The internet has made many things, including travel, easier, safer and more accessible. But does too much information risk destroying the most rewarding aspects of travel?
For the most part, the increasing accessibility of information has helped us over the last decade. It’s helped us explain the inexplicable, avoid the catastrophic, and plan ahead. But just as we crave safety, stability and knowledge, we also crave uncertainty, adventure and the unknown; in relationships, in work, in our living situations. It seems life is one great balancing act between these two polarities.
Travel has become an acceptable place for us to exercise this desire for change. To find our way in a brand new place, to hear a different language, eat unidentifiable food. To be blissfully without information, without stability—for just long enough to realize the value of our stable, certain worlds all over again. So we travel to far-off lands and have a dalliance with the unknown.
At least, that’s the idea.
There are so many quotes about not following the path, about making your own way, about leaving a trail—I think we all aspire to that, but I’m starting to fear that we only eat in restaurants sanctioned by hip city guides, stay in places affirmed by previous travelers on review sites, and only hike if we’ve already seen the view from the top on Instagram. And if you take the uncertainty away, what’s really left of the travel experience?
I first visited Paris 10 years ago, when I was 21. I hadn’t read anything much about the city. I didn’t have a map. I certainly didn’t have a smartphone. But I had plenty of time, legs built for walking, and the unparalleled fearlessness that comes with youth.
One day, after hours of aimless wandering, I stumbled upon a part of the city filled with labyrinthine lanes, tiny cafes, bookshops and galleries. I thought I had ‘discovered’ a bohemian corner of Paris unknown to most tourists. I was overjoyed. I stayed there all day, drank wine at midday, and wrote a letter to my mum about all of the treasures I’d uncovered.
It turns out I was in the Latin Quarter, probably the most famous Left Bank bohemian haunt in one of the world’s most famous cities. But for me, it was magical; it was mine. I felt so fiercely independent, so adventurous, I couldn’t find a way to capture it. It’s only now I realize what a rare delight that was.
I can’t remember a time in recent history when I felt so overwhelmed by a city or my own sense of discovery. It may be one of the planet’s most famous neighborhoods, but I had still ‘discovered’ it—perhaps not for the world, but for myself. And nothing could take that pleasure away.
Discovering these treasures was dependent on being there, on being brave, on placing a little too much faith in a stranger.
Ten years ago, we might have looked to guidebooks for basic pre-departure information, asked friends for recommendations, looked at a few maps, learned a little of the language, got a feel for the highlights, the sights. As for finding that darling cafe down the nondescript street in the (not so off-the-beaten-path) Latin Quarter of Paris, or the heady, pre-dawn market on the sleeping streets of Bangkok, or that isolated hot spring in the alien fields of Iceland—well, that was left to the travel gods.
Discovering these little treasures was entirely dependent on being there, on being brave, on placing a little too much faith in a stranger, or on walking without a map. We couldn’t really know a place until we landed on its uncertain shores. Travel—far from being a list of recommended sights to tick off or a tool for us to hunt ‘likes’—was an adventure.
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Sometimes, that adventure meant being trapped in an over-priced, tacky restaurant far too close to the Spanish Steps in Rome; taking a wrong turn off a terrifying Autobahn and yelling at the map-wielder for the next three hours; or buying a slightly less-than-authentic carpet in the bustling medina of Marrakech.
But it also meant meeting great people, finding hidden street food, and experiencing the smug joy of being the ‘first’ traveler—at least to your knowledge—to uncover a local delight. And even most of those stressful, accidental and less-enjoyable adventures had a way of becoming funny—meaningful, even—in hindsight.
Since my ‘discovery’ of Paris’ famous Latin Quarter, I’ve made a slightly better job of actually discovering places. I took a chance on a little town called Pai in northern Thailand (before it became a backpacker hub) and jumped on a boat to an island without electricity in Cambodia. I followed a hunch in Siena and ate a bowl of ribollita I still dream about. I’ve also made some terrible discoveries and I’ve been lost and disappointed too—but that’s part of the deal I’ve grown to accept. Travel is a gamble, and you can’t always draw an ace.
… we have to try harder to stop seeking the best experiences, and let them come to us instead.
So yes, the internet can make it very hard to take a chance. But the joy that comes with discovering places for ourselves is still out there. To find it, we just have to try a little harder to know a little less. We have to try harder to quash our anxieties and take a punt on that dodgy-looking little restaurant. We have to try harder to shun Google and TripAdvisor and ask a real-life human for recommendations instead.
And paradoxically—instead of always hunting out the highly-rated sights, hotels, cafes, restaurants and bars—we have to try harder to stop seeking the best experiences, and let them come to us . There might not be many corners of this world yet to be discovered by humankind, but there are plenty yet to be discovered by you.
So if you do manage to find somewhere extra-special and all on your own, perhaps don’t tell us about it via TripAdvisor or Instagram. Don’t even tell us about it when we ask you how your trip was. Save a few spots for the rest of us to ‘discover.’
As content manager for an international travel company, Eliza got to spend a good many years gallivanting around the world. Now, she freelances and every time the FOMO gets too intense, she just channels her wanderlust into adjectives.