TRAVEL’S GOTTEN EASIER. IS TRAVEL RUINED?
TECH HAS MANAGED TO REMOVE MANY OBSTACLES IN A TRAVELER’S WAY
I’m sure it’s not too hard to make the case for how technology has made travel way easier in modern times. Travel itself was made more and more possible by innovation, and that continues to be true as the world gets more connected and smaller.
The most recent iteration of that, though, is surprisingly recent.
I started to tap into travel in 2010, and for the next few years over that I took advantage of every chance to visit dozens of countries. My motivation was pretty high, which meant I was willing to go through countless safety-not-guaranteed situations in order to get to my destination.
Hitchhiking for the first time in Turkey.
Getting lost on the southern edge of Izmir meant getting offered a ride by friendly strangers. That experience allowed me to experience yet another layer of rich Turkish hospitality and paved the way for the following year where I would need to hitch a ride with urgency in Southern Argentina in order to make it to my bus terminal in time to leave. (The public bus I was supposed to take mysteriously never showed up.)
All the help Morocco had to offer.
In Morocco, I found myself trying to travel at the start of Ramadan via a bus that most tourists wouldn’t take. I wasn’t even sure the bus I sat on was going where I wanted, but all the people I was sitting next to put together their scraps of French and English to lend a hand. Later that week, a man took my friends and I in to break the fast with him and his family after we got lost hiking.
Turning an urban children’s home into a monastery.
This was in South Africa, in one of Johannesburg’s most unsafe neighborhoods. (Heck, probably one of the roughest in the world.) I volunteered at a home for orphans and vulnerable children, and because of my lack of transportation and safety to walk places, I was mostly confined to the center. This turned into a rich period of spiritual growth as I had more time to pray and meditate.
These were some rich, early travel experiences that I look back on fondly.
Contrast that with this past month, when I traveled through Thailand and Malaysia. The whole time being able to rely on ridesharing apps, Google Maps, and readily available online access to get around. I never really ran into any snags and got around about as easily as I could in the U.S.
Here’s what made that extremely easy:
I relied pretty heavily on Grab to get around, an Uber-like app that has a strong presence in Southeast Asia. (Uber is also available, I just haven’t been so hot on it these days.) I was able to zip around different neighborhoods in Kuala Lumpur and to make it from one end of Phuket to the other with extreme ease. I experienced a similar thing in South Africa last year, where Uber was available to get me through it’s rougher spots.
A porous language barrier.
I can’t solely credit modern technology with how widespread English is. That’s more so the work of colonialism, cultural hegemony, and globalization. Still, tech totally helps. Locals are more likely to pick up a decent amount of the language from teachers like Stranger Things or Pitbull, sometimes enough to help me out with directions. And if that should fail, I can always bust out Google Translate and let the bots do their thing.
A really great international phone plan.
Speaking of Google and rideshare apps, TMobile’s international flexibility really makes my life much easier. I can make calls via wi-fi, and use local data transmission to look stuff up at a slow speed (or one that was normal for 2010). That costs me nothing beyond what I already pay and allows me to work remotely, keep in contact with home, and figure out how to get to my next stop extremely easily.
BUT DOES THIS TAKE THE ADVENTURE OUT OF TRAVEL?
This should all be pretty good news for the hesitant traveler who doesn’t want to be caught without a plan. To be honest, though, the unpredictability and totally open possibilities have always been among my favorite parts of travel. I’ve always loved the fact that anything can happen and that you never know when you’ll find yourself sharing amazing food with a sweet Moroccan family breaking their fast. Something about that turns on all my senses.
If places grow more and more homogenous and there’s less and less room for the unplanned, I wonder if experiences like those will decrease.
After all, those early experiences in Turkey and Argentina really helped me step into my emerging sense of independence and freedom at a really important time. All that warmth and hospitality in Morocco reminded me that the world is more good than bad, and that in ways that don’t make the headlines, people can have such big hearts. South Africa was one of my most spiritually rich experiences, and helped me grow in my faith unlike any other time.
And yet, when I was back in South Africa last year taking Uber to get around the shady alleyways in an air-conditioned car, it occurred to me that if I just waited three years, staying at the orphanage probably wouldn’t have been the epicenter of spiritual growth that it was for me. In fact, all my richest experiences could’ve been easily resolved with good phone access, Lyft, and Google Translate.
As travel gets more convenient, does it get less adventurous? Does our better connectedness actually make it harder to make organic connections like the ones I experienced with the Moroccan family? If so, that’s actually a huge loss. These sorts of experiences have filled my trips up with meaning.
EXPLORING WILL ALWAYS BE EXPLORING
Thankfully, I don’t think that’ll entirely be the case.
Sure, it’ll be easier and easier to be the sort of traveler who simply imports his way of living to a different place. It may get easier to skip opportunities to connect with people face to face and to instead opt for some sort of automated device that gets the job done. It can be easier to escape the opportunity to explore by over researching a place beforehand. But this trend has existed long before I ever went anywhere, and I still got those meaningful experiences.
Technology gives and takes away. While the invention of high powered ships and transportation started to allow people to interact with different places and cultures, it also allowed for the transmission of diseases and violence that wiped out populations.
While planes allowed us to get over oceans much quicker, they opened the doors for ordinary people to experience what had once been reserved for the most committed explorers. At the same time, they decreased our travel by land and sea, and I’m sure there’s many who feel that was a big loss.
Once I ran into a Swedish UN worker in Zambia, intent on telling me that I gained nothing from my trip there because I arrived in the Livingstone airport, rather than taking a train from South Africa. I silently disagreed, preferring to save myself a week, a couple hundred dollars, and to have enough time and money left over for a safari later that week. But I wouldn’t want to be like that guy– simply associating inconvenience with a better experience and looking down on others who did some things more easily.
I couldn’t have done my early trips without technology that enabled quick transportation, searching for cheap flights, and a little bit of background knowledge. I also wouldn’t have experienced them with some later conveniences.
The methods of travel will always change shape, but the spirit and need for exploration will always be there. If you’re born with that itch, you’ll always be scratching at it, and that’s really all it takes. It ultimately finds a way.