“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”
Imagine the following.
You are a travel reporter sent to Brazil to pen a detailed story about the existence of an Amazonian tribe, and the tribe has given you permission to spend three days with them, no more. Their location is, as it happens, on a wide section along the Amazon river. The last journalist to write about the tribe also had been given three days and he’d flown in on a seaplane. His story was as good as it gets when you only have three days to observe the lives of people.
You know you will do better than he did because your attitude is different. That other journalist went for the touristy backpacker approach, as though he was climbing the Eiffel Tower and reported on the iron and the paint and the view he encountered. But going beyond that artificial approach, in comparison, you would have spent a few days on the Eiffel Tower hanging out with the painters, the technical staff, the security people, and the oldest employees with a good story or two to tell.
And so, to understand the tribe’s difficulties and area better, you decide to leave the seaplane wherever it is moored and walk to the tribe. Your quest, your desire, your longing here is to write the perfect story on the tribe, attempting to catch their spirit in words that can be understood by both a nomad in Mongolia and a stockbroker on Wall Street. And so you decide to turn the journey into a hideous undertaking in order to develop an understanding of the terrain’s difficulties and beauty, speak to neighbouring tribes, and use your obtained broader perspective as a wider canvas to paint your story on.
Stories are on the ground, not in the air. A slow overland journey emphasizes the fact that the traveller has time, inducing a mental state that allows him or her to procrastinate, idle, daydream, and give birth to creative brilliance. And on a journey with less time, the overland traveller will (almost automatically) turn all of his energy – his focus – toward his goal, driven by his deadline.
Disconnect to connect
Nothing is easier, as any youth with a smartphone can testify, than to hold a piece of electronics with a screen in front of your face and pretend to be busy. People sitting in longitudinal seats on subway trains, in the past facing each other and sheepishly looking up at the advertisement signs, are no longer facing each other. They stare at their screens now.
Being a kid from the 1980’s, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch black-and-white television, play on the Nintendo 8-bit game computer – the hippest thing to have! – and witness the arrival of the first mobile phone. A sixteen year old in 1997, I was limited to fifteen minutes of internet a day as per Parental Order. My first big travel adventures were inspired by a leaflet I found in my local library!
In 2002, 2006, and 2007, I worked on campsites in Croatia and Italy. The kids who went on holiday those years were a bit more unfortunate than I was – they had missed out on having a black-and-white television set – but still lucky enough to appreciate each other’s company. In 2013, I briefly returned to the European campsite world and an enormous change had taken place within those six years: the kids were all seated along the main road of the campsite, fighting over the one network of Wi-Fi, and staring at their smart phone screens for hours on end. Instead of making friends like the kids six years before them did, they complained on Facebook to their friends at home how lousy the Wi-Fi was!
But a traveller, truly, wonders what he would begin with any piece of electronics. A folded map of the country where he happens to be should be sufficient. Being a traveller and following the GPS directions to a restaurant from your hotel or hostel automatically takes your focus away from everything in between the two places. In different cultures – whether this involves the Westerner in another Western culture (the German in the Netherlands) or the African in Central America – there’s simply too much to experience to not be switched on mentally. Looking at phone screens always brings me in a sort of lazy, meditative state of mind that induces a disinterest in the real world around me. Although this is not without reason – there’s often so much more going on in the rest of the world than in the street you’re wandering through – the danger of this addictive behaviour and its influence on your travel experience are enough to avoid using electronics altogether.
But then this is the 21st century and of course we all bring a tablet, smartphone, or even a laptop along. On a young backpacker’s trip, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s used wisely, for example at a predetermined time; say, between dinner and the next evening activity. Go ahead: catch up on your email, post that picture on Facebook and/or Instagram, and turn the device off again as if you never brought it along. I always put my phone (preferably with a dead battery) at the bottom of my backpack; my laptop is stuffed away tightly and deeply enough to only come out in hotel rooms.
But even then I still have these devices with me, and that’s wrong. A total immersion requires a complete absence of home – the internet, to the traveller, represents home. Opening your Facebook page brings you up-to-date with things going on back home. Why would you want to be travelling if home is on your mind? And surely, your loved ones will want to hear how you’re doing, pressurizing you to connect with home and drop a line. That link with home has to be cut. Leave home with a clear message: you are not available during your entire journey. Tell them to look at your photo, instead.
“Where would Johnny be right now?” sighed Mother.
“He’ll tell us when he gets back,” said Father.
“When would that be?” cried Mother.
“As soon as he’s done journeying,” sighed Father.
The instant availability of information has transformed us and turned us into impatient beings who pathetically complain about a text message not being responded to within half a second, but even the most heavily addicted smoker can quit. I know that because I did it.
Tell your home base that travel means freedom. Freedom includes being freed from your entrapment in cyberspace. Disconnect in order to connect.
I’ve never, however, wandered completely without devices. Yet I’ve put my smartphone with a dead battery in an unreachable place for weeks on end, and from that experience I know that it’s tremendously liberating to be unable to quickly look up directions or bus schedules. It forces you to guess, to communicate, to actually use your brain. I have this theory that we are dumbing ourselves down in the same manner our brain has the ability to do calculations but has not been trained to do so because we use calculators. We are no longer training our brain to connect the different pieces of information in our memory with each other, but are actively abandoning thinking as a way to come up with factual answers, resorting to speculation and Google instead.
Contribute to the economy, don’t create a dependency
About 99% of all tourists, by my estimation, travel to either lie on a foreign beach amidst their fellow countrymen or to visit a city within the same cultural hemisphere. That translates into tens (or even hundreds of) thousands of people, who can afford to go on vacation, being congregated into one spot. Being tourists away on their annual holiday, they want to indulge, be comfortable, and careless. They splurge on things they don’t need, but who cares? They’re on holiday!
But, truly, one of the most terrible things that a Westerner can do while being abroad is to spend his money on a company that is also Western – the American staying at the Sheraton in downtown Lima. Although we can’t know the structure of each company, it’s generally safe to assume that a Western company would not have invested in a third-world country for the sake of generosity and local jobs. No, that money is very likely to go straight back to the shareholders back in the “West.”
This means that money you are spending does not remain in the country you are visiting like it would have if only had you stayed at a locally owned hotel. The good thing about the difference between travelling and tourism is that a tourist is looking for relaxation while the traveller is aiming to reach his goal. Therefore he would not mind trying a locally owned hotel.
Take a little holiday during your journey
This sounds silly considering the topic of this essay, but it’s always a good idea to take little breaks during your journey. Once you’ve happened upon a laidback town or mountain hut, take a few days off from scheduling, plodding on, touring, talking to locals, and all those other ingredients we need for a good journey. Give your mind the rest it needs. Catch up with your diary. Don’t drink alcohol. Just sit down in a hotel’s relaxing garden or on the beach, watch a movie or some good porn, read a book, have a conversation or two on topics not related to travel. You’ll soon feel energized to move on again.
Thank you for reading this essay. My name is Jeroen Vogel, author of the adventure travel book American Safari and a Banff city guide entitled Baffling Banff. You can support my work by obtaining copy of these books and, if you’re feeling generous, by leaving a review on Amazon.com! That would be immensely helpful. Thank you!