In October 1999, around the time I moved to Thailand, I met a very peculiar Dutch man who was already a long time resident of Bangkok. He ran what was then the first and only company that ran bicycle tours through the city’s labyrinthine alleys and along canal-side communities. I joined one of his trips and it was wild. A pioneer at that time, there’s a plethora of company’s doing it now, but he was on to something really distinctive. He was also very unique and not your typical sort of person.
While tagging along on my second trip he became quite agitated a number of times with guests when they talked about other trips they’d been on, or made comparisons about Thailand and other destinations visited. He didn’t want any part of it. A number of times he quite bluntly said things like, “concentrate on this trip and where you are now.” His tone was a bit much, but years later while leading a Cambodia Tour with a group who had an affinity for country comparisons the moment popped in to my head. And I realized what the Dutchman was on to and at that moment felt much the same way. Everyone was distracted, disengaged from the now, the place they’d spent so much time and energy to get to and in a sense were missing out.
Being ‘there’ and fully engaged is a key part of travel. The opportunity to discover along the way, not needing to fill every moment with something, enjoying the open ones free of an obvious activity or historical blurb, it’s those bits in between that really are the goldmine. Nowadays we seem to have gained an aversion to such moments, needing every second to be occupied by something, and much too often useless, unnecessary stuff. This is the day and age of constant connectivity, instant photo updates, blogs, SMSes to friends at home, blogging on the go and making sure you feel part of what’s happening ‘out there’, rather than being focused on ‘right here’.
Being able to send an email is as important to me as any other traveler, but is it really as necessary as we think? Could we live without the ‘urgent’ emails, Facebook updates or seeing what the pasta someone just ate looks like and focus on what we’re doing now and where we are? Internet connectivity and devices have their place, but more often than not while traveling they serve as a detrimental distraction. There’s a movement to come that will be all about disconnected travel – travelers seeking a quiet nirvana, actively leaving their Wi-Fi-enabled devices at home, staying at hotels without a signal and making getting off the grid a priority of their voyage.
We’re bombarded at work, home and pretty much all the time if we allow ourselves to be by these pasta-updates, most of which add zero value to our lives. Look down any busy street or public place and there’ll be a high percentage of folks gazing into their device. They’ve become like security blankets, a conventional distraction from people, everyday life and an accepted way to disengage. Travel should be a time for everything but.
Vacation is a time to leave it behind, ruminate, discover, re-evaluate and fully engage in the experience. All the bits: historical blurbs from guides, scrumptious meals, charming locals and empty silences. Free of distraction and technological modern day social crutches. Watch people pass by, sip a drink, don’t say a word, say “hello” to a passerby, but there’s little reason to see that picture of pasta or share your latest musing – it’s just not that important or interesting.
Not so long ago, travelers, real explorers, set out for weeks and months at a time with no way or sense of need to contact home. It’s the way it worked. A movement will soon be upon us for disconnected travel. Be it self-enforced or with a tour company that themes an entire voyage around it and/or hotels that don’t provide a signal. A breed of travelers is coming who will choose to disconnect, focus on the moment and say “no” to pasta-updates.