Palmyra, Syria

The Death Of Random Travel Experiences

Derek Perspectives 102 Comments

Palmyra, Syria

Do you know those days when you find yourself stuck in a foreign city, standing on a street corner, dripping in sweat from the burning heat, your shoulders in pain from carrying your overstuffed backpack, unable to find any hotel that has an available room and suddenly realizing that you are completely lost in a part of town that looks anything but welcoming?

Perhaps you do remember such a day or maybe you can imagine such an experience happening to you, when you’ve been so lost and frustrated that you just lean up against a wall, on the verge of tears, wondering why you took your trip in the first place. You close your eyes for a moment and wish that you could be instantly transported to a more familiar land.

Maybe, after a few minutes, you manage to gather some strength and you slowly walk towards a tiny shop down the street that sells cheap shoes, with the shopkeeper sitting out front, cutting his toenails and smoking a cigarette. The shopkeeper lifts his head and begins to stand up, staring intensely into your eyes and making you feel even more uncomfortable. You immediately clutch onto your belongings tightly, fearing that this man might pull a gun from inside his jacket and steal everything you own. You think of turning around but you realize there’s no avoiding this man now and so you bite your lip and accept the oncoming trouble.

You try to remain calm, but the shopkeeper slowly pulls his hand out of his pocket, clenches his fist and gets ready to throw what is surely going to be a violent punch to your head. He draws nearer, his fist only inches from your face, and then..

He smiles and says, “Fist bump, I give fist bump. I see on tv.

Shocked, you quickly, yet clumsily, return the first bump and upon doing so, the man then shakes your hand and welcomes you into his shop. Before you know it, you are sitting on a small wooden stool, surrounded by shoes, sipping tea and nibbling on stale cookies that this man has saved for many years in the hopes of such an encounter with a foreigner. Through broken English you chat and laugh for over an hour and he even calls up his cousin on the phone and invites him to join you.

His cousin soon appears, along with two of his friends, and immediately, this new group of friendly faces invites you to dinner at the family’s village home about three hours outside of the city. You naturally accept the invitation, and in a battered old pickup truck, you soon head off, along with the shopkeeper, the cousin and the cousin’s friends, as well as a goat, a rusted out refrigerator, a live snake kept in a paper bag, and a ridiculously large sack of bananas, into the mountains beyond the city limits.

Lamayuru, India

Rolling down a gravel road through a landscape full of bright sunflower fields, with the most impossibly located villages scattered in the mountains high above, you munch on bananas with the others and take a swig every now and then from an unmarked mystery bottle that is being passed around.

Upon arrival in the village, you are quickly escorted to the home of the village chief, a kind man with only one leg, his other leg, according to the incredible story he tells, having been lost during a fight with a tiger that had attacked the village some years before. Members of the community, many of whom had never before seen a foreigner so close, excitedly invite you to join them for dinner on a patch of grass right next to a colorful wooden temple built in honor of a spirit that the villagers believe inhabits the mountains.

Several local delicacies are served, with dozens of plates being passed around and the locals forcing you to be the first to try every dish. Villagers approach you throughout the meal, pat your back, giggle, pinch your cheeks and even place droplets of ‘magic water’ on to your head to see if you would disintegrate. The children find it amusing when you spread your arms out wide as if you had performed a magic trick by not melting into the earth.

After the three-hour meal, the shopkeeper and his cousin invite you to sleep in their family home that night and they build you a comfortable bed out of blankets and mats, placing several sunflowers on top of you before you go to sleep, something that is done to all visitors in order to protect them from the spirit.

You sleep better than you’ve slept in months and when the sun rises the following morning, you are awaken by several smiling people, and encouraged to quickly rise out of bed and join the group outside. It is the annual Yak Festival and the entire village is full of thousands of beautiful yaks roaming around. As a guest of honor, you are placed atop the largest of yaks, whose local name, for some unexplained reason, translates as “Apple”, and you are led on a long procession, along with dozens of other villagers, through the mountains. You eventually reach an idyllic lake, with water so blue and the surrounding scenery so impressive that you feel as happy as you have ever felt at any point in your life.

After going for a quick swim and admiring the views, you head back down the mountain to the village, where you discover that preparations are under way for the Yak Festival celebrations. You are immediately invited to attend the ceremony and festivities, which you are informed will last for 4 days.

Ki Gompa, India

And so, for 4 more days you remain in that village, celebrating, sharing stories, laughing, riding yaks, racing yaks and participating in a tug-o-war against yaks, and also getting to know so many wonderful people. You spend one night camping out under the stars, another night sleeping in the mountains with several of your new friends and on your final night, you don’t even sleep at all as the chief organizes another celebration specifically for you.

As you dance throughout that final night, in this remote village, so isolated from any world you have ever known before, you realize that your reasons for traveling have been confirmed as valid once again.

On the fifth day, you say your goodbyes, shake hands and hug everyone in the village several times. Before you are allowed to leave, the chief takes you to the top floor of the colorful temple and says a prayer for your safe journey. He then hands you a cherished yak testicle as a gift, which you hesitatingly accept even though you do not have a bag to put it in.

You are then given a lift back into the city, once again in that old battered pickup truck. The driver of the truck, who decides to take the longer route through the canyon in order to show you more of his homeland, eventually drops you off in the afternoon, in front of a budget hotel in the city. Your new friend, the shopkeeper, goes inside with you and helps you secure a room at a local price.

After throwing your backpack down on the bed, you go back outside and begin to wander the streets. Before long, you find yourself in a familiar place, on the very same street corner where, only 5 days prior, you had been, and felt, so lost. However, there are no tears of frustration this time, only a smile, a smile so wide that you are certain it will remain on your face for quite some time.

What Is Happening To Such Random Travel Stories?

Mulbekh, Ladakh, India

I’m talking about those fascinating stories that leave readers and listeners in complete and utter awe, barely able to believe what they have heard and so inspired that they never want the story to come to an end. (I’m not saying that my story above fits that description, it was just a somewhat fictional story pieced together from several of my own experiences.)

I believe that one of the reasons such unique, random travel stories have seemed to fade is that today, when we find ourselves lost on that random street corner in a foreign country, frustrated and unsure of what we should do, we no longer walk over to the shopkeeper or ask the stranger in the street for directions or assistance.

We simply pull out our iPhones instead, and have Google Maps instantly tell us where to go. Or we quickly tweet to the world, “Stuck in Tashkent, where should I stay?” and receive a response from others within seconds.

And while those tools certainly have their benefits, the result of using them is the elimination of much of the spontaneity and randomness that typically leads to the experiences that make travel so wonderful (and travel stories so intoxicating). Simply because it is easier to look at a map on our phone doesn’t mean we have to do just that.

So, before we reach for our iPhone next time, let’s stop and think about the wild and unexpected travel experiences that we may miss out on by choosing to rely on the technology we carry instead of choosing to interact with all of the interesting human beings around us.


I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on this one…what do you think?

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Comments 102

  1. Mike Lidikay

    Very nice piece. Too many tourists travel to be in a spot or see a place. Those are just the avenue to the real pleasures – talking, learning, and laughing with people. People you talk with are the Best of Travel.
    Very nice piece.

    1. Earl

      Thanks for that Mike. I think our travel experiences are infinitely more rewarding once we realize that it’s the people and not the sights that put the biggest smiles on our faces while overseas!

  2. Mikeachim

    Very, very much agreed. I’ve called this “gadget block” elsewhere, but generally, I’m starting to feel like we think we know too much, we have too much information to consult at a moment’s notice, and we’re over-obsessed with sharing what we learn. All thanks to our new-fangled technologies. We have smart gadgets – but we’re not being as smart at using them as we could be.

    We’re also in danger of losing one of the most precious experiences when we travel – looking stupid.

    No, really. What breaks the ice with strangers quicker than doing something that makes them laugh at you? What forges a stronger bond than unabashed self-depreciation? But when we have all the answers at our finger tips, we don’t go putting ourselves into situations where looking stupid is an occupational “hazard” (except it really isn’t a hazard – it’s the road to really *connecting* with other people, and learning about them and yourself in meanginful ways that sink really deep).

    When gadgets get in the way of human stories, it’s time to turn off.

    1. Earl

      Hey Mike – Your comment was so spot on. As for looking stupid, you’re right, people no longer put themselves in positions where this might happen. It reminds me of travelers I’ve met who use those ‘speaking translators’ to communicate with locals instead of learning a few words and then making a fool out of themselves (as we all once did) as they mangle a foreign language. Like you said, making a fool of ourselves leads to interaction and connection. Relying on our gadgets instead leads to a very cold, sterile interaction that rarely leads to anything meaningful.

      It honestly disturbs me that we no longer want to walk 3 meters and ask a real human being a question, instead choosing to walk around for 15 minutes ignoring everything and everyone around us as we try to get a Wi-fi signal. Something is seriously wrong with that.

  3. Katy

    I loved your story Earl, but it made me sad that I didn’t have many experiences like that when I was traveling around the world by myself. I made a point to make this a lo-techno trip–just brought an unlocked phone in case of emergencies. One of my earliest stops was in Cairo, and one of the first people I encountered was a man who helped me cross a seemingly suicidal intersection. I was grateful, and we chatted. When he found out I was from Philadelphia he was psyched as his cousin was a taxi driver there for years. He begged me to come to meet him as he would love to reminisce with a Philadephian. In retrospect I was being naive, but at the time I was envisaging dinner with the family, laughs, local specialties, fascinating stories, etc. Fast forward 30 minutes and I was locked inside a perfume shop surrounded by aggressive men (none of whom had ever been to Philly) who wouldn’t unlock the door unless I bought something. I was fleeced, but it could have been worse! When I returned to my hostel I confided to the hostel manager that I was unnerved by the experience. He gave me tea and got me laughing about it. Later that evening my hostel owner knocked on my door at 2am saying I forgot something downstairs. When I opened the door he pushed himself into my room because he thought I “needed a massage” and kept telling me to lie on the bed–he wouldn’t leave until I began yelling. Needless to say I was rattled by my first day of interacting with the locals and I was cautious for the rest of the trip. I believe it is more difficult for a woman traveling alone to be trusting and open to adventure when it can so often lead to danger. I wouldn’t say it put a damper on my entire trip, but it definitely put me on guard; and I didn’t allow myself to have those “lost in the city” moments I had always dreamed of for fear of it leading me into trouble. So it’s not always technology that hinders a ‘genuine’ experience–sometimes it’s a preoccupation with safety.

    1. Earl

      Hey Katy – Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I of course agree that there are other factors that help determine the experiences that we have. I really am sorry to hear about your stories in Egypt and of course, as a male traveler, there are certain things I don’t have to worry about as much. I still believe that in the overwhelming majority of countries, the majority of experiences, for both male and female travelers, are overwhelmingly positive. So hopefully in your future travels, you’ll find yourself in positive situations that will cancel out your earlier experiences in Cairo!

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  5. Ronald Robbins

    Wow, this story is so inspirational. It’s moments like what you started off with that keep me hesitant about traveling yet the kind presence of our fellow human being just keep me going! So inspirational and I will indeed think about talking to a human being instead of using any technology next time I get lost!

  6. Ella

    Lovely post.. you are right, for whatever reason these unique spontaneous experiences are becoming rarer.
    Technology plays a part, but I also like @telofson’s point.. it does seem that I had more odd adventures when travelling as a student with little cash!
    Also, this may be a little too cynical but increasingly travellers are no longer novelties to the communities they travel to – helping out a traveller is more likely to be motivated by money rather than pure curiosity or goodwill.
    Still, it just means that those special experiences should be all the more cherished!

    1. Earl

      Hey Ella – That’s not cynical at all and I would be quite inclined to agree with that statement. It does often seem that interactions motivated by money are much more common in countries used to travelers than regions where few travelers visit. Even then, I always feel that business and friendship can be separated (as is the case in many cultures), so even if someone tries to rip me off, I still have no problem striking up a normal conversation with them. Often times they will forget about the money aspect and just sit down and talk.

      I appreciate your comment!

  7. Leif aka The Runaway Guide

    I love this story cause I can totally relate to it. I love those encounters, they are priceless. Ive never been fortunate enough to have an iphone and I rarely make plans before hand. Though it often leads to sleeping in train stations, it also leads to more great experiences and stories.

    1. Earl

      Hey Leif – As you would, I’d still take sleeping in train stations over relying on any phone! Those experiences are often what we remember most, and with the right attitude they can be just as enjoyable as sleeping in a hotel.

  8. Lash

    Another great story,Earl! VEry enjoyable and excellent example of what you’re referring to as missing. Pip, Pip to NOT using your tech for everything. In my case, I’ve never carried a ‘smart’ phone or mobile internet connection, so I’ve certainly never resorted to such. Nor do I intend you.. if i’m ever tempted I’ll think back to this post here. Thanks for the point of view and warning. cheers, Lash

    (p.s. If you get a chance, would you mind updating my url on your links list, please? Much appreciated. (drop the .blogspot part) cheers!

    1. Earl

      Hey Lash – I’m sure I’ll have to read this post a few times over myself as a reminder! And I have gone ahead and made the change on my links page.

  9. Matt

    You bring up some nice points here. It’s almost as if I have to visit a place more than once because on my first visit I’m so busy trying to get the perfect photograph that I forget to soak up all the experience of the place. I need to go back again to actually experience it.

    1. Earl

      Hey Matt – It’s interesting because I’ve heard several photographers or photography lovers say a similar thing. Seeing a place only through a camera, just like with the iPhone, does make it difficult to interact more deeply with a destination and some photographers have said that they don’t even remember being in certain places because they were so focused on taking photos!

  10. Ekua

    I think it’s all about balance. And I think if you WANT to have those kinds of experiences, they will come.

    I love to spend time getting lost everywhere I go, but as a black female who often travels solo, I’d never want to be put in a situation where it’s getting late and I’m scrambling for a place to stay that night. So I almost always book the first few nights in a new destination in advance and go straight there when I arrive. I may miss out on a beautiful opportunity that way, but I’m sure I’ve also bypassed some potential nasty ones.

    And regardless of this little bit of preparedness and the fact that I stay decently connected when I travel, I’ve still had some amazing experiences abroad where I’ve been invited into people’s homes, to family functions, to weddings, and more.

    I really think people have to figure out for themselves when it’s appropriate to use technology and when it’s time to put it away.

    1. Earl

      Hey Ekua – Balance is exactly what is needed and for each person it will be different. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t book hotels in advance, there’s nothing wrong with that. I was simply referring to pulling out iPhones in situations where we could very easily ask the person standing next to us where we should go. When that happens, we make it a little more difficult for us to interact with a particular culture.

  11. Gray

    Good point, Earl, and great story. Something is definitely lost with the advances in technology we have. I’ve often thought similarly of people spending more time with friends and family. When I was growing up, family members would come to our house and we’d all sit around the kitchen table talking all evening; or we’d go to their house and do the same. Now, there just isn’t the habit of doing that. People are too busy, or they’re sitting in front of their TVs or computers. It’s a shame, really. We have more of a connection with technology than we do other people. It’s only natural that would apply to travel, too, and perhaps more so if you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language.

    1. Earl

      Hey Gray – This topic can definitely be expanded and your example is another one that shows the effect that all of our gadgets has on our lives. What you said about having more of a connection with technology than people is very true and quite sad to me. We are no longer interested in gathering together and enjoying each others company. It only works if we have our laptops and iPhones to fiddle around with at the same time. Craziness.

  12. Steve

    Earl, have you ever written a story that received more replies? From the posted remarks, you can tell that you’ve got an intelligent following. Rather than trying to prove new technology is either good or bad, I would propose that it’s like most things in life, “everything in moderation”. It’s not black or white.
    In my many years of traveling, I have found that upon returning home, I was but a few blocks away from something fantastic, and I missed it! I’m not saying you should try to do it all, that’s imposable. What I am saying is that travel may include a combination of several gizmos, just don’t overdo it. Slow down and smell the roses. One glass of wine, not the whole bottle! It’s not bad to take your I-phone, just use it sparingly and responsibly. My last trip included a lap top for the first time but I only used it in my room in the evening. It complemented (not replaced) a couple guide books. But none of these new technological wonders will ever replace simply talking with the people around you.

    1. Earl

      Hey Steve – Ha! There are a handful of posts that have received more comments but this one is definitely gaining ground 🙂

  13. Mark Wiens

    Excellent piece Earl, and that is part of the reason why I still keep all my internet activity to my computer and haven’t branched out to the mobile iPhone sector. Sometimes an over abundance of information can hinder experiences that can unfold in unpredictable and spontaneous ways.

    Though Guidebooks also play their practical role, it’s nice to get away from them too and learn through trial instead of nosing through wordy guides.

    1. Earl

      Hey Mark – Guidebooks are another example, as similar to iPhones, it’s easy to keep the guidebook in front of our faces all the time and to then refer to it every single time we need directions, recommendations or assistance. Such guides are great in giving us some basic knowledge about where to go and what to do but they are no replacement for human interaction either!

  14. Erica

    I love this Earl, like, I genuinely love this. You have captured the moment so well.

    When we were in Cuba we had moments like this – why? – because we had no access to our computers and all we had was reliance on strangers for good advice.

    Thank you for sharing.

    1. Earl

      Hey Erica — As difficult as it can be to be away from computers and internet these days, when we do completely remove ourselves from them, it’s not often that we regret it! Like you guys, I wouldn’t want to miss out on certain countries simply because I may not be able to check emails all the time…

  15. Daniël

    I don’t take my iphone with me. I take my ipod with me, but only use it when on long haul buses or at night before going to sleep. I also take my laptop with me. Again, I only use it at night when I’m in my hotel… I think electronics make us too disconnected from the world…. which is strange, because when I am home I have my phone glued to my hand, and am always on my laptop…. maybe my life is better spent traveling.

  16. DisarmDoors

    Amazing what happens when you ask a local…and someone just like you who whizzed through town and posted some tips on the interwebs.

    Great post…loved it.

    Brought back some very fine memories of “back in my day”.

    Happy travels,

    Ben

    1. Earl

      Hey Ben – Glad you were able to relive your travel memories with this post! And it is amazing the experiences we can have simply by saying hello or asking a local for assistance. I really can’t understand why some people want to give that up…

  17. Lalitha Swart

    This is a great story and I think all of us strive to find at least a day when we can get ‘lost’ in a city and let things happen to us. The challenge is that we are all time constrained and if you’ve got three days in a city or a week in a country that you may never visit again, you don’t want to get into a frustrating cycle where literally, nothing does happen, or worse, said shopkeeper hustles you to buy something and gets angry when you don’t. Having grown up all over the world, I can say that there’s a fine line between seeking adventure and getting conned and most people shy away from the former for fear of the latter. Admittedly, this takes away from the spontaneity but also insures against frustration. Is there any reason why we can’t take the middle road and plan to hit the high spots, the don’t-miss sights, then take the rest of the time to absorb the local scene by osmosis?

    1. Earl

      Hey Lalitha – Thank you for the comment and of course, it doesn’t have to be one way or the other. Although, I do believe that we are in control of the interactions we have. I rarely feel frustrated after someone tries to cheat me. Instead, I understand that they’re trying to make a living and often times, I’ll strike up a conversation with that person, which will again lead to an unexpected and rewarding experience. It’s up to each individual traveler to decide how they will react in each situation. A positive attitude usually leads to positive experiences, even when dealing with shopkeepers trying to overcharge us 🙂

  18. Trans-Americas Journey

    Wonderful post (we think we were at that Yak festival, btw…). And your point rings true. We might also add the abundance of internet connections to your list of terrible/wonderful experience busters. Internet connections facilitate “presearch” which encourages the making of plans and reservations and the booking of things which is kryptonite to randomness. Posted using and internet connection.

    1. Earl

      @Trans-Americas Journey – You are correct. No matter where we may be, if we see a sign for an internet cafe it’s as if our focus automatically changes and we start to think of everything we could accomplish so quickly on line. Of course, traveling is definitely easier with the abundance of internet but it’s too easy to spend hours in front of a computer while overseas and not really traveling at all.

  19. Daniel

    Hi Earl-

    I too think this is dying out because people spend too much time with their electronic gadgets.

    I have personally had a number of situations that were totally amazing, and I am sure I would not had them if I was not more intuned with what was happening.

    One of my most memorable ones was recently (last year) I was traveling through Turkey. I made my way along the tourist trail of Western Turkey and then headed inlands to the east. I ended up visiting the little town of Hasankeyf (near the towns of Mardin & Batman). I went because it is a town that is doomed to be submerged under water, once the Turkish government begins damming the Tigris River. I went to see the “tourist” sites, but as soon as i stepped off the bus quickly became the tourist attraction. A group of university students quickly spotted me (not easy to do being a 6 foot tall blonde haired, blue eyed camera wielding tourist. They approached me and started asking me all sorts of questions and we talked for a couple of hours. We walked around the top and hiked up to the top where there is an ancient fortress. While up there, they began to sing & dance and had a great time together.. It turns out that they are a group of Kurdish students. They were extremely friendly and we exchanged names and photos…. after they left to go their own way, i was approached by another group of guys with a similar experience… it was truly one of my most memorable experiences for sure….

    We just need to let go and not follow everything so closely.

    1. Earl

      Hey Daniel – Thank you for sharing your tale and it is exactly the kind of story that makes traveling so worthwhile. Imagine if you walked off of that bus, with head down, following your google maps on your iPhone and not paying any attention to the town or people around you? It would have been quite a different experience I’d imagine!

  20. Miguel

    Great adventure that used to happen more frecuently years ago ~ i’ve seen backpackers using iphones as a lie detection device: asks a local for anything and right there takes out the phone to check the info, no courtesy no conversation not real interest in people. This is not the norm but I’ve seen it a few times. Let’s keep the wanderlust.

    1. Earl

      Hey Miguel – That’s so sad that you’ve seen travelers doing that. But it also brings up a good point. By relying on our technology so much, we begin to lose the ability to converse with other people. As you’ve noticed, things such as courtesy and engagement disappear.

  21. Fiona

    You are completly correct. I actually hate having any mobile phone with me on hols, so my thing is to just turn it on at night to check if there are any emergencies from home. Otherwise I try to keep it authentic – superb story. Very inspiring.

    1. Earl

      Hey Fiona – That seems like a good way to go to me! Check the phone once and keep it off for the rest of the day. It’s not easy for most people to do, but well worth it as you know 🙂

  22. Daniela

    I strongly agree and this is valid not only in the case of travel. Even though I am in my 20s and should be addicted to technology I am melancholic when it comes to the good old days when there were no cell phones, TVs had only 3 channels from morning to 9PM and computers were a myth. I am proud to say that I do not own an iPhone, nor iPod or iPad. I have one of those cell phones that they give you free of charge which I often forget to charge and it’s mostly dead or when I do remember to charge it, I then forget to take it with me. I also have a small notepad that I rarely use as I am on the computer at work more than I would like to be and I don’t watch TV more than 2h a day. I prefer sitting on my patio, in my hammock and enjoying the wonderful view that I am so lucky to have and think of what other people out there in the world are doing at that moment.

    1. Earl

      Hey Daniela – It’s very true that our obsession with technology does not only affect our travels, but our daily lives as well. And I would choose relaxing in a hammock any day over messing around with an iPhone. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been in Mexico for so long!

  23. Roger

    Hi Earl, I dont have an Iphone and dought I ever will, especially at 59. This said we were once in Havana, Cuba in the old city district and needed a place to sleep. After asking one lady where we could find a CASA PARTICULARES, ( an individuals apartment that is legally authorised to accept tourists to sleep over). She then knocked on her neighbours door to find out that the guy accross the street might have something which he did not. This same lady then yelled out to another lady on her second floor balcony (hanging her laundry), the same question in which she replied in the same manner. We were then taken over 2 blocks down to Pepe’s, where we spent 2 nights in this small but clean second floor apartment. As you so well put it Earl, we were in their hands for a short while and were made to feel important and priviledged to be in their country, all from word of mouth…Amazing.
    Thanks for the opportunity to be able to convey this message. Your Canadian friend
    Roger 🙂

    1. Earl

      That’s a great story Roger! These days, most of us would pull out our phones, get the answers and recommendations we need and off we’d go to a Casa Particulares that we just found on the internet. I would never want to miss out on the experience that you enjoyed instead. And I can see that you wouldn’t either. Hope all is well in Canada!

  24. Adam @ SitDownDisco

    I love and hate all of my gadgets at the same time. In the moment, gadgets rule. In retrospect, they suck. Not sure which is more important. At this point in time, I take advantage of the gadgets. Especially when I’m alone, keeping in contact via internet keeps me sane. When I’m travelling with others, the internet takes a back seat.

    But yep, I get your romantic notion of travelling without any gadgets… It is very alluring. Might be worth a shot one day. 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Adam – Don’t get me wrong, I still carry a Wi-fi / 3G capable phone with me, but I almost never use it. There are situations when it would come in handy and I don’t think we need to throw away all of our gadgets 🙂 I just believe there are rewards to be had if we keep our usage in check and embrace randomness a little more!

  25. Shane

    I became a convert to the iPod Touch on our last trip. I’ve been know to carry 7 or 8 books around in the past and it was a relief to my back not to do so anymore. The other advantage of the iPod over the iPhone is that it is rare to get a wifi connection on random street corners so we still have to talk to people.

    1. Earl

      Hey Shane – The iPod/iPhone clearly have benefits and I won’t deny that at all. And the lack of Wi-fi in many countries does at least force us to interact more with the people around us. I just think it’s a shame when some travelers walk around holding their iPhone all the time, trying to get connected, without really observing or engaging with the people and places around them. Glad to know you’re one of those who still talks to people 🙂

  26. Jaime

    Wow loved this post. I think the point you make here is part of the reason I do not travel with an Iphone, Ipad, Ipod or any thing other than my laptop and camera. I sometimes do get lost in towns and it is hard for me to pull out my laptop in the middle of nowhere and find a connection so I won’t lie sometimes I do curse to the skies wishing I did have an iphone, but I normally rely on asking people in the town I’m at for directions and those make great Ice Breakers. I have never experienced something as amazing as what you wrote, but hopefully one day I will.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jaime – You sound like me as I don’t carry any Apple products either. I think we’ve become so used to instant answers that when we find ourselves in a jam while traveling we feel lost if we don’t have an internet connection near by. Luckily, as you’ve experienced, we manage to survive using the good old art of conversation!

  27. Liv

    I love my iPhone, but will still always prefer to ask for directions or advice from locals when I am somewhere new. The iPhone can only guide me based on what I have input. When I’m lost, what do I know? That’s not the point though is it? The decline of real social interaction between people is an interesting phenomenon, given the world’s increasing mobility.

  28. Dalene

    In our over two years of being on the road, we don’t have a smart phone, nor the plans to have one. It’s these kinds of stories and experiences that we are searching for, and we don’t need distractions from it (because, if I had a smart phone, I would use it, for sure!)

    Incredible post Earl, told only like you can.

    1. Earl

      Thanks Dalene! That’s the thing, gadgets are too easy to use so if we have one on us, it’s almost impossible not to turn it on and use it. Glad to see you’re holding out 🙂

  29. Brian

    Earl… I have been thinking the exact same thing for some time now. At some point a few months ago, somebody actually acted like I was out of my mind when I said that when I’m traveling I *never* use my iPhone, do *not* enjoy tweeting about my every move, etc.

    I’m certainly not knocking anybody who does do those things–not at all–but staying totally plugged in at all times on the road just doesn’t make sense to me.

    1. Earl

      Hey Brian – It doesn’t make sense to me either and I start to wonder how much of it is a desire to be connected and how much of it is a need these days. It’s interesting to think about. And I’ve never tweeted anything from anywhere other than my laptop either. Like you said, I’m not saying it’s wrong, but I just don’t understand why I would want to tell people everything that I’m doing all the time. I’d rather concentrate and enjoy what I’m doing instead!

  30. Emm

    What an incredible travel story! I enjoyed it so that I was almost, but not quite, sad to find it was only a story.

    People do rely too much on technology, it is true, but for a moment I thought this was going to be a cautionary tale about being targeted and robbed by locals. What I take from your story is that there are risks, but the risk is higher that you simply repeat other people’s travel experiences if you don’t go out there and talk to and meet locals.

    1. Earl

      Hey Emm – That was exactly the point I was trying to make. How can we have unique travel experiences when we use technology to ask and then follow what everyone else did when they had visited the same place? And if we’re traveling, it would only seem natural that we would want to talk with as many locals as possible. At least it seems natural to me!

  31. Kirstin

    I mostly agree with the point you make here, but (like everything else) it’s impossible to generalize. Like other people commenting, I don’t have a smartphone (although I’ve been in plenty of situations where I’ve shouted to the sky in frustration, “If only I had an iPhone right now!”). I live in a country where most of it isn’t available on Google Maps and where restaurants/attractions change so rapidly that guidebooks and year-old recommendations are out of date. I could turn off my hypothetical iPhone and try to interact with locals and hope for a random travel experience, but I could get lost and frustrated, or worse, walk into a bad part of town and meet unsavory characters when it’s just as easy to pull up directions online. Sometimes these random (good) experiences are exactly what I’m after, sometimes I just want to find a hostel and decompress. To each his own, I do wish I had an iPhone though.

    1. Earl

      Hey Kirstin – Your points make sense and I don’t think that iPhones are evil. They can be very useful and there are times when they can really help us out, even when traveling. But Google Maps is not going to direct you away from unsavory characters who might be around the next corner 🙂 Instead, I would prefer to ask a local which is the best way to get to where I’m going and if there are any places I should avoid. This is going to provide me with much more reliable information than Google can. And I think that if we pull out our iPhones while in a strange part of town, that might draw more attention than if we just walked up to a shopkeeper and asked for helped.

  32. Alouise

    What a great post, and I thought the story was totally believable, in a very “that’s such a cool story I almost can’t believe it” sorta way. Technology can be a great thing, but if we spend too much time buried in our smartphones/ipods/ipads/tablets/laptops/netbooks,etc we can miss out on the world around us and some of these really great experiences like you mentioned. My theory, take your devices with you, but shut them off once in a while and see what happens.

    1. Earl

      Hey Alouise – Exactly…there’s nothing wrong with using technology, not at all. But if we are unable to disconnect every now and then, especially when we are doing something such as traveling in which our experiences depend on our interaction with the places and people, we will certainly miss out on a great deal in life.

  33. Audrey

    I’ve been thinking about this lately as Google Maps and iPhone apps and cheap local data plans make it too easy to get out of situations without having to interact. I still love physical maps (always amazed at how some locals take it as their duty to help you if you look lost with a map) and try to ask people how to get somewhere instead of just pulling out the phone. Yes, it may take longer but there’s an element of adventure and surprise with whom you might meet that is irreplaceable.

    I also purposely don’t use those apps that can figure out where you are and point you to the closest highly ranked restaurant. I know that they could probably save us some hours of being lost and looking for somewhere to eat, but usually the places we find in the process are not listed anywhere online and we hope it stays that way.

    That said, technology has saved our butts on more than one occasion. I do like when I can get a quick answer when I need it, but the trick is to have perspective that part of the fun of travel is letting yourself go and giving up that control.

    1. Earl

      Hey Audrey – It is indeed about the balance. And I think that it is just too easy to choose technology in many situations and so we must make a conscious decision, and really put in an effort, to disconnect ourselves every once in a while. iPhones and all that jazz certainly have their place and there is nothing wrong with using such gadgets, even often. But to give up such potentially interesting experiences while traveling, just seems like a shame.

      And physical maps are great…after reading your comment I tried to think of the last time I used one and I can’t remember. Perhaps that’s the way to go to keep those interactions alive!

  34. @telofson

    I agree entirely. I recall several adventures that happened kind of like you described. And I notice that a lot of people traveling these days just don’t seem to have many of these random experiences….and I don’t have as many as I used to because I have loads more info before I get to a place. I also have more money, generally, so I can grab a taxi or find a nice hotel to have lunch in…extracting myself from any uncomfortable situation.

    1. Earl

      @telofson – You’re right, there are other factors (such as money and access to more information beforehand) that play a significant role in how we travel these days. It’s hard to avoid in some ways, and it is simply my desire not to miss out on even more random experiences by relying on technology everywhere I go. Thanks so much for commenting!

  35. Steve

    Boy, you struck a chord when you brought up the topic of unbelievable, riveting travel stories / experiences. I’ve got a few in that category from many years of travel, pre-smartphone. Actually, I’m just senior enough, that the only “toys” I traveled with were my camera and S/W radio (to tune into the BBC and the Voice of America). The radio and Newsweek were really the only way to stay in touch with what was going on in the world. We’d occasionally make long distance phone calls back home from public payphone establishments and pick-up our mail from American Express offices.
    Oh, but times change as that was 23 years ago. Now I’ve added an MP3 (w/ am/fm & recording capabilities), a cellphone and a laptop w/ skype to my bag of toys. But, I don’t have a smartphone!
    I’m glad you’ve pointed it out to all the travelers that normally have a smartphone growing in their hand. I guess I just wouldn’t have thought of that type of downside, beings I don’t use one. I’m one to let things happen rather than being so organized and in control that random things just don’t happen.
    On finding a place to stay; many times when arriving in a new place by train or bus, we’d go with one of the many guys at the station that would lead you to “a very good place to stay”. It would almost always end in a win/win/win situation. He’s made a buck from the hotel and a tip from us, we’d get a ride from the station and a room that we’d never have known existed and the hotel or home-stay would get business without ever having to advertise. A smartphone can’t do that!
    It’s good to remember not to be such a “control freak” when traveling. Just talk with the locals and allow things to happen. (Within reason)

    1. Earl

      Hey Steve – That was a brilliant comment, especially the part about how you would often go with one of the touts at the train or bus station to find a hotel. I do that as well and have always found it strange how many people (not just travelers but guide books as well), think it wise to stay away from such ‘middlemen’. Instead of seeing them and running away, I often talk to them, learn a little about them, build a quick bond and then see how we can make the situation win-win for everyone. At worst I’m out a few bucks, but usually it all ends well.

      And your advice about not being a control freak is spot on as well. We don’t need to know everything beforehand and we don’t need to plan out every minute. It’s perfectly okay to let randomness take over.

      Your comment just made my day!

  36. Marc Passion

    Excellent observation there mate!! Perhaps it is technology that is taking the trip these days. It can be said about guide books too, although very helpful, people have become to reliant on them and instead of opening their eyes and looking left and right, their heads are buried in the pages.

    This is one of my older posts. It took us 3 days to get to the end result. Simply asking and asking and perhaps pushing the point a little more.
    http://www.marcpassiontravel.com/getting-trigger-happy-with-the-cambodian-army/

    1. Earl

      Hey Marc – That’s a great line…”Perhaps it is technology that is taking the trip these days.” Sadly, that just may be true. And it is similar to guide books as I guess it all comes down to our need for information. We want to know where we are going and what we should be doing. The idea of randomness is becoming a foreign concept.

  37. Nomadic Samuel

    Earl, it’s certainly true that travellers, these days, are often preoccupied in such a way that doesn’t allow for these kinds of encounters; however, I’ve also felt extremely blessed to be able to connect with family, friends and new acquaintances in a way that simply would not have been possible a decade ago. I think it’s about finding a balance & forcing some time away from the computer, phone, ipod or whatever distracting device one might carry. Although initially frustrating, I’ve found it quite rewarding to be in countries (such as Bangladesh) where it’s difficult to get online or find backpacker hang-out spots because it leada to some great encounters with locals that simply did not occur in more touristy spots.

    1. Earl

      @Nomadic Samuel – I agree with your statements 100%. A balance is what is needed and in certain ways, such as communicating with family and friends while in the middle of a foreign country, our iPhones and other technology are incredibly useful tools. I was just thinking more along the lines of how we then use those tools to replace many of the aspects of travel that can often lead to rewarding experiences (Google maps vs asking for directions, using twitter to find a hotel recommendation, etc.). Without that balance we will soon be walking around the streets of a foreign country without ever seeing much more than our telephone screens!

  38. Untemplater

    What an amazingly beautiful story. Technology is great but it really does prevent us from interacting face to face with people. I don’t have an international phone plan so my smart phone is basically useless when I travel abroad, so I get in good practice talking to locals and asking for directions. I always try to learn a few phrases in the local language too I just need to get better at memorizing them! -Sydney

    1. Earl

      @Untemplater: I don’t use an international phone plan either and almost never use my phone while traveling. Even when I buy a local SIM card somewhere, I do so only to make calls or send text messages if I really need to. And the thing is, I don’t miss my phone at all while traveling. There are so many positive experiences happening that I don’t want to be on my phone, connected to the internet all the time. Seems like you feel the same!

  39. Daniele

    Congratz for the story!
    I agree, I can compare my gps-driven business trips with the no-gps traveling I’m doing now and the latter is much more fun and interactive… Not only because there’s no work involved 🙂

  40. L.M.Montgomery

    An engaging travel article! I got lost trekking in Nepal, in the middle of a forest somewhere near Annapurna and at the time would have gladly accepted iPhone assistance. However, as evening approached a random and fabulous experience eventuated, when a local Nepalese farmer invited my husband and I to stay with him and his family. It was Christmas eve and the stars were shining above the Himalayas and we were in good company !

    1. Earl

      Hey L.M. – That’s such a good tale! While an iPhone might have been nice at the time, chances are you would have never had that same experience. I’d rather have a night in the Himalayas like the one you had than a detailed map on my phone any day 🙂

  41. Matt Bailey

    I agree Earl. Iphones can definitely help in many situations but most of my cool random stories came from my trip to Australia when I left my phone home for 6 months. I met lots of people and went along with others adventures thus creating my own.
    I’ll think twice when I bring my iphone next time.

    Thanks.

    1. Earl

      Hey Matt – Leaving your phone at home completely is even more impressive 🙂 And I’m sure after that experience, even if you do bring an iPhone on future adventures, you won’t want to keep it turned on and in your hand 24 hours per day!

  42. Dyanne@TravelnLass

    Woa! I’m utterly speechless.

    (well o.k. make that MOMENTARILY “speechless”) 😉

    But seriously. Not only was your story wondrously fascinating (and more importantly – BELIEVABLE – as I too have experienced a similar collage of serendipity in my travels. Well o.k. perhaps sans the yak testicle), but…

    You just deftly summed up the singlemost downside to the “flash” in “flashpacker”. Don’t get me wrong – I adore my iPod Touch, my Kindle, my netbook, my DSLR, et al.

    But OMG it’s so very true – how many amazing opportunities do we miss because of all these stupid technos? Your story spells it out perfectly. Thanks for a perfectly executed WAKE UP CALL!

    1. Earl

      Hey Dyanne – Ha, that’s well put 🙂 It’s that good ole’ love/hate relationship…and the more gadgets we have, the more control they have over us.

      And who knows, maybe one day you’ll be handed a yak testicle as well!

  43. Katrina

    Another reason for me to hold off on getting a smartphone. 😉 Seriously, though, for good or for ill, when I’m with someone who has such a device, they often can’t get signal or access the application they were counting on or the battery dies or… And that’s ok with me. Feels a little more organic, y’know? When I travel with my husband or a friend, we are forever stopping to get directions and info. It’s frustrating and time-consuming at times, but it does tend to lead to the best stories!

    Thanks for the thought-provoking subject matter, Earl. 🙂

    1. Earl

      Thank you for reading Katrina 🙂 I find that some of my friends who have iPhones will sit through an entire meal without ever looking up from their screens. And most of the time they are fiddling with apps just for the sake of fiddling with apps. If we start to do this while traveling, we might as well not travel. It’s always good to know that there are others who are still interested in taking the ‘old fashioned’ human interaction route!

  44. Giselle

    Great Blog! We hope to have these kinds of experiences when we leave in February 2012. We won’t be travelling with iphones, or ipads on our travels,
    we welcome inconveniences, strangers, smiles, and adventure…..

    Happy travels!

    Cody and Giselle

    1. Earl

      Hey Giselle – Happy travels to you as well! Next February will be here in no time at all and off you’ll go….glad to know you’ll be leaving the iPhones behind 🙂

    1. Earl

      @cashflowmantra – Haha…I’m sure that would have been a hearty meal for the snake! And the snake was gone by the time I got back in the truck for the return journey to the city. I’m not sure what happened to it and probably don’t want to know.

  45. Julia

    I am on your side with technology and travel. How else would we get to know the people in the town we are visiting if we are able to answer all of our own questions?? The best icebreakers are the ones we use to learn more about where we are or what we are doing. I consider myself lucky to have the cheapest cell phone around. It keeps me in the moment and is not my answer to anything except how to make a phone call to a friend in town.

    1. Earl

      Hey Julia – Right you are…what fun is there in having the answers to all of our questions at the tip of our fingertips while traveling? Traveling is about learning and interacting and the best way to partake in both is to talk to the people we encounter. iPhones are useful tools but if we’re not careful, we’ll forget to look up every now and then and communicate with other human beings.

      Keep on enjoying that cheap phone of yours. You clearly aren’t suffering with your lack of Google maps!

    1. Earl

      Hey Nick – That’s another topic that is worth exploring as well. It can become very easy to think of taking a photo first and to therefore forget to actually experience whatever it is we see. As with a smartphone, we need to make sure we put the camera away at times in order to truly benefit from our travels.

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