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Linked In, Tuned Out:
Why Travelers Should Limit Their Tech

by Joelle Renstrom

It's a dilemma...

When I unexpectedly unwrapped an iPad mini last Christmas, I was shocked and thrilled. No more hauling my hefty laptop to class on my bike, more scared for it than for me in heavy traffic. Aside from some adjustment difficulties (I’m a PC person), my iPad integrated smoothly into my life until it prompted an existential dilemma for me as I prepared for a trip to Portugal.

I have a complicated relationship with the internet when I travel. I need it, but I also resent it.

It hit me a couple years ago as I sat down in the courtyard of the D&D Brewery near Lake Yojoa, the largest lake in Honduras. Ready to chat up fellow travelers after a day exploring on my own, I surveyed the tables, prepared to plop down next to whoever looked forthcoming. But everyone was glued to a device of some kind. I read as I drank a beer, ate dinner, and waited for people to Facebook themselves out. I’m still waiting.

More backpackers than not carry netbooks, tablets, or smartphones. This trend has been pervasive in daily life for a long time, but most travelers dodged it for a while, opting to leave their gadgets at home, especially those too bulky to haul around. As with camping, travelers generally enjoyed leaving those devices behind.

Is anybody checking out the scenery anymore?

Now, it’s almost unthinkable to leave technology, particularly internet-connected mobile technology, at home, much as it’s unthinkable to live at home without it. And Wi-Fi is available everywhere, usually for free. On the small Honduran island of Utila I could have checked email at the smoothie stand next to the guy selling pupusas from a cart. I saw people doing it—lots of people.

As a solo traveler who often has no particular agenda, I rely on the internet. Guidebooks are outdated the minute they’re published, so I go online for information and bookings. If I Google “buses from San Pedro Sula to El Mochito” I can find (and have translated into English, if I want) a bus schedule that isn’t posted anywhere. I check email most days and sometimes I update my Facebook status or upload photos. I’m neither Saint nor Luddite, but my eyes are usually glued to something that isn’t a screen, which seems important.

Travelers who don’t bring gadgets depend on internet cafes, which are easy to find, even in pretty remote places; ironically, they’re now harder to find in places like Western Europe where everyone’s assumed to have their own connection. Aside from providing access, the biggest virtue of internet cafes is that their availability, reliability, and cost limit one’s time online. I make a list of what I need to do online and make necessary bookings and inquiries first, followed by trip research. Then, depending on the speed of the connection, I'll check email, browse the news, or post on Facebook. It’s like stopping by the office on a weekend—I don’t want to there any longer than I have to. The desire not to be pulled from my immediate reality compels me to disconnect quickly. But that’s what’s changing—travelers are choosing to conflate the immediate and dynamic reality of travel with the static reality of home.

Hello! Doesn't anybody want to talk to a real person?

Many travelers remain tied, in real-time, to their social identities and statuses, even if doing so provokes anxiety or distraction. At a certain point it doesn’t make sense to be traveling in the first place—why bother leaving home? Isn’t breaking free from daily identities, routines, and expectations the whole point of travel?

Before Portugal, I packed and unpacked my iPad three times. Strangely, the most compelling argument, was that I have one, for godsakes, so it’d be silly not to bring it. Bringing it wasn’t wrong, really, but I worried I’d be unable to resist its temptations, that it would be a portal to my life back home.

I also worried that I’d miss out on some of the uncomfortable situations that typify traveling and make for good stories. Watching DVDs while the scenery flashes by doesn’t compare to a hot bus ride squished up next to someone interesting. Slumming is inherent to the experience. For a backpacker, the general rules are that your bed will be lumpy, the showers cold (and don’t swallow the water), and your bus will pick up every farmer and grandmother from here to Pulpahanzek Falls and you will probably have to share your seat with chickens. Being uncomfortable, and learning to enjoy it, is part of the gig, and I didn’t want any excuses for not submitting to those experiences.

Ultimately, I did bring the iPad. I watched a movie on the flight to Lisbon (I would have watched a movie on the plane anyway, I told myself), but when I arrived, I dumped my iPad in the storage locker and set out exploring. I made rules: I could only use the internet on the iPad if the hostel where I was staying didn’t have public computers. I wouldn’t take it with me as I tromped around during the day or visited bars at night. I wouldn’t (couldn’t, really) upload any additional movies or files. Reading would remain the primary way to pass down-time (to that end, although I greatly prefer real books, I submit to the convenience of the Kindle when it comes to travelling).

What about that old sketchbook or journal?

At the end of my first afternoon in Portugal, I ordered some wine at an outdoor bar in Barrio Alto and sat back to drink it all in. I watched patron after patron, many of them tourists, bring their devices inside to get the Wi-Fi password from the barkeep. When I dug into my bag for my Kindle, I grabbed my journal instead and tried to remember the last time I’d written in it. The last few pages triggered faint recognition, as though I only vaguely knew whoever wrote them. At first my pen felt strange between my fingers, but writing utensils are remarkable and connective devices, and soon everything felt wonderfully strange, including me.

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