aside from blocking out the soundtrack of your new locale, having your music on projects the image that you rather be left alone.

And at risk of sounding like Bjork, there is music all around us if we just listen: new dialects, foreign insects, strange noises coming from the corner of your hostel room…OK, you might want the earplugs for that one, but you get the idea.

Granted, sometimes we need some personal space, and that’s OK. But if you’re constantly shielding yourself from others around you, you’re missing the point of traveling.

If you can’t bear leaving the music off (after all, ten hours on a bus is brutal), then at least offer to share one of the headphones with your seat mate. Depending on who’s next to you, some interesting cross-cultural exchange is bound to happen.

The Last Byte…

I’m not denouncing technology, nor claiming to follow these suggestions every time I travel. But I will say that the most incredible experiences that I’ve gathered during my time on the road-good, bad, comical, and sobering-have all been the most low-tech.

The truth is, our beloved modern wonders quite often cause us to miss what we’re trying to find through travel: real life.

If you’re set on learning about the world and discovering your place within it, then try traveling with just two resources – yourself and the world.

What do you think about the joy of traveling unplugged? Share your thoughts/experiences in the comments!

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