The Experience of Experience
In 1995 I was living in Texas attempting to get my journalism career off the ground. I’d left the newspaper world and had returned to Texas to look for more work. I had A LOT of downtime. Newspapers were beginning to lay people off and I was not the demographic being hired. I also had no computer and was still typing my inquiry letters. I was doing a truly horrific assortment of freelance work, but was plodding along in my below poverty lifestyle. One of my brother’s friends had a house party, and seeing as partying was one of my special skills, I tagged along. While pounding more beer than thought humanly possible I met two more of my brother’s friends who had just retuned from a LONG stint in Guatemala. They had been traveling, mountain biking and taking Spanish lessons, all of which sounded dreamy to yours truly, and a lot more exotic than another long summer in the Texas heat. They gave me the name of a school in Antigua and the phone number of a contact they had in the city. That’s it. That was the grand total of my knowledge.
A few weeks later I bought an extremely cheap ticket and found myself on the San Antonio, Houston, Guatemala City route, a backpack full of gear and an oversized duffle bag of clothes. I really didn’t know what I was getting into, and this was what made the trip so interesting. This was adventure. Where are you staying? Don’t know. How long are you going for? Don’t know. What are you going to do? Don’t know. Do you know anyone there? No. Have you been there before? No. Oh. Oh my.
I landed in Guatemala City really not even knowing where Antigua was, or how to get there, and my Spanish was…minimal. I found the bus station and found the bus to Antigua by looking at signs and asking strangers. It came time to board and the guy driving the bus took one look at my duffle bag and pointed at the sky which meant, “This baby is going on the roof.” Up went my bag, and I boarded clutching only my backpack of Canon and Leica gear. The bus wound out of the city and I got my first glimpse of this incredible place. It was amazing to me that only three hours south of Houston I could find somewhere so exotic.
The bus arrived at the outskirts of Antigua and I still had no idea where I was going. I began asking people on the bus, “Hey, you ever hear of this place…..?” Nobody knew anything. About twenty minutes later I thought, “I think I need to get off the bus.” So I did. Only problem was the driver drove off with my bag on the roof. So there I was, backpack in hand, contact name and no luggage. I thought, “Well, I can probably wear what I’m wearing for at least a week before I begin to look like a homeless drifter.” I started walking. Slowly but surely I began to find people who thought they knew my contact, and I was finally pointed down a street where I came to a language school and made one final inquiry. There was my guy, standing there with a smile on his face. As we were exchanging hellos up drove the bus, empty except for my bag. The driver asked about the “wandering gringo” and he figured out where I was headed.
I spent the next month and half making my way around Guatemala, exploring new areas and even attempting to compile a few long stories. I had one paper map and an out-of-date guidebook that I would pull from time to time, but mostly I just went with the flow. Sometimes an eight-hour bus ride would become eighteen-hours, and lodging was a real-time roll of the dice. Nothing was ever certain until I could touch it, feel it, punch it, run from it or embrace it. It felt like real travel. I was at the mercy of fate, circumstance, luck and perseverance.
When I look back on this trip I don’t think much about the images I made. What I think about, and laugh about, was the voyage. At one point I got off a bus in a very remote, highland section of Guatemala and the locals turned on the only other foreigners on my bus and promptly began throwing stones at them until they ran back down the road we had just driven up. For some reason I was spared and found a dollar a night hotel made from plywood. As I asked around for a place to stay people began saying “You better hurry, there is only one hotel.” The only other foreign folks in town were UN workers. As I went to sleep a firefight started on the edge of town and I opened the window to watch tracer fire arc back and forth.
When I got up in the morning the only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to get dressed and leave my room. What came next was always somewhat up in the air. Traveling this way was about engaging with every aspect of the physical world around me. Where I went, what I ate, where I made pictures, etc, was all up for discussion and based on mood, feel and conversation.
The future of travel has been described as being able to open your phone on a foreign street corner and the phone will recognize where you are and then suddenly it begins to ping in with local stops based on your interests the phone has already compiled based on all your personal information. “You like hamburgers, well walk two blocks north and you will find a hamburger restaurant.” There will be a real-time connection with other travelers who would be pinging in with all their experience and where they were and what they were doing. The technology will provide you either the experience other people thought you would like or an experience that is…in a lot of ways…just like home. I know we already have some of this, but the future has been described as being like this but yet far beyond. I am so puzzled by this.
First of all, who wants to walk about the world with a phone or iPad in front of their face? I’m sure plenty do, but I still have a hard time understanding this. I recently spoke with a city manager who worked in a city I knew well. I explained I was disappointed in a section of the city that had been homogenized beyond recognition, and I felt like an idiot for taking a friend from out of town to the area to experience the “real” city only to find a gentrified tourist trap. The city worker said “People in Kansas want to come here and eat the same exact food they eat at home.” Is this really true?
As I sit here thinking about this technology I am hard pressed to find a way to take more of the EXPERIENCE out of travel. Just as I was about to find another viewpoint an Apple ad shows up on the web browser and it shows people…..interfacing the world….through their iPad. Okay, I lose. Game over.
Seriously? Do you want to travel that way? Experience the world that way? Look, when you land in London for a business meeting and have no idea where you are or where you are going and you have 47 minutes to get from Heathrow to your meeting it’s damn nice having a phone with GPS. But there is a HUGE different between business travel and real travel. I’m talking about real travel here.
Doesn’t travel with a device in hand actually limit the experience you are having? How can you be looking at an iPad and the mountain at the same time? And also, what are you doing with the mountain on your iPad? Who needs to see that mountain at the same time you are seeing it? Are you reporting on the mountain or are you sending a continual stream about YOU? I’m just asking. I honestly have no idea.
Now, before we go any further, I will be honest and admit that I am a guy who daydreams about inventing a way to actually disappear. Yes, I do. How great would that be. So when I go somewhere and put my phone down for a few days, I have a built in gene that allows my brain to completely forget about said device, so much so I find myself hinging on the idea of never turning it back on. I know I’m in the minority here. I could leave it all. The images, the phone, the music, the email, the text, if I never did any of it ever again you would actually be able to HEAR me grinning.
I know people who have apps out the wazoo on their phone. Apps for apps. Apps for breathing, thinking, chewing. Apps that count how many steps they have taken in a given day. Competitive apps about walking, cycling, traveling, etc. What is this about? Again, not sure.
The secret is the power of just being. That’s it. In a nutshell, being present in the moment in the specific location is an experience so far beyond the electronic interface it isn’t even close. Look, there are plenty of people who spend less than ten minutes at the Grand Canyon and never actually leave their car. No, I’m not joking,, and these people are doing their own thing and rightly so. And hey, at least they went to the Grand Canyon.
When I think about travel, guidebooks, technology, etc, I think of books like Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia,” or “In a Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson. One person’s LONG TERM take on a place. Why? Because these books allow YOU to create your own mental photography. These books allow you to guess, to imagine and to formulate. You can read them, fly to these places and still have your own adventure without a screen of “user generated content” taking every once of chance from the equation. Plus, the authors spent ENOUGH TIME to actually being to understand a place.
I think there is something to be said about using technology to do your research, and I know not everyone is comfortable with not knowing their day to day routine. But I think there is something to gain from allowing yourself to let go of the electronic, even paper, umbilical. I’ve found that most of the people walking this Earth are pretty damn fine people, and they will bend over backwards to take care of a stranger. Ya, I got robbed at gunpoint once by some kid with an AK(Cambodia 1996), but he only asked for a dollar and I had no problem making his dreams come true. Getting robbed was a rare experience in my book, and my book has a few pages.
I just keep wondering where all this tech is leading us? Are we smarter? Better? More caring? Are we actually communication better or just more frequently?
All this technology is great, yep, for sure. But guess what? Kilimanjaro still lost its glacier. I don’t need an iPad to look up and see the bare stone. I don’t need to know that you saw it and told everyone you saw it, or even that you had a coffee on the way up. I think sometimes we miss the message because we are in love with the messenger.
Look, I’m writing this on a laptop and I just plugged in an iPhone and a Kindle. Guilty. I’m just asking questions here because I see our new path being painted as an improvement, a more profound experience, but I’m not sure it really is. This stuff is here, and here to stay, but what I’m wondering about is, as always, BALANCE.