The first time I came to Latin America I was 16 years old – I’d been studying Spanish for five years, and I had been counting down to the trip to rural Nicaragua for months. I went with good friends, and was wholly prepared for a life without electricity and running water for several weeks. What threw me was the sheer away-ness of it all; the distance, the remoteness, standing under the stars and feeling tiny, three-hours-from-the-nearest-phone or hospital kind of away. It was crazy. It was awesome. It was far, far away, at least to me at that age.
Deep in the throes of my teenage emotions, despite my excitement at my first real taste of independence, the idea of three to four weeks the other side of the world without any contact at all with home took some getting used to. I felt the same when I went the second time at age 19. Trying to maintain a long-distance relationship for several months with nothing but the occasional phone call was a huge challenge. I’d get on the bus to Estelí every 10 days or so and journey for three hours to make a reverse-charge call to my boyfriend, or my mum, and hastily arrange a call back via the medium of a cheap phoneline that gave you an excessively long number to call and we’d then chat happily for a few pence a minute. After that, I’d wander around to find an internet café that was open, functioning, and had a spare computer to use, before settling in for an hour or so of clunky dial up internet and crank out some long winded, ‘isn’t my travelling life amazing’, pre-Facebook email which I’d send to an address book I’d concocted of unwitting recipients whose emails I had and who may or may not have expressed even the most fleeting interest in my going away. Poor souls.
Fast forward ten years, and I find myself wandering various elements of the gringo trail, by turns baffled, grateful, and infuriated at just how much time I spend online if I so choose. Of course, the medium of Skype, Facebook etc isn’t the same as being right there with your loved ones, but I can’t believe just how much easier it makes it to stay in touch and feel a part of things. Working online, it goes without saying that I can’t just drop off the face of the planet for months on end – clients would forget about me and I’d have to start from scratch which is not the point of being what you might call a digital nomad.
We often hear of people at home taking a ‘digital detox’ and turning off their phones and computers for a week or so, if not for work, then certainly for the occasional media blackout, and feeling pretty much like they’d lost a limb. I understand completely both the desire to black out and the feeling of being totally lost at first when doing so. At home I often feel that James and I are surgically attached to our smartphones – if not for our respective business, then to keep up with news and emails, then social media, and then, let’s face it, wasting away on Buzzfeed and Pinterest, because why not.
Somehow I got it into my head that it wouldn’t be like that when we were away, but the couple of snarky comments I got on my Facebook about ‘living the dream’ while scrolling away on the free wifi in Bolivia or wherever quickly alerted me to the fact that actually, apart from being in another continent, if we weren’t careful, nothing would be any different from our lives at home.
There are some serious benefits of having smartphones and wifi while you travel – I have found some great accommodation through sites like airbnb and Hotwire, reviewed and checked out places worth going to on TripAdvisor, and saved money elsewhere by looking up discounts and cheap places to go. In that sense, it definitely helps us not only stay in touch with home, but also get the most out of the places we’re visiting.
Or does it? I admit to feeling like I am the odd one out in a café full of travellers when I look around, expecting to swap some stories or make a friend, and the entire place is full of gringos scrolling away and doing what we all do on social media – naval gazing. It’s a mark of how much things have changed that even in darkest Bolivia, most travellers wouldn’t dream of staying in a hostel – a hostel! – without wifi.
I am also under no illusion that just as ten years ago, the best travel experiences weren’t to be found in your travel guide, neither do I think that I’ll stumble across a hidden gem once it’s been showcased on some fancy travel website. The “real travel” experiences that we all seek surely come from spending some time in a place, not just passing through all the time. From meeting people face to face, exchanging ideas, doing something that wasn’t in the plan, and all that stuff we search for when trotting the globe.
The point is, it’s an aspect of travelling in which a personal balance definitely needs to be struck. Clearly I couldn’t work and travel and really “do” this trip properly without being online. Furthermore, amazing internet and a bit of creativity has helped a new generation of online entrepreneurs work nomadically and earn money that enables them to travel in the first place, and keep travelling – exhibit A: me! But on the other hand, everything in moderation, and there have been many times I have been ready to throw my (and everyone else’s) smartphone into Lake Titicaca.
I suppose the key is finding the right level for you, just as it is at home. Luckily we are in a place with many thousands of sights, options, and opportunities, but I would argue that being in South America doesn’t give me the edge over being in Southampton or anywhere else. Your time is what you make of it, and while I still intend to use the web to help me get a good deal, sniff out worthwhile places, and blog about my experiences, I definitely still crave the “good old days” when I was in the middle of nowhere, and could truly feel like I’d “gone away”.