Travel and the Internet
The internet is a worthy tool: it allows us to consume an abundance of information instantly and to conveniently maintain relationships across long distances. This is especially pertinent for travelers. You can use it to translate foreign languages, check rates of currency exchange, make bookings for transport and accommodation, review where to go and even what to eat. Perhaps, most importantly, when shit hits the fan, you can use it to implore family members to give you money.
The internet represents convenience, power and progress.
But it concerns me that this rapidly expanding database of information is potentially spoon-feeding us into a state of submission. Solid fact and substantiated evidence hinder our ability, and perhaps our desire to “get off the beaten track”. As travellers, have we become too reliant on the internet?
Google and Wikipedia are the sources of almost every practical answer in our lives, while Facebook and Instagram are the new social order. We use the internet every day and can’t imagine our lives without it.
Bartering has become too easy. Whether buying a martabak from a street vendor, a sarong at a stall on the beach or a night’s accommodation in Uluwatu, tourists are simply googling the “real price”.
At a guesthouse in the jungle of Northern Lombok, it is perfectly convenient to stay up to date with every Snapchat and status update from home. Skype knows no borders. Despite being on the other side of the world, relationships with acquaintances are tended to daily.
Modern travellers are increasingly fastidious in deciding where to go and how to get there — gorging on photos, videos and words about a destination, diligently cross-referencing hotel/ restaurant reviews and booking everything online.
With Google Maps, you can’t even get lost anymore.
I write this from a dingy little internet café in Senggigi, Indonesia. The space is occupied by a cacophony of teens in headsets (partaking in virtual warfare) and a minority of older men checking their Facebook profiles. This is a remarkably different scene from what I saw at internet cafes last time I was in Asia – that was 2007. Back then, I suspect this place would have been dominated by young tourists in Bintang singlets and thongs: surfers writing home to mum. It seemed then that internet cafes existed exclusively as a service for travellers. Travel information was distributed through guidebooks and word-of-mouth.
Now, with the emergence of WiFi, few travellers come to these places. Almost all relevant information appears instantly on little backlit screens. Armed with smart-phones, tablets and laptops, travellers seek out WiFi hotspots like rabid dogs.
On this trip, for the first time, I have seen young tourists rendered dead-eyed, bored and xenophobic, not by opium, but by smart phones. The tool can become counterproductive: no longer a means but an end.
Research and experience are both enriching. With balance they complement each other perfectly. But to constantly monitor the lives of others rather than living one’s own is a sad side-effect of modernity. Especially in a faraway land.
Don’t get me wrong, I like to read a good feature article about another place. History helps us in understanding a prospective destination. Information is important for the progression and distribution of knowledge.
But I can’t imagine going on a trip with a bunch of well-informed, categorised preconceptions and then ticking them off in order. That much research robs a journey of its spontaneity. While travelling, I don’t feel like I should be talking my friends on Skype every day; I should be making new friends. I shouldn’t be spending time looking at photos on Facebook; I should be taking them. I shouldn’t be googling the “real price”; I should be hustling for it and sometimes even getting “ripped off”. It’s certainly a more interesting way to learn.
It’s got to be about diverging from the plan, getting up to mischief and mixed up in confusion. Things are more beautiful when you see them through naïve, even ignorant eyes. I don’t want to learn it all from the internet, I want to hear it from the local woman and see it in her face. I want to drink rice wine with her in a dishevelled palm-thatched jungle hut. I want to watch her become more open and animated as we get to know each other.
I met an old man who travelled India in the early ‘80s. He spent a few years there. His only correspondence with his friends and family was by posting letters to them. In each letter he would contain instructions of where to send the reply – generally to a General Post Office in a capital city. Three months later, he would arrive at that Post Office and find two or three envelopes with his name on them. He was elated when he received those letters. I can barely imagine how that must have felt. It sounds pretty difficult and lonely, but part of me yearns for the extremity and rawness of such an experience.
John Steinbeck mentioned this concept in a travel log in 1941. He looked back on the travels of Charles Darwin with a similar awe and reverence.
“We can look with longing back to Charles Darwin, staring into the water over the side of a sailing ship, but for us to attempt to imitate that procedure would be romantic and silly… For we first, before our work, are products of our time… However, we can and do look on the measured, slow-paced accumulation of sight and thought of the Darwins with a nostalgic longing.”
As a “product of our time”, we can’t fight or ignore the internet, but we can use it with restraint and discernment. This, I believe, is an empowering way to utilise any tool. “Nostalgic longing”, however, is not what we desire. Nostalgic longing is best quashed. For this, we may undertake travels that are dangerous but informed; debaucherous yet culturally respectful and as wild, free and spontaneous as possible.