A column in The Guardian posed a fundamental question this week that I’ve thought about a lot while travelling: are the days of living in the moment over?
What prompted the Guardian to ask this question was the ridiculous news that you can now get WiFi at the top of Mount Fuji in Japan, 3,776m above sea level. The author imagines that following the arduous trek up this legendary snow-capped mountain, climbers will now no longer just admire the view but immediately lose themselves in sharing selfies across social media (or worse, catching up on work e-mail).
“Not so long ago the whole point of climbing a big mountain or trekking along a river or crawling into a crevice was the way to escape the travails of normal life”, he argues. “Now it is not a legitimate experience unless you document every moment with a selfie or an update that you are “#lovinglife”’
The article is funny and worth a read. While it’s clearly meant to be a little provocative, it also rings true to me.
Nowadays you are never that far away from a WiFI connection or a 3G signal, increasingly even in the more remote places on Earth. And I do think it can have a negative effect on the way we travel.
I’m not quite old enough to have backpacked in the pre-internet days, but I imagine things were different back then. Travel, then, was surely all about going off the grid for a while. You would keep in touch with home maybe only via the occasional postcard or long-distance landline phone call. You were forced to live your travel experience fully, because that was all you had.
I think there are really two seperate problems with being overly connected, one which the Guardian article touches on and another that isn’t mentioned. First, there’s the issue of the internet being a distraction, potentially preventing you from living your experiences fully. The culture of oversharing is of course easy to rail against: instead of attempting to be everywhere via virtual methods, there’s something to be said for being in the here and now. The other problem, at least that I’ve found, is that being able to look up truly anything online can spoil the experience of discovering things for yourself.
I enjoyed hiking through Colombia for many days partly because a lack of internet really put me in the zone.
While it’s an entirely self-created problem, I sometimes do find myself yearning for the days when there was still a bit of mystery to life. A time before movies were spoiled in trailers months in advance, a time before any tall tale in a bar could be instantly fact-checked on Google, and—yes—before you could know nearly everything about a travel destination just by typing in a few words. Sometimes it’s just nice not to know everything.
When I think about my travels, I’m realizing that often the parts I enjoyed most were the ones where I had either limited access to the internet or where I deliberately ignored the online world for a while.
One such time was Laos. I essentially went to Laos on a whim and so I didn’t have that much time to research the country. I fondly remember heading into Laos because, other than some vital information from a guidebook and a couple of online searches, I hadn’t built up too many expectations yet. And once I was in Laos, I discovered that it had internet more in name than in practice. The prehistoric fax-modem connections made going online such an impractically slow and aggravating affair that I simply didn’t bother with it much at all. This made travelling through Laos a more immersive experience to me. Getting on board a creaky Soviet-era bus heading to the next place was a bit of a leap into the unknown. It was fun and exciting.
Luang Prabang in Laos
When you’re forcibly disconnected, I find that you end up savoring your experience more, and even making more friends along the way.
I’m reminded of spending five days on a sailing boat between Panama and Colombia for instance, or trekking for five days into the Colombian jungles to the ‘Lost City’ of Teyuna (which I wrote up here).
I’m also reminded of hostels and other places I stayed that didn’t have any WiFi either by necessity or design. Instead of playing with your phone when you’re bored, you end up playing cards with other people.
But, even though I realize the internet can get in the way of having the full experience, I also know that I can’t be without it for too long. To be perfectly honest, the absolute maximum I can be totally disconnected is a week; any longer and I start to have serious withdrawal symptoms. I also find that online resources like WikiVoyage, TripAdvisor, and so on, have become utterly instrumental to me in figuring out where to go next.
When I posted about this issue on social media (hey, irony!) one friend offered a solution: “Lose the phone. I did that for over a year and it was liberating.” Maybe that’s the answer.
“It’s time to rise up against Wi-Fi atop Mount Fuji”, the Guardian column concludes. I agree.
We probably shouldn’t have to disconnect entirely on our journeys, as surely that’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Maybe it’s just important to try and savour the moment. The internet feels like a beast to be tamed. As long as you can put it back into its cage if needed, you can be in your own bubble from time to time.
But maybe, these are just the ramblings of an older generation. (I am 32 and according to demographers I’m just barely a millennial… so maybe this is my “kids these days!” moment.) What do you think?