Just how far do you have to go to get away from technology? Well, as baby boomer Jill Thomas of Pensacola, Florida, found, you just can’t go far enough.
I keep lists. The lists on my computer are a mixed bag of books to read, recipes to cook, people I would like to know, places I would like to go, and the stuff I need to bring with me. My packing lists are plentiful and specific — cruise travel, temperate third world travel, backcountry family hiking, tropical travel, and luxury travel (the last one is anticipatory).
Some of the lists are annotated with rules for the road. This is an excerpt from our family backcountry travel packing list circa 2001:
- We will go very slow and steady. Pushing too hard is how people get hurt on the trail. When we go too fast that causes the slower person to feel pressure to be faster then they are comfortable going and this is dangerous.
- We will have breaks at times we agree upon in advance. We will not stop for unscheduled breaks.
- We will get up early and work to pack up fast because no goofing in the morning means more relaxing in the afternoon.
- We will take good care of our feet and boots. We will always wear our boots.
- We will work as a team and do everything we can to support each other. We will be kind and supportive and not use the tone. On the trail we are not kids and parents, we are one team of hikers working together.
No wonder my children don’t like backcountry hiking.
My husband and I love to travel and used to take one big trip every year. We would choose a country (sometimes by closing our eyes and spinning a globe) and then spend a month exploring.
We’ve shared great adventures in places like Morocco, Thailand, India, and Vietnam. In 2010, we went to Tunisia and then I got a new job and we moved from Canada to America. Our month-long vacation ritual came to an abrupt, and hopefully temporary, end. Americans don’t value vacations but that is another story.
This year my husband and I went to Sri Lanka. I found a loophole in my corporate vacation policy : by traveling over Christmas I could use two weeks in 2015 and two weeks in 2016 and thus get enough time off to get to Asia and back. It was cheeky, I know. Mama Carol, our corporate Vice President of Human Resources, rolled her eyes.
While preparing, I cracked open and dusted off my “Warm Third World Country Packing List” which was, of course, five years out of date. I was surprised by how much had changed. For instance, sleeveless tanks are no longer my travel shirt of choice.
However, what stunned me more than the deterioration of my confidence in wearing sleeveless shirts was the realization about how much digital technology had impacted my life in five years.
Despite a lifetime of defining myself as a bookworm, I hadn’t finished a fiction book since Tunisia. I’d abandoned my written journals and lost interest in ‘analogue’ hobbies like photography. All of the time I spent doing these things is now consumed by engaging content on the world wide web. It’s hard to compete with Ted Talks.
This got me thinking back about how much has changed. I started traveling on my own when I was eighteen, on a year-long solo trip to Europe. I carried a small backpack adorned with a Canadian flag, a passport, a few hundred dollars in cash (exchanged in Canada), a thick book of travelers checks (no debit cards back in the day), and a bright yellow Sony Walkman with two cassette tapes (Dire Straits, Money for Nothing, and Neil Young, After the Goldrush).
At this time, if you were overseas, you were off the grid. Family and friends back home didn’t have the faintest idea where you were or what you were doing. Imagine being out of touch with your eighteen-year-old solo traveling daughter for a year?
Money was wired to local American Express offices. Letters were written on translucent blue sheets of airmail paper that folded into an envelope that included a stamp and took up to a month to cross the ocean. Mail was received ‘poste restante’ (which was the internationally accepted French term for General Delivery) in big city post offices. The first thing I did upon arrival in a major city was locate the post office, collect my mail, and relish the two-month-old news from home.
Phoning home was outrageously expensive and difficult. I phoned home twice during my year abroad, in weak moments when I was overcome by homesicknesses. Phone calls started with waiting in a long queue for an international phone booth.
Once inside, you inserted a pound of change into a slot, waited for an operator to come on the line, and then informed her of the country and phone number you wanted to call. All of this happened in French — English was not yet an international language. The operator responded with “ne quitte pas” (which aptly translates as “don’t leave me”) followed by several attempts at forging an international connection.
Inevitably you would be disconnected mid-sentence after the phone demanded more coins that you couldn’t scramble out of your pockets fast enough.
When we went to Tunisia in 2010, I carried my brand new (and first) iPhone to play music (it had so much more selection than my Walkman). It would never have occurred to me to use it to phone people or post stuff on Facebook while overseas. We toted paper books and used a Lonely Plant paper guidebook to navigate cities and choose hotels. Making hotel reservations in advance didn’t make sense when the person answering the phone didn’t speak the same language as you. Emails home happened in hard-to-find and expensive internet cafes.
Fast forward five years to Sri Lanka in 2015. The packing list made me nostalgic for simpler times, a lost self, and so I hastily decided to go analog for one month. I informed my husband and stunned colleagues that I was going offline while we traveled. I bought a paper Lonely Planet guide, a red moleskin journal, and several paperback books. It lasted one day.
The first day in Columbo we got wildly lost in a relentlessly noisy, hot, muggy, filthy city. My husband and I were fighting over our divergent interpretations of a paper map in an obscure alley in an unsafe part of town, exhausted from walking. We needed Google Maps to find our way. (Would we still be married without Google Maps?) We needed TripAdvisor to find hotels and Expedia to book them. I needed (and was expected) to check my emails. I love to humbly brag about my experiences on social media.
The next morning we sought out the nearest mobile phone store and bought international data cards for our phones. My relief was tangible but I resolved to find a balance and reconnect with my analog self. So while I stayed in touch daily via email and social media and listened to Spotify on the train, I also read fiction books, filled a journal with handwritten musings (and packing notes), and reconnected with my camera.
What’s the outcome of my almost analog adventure? I have read a couple more books since returning from the trip. Hmmmmm. Apparently change happens fast and is hard to resist. I’m looking forward to what comes next and in the meantime am updating my packing lists.