21 April 2013

In Defense of Backpacking: Is free WiFi killing the backpacking experience?

“So where y’all from?”  That one simple phrase is the only thing necessary to spark an instant friendship under the hostel roof.  Backpackers share many of the same traits – the spirit for adventure, a desire to see new parts of the world, simple travel needs, being trusting enough to share quarters with complete strangers, and the goal to do so in a cost conscious manner.  Sharing a bathroom with a friend or a sibling is hard enough for most.  Sharing a bathroom with someone who doesn’t speak your language is a completely different experience. 

After a couple solo trips around the end of my time at university, there were so many elements of backpacking to which I’d become addicted.  Traveling solo had a certain air of freedom that, combined with cheap hostel rates, allowed for versatile travel plans.  Thus far, my whole life had been meticulously planned from my educational and career path to my tennis training.  Traveling with only my backpack was freeing, and began my desire for a new plan to have no plan.

Arriving at the hostel dorm is the best part.  After a brief check-in, I throw my bag on my assigned bed and start introducing myself around.  “So, where y’all from?”  In the hostel, we are all on the same team – traveling solo or in small groups, far from home, eager to explore, and celebrating life on a budget.  You know that you and your dorm-mates already have many things in common, so after the simple “where y’all from?” you can skip right to “what’s the plan for tonight?!”

The common area of the hostel is a place for sharing a cheap beer in the evening, hearing stories from the day’s sightseeing, and formulating the plan for dinner and dancing that night.   

“So, where you from?”  To be able to get this icebreaker off your lips, there must be someone ready to receive it.  This takes eye contact.  The hostel of 2013 however has unintentionally put a barrier in place to prevent this:  Free WiFi. 

Is WiFi killing the backpacking experience?  And is it eroding the ability for people to interact in the simplest yet most meaningful way possible - face-to-face conversation? 

Last month, I stayed in a giant hostel in Budapest I affectionately called the Disney World of hostels.  They’d literally thought of everything.  It was clearly built by backpackers.  The entire hostel was cleaned twice daily.  A hot breakfast was included.  They even had a small shelf on the wall near the head of each bunk bed with an outlet to set down your watch and charge your phone!  Most importantly there was a bar downstairs that was lively every evening complete with a pool table, Palinka tastings, beer deals, and a free drink on the evening you checked in.  I also stayed in a hostel in Istanbul a few days later that was a dump comparatively, yet still sufficient.  And both places had the same thing in common:  Free WiFi.  Both places I dropped my bag down, settled in, and came down to the lobby to find my new hostel-mates in the lobby glued to their iPads and iPhones, ear buds in.  There was even one Australian Face-timing loudly with someone back home on his laptop.  No one looked up to acknowledge their new arrival – me.  So I sat, opened my bottle of wine, read my book and hung out.  Everyone else read news, sifted through Facebook posts, and listened to music from their devices - everything they could have done back home.  They were so focused on their electronic task that there was no looking up to appreciate the current moment, take in the scenery, or make a new friend.

Rewind 9 years.  It’s 2003 and I’m backpacking for the first time ever, in Fiji.  I stayed in hostels in the Colo-i-Suva National Park and on Beachcomber Island, the latter a backpacker’s paradise where the dorm had 100 bunk beds under one roof, wide open to the ocean breeze entering freely on all sides.  Each evening after exploring during the day, I’d clean up in the dorm and go settle in the lobby or main bar area for a drink, and I’d do the only thing left to do – meet the rest of the folks staying there for the night.  There was no WiFi.  Both of these places didn’t even have Internet access.  Placing a call back home required a pre-paid calling card.  Thus, there were numerous steps (read barriers) necessary to connect back to the “real world.”  Instead I was forced to participate in the present.  Thank God for that.  I met two generous Swedish couples.  I watched some rowdy South Africans fail miserably at limbo.  And I took in one of the best evenings of my life – a Christmas Eve complete with free boxed Chardonnay and a game of musical chairs with 11 strangers. 

Six months later I found myself hopping through Europe over 5 weeks.  I visited with friends I met in Fiji and crashed in hostels when I was without a host.  To use Internet then I could walk to the Internet café, but that cost me a few Euros, which was a tough decision when that could have been put towards a cold beer instead.  The fact that energy was required to go find an Internet café was a barrier to my decision to connect and I only e-mailed my family and friends as much as was essential to let them know I was alive and well.  I was aware of my surroundings.  And my blessings.  And I was immersed in the moment.

Now we find ourselves in the age of 24-hour news outlets and second-by-second Twitter updates.  We in the States have slowly become comfortable with constant stimulation, whether that is by TV, music, Facebook, or text messaging, and we almost can’t live without it.  I see so much anxiety and attention deficit disorder and I have to think our constant need for connectedness, and our inability to occasionally “check out” from the stressors of daily life, is playing a role in this.  For if you are used to constant visual or auditory stimulation and then all of a sudden you have none, and are stuck with a still view of the ocean or find yourself seated in a somewhat quiet lobby or restaurant or bar, what would your natural reflex be?  To worry?  To reach back for your standard level of stimulation?

This is precisely why I am choosing to make a concerted effort to resist the new norm.  And, at the risk of sounding like (or posing as) a backpacking elder, I am calling all backpackers to do the same.  Whether you’re away for a year or a week, old or young, beginner or veteran, let’s return backpacking to its roots and keep the spirit alive.  Do it for your health, or your sanity.  But most importantly, do it in the spirit of building new connections around the world.

My home life is very well planned, with a fairly steady routine that relies greatly on the Internet and electronics.  But when I travel, I travel to get away.  To escape my daily routine.  To experience something new and meet new people.  To rest my brain, take a deep breath, pray, and reflect on how blessed I am and my current position in life. 

If I am constantly being told what’s happening on my iPhone I fear I won’t be able to see for myself what is going on right in front of me.  So it takes a conscious effort to stay off the iPhone, put it deep away in my bag and only use it for essential communication.  But it’s going to take a community effort to renew our vows to each other to travel for the original reason we were intrigued by the journey in the first place.  Perhaps you wanted to take in a kava ceremony in Fiji.  Maybe you wanted to reach the top of the Eiffel Tower.  You likely wanted to meet someone from a different culture and hopefully share a meal with your new mate.  Maybe this is another vacation away from your daily work or a necessary venture far from your comfort zone.  Whatever your inspiration for crossing international borders or flying across oceans, your iPhone or iPad will not be necessary for you to accomplish your end goal.  And they’ll be waiting for you back home – trust me.

So, disconnect.  Turn off.  Be present and soak in the moment.  And the next evening you’re in the hostel lobby or bar, decline the free WiFi and look up.  Our eyes will be able to meet and my friendly Texan face will be smiling to greet you: 

“So, where you from?”  And we’re already friends.

1 comment:

  1. Astute realization of the world today. I hope others will follow your lead.

    It seems many people feel that texting at a dinner table and making loud cell phone calls in a restaurant is perfectly acceptable behavior, which totally ignores those who are present.

    Thanks for the thoughts and real life adventure!