*This post was originally published on Culture Counter, but the site has since been shut down*
My first trip abroad was in 2007 and I used pay phones, tucked away down narrow, Grecian, cobblestone streets, when I wanted to talk to my family. Sweat would be trickling down my nose, as I yelled into the phone that we only had ten minutes. Otherwise, I would use hostel computers, pay as you go, to send a quick email telling everyone I was all right. I would write hastily thought out, non-spell checked blogs, in my hour time limit, detailing my excitement and wonder at being a 20-year-old backpacking through Italy and Greece. While riding swaying buses and chugging ferries, I would write in my journal about the strange characters I met along the way and the books I’d been reading. My digital camera captured sunsets melting into the ocean and my traveling companion’s smiling face as she drank her first legal cocktail. It was not the golden age of travel, but we were in the moment, we were happy, and we didn’t have smart phones.
I don’t know a single person who doesn’t have a smart phone. I am the lone Luddite, stubbornly holding onto my useless burner phone, that one guy at a bar actually thought was a Tamagotchi. I paid 30 bucks for it, plus another 30 bucks every 2 months for credit. It makes calls, it texts, and I have an alarm in the morning. What more do I need? A lot more, according to everyone else. I need apps and lots of them. Whatsapp, Kakao Talk, Google Maps, Tinder, Instagram, Snapchat, Kindle and many more to entertain, connect, and distract. I get the appeal. It’s fun, you can show off your adventures, and help is always there, in your palm. But, it frightens me. I already spend too much time on my laptop and work computer stalking Facebook, diving deep into the black hole of Youtube, and sharing Buzzfeed articles that tell you what kind of pizza you are. My reasoning for not having a smart phone is that I’m already chained to the internet at most times, so when I’m out and about, I’d like some freedom and to be in the moment, not checking my phone and talking to people who aren’t even here.
Smart phones have already changed the way we travel. Most hostels no longer have public computers or book swaps. They have Wi-Fi passwords and signs asking you to check in on Facebook to promote them. The community living rooms aren’t full of people reading or chatting, but on their phones or laptops. I used to go into a dorm room and immediately make introductions and soon enough, friends, who I would wander and drink with. Many times now, I don’t even speak to the people in my dorm room or see their face without a dim light shining from their phones during the night. We don’t write in journals, we play Candy Crush. We don’t stumble upon local restaurants, where we can’t pronounce the name and don’t see any other foreigners, because we walked past them on the way to a top rated Trip Advisor café packed with other travelers. People don’t get lost anymore (thanks, Google maps!) and it’s a damn shame because getting lost, asking locals for directions, and ending up in areas you would have never seen is always an adventure. Once I got lost and ended up in the middle of a Vietnamese carnival game, where I had to wear a scary mask and hit a clay pot with a stick. I won and got a gorgeous, turquoise lantern, which I treasure to this day. Back in Italy, my traveling companion and I ended up lost on the outskirts of Rome, which was full of dead cats on the road. It was absolutely strange and yet, hilariously horrible. Once we found our way again (thanks to wonderful Italian people we met along the way), the reward of gelato tasted that much sweeter.
I do mourn the loss of moments like these, especially now that I’ve given in and gotten an Ipad for traveling. I can’t deny the absolute convenience of it. I can keep tons of books on my Kindle app, upload photos for friends and family back home instantaneously, and play games when I’m bored on a ten-hour bus. I’ll definitely be taking my Ipad on my next trip through Southeast Asia because if I didn’t, I would feel disconnected from what the world now is. Although, sadly, I now find myself playing trivia games instead of looking at the scenery out the window and making Facebook photo albums, when I could be striking up conversation with the person having noodles alone at the table next to me. I talk to my family and friends back home so much that I sometimes forget where I am. And that is a tragic thing.
The purpose in writing this is not to say smart phones are evil and have ruined travel because that is not true. They have merely changed our attitudes and we have to try harder to not be lazy and let ourselves have an involved experience. Try to only use your smart phone at certain times of the day. Ask locals for directions or travel advice and resort to your smart phone if that doesn’t pan out. Think of it as a safety net, not your guide. Once in awhile, let boredom overtake you. You’d be surprised where it can lead.