Turn off, plug out, drop in

A hotel owner friend of mine is frustrated.

“If I see one more person sitting on the terrace with their eyes glued to their bloody iPhone instead of our amazing view, I’ll throw their iPhone off the terrace.”

She’s written this on Facebook – kind of ironic when complaining about technology – but she has a point.

Like many over-35s, I remember an era of travelling when laptops were still too expensive, and heavy, to lug around in a backpack and if you wanted to contact home you used a public phone box. On my first extended backpacking trip I didn’t even know what the internet was. Even by the time email had been integrated into my travel experience, using it required the patience of a saint to search out the one internet cafe in town with a decent dial-up connection and then the ability to type fast enough to send a message before the next power-cut sharply switched the clunky computer screens back to black.

Surrounded by younger travellers in a hostel recently I came face-to-face with a new style of travelling. The young guy beside me leaned over his tablet-screen chatting to friends back home. A girl with a notebook computer the size of a wallet scrolled through TripAdvisor restaurant reviews. Across the room, a couple slouched into chairs opposite each other with eyes glued to their smartphones. They reminded me of an elderly married couple who used to be regulars at a bar I once worked in. Every night they would come into the bar together, order two pints, and then sit in silence facing each other across the scratched veneer of the table while drinking their beer. As if the long years of living together had sucked their conversation dry. There must have been nine travellers in that room but you could have heard a pin drop. The clacketty-clack of keyboard typing was only finally broken by the lone voice of a head-phoned British boy on Skype talking to his mother.

“I’m back in the hostel…Yeah did you see the photos I put up on Facebook? Can you put some more money in my bank account? I’m running out. Don’t forget to say hi to Dad.”

This new tech-heavy era of gadgetry has fundamentally shifted how we travel but I can’t help feeling ambivalence about the convenience it now provides us. If you know what the phrase Poste Restante¹ means, ever made three precious mix-tapes² to keep you going on the road, and once lugged wads of travellers’ cheques³ around your waist in a money belt, this brave new world of high-tech travel may stir the same mix of fascination and unease in you as well.

This is a travel world of tangled cords and chargers in your backpack and never enough power sockets in your hotel room. A travelling life where you’re no longer forced to read that one rubbish crime novel left on the shelf of the hotel book-exchange because your favourite books, music, film and TV programs can follow you wherever you go. Perhaps more significant to this shift in how we now travel is it’s also a world where family and friends can keep tabs on you, wherever you are, at all times.

It’s kind of like you never left home.

New technology has always played its role in changing and moulding our experiences across the years and this isn’t meant as a diatribe against the modern conveniences of travel. Neither is it a starry-eyed remembrance of the ‘good-old-days’ that never were. I don’t want to sound like a backpacker version of Monty Python’s famous ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ skit:

Backpacker one, “Eh, in my day we had to carry rolls of film around with us if we wanted to take a photo and we only had a guidebook to help with planning.”
Backpacker two, “Luxury! We didn’t even have cameras. We had to sketch pictures if we wanted memories of our trip and the only information we got when arriving in a new town was from a one-eyed mute at the train station.”
Backpacker three, “You were lucky to have a one-eyed mute. We got up each morning and chiselled each landscape into a stone tablet that we then had to lug around in our backpacks and the only travel tips we got came from a donkey tethered in the bazaar.”
Backpacker four, “And you try and tell the young people of today that and they won’t believe you.”

But I do worry if our whole sense of wonder and discovery – the sheer joy of being somewhere completely different and not knowing what the hell comes next – is being crushed by the very technology that now makes our travel lives easier.

It’s harder to get properly lost when your smartphone’s Google Maps app can lead you directly to the main sights. It’s more difficult to feel that excited, but slightly bewildered, sense of being very far away and disconnected from normal life when Facebook and Skype allow instant access to your world back home.

And if we’re so intent on bringing home along with us on this ride into the unknown, are we simply relegating the act of travel to a list of sights we can pose ourselves in front of to prove we’ve been?

In Pico Iyer’s 1988 travel masterpiece ‘Video Night in Kathmandu’ he writes “Abroad, we are not ourselves; and as the normal and the novel are transposed, the very things we might shun at home are touched with the glamour of the exotic.”

But if we deny ourselves the pleasure of flinging off our normal home existence in the first place – remain so thoroughly plugged into the world we left behind – we’ll never give ourselves that opportunity to experience the exhilarating, befuddled brilliance that happens when the unfamiliar smacks us in the face. The serendipitous chance encounters and astounding fuck ups we can make when we’re left to flounder and find our way by ourselves out on the road. The sensory overload of India doesn’t have quite the same overwhelming and visceral sense of awe when you can finish the day in your hotel room watching Homeland on your laptop and scrolling through your Facebook news feed to find out Uncle Mike’s going back to the gym this week and your best friend Claire is cooking spaghetti for tea.

I’m not suggesting we should all strike out on the road like Rimbaud; thoroughly doing a disappearing act on our past life to reinvent ourselves anew. But just to switch off from the chattering drone coming out of ‘back there’ for at least a little while. To give ourselves the opportunity and space to become a part of these new landscapes we’re travelling in and capture more than just photos to post on our blog and Facebook page.

By venturing out from normalcy – shrugging off the ropes of everyday chores and career – we’re already allowing ourselves the first step towards experiencing something new. But by taking that further, bigger – scarier – step in opening ourselves up to a time-out from all we know at home, to be fully connected to where we are right now, that experience could become something incredible, something insane, even something profound.

So lower your camera from your face for awhile and just sit and survey the scene. Go get lost in the traffic-jammed chaos of the city streets and wander aimlessly without a map. If on these wanderings you walk past a restaurant that’s packed with locals go in and eat a meal, even if that place is not recommended by 700 other travellers on TripAdvisor. Stop. Checking. Facebook. Every five minutes. And for God’s sake if you go to my friend’s hotel can you please put down your smartphone for a second and appreciate the view.

It’s when we immerse ourselves fully in the moments along the way that you realise why you left the humdrum roundabout of home behind; the sheer, undiluted thrill of being unmoored from life. Cast adrift into a world unknown and full of possibility. There’s not an app for that. Yet.

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¹An archaic form of receiving correspondence from your loved ones when you had no permanent address. Using paper and a pen, people would write a letter and then mail it to a post office address you had given to them in the hope that you would, at some stage of your travels, be passing near that post office. The post office, if it did indeed receive the letter that had been posted, would then hold it for you for two months. If the happy coincidence of you passing by that same post office occurred in the same time frame of the letter being held there you were able to collect it and receive news from home. Please Note, often this didn’t actually work out.

²A compilation of your favourite songs copied onto a blank cassette tape and played on a portable stereo known as a walkman. Mix-tapes provided a solution to the impracticalities of trying to carry your entire collection of music cassettes around with you in a backpack. Sadly the act of repetitively hearing the same 20-odd songs over and over again also usually caused any love or sentimental value held for said songs to disintegrate completely long before the time you got home.

³An extremely popular form of safely carrying your travel funds before international-linked ATMs became common place. Travellers exchanged hard cash for travellers’ cheques which could then be exchanged for money in the local currency at banks and money-exchange offices throughout the world. The main benefit being that if lost or stolen, the cheque-issuing company would give a full refund if provided with the original purchasing slip. Unfortunately most banks in more far-flung countries demanded that you show them the original purchasing slip while you were exchanging cheques. Thus meaning that many travellers kept their purchasing slip and cheques together for convenience annulling any possibility of claiming a refund if they were indeed robbed.

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This story was first published by Peregrine Magazine.

On the good, the bad, and the just plain dumb of Trip Advisor

Back in December 2000 when I was stuck without a bed amid a torrential downpour in Cusco, I would have loved a Trip Advisor-style service to suddenly burst onto the internet scene. Instead, with all the hotels listed in the guidebooks full and the scribbled names of places passed on from other travellers also booked solid, I trudged wet and miserable through the back alleys of Cusco for five hours, with my backpack, trying to find a room.

Travelling days like this seem to now be a thing of the past. Trip Advisor has been at the forefront of a new travel industry wave – giving travellers more easy access and choice than ever before. It’s not surprising that travellers have responded enthusiastically and joined in; rating restaurants, hotels, activities and sights in a free-for-all reviewing frenzy.

I’ve got no beef to grind with the internet’s tourism giant. I don’t think it’s anywhere near a guidebook replacement but I do think it can be a useful medium for people to use in conjunction with one. Unlike a guidebook, hindered by page count restraints and publishing schedules, Trip Advisor has space for every hotel and restaurant in town to be featured. And thanks to the right-up-to-the-minute wonder of the Internet all those new hotels and restaurants manage to start building reputations long before the next guidebook author is due in town.  It should be a win-win situation for all sides.

But it’s not.

Of course everyone realises that many hotels and restaurants often post fake positive reviews on their Trip Advisor sites. But there’s a far more insidious and damaging side to the Trip Advisor fake review game.

In a town I know well, one person is making good money by creating fake Trip Advisor reviews and forum posts for local hotels and restaurants. For the princely sum of US$165 this person will not only post fake positive reviews and forum posts about their client’s business, but also nastily post fake negative reviews on the sites of three of their major competitors.  This is a small town which lives and breathes tourism. It’s the main industry there and competition between hotels and restaurants is already ridiculously high. So what happened when this Trip Advisor entrepreneur started broadcasting their services for sale? Well Hotel A used this service and got more positive reviews meaning that their Trip Advisor rating shot up. They also managed to make their main competition Hotel B have a lower rating than them because of the fake negative reviews this person posted.

Now Hotel B and Hotel C, D, E and F then got wind of this new service and felt like they had no choice but to join in. Otherwise maybe Hotel G, H, I and J were going to use it and go up higher in the Trip Advisor ratings than them. So this person made (and is making) a killing after feeding paranoia to Hotels A through to Z.

Not nice is it. But it does explain how in this town, a fairly new hotel has managed to get over 100 reviews despite being open less than a year while another hotel (who hasn’t yet used this service) has fewer than 100 reviews but has been open for five years.

I guarantee that this isn’t the only town across the world this is happening in. You put a tool like Trip Advisor out into the world and there’s always going to be someone who tries to cheat the system. The trouble is that Trip Advisor doesn’t police their site sturdily enough for people playing the system like this to get caught. Anyone can create a few different user names, log in and begin writing a bunch of bullshit. And some people, with unscrupulous morals, are going to start charging for it.

On a funnier note there’s another reason why travellers shouldn’t take everything on Trip Advisor at face value. This is a REAL review for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Göreme National Park by Trip Advisor Senior Reviewer Marcia58 (note the fact that she’s what is called a ‘senior reviewer’ hence supposedly more trustworthy with her reviews) :

“This is disappointing to hike. What seems to be the best areas are closed to the public. There are some nice views if you have a car. I took one short hike and turned back due to flies and nothing much to see. I’d skip it.”

Yeah Marcia58, I agree. It really is terribly disappointing:

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