It's been years since I spent serious time just being a tourist - particularly a backpacker. But I find myself now in Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo where I recently stayed in a really well set up hostel called Singgahsana Lodge in Kuching. It felt pretty weird mixing with a bunch of significantly younger backpackers. 

The vibe wasn't that different, the clothes pretty much the same, but one thing had changed immensely.

The moment we walked into reception I could here the tones of a rather poshing sounding girl chatting on her mobile. I couldn't help ear-wigging the conversation. I sounded like she was talking to her mum about how much someone or other was winding her up and what to do about it. Over in the corner a couple of people were using their laptops and netbooks to surf the net wirelessly. There were mobile phones everywhere and I counted 5 PCS for internet access.

12 years back when I was backpacking properly, I still used Post Restante. There was an incredible sense of excitement about pitching up in say Bangkok and finding my way to the central post office. Asking if there was anything for 'Head'. The guy behind the counter would rummage through umpteen boxes and, just sometimes, crumpled and grubby, there'd be an envelope for me from home. Often I'd not read the letter it contained straight away, but would take it somewhere like a cafe or bar and pore over the pages... fantastically self indulgent... a momentary reminder that whilst the place I was visiting might feel like home now I'd been there so long, I was actually a foreignor still very much in a strange land. I had roots elsewhere.

But I'd go pick up mail maybe once a fortnight. And that was it... no more contact with the world outside my immediate environment. And I loved it that way - the sense of almost losing yourself in another place, another culture - the possibilities for being someone else, living a different existence for just a short while were immensely exciting.

Today I visited a cultural village where they put on a show of traditional tribal dances. I was again struck by the technology. One guy was playing golf on his iPhone. Another bloke was videoing the whole show - watching the real world through barrier of the LCD screen of his camera.

Technology is of course so empowering and enabling, but I'm becoming slightly smug about the fact that my mobile phone provider hasn't enabled roaming (despite my request to them to do so). I think I'm going to just call the voicemail and change the message to say I'm not in the country, don't leave me a message.

Travel for me is much about making connections with people - other travellers, locals, people in the travel industry. It's about lots of other things too - but ultimately it's people, what they do differently, what they think differently from me. And wondering what it would be like if I could be them for a day and live in their world for just a while. A sense of detachment, or otherness - I know I'm beginning to sound a bit overblown here... but what the heck... you could almost call it existential.

These days every hotel or guesthouse - no matter how far flung - is wired for email... so tempting to 'just check' and see if anything new has dropped into the in-tray.

But it's so distracting, so unnecessary. I have limited time here in a fascinating place...

Is technology killing the reality of travelling? Does a more connected world mean fewer real connections? I think so. Do you?

(Of course the ultimate irony is that to post this I've used the very technology I'm criticising)


11 thoughts on “A connected world means fewer connections

  1. Yes I'd agree with that - I remember hitting Singapore and collecting my first mail for months - it took me hours to read it all! I don't really want to be in contact with home when I travel. The last thing I would have wanted when I was younger was having to call home regularly - some people did it even then "collect" it was called (Google it young people LOL) - and I thought it was really sad - you might as well be at home if you can talk them never mind be able to get he day2day emails! My laptop is staying home when I go on holiday - and I never travel with a cell phone.

  2. I couldn't agree more. The recent episode of the young Brit who lost himself in the Australian bush for 12 days is a case in point. When eventually he emerged unscathed, his father chided him for having gone off without his mobile phone (not sure whether he would have had network coverage where he was, but never mind).

    The point is that even the older generations have come to accept all this extra technology as the panacea, when what the young man needed was the knowledge and skill a) not to have got himself lost in the first place, and b) to get himself out of trouble when it did go pear-shaped.

  3. Must say I disagree - it's not technology that's killing the reality of travel. It's (and here's where I sound really Victorian) a lack of self-discipline. Or, referring to Clive's comment above, perhaps a lack of self-reliance.

    Technology is a tool. We use it - it doesn't use us! (Or shouldn't!) Having the technology available to Skype my family from some miserable hotel room in the back of beyond and lift my day isn't a bad thing. Neither are mobile phones, or WLANs etc etc.

    And there's nothing wrong with checking your email and then going about your day.

    Access to all this technology simply requires us to exercise a bit of self-control. I remember when making an international phone call was a big deal: it took time and lots of redialling, for a few minutes of shouted conversation down a crackly line which cost an arm and a leg. Today, talking to family from the wilds of Borneo is no longer either impossible, or absurdly time-consuming and convoluted, or even particularly expensive. But that doesn't mean that we have to do it! The phone can stay in the pocket. Being able to check your email at 39,000 feet doesn't mean that it's obligatory.

    I just think it's really ironic. For the entire sweep of human history, travel has been a phenomenally difficult, life-changing (or life-ending!) activity. People - heck, whole cultures - have died in the effort of trying to make contact with other people.

    Now we can go where we like, talk to whomever we like when we're there, do exactly the same things in Phnom Penh that we might do in Peckham... so the challenge now reverts to an internal one. Physical travel is no longer the point. Access to all our 'liberating' technology has merely meant that travel, to be the life-changing experience it once was, must instead become a mental process. We can go where we like and do what we like, but if we don't make an effort, we'll come home unchanged.

    In other words, young Head, it's all about self-discipline! Now go and have a cold shower and run round the field three times.

  4. LOL - I have been in that area - he would have been out of cell phone coverage 30minutes out of Katoomba (the town he was staying at!) I liked the fact he went without the phone!

  5. Very good points -- I did a similar story on this that Matador then picked up (http://matadorabroad.com/travelfish-wants-you-to-get-offline/). It got some pretty strong reactions -- especially from those who like the devices. I think one of the issues is that for those who travelled "pre-internet" this whole "connected travel" thing is a bit wierd, but for those who grew up with an iPod in the cot, it's second nature -- why wouldn't you travel with a pack full of gadgets?

    As per Matthew Teller, it's all about balance -- we need not build a pyre of iPhones, but it is liberating to turn all these things off, and isn't travel supposed to be a liberating experience?

  6. And I used to spend a long time writing (what are now fairly embarrassing) letters! But I spent time to think about people and places and write it down with someone in mind. Self discipline too I suppose, and I'd write more but someone has just skyped me...

  7. Just back from three days trekking to tribal villages - jungle, scary rope bridges, hot sweaty trekking, homestay in village with mattress on the floor and chickens in the garden. And of course they had a mobile phone - nearest road is a 4 hour trek away. Progress eh?

    @ Matthew... I agree, but the self discipline thing isn't that easy (see... I'm on the net again now!) and the impact the technologies have on locals has a definite impact upon that sense of 'differentness' that travel brings (or used to at any rate.) ie hearing a Justin Timberlake mobile ringtone in the middle of the rainforest kind of kills the experience. But not much to be done about that and certainly not my place to suggest for a moment that hill tribes shouldn't have mobile phones!
    I think though that you're writing as a travel writer on a job - where yes, the ability to skype home or whatever is just great for killing that sense of on the road isolation - rather than as a tourist...
    No easy answers eh? by the way I have taken several cold showers in the last few days... but it didn't really help!
    @ Stuart - yep. Liberating is what travel should be. And turning off the mobile has been great. Can't see myself not checking email once in a while though... and ironically the travelling I am doing is giving me lots of ideas for interesting blog posts which need to be written in the moment rather than three weeks later when I get back.

  8. For those of us who were trekking the planet a very long time ago I am amazed not by the technology (which we all use) but by many of the very ill-equipped youngsters and students travelling around the planet. When we were heading off to Kabul on the Hippy Trail or in Borneo with the Kamodo dragons we were VERY much more savvy and much more respectful of the nature of travel. If you are not prepared it is easy to get into difficult situations - even if you have you iphone with you. More respect for other cultures and the planet might help too.

  9. Greetings all. One of the most difficult transitions I've faced being a hotel travel blogger is trying to remain connected while traveling. I spent 40 years traveling while losing and finding myself in travel. The past decade I have traveled and the experience has evolved from being a total immersion into whatever is around me into a type of obligation for documenting what is around me to provide accurate and insightful information to others.

    Travel changed from an experience to a job for much of the time.

    I have mixed feelings about the arguments stated.

    On one hand, I wouldn't be here if it were not for the tweet from Pam Mandel of Nerd's Eye View a couple of hours ago. We are connected throughout the world through a technological wizardry giving a Sarawak village teenager the same access to you as I have -- through the internet. And here I am in a new social context of travelblather.

    On the other hand; I have a difficult time remaining connected with technology when traveling. I still haven't been able to merge my online life with my travel life in real time. Like you expressed in your post, I enjoy being connected with the people around me. I want to get a sense of the life people are living in a place that is not familiar to me. As a person and traveler I have lived in probably a hundred places where I felt some connection of common life experience because I was living in the same community, living with common entertainment, eating similar food, and drinking local drinks with people around me.

    I feel like I can relate to about a hundred places around the world as an insider who relates to the issues of that community.

    There are still a million places I could see and experience. I work with numbers. I'll never be part of all the places there are right now to be a part of on Earth. Technology helps bring so many of us from diverse regions together on the internet and also allows a traveler to stay in touch with people who want to know our whereabouts.

    Ultimately I am old school. I weigh in on the side of tune in to the people you are around and tune out from your everyday home life and virtual friends online. I tend to disappear when I am traveling. We share our lives when we share. Our friends will be there to hear our stories when we are ready to tell them

  10. Hi Ric
    Thanks for your comments. Nice summary of the dilemma. I think I'm old school too - hence the lack of posts at the moment. Lots of ideas for posts when I get back to the UK, but for now I'm not spending so much time on-line... spending time with real people rather than virtual ones!

  11. For good or ill, the technology is with us. As a travel writer, I find I am dependent on it, more and more, and really browned off when I cannot get a decent connection from a hotel without paying and arm an a leg.

    But, on the other hand, I do tend to think that a certain amount of self-discipline can help. (Difficult, I know, as I sit here in my pjs at a quarter to 2 in the afternoon, typing away. But if it wasn't difficult, they wouldn't call it "discipline"). And, although the technology may be new and more all pervasive, this is by no means a new problem.
    Some years ago - in the days of film cameras (remember those?), I faced a similar problem. I was a keen photographer with good darkroom skills, processing and printing all my own work. But after my first trip to Europe, from which I brought back about thirty rolls of Ektachrome slides to process, it occurred to me that I was not, myself, in any of the photos. I had taken all of them and had lived my trip through the lens of the camera, rather than through real life. I can even recall, mentally captioning them for my friends back home.

    It was a sobering experience. Since then, though I am still a keen photographer, I often deliberately leave the camera behind so that it doesn't get between me and the real world.

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