Is modern travel too curated? If you’re after a more rewarding travel experience, put down the phone and go and get lost, suggests our featured contributor Leon McCarron.
A few years ago, I walked across China, from the northern edge of the Gobi Desert to the South China Sea. For 3,000 miles, my walking partner Rob Lilwall and I plodded southwards, following whichever trail, valley, river or road seemed to best take us towards our destination.
We found it impossible to access detailed topographical maps of much of China and so relied on cheap, nasty road atlases—that were almost always wrong—and an early iteration of the iPhone. The latter proved somewhat helpful when we wanted to follow roads, but it was completely useless for finding our way through the mountains and forests.
It also, in its detached automation, pointed us into areas that were not open to foreigners … and more than once, we found ourselves inside police stations trying to explain how we unwittingly wandered into closed military zones. This said as much about our own competence and awareness as it did about the navigational methods, of course.
Often, the most interesting way to move forward was to ask people in villages and at roadsides where we should go and, if all else failed, to simply take a compass bearing and find the path of least resistance that went vaguely due south.
From the best part of a decade, I have been a professional stranger in new places, and often without a plan, cellular or otherwise. There’s a balance to be found between using the technology available to us wisely, but also in not allowing it to control us.
My journey in China was driven by curiosity: What’s it like to try and move slowly through the center of one of the largest and most populous countries in the world? What will I see and hear and learn if I keep heading in one direction with no fixed route? For travels like this—and I suspect that many of us share this same genesis of desire—there is a lot to be said for a certain amount of disconnection from the digital world, in the hope that this in turn leads to a deeper connection to people and place.
We live in the age of the ubiquitous smartphone—and technology has improved significantly since my experiments in China. Now, in so many new places that we might find ourselves, we can be instantly connected to the rest of the world, and to hundreds if not thousands of recommendations and reviews as to where we should go, what we should see, where we should eat, and what drink might best compliment that.
We can access detailed street-level views of huge swathes of the planet, and we can see ourselves as a blinking dot on a digital map. It is, in many ways, a remarkable time to be alive.
And yet, it comes with a certain set of challenges. What does it mean to have our experiences curated by others? How does it impact us to have been told in advance whether a certain restaurant is excellent, or poor, and to see a star rating for the waiting staff? There’s a certain dystopic quality to that; to the notion that every aspect of life has been evaluated and scored.
When we rely on our own intuition to navigate, then we’re constantly making decisions, and working the brain.
From the best part of a decade, I have been a professional stranger in new places, and often without a plan, cellular or otherwise. There’s a balance to be found between using the technology available to us wisely, but also in not allowing it to control us. So, in the pursuit of this sweet spot, I’ve found myself relying upon a number of ‘mantras’ to aid the de-digitalization of the travel experience.
To arrive someplace on foot , for example, seems to make us as travelers seem less intimidating to whoever we might meet. Also more vulnerable, and more in need of assistance. By eschewing both digital companions and mechanical ones too, different and deeper conversations occur, and new opportunities arise.
When I cycled through Southeast Asia a few years ago, I found myself immediately whisked into homes in villages to be fed and looked after and, ultimately, pointed down the next road that my hosts thought might interest me. On a more recent journey in the mountains between Slovenia and Italy where I religiously followed a pre-determined itinerary on a smartphone screen, I noticed a distance opening between me and those I met; the assumption was that my phone was my chosen substitute for their knowledge, and the interactions were more stilted.
When I’m not reliant on my smartphone, I’m also not beholden to it. In Kosovo recently, I noticed an elderly man smiling when I walked past with a backpack. I paused to exchange greetings, and eventually he told me a story of when he walked across much of western Europe three decades earlier.
This could also be written as: Be alert. It’s when you stop to talk, listen and engage that you pick up on other factors. There are safety considerations to consider, for example, and just about every city in the world has areas that it might not necessarily be wise to wander through alone, or at night, or perhaps even at all. And so it’s useful to observe how we’re being received in new places (though this is true whether we’ve ended up there by chance or by following Google Maps). Often the response will be smiles, or perhaps we’ll be ignored and blend into the crowd. But if anything doesn’t feel quite right, then it’s good to trust those instincts.
When was the last time you asked for directions? I often find myself lost and having to ask for help. I’m pointed and turned around, and it’s usually pretty amusing to those advising me to watch me blissfully step out down the wrong street for the third or fourth time. The key, though, is that I am (hopefully) opening up new mental pathways and creating an internal map that, should I circle back around a few hours later, I will recall.
I’m no expert in neural networks of the brain, of course, but there’s a science to this and much has been written about the degradation of our cognitive abilities when we rely too much on digitization of tasks that previously required lateral thinking . When we rely on our own intuition to navigate, then we’re constantly making decisions, and working the brain. And turning in circles to try and orientate the blue dot on Google Maps is not quite the same mental workout.
You’ll have to give me the benefit of the doubt here, but I love following people. Seriously, benefit of the doubt. I enjoy looking along the side streets that certain people take, or at which trails a shepherd might walk across a hillside.
In big cities, I also like to follow the signposts created to help tourists navigate the city. Through a combination of these alternative encouragements, plus a bit of natural intuition, I’ve happily wandered away many hours and days in new places, discovering places that I almost certainly wouldn’t have arrived at otherwise.
It’s a romantic notion, but so many of us dream of the liberation of travel where, for a brief time and space, we’re free from the confines of routine and other banalities. Traveling around a new place with nowhere to be at any given point and eating when hungry (or when others do) and watching the streets light up as the sun brings life into the day is a great joy. I’m a hypocrite, of course; I wear a watch most of the time that tells me my heart rate, how long I slept for and all sorts of other unnecessary things, but I also try to take it off once in a while.
Perhaps this all seems pointless, or overly quixotic. Maybe that’s true—it’s easy to get carried away and fall into the trap of thinking that there’s some sort of purity or authenticity to be found simply by switching off a phone. However, if you’ll indulge the idea a little, then you may find a level of enjoyment in it too.
I always notice it makes me feel a little uneasy to begin with, as if I’ve just taken off my lifejacket and am leaning over the edge of a ship. It takes a while to shift mindset and get over that reliance on digital companionship. The next sensation though is always one of relief, followed by exhilaration; a hint of adrenaline being released in anticipation of what might happen next, and the knowledge that there’s no way to know what that will be. It’s simple but effective and, if you try it, you might just be surprised.