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Disconnect, Reconnect

Tom Eaton on why he travels unplugged.
Image: ©Unsplash Image: ©Unsplash

Disconnected. Unplugged. Offline. It’s the only way I travel. Because I don’t know how to make the Internet go into my telephone when I’m abroad.

I asked, once, and the polite assistant behind the desk told me that I wanted to go to Rome, and I said no, I was going to London, and she took a deep breath and wrote ROAM on a piece of paper, and then she said something about Data, and I said he was that funny android on the Starship Enterprise, and then she suddenly had to take a call in the other office and never came back.

Perhaps if she’d talked me through it for the third time I might have figured out how to stay connected and spent the next many years wandering the globe with my nose and thumbs pressed to a screen. But she didn’t, and so I didn’t, and that has made all the difference.

Of course, being offline abroad has caused a few anxious moments, like having to answer an urgent email in a Parisian internet café so palpably corrupted, hacked and phished that I wanted to bathe my email account in bleach for a week afterwards. But these occasions are rare, and when they pass and I resume my adventure, unplugged, I am more convinced than ever that disconnecting lies at the heart of the travelling experience.

Why? Because travel is one of life’s great pleasures, and the Internet is a soul-sucking vortex of misery that sensible people should stay as far from as possible.

I’m exaggerating but not joking. I am now entirely convinced that being online does something awful to our psyches and that our descendants are going to look back at us and our phones with the same pity that we look at etchings of medieval invalids having holes bored into their heads. It’s why I don’t feel like a Luddite when I switch off abroad. After all, who in their right mind would willingly take with them on holiday a machine that injects anxiety, anger and sadness into their brain every few minutes?

The answer is, of course, almost everyone, because most of us aren’t in our right minds. Living online has addled us.

2016 was proof. Last year, we told each other, was ‘the worst year ever’, gloomily ignoring the fact that humanity has never been healthier, wealthier or more peaceful. Like I said: holes drilled into skulls.

To ‘stay connected’ is to detach from reality. Even the phrase is pure self-delusion: we’ve all seen ‘connected’ couples gazing not into each other’s eyes but into glowing screens. Indeed, ‘staying connected’ is what our society now calls a state of almost constant isolation and loneliness. It is a technological limbo, a nowhere-place where we hang, unsatisfied yet craving more: I could post a selfie standing on top of the Eiffel Tower while the French Air Force writes my name in the sky with napalm and phosphorous, but if someone posted a picture of themselves on a beach in Bali two minutes later I would feel that I was missing out. That’s how far the online world has driven us out of our minds.

Mercifully, however, the real world is still there, waiting for us to return, ready to be explored and to reveal the beautiful eccentricities that refuse to be turned into a Facebook update or an Instagram post. Once my fellow traveller and I were waiting for a bus in Croatia that was running late. A small, slightly fey local woman caught our eye and said softy, “Perhaps it is a metaphysical bus.” For me, post-card pretty Dubrovnik will always be tinged with gentle absurdity; the home of a woman who forgives late buses by imagining that there are invisible ones whizzing past every few minutes.

We’re always being told that technology empowers us and perhaps it does, now and then. But it can also be a disempowering force, an anxious nursemaid hovering at our elbow, trying to keep us safe by second-guessing our instincts and dismissing our choices. TripAdvisor has its uses but ultimately it is a shepherd offering sheep the safety of a well-trodden meadow.

Of course, I understand the appeal. Travel is expensive and it seems sensible not to waste time or money doing things that others have warned you not to do. But making your own decisions, based not on a recommendation by Frank and Fran Whatsit of Wichita but on your own intuition, is a truly empowering and transformative experience.

That’s when you learn that even a bad decision, honestly made, can become one of your fondest travel memories: the taste of a terrible meal fades but the flavour of the evening – the desperate glances across the table, the pantomime of not offending the unctuous waiter – remains.  Likewise, I’ve slept in some properly awful beds in some truly surreal rooms (you haven’t discovered your limits until you’ve overnighted in the honeymoon suite of a Transylvanian hostel) but I wouldn’t exchange a single one of those nights for a week at a five-star palace. Every lump in a mattress and every crease in an ominously stained sheet has become the topography of a beautiful landscape of memory and experience.

And, finally, there’s the greatest reward for going unplugged. Ironically, it’s also the reason people stay connected; the thing they fear most when they travel. It is, simply, getting gloriously, completely lost. It is a rare treat in this satellite-stalked, GPS-policed world to be able to walk down a city street or along a canal or through one of the great parks having only a general sense of where you are; to know only that you are heading closer to where you want to be or further away.  But if you can manage it, and leave behind the electronic reassurances so that you are making your way through the world only on a hunch, or by the direction of the afternoon shadows, or are navigating by the slope of the terrain or a rumour of a familiar scent; then you are no longer a tourist.

You are a traveller.

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