Time Traveling

Time Traveling

My first independent travel experience.  New Year’s 2000 in Amsterdam.

In December 1999, at age 17, my life as a traveler began.  Leaving home under the guise of visiting my friend who was studying abroad in Germany, I would spend most of the trip traveling alone.  Dim-witted and naïve, but adventure seeking, within days of arriving I did the only thing my parents asked me not to do: go to Amsterdam.  Not only did I go, I went for the millennial New Years with a gregarious Israeli I met in a Brussels hostel.  Tired after a morning train to Amsterdam, he suggested we go to a coffee shop; I looked forward to the caffeine.  It was then that I learned “coffee shop” in Amsterdam isn’t about coffee at all.  As I did 12 years ago, young travelers today are having new experiences, surprises and getting lessons that will shape their lives.  That much hasn’t changed, in fact a lot hasn’t changed, but some things have and it’s changed the travel experience.

Digital Distractions

There is a wonderful hostel in Qingdao, China that has one of the best bar/café areas I’ve ever seen.  It has a wide selection of drinks, one free beer daily for hostel guests, and comfy seating from the bar to cushy chairs.  It has wifi, that’s the problem.

A Tokyo hostel’s common area, filled with people that are “there not here.”

I chose this hostel because it has wifi, because I “need” it to work on LivingIF, because I “need” to plan our months in China, because I “need” it to take care of banking and reservations.  These are new needs and aren’t really needs at all, but they feel like a need versus a want.  Due to this I am part of the problem in this wonderful bar that I am writing this.  The bar has many tables with four cushy chairs, each forming a pod if you will.  I am sitting in one by myself and each of the other pods are filled by people by themselves using the wifi.

We are all in our little digital world, whether using a laptop, iPad or phone, doing our own things, instead of being here in Qingdao, in the moment.  The last time I traveled like this, a 2006 trip to Ecuador, there was no wifi offered, very few people had laptops (less than 10%).  When we “needed” to communicate we did it with each other, strangers, instead of sending emails home or putting things on facebook.  When we needed to do travel planning we talked to each other, shared where we’d been and where we were going.  We worked together to plan by pouring over travel guides.  When something embarrassing, funny, or strange happened, we all shared in the story, not the readers of someone’s blog, twitter followers or facebook friends.


When people listened to music, it was often a fellow traveler playing the guitar.  Soon talented guests would join the sing-a-long.  Harmonicas would appear from deep within bags.  People from different ends of the earth would discuss what songs they knew and played together.  If someone had their own music it was on CDs, but carrying CD players were clumsy, so when someone wanted to listen to their music they popped it into the hostel’s music system, we all listened.

Copious amounts of beer were consumed, until someone would spring up and say, “you have to hear this song” and put in their CD.  Eventually someone would come from a room, groggy and angry, demanding the end to the music in the common areas.  People would move to a courtyard and the guitars would come out, late at night hostels became acoustic theaters.  Friends and lovers were made, after this city or the next, you would probably never know what happened to this person.

“Snow Days” in Mendoza, Argentina.  A group of us got stuck there for five days after a storm closed the pass between Chile and Argentina.  We passed the time listening to traveling musicians music and trying the local wines…all of them.

Today though, people sit alone, ears filled with “ear buds” of iPods or MP3-phones.  They are traveling, surrounded by others, but in their own world, they can come and go from hostels without interacting with others.  The communal areas are a little less communal.  The experience of late night jam sessions, homesick travelers crying about lost boyfriends and excess consumption of beer or other substances has ebbed.  Just like the internet fed micro-segmentation, the personalized music player created it within hostels.

Digital Cameras

Digital cameras have changed much of the world, but travel may be the most affected.  In the old days of film, before the mid ‘00s, a photo had a price, it would cost film and printing.  Now photos are free, so people take thousands.  I am a willing poster child to this, snap now, delete later.  This has increased crowds around everything photo worthy, snapping away, taking three pictures instead of one.  Tourist sites are packed with “photographers” trying to get the perfect photo.  Before they would set-up, take a picture and move on, hoping they got a good picture to show friends back home.


The best life lesson I gained while traveling was the distance between me and those “back home”.  I was missing for months or years at a time, having life changing experiences, to return home to find it hadn’t changed.  Now though, travelers may physically leave home, but don’t emotionally disconnect due to communication technologies.  Through email, Skype, facebook, twitter and other technologies combined with wifi and laptops, you never have to fully disconnect from home.  To fully immerse yourself in the experience of traveling, the here and now, you need to fully disconnect from back home.

It is by putting yourself in a vacuum, away from all those influences that made you who you are, that thrust their expectations upon you, that you can fully evaluate what you, personally, want.  Away from all this you can define who you are independent of the habitat you call home.  Since communication has become easier, disconnecting oneself has become much harder.

When I was a kid…

I am a nerd, I love technology.  The amount of gadgets I had to get rid of when we left for this trip is astonishing, yet here I am demonizing technology and travel.  Each of the things I mention here has a positive, that’s why people use them.  What it has done though is change travel for young people as we know it.  No longer is travel about getting as far away from home as possible, meeting new people, and becoming a new person.  Travel has become a commoditized, experience collecting and self-promoting endeavor for many.  I am as guilty as anyone in this and look back at the times “when I was that age…”

Lima, Peru’s Friends House Hostel, in 2003.  No wifi, a computer that occasionally worked and a Foosball table dominated by the young boy in the lower left corner.  The experience were the people staying there.

To travelers setting out today on their first travels, let me lay one out there: when I was your age, I learned the most from the people that I met and traveled with, from the times spent in the communal areas of hostels, from the long nights sharing stories, but most from the disconnection from home, the distance from obligations and pressures of “back home”, and I challenge you to do the same.  Put away the iPod, don’t take the computer, travel physically light and take the unplanned, unexpected opportunities travel presents.

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» Donna :
Sep 12, 2011

Didn’t some ninny along the line call this progress? I think so. But you’re really right on with your observation about the tech world infringing on our travel experiences. I felt pangs of guilt as I read “ear buds” thinking back to the days I’d ride the rails in Europe, speaking my best German to some stranger and learning more about their life and telling them about mine. Now I miss the days of traveling on the trains as I justify renting a car because it’s easier for me physically to lug my suitcase from a car than from a train station. Yet those brushes with strangers can still be had, and you’re still having them, in spite of all your technology. Or perhaps because of your technology! And I still find them too, at the breakfast table, the souvenir shop, hotel or even the internet cafe! Would I trade back? Hmmmm … I don’t think so … I really like my DSLR camera and not having to reserve hotels weeks in advance, but just happening upon a good deal because I was able to look on the internet is kind of fun. And I’m totally enjoying NOT sending expensive postcards home and sending ecards to a bunch of folks that include one of MY photos is awesome! As is getting immediate responses back from jealous friends back home! And what would I do before breakfast every morning if I didn’t have LivingIf to go to for my morning dose of travelogue? :-)) Nah … we just have to be more aware that we need to mingle with the locals so we can experience some of their culture while we’re there … the high tech stuff just gives you more options to enjoy all that!


» Kate C :
Sep 12, 2011

Love this Matt, and couldn’t agree more. My 4 month trip in South America completely changed me and defined me as a person. I can honestly say that I began to figure out who I really was on that trip. I didn’t carry a single device that plugged into a wall, and my film camera ran on disposable batteries. I operated entirely on my own schedule. My mom understood that emails and phone calls came from the once/twice a week that I made it to a internet cafe with international calls. My journal, and eventually the bastard that stole it, was my only audience to my exploits. When we got stuck in a bus strike in Peru, the “kids” on the bus walked until we found a store that sold wine and camped in the parking lot around the bus. I even (very accidentally!) caused my mom to think I was kidnapped for 24 hours. That was all 2005, and I never saw a laptop or portable wifi device. In 2009, my next solo trip, I had a laptop, a blog, facebook and a direct skype link home. While I appreciate facebook for the ability to retain traveling friendships, the entire trip (and the one we took this year) was irreparably changed due to technology. While I’d like to go back, and will make the attempt more in the future to disconnect, I understand that we simply move with the times and have to find ways to create new, meaningful experiences in whatever atmosphere we find ourselves. Thanks for the great read!

» Cindy :
Sep 17, 2011

But it is so wonderful to be able to be in almost constant communication with you both than worrying about you and not knowing for days or weeks that you were okay. Loved your comparisons but I as a parent I definitely vote for the current as we can feel like we share the trip with you…and we really do appreciate all the efforts on your side to keep up the communication on livingif.


» Bka :
Sep 17, 2011

Very well said……the irony of a millennial expounding on the”good old days” of less techno is priceless……what did I read the other day that cursive (that would be handwriting) is no longer ” mandatory”…..agree with Cindy, from our perspective the techno updates are a need, not a want…….great observations……peace……..bka

» Shannon :
Sep 22, 2011

hear! hear, Matt! happy there are some things that facebook doesn’t know about my life abroad. its just for me and my friends that experienced it.

LOCAVORista Reply:

Shannon, I agree…traveling with technology really changes the game. Miss the “good old days” of backpacking Europe with you!

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.


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