The recent news story of the young American couple, Jamie Neal and Garrett Hand, who were believed lost — perhaps kidnapped — in the backcountry of Peru has me thinking a lot about how travel and our expectations have changed over the past few decades. Neal and Hand had told their families that they expected to be out of phone and Internet contact for a good part of their Peruvian adventure, but because they were able to make regular Facebook posts, cell phone calls, and bank withdrawals during the first part of their trip, their families panicked when the updates stopped. Nothing more was heard from the travelers for a month, and the families contacted the media and the US Embassy, leading to international furor and extensive search efforts by the Peruvian government. Ultimately, the couple were located safe and sound deep in the Amazon rainforest, happily enjoying a trip down a remote river far from Internet access, cell phone towers, and ATMs.
I don’t fault the parents for wanting to know their loved ones were safe, and perhaps — given the frequency of their initial posts — the travelers should have considered posting a reminder that they might be out of touch before heading into a remote region. Still, the whole incident has left me with a slight feeling of regret. It used to be expected that travel would mean disconnecting to some extent — perhaps completely — from our lives and families back home. Now we’ve become so accustomed to being able to reach people at all times that an adventurous young couple can’t go off exploring without causing an international incident.
In 1995, when I was 21, I traveled in India and Nepal for a month and wasn’t able to call home once. My mother wondered whether she should be worried, then decided “No news is good news’ and figured I’d be home on the planned date unless she heard otherwise. I mailed a postcard from Kathmandu, but it never did arrive.
Studying abroad in Ecuador the previous year, I walked into a protest with tear gas and burning tires in the street during my first week, and later on was tossed about a bit by a minor earthquake – not exactly the kinds of things parents want to learn about through a casual Facebook update. I ended up having a wonderful time and falling in love with Ecuador.
A few years later I backpacked, mostly alone, through parts of South America and Africa. Although I was propositioned in Nairobi and fell ill with a stomach bug after swallowing Zambezi River water while rafting at Victoria Falls, overall I enjoyed myself immensely once again. I managed to phone home a couple of times during my semester in Ecuador, but on the other trips, I pretty much went off the radar for a couple of months at a time.
I do understand the concerns and hunger for news that those left at home often feel. My brother was backpacking through Turkey when one of the country’s most devastating earthquakes in history occurred. With the media reporting massive destruction and thousands of people killed and injured, we did worry a bit until he managed to get to a phone to let us know he’d left the area well before the quake struck and was far away exploring another region. When he was serving in the Peace Corps in Benin for two years, we devoured the exotic details in his letters and eagerly looked forward to his infrequent phone calls.
These days, adventurers call home from the summits of Himalayan peaks, tweet from ships cruising the Antarctic, and post Facebook updates while on safari in the African wilderness. I enjoy seeing my friends’ Facebook posts from their travels as much as the next person, and as a self-employed writer and trip leader, I admit to feeling antsy when I can’t get online for several days, in case I miss an e-mail about a work opportunity. But I don’t have a smartphone or an iPad, and I barely use my simple pay-as-you-go cell phone. I don’t actually want to be accessible every minute of every day. I do feel obliged to lug my laptop around more than I’d like, but if writing weren”t my profession I’d be glad to leave that at home, too.
When I’m traveling I don’t want to be distracted by the urge to tweet about everything as it happens, or be pulled back into my regular life by a steady stream of phone calls and texts from home. Travel to me is about being fully present in a place and a moment, absorbing impressions with all five senses. As the story of Neal and Hand demonstrates, there are still plenty of adventures to be had in the world, but there are times when the constant connectedness of social media, cell phones, and the like changes the very nature and meaning of the experience. For me, staying in touch with people I love matters, but there are times when it’s more important to leave everything behind for the thrill of diving deeply into the culture and spirit of a place. Like Neal and Hand, I’ll surface again, but in my own good time.