I recently traveled out of the country. What was most striking about this recent trip was the constant and inescapable presence of personal technology. At the airport, on the airplane, in the customs line, at the baggage claim, in the hotel lobby, at the hotel bar, by the pool, on the beach, in the cafes, parks and shops, on the local buses, walking the avenues…wherever I went, people were staring into their personal screens. Travelers don’t look up much from their devices anymore, not to observe or interact with the people around them, absorb the different sights and sounds, or take in anything happening in their actual physical surroundings. Most travelers are entrenched in communicating with their home people, engaging with their home games, completing their home habits, checking their home life, and essentially, being who they are and living the life they have at home.
People traveling these days appear to be too preoccupied and distracted by their technology to be able to experience their travels, which is not the same thing as experiencing their phones while traveling, but rather actually living the unknown that travel offers. People now appear to be too absent from the actual experience of travel to be able to be deeply affected by or change as a result of it. Regardless of where we are in the world, we can now use our personal technology so as to never really have to leave home, change in any way, experience the unknown, or stretch outside our familiar sense of self. Whether or not our body is physically on the other side of the globe is increasingly irrelevant to our inner state. As long as we are situated and tethered inside our Smartphones, we are able to stay happily and safely inside our comfortable sameness.
Technology has changed the experience of traveling. With personal devices now our constant companions, the best parts of traveling have disappeared. Rest assured what’s been lost is not that we no longer wear ties and skirts on airplanes and wear sweat pants instead. Rather, what is no longer is the given that traveling will include meeting new people or even, living new experiences.
Before our personal technology became a part of every moment, traveling included a lot of down time, long stretches when we didn’t have much to do other than stare out a window, read a book, or maybe, strike up a conversation with a stranger. With travel came a lot of just being, with ourselves and others.
Travel used to take us out of the comfort and routine of our habits, put our sense of self in flux, and liberate us from our idea of who we are. Travel held the capacity to make us feel and experience ourselves differently. Separated from our normal life, untethered from all the things, roles and relationships by which we define our identity, we were free to be whoever we wanted to be. The present moment and who we were in it held great possibility for freshness and the unknown. Anything could happen when we traveled because we were less defined and confined, and thus more open to something new.
Furthermore, what made travel so special is that we had an unequaled opportunity to meet the people around us, who were often quite different from us. Meeting people wasn’t just an opportunity but more like a given, an inherent part of the travel experience and why we engaged in it. It was also, frequently, through the new people we met along the way that our travels were inspired and enriched. We may have gotten to know someone on a train who then told us of an aunt who had a bungalow in which we could stay, or of a local restaurant not to be missed, or a spectacular mountain trail. People along the way offered priceless travel and life experience, just as we shared our own. We connected not just to other flights, but to other human beings. It was often these other humans, who started out as strangers, but with whom we ended up sharing a meal, a journey, or even our life. Undoubtedly, some of the most interesting and important experiences in my own life have occurred because of the people I met through my journeys, and sometimes just because I spoke to the person sitting right next to me.
While it is very easy to use our devices to create a constant state of comfort and familiarity, there lies a great opportunity in travel and all experiences that pull us out of our usual circumstances. When we are willing to meet the unknown and possibly become someone different, allow ourselves to be affected by places and people we don’t know, we evolve and live—fully. The next time you are traveling, try an experiment: put your personal devices away and bring your attention to where you actually are. Notice your physical environment and the people in it. Feel what the air feels like in your new environment, listen to the sounds, see the colors, taste the flavors, smell the aromas; sync up your attention with where your body is in that moment. Notice too how your body feels in its new environment and if your sense of self is different in any way. Use your travels as a doorway to being where you are, In the process, you might also meet a new friend, have a fresh experience, or even find your self to have changed.