I sometimes consider myself fortunate that I was born during a time when smartphones were a thing of science fiction, when postcards were the only means of saying ‘I was here’ and slideshows in your living room – remember those bulky projectors? – and photo albums were the only ways to share your travel experiences (and gloat about how amazing the trip was!). The advent of the digital era has changed all that: the way we communicate, work, play or obtain and consume information or stories. Hey, you wouldn’t be reading this today if digital technology had not paved the way for blogs, social media or Google.
Travel in the digital era
Digital technologies have made many things possible. Coupled with cheaper travel means, it has opened up a dizzying array of possibilities to see the world. With a smartphone, we have travel planning resources at our fingertips 24/7. We can find ideas for places to travel to, book transportation and hotels, navigate our way around a foreign place, communicate in a foreign language, find recommendations for restaurants, attractions and bars, share our travel experiences with a single touch (even in real time) and so much more.
Yet, that’s not necessarily a good thing. The way I see it, travel offers endless opportunities to enrich and inspire. It can help us grow by broadening our horizons, teaching us new things and nurturing self confidence. Digital technologies, on the other hand, have the side-effect of detracting from the immersive experience, precisely that element that makes travel so special.
These days, on any given day, I see tourists glued to their phone screens, or searching for that perfect Instagram spot and going to great lengths to (re)create that picture-perfect pose. It sometimes seems like travel has been reduced to ticking off items on a bucket list, instigating FOMO or collecting experiences that someone else has had.
I consider myself fortunate to have been born before the digital era exactly because I got to experience what life, and specifically travel, was like then. Looking back, I often wonder how I managed in the pre-digital days, but I also see the beauty of those days. During my travels then, I was forced to learn foreign words and phrases to communicate with the locals, and search for places to eat and drink by simply wandering around. Sharing my experiences could only be done when I was home and my photo rolls had been developed and printed. Not having a phone in my hand continuously allowed me to focus my attention on the experience.
Reigniting the magic of travel
In his book, Rediscovering Travel – A Guide for the Globally Curious, Seth Kugel reminds us of the (often) forgotten magic that travel ignites. It got me reminiscing about my pre-digital era travels, which were a constant source of wonder and inspiration for me, when I travelled with guide- and phrase books. They’re collectively heavier than a typical smartphone but they allowed me to see the world through my own eyes, wander and feel joyful about a new ‘discovery’ and chat endlessly with locals and fellow travellers. I guess because they were bulkier, I often left them in my bag, allowing me to immerse myself in a place and create my own experiences. It’s these experiences that I still remember vividly and cherish. In a way, they’ve helped to shape the person I am today.
How I travel
When I travel, I often make a conscious effort not to consult my phone. I do some generic pre-trip research and make mental notes of places I’d like to visit. I use Google Maps only if I’m heading for a specific place. After I take photos, I always put my phone away to enjoy the scenery or the moment. This sometimes includes pinching myself or tapping the ground with my foot, just to make sure I’m ‘in’ the moment. I love simply strolling around a place to feel its vibes and relishing the excitement of ‘discovering’ a ‘hidden gem’. I use inverted commas because, in all likelihood, that something has probably already been documented in blogs, social media or trip-planning sites. But that’s ok. That place will still be my little discovery – I chanced upon it, enjoyed the experience, and that moment will be etched in my memory for a long time. To make it easier for myself, I always take one or two digital detox breaks a year, not only to clear my mind and recharge my batteries, but to also experience the magic of travel on my own time and terms.
So, go ahead. Read my blog for some travel inspiration and ideas (hehe!), then leave digital behind, if only for a while. Wander aimlessly, have your little discoveries, chat with the locals and create your own experiences. They’ll be yours to cherish.