It was the same hostel after hostel, and guesthouse after guesthouse. People sat and stared at computer and laptop screens, iPhones, iPads and iPods: Engrossed, alone and not giving a damn.
This reminded me of a scene in the film made of Alex Garland’s The Beach, where a group of backpackers is derided for sitting in a hostel in Bangkok watching a movie from home. The only downer is, everyone’s got the same idea. We all travel thousands of miles just to watch TV and check in to somewhere with all the comforts of home, and you gotta ask yourself, what is the point of that?
Indeed. Ten years later and the common rooms in hostels are still there, and so are some of the same slouching disenchanted people, whiling away the hours inside enclaves of the familiar in foreign countries. The most visible differences are better TVs and cleaner sofas, and as I said, some of the same people. The others are in the hostel, it’s just that they’re hunched up on chairs in front of computer terminals, or sitting nearby with laptops on their knees.
The first time I went to India in the mid-nineties the lobbies of hostels in Delhi would buzz to life in the mornings with travellers asking where they could find a place to eat or directions to the Red Fort or Jami Masjid. The rest of the day they were deserted, save the infrequent arrival of someone with a bulging backpack. The only loiterers were the Israelis, who sat in abrasive gangs chain smoking, shouting and abusing the hostel staff. I once arrived back from a morning outing to see a goateed toughie smelling of aftershave and freshly laundered clothes holding one of the Indian staff in a headlock, a table knife in to his throat. His supporters lazing nearby.
Before the arrival of widely available Internet and WiFi, people used to go out, leaving early and coming back in the late afternoon. Even the most averse to cliched sights and the attention of nuisances and beggars went out. They did the minimum, whether it was an innocuous ten minute walk to a souvenir store or a quick stroll to have a sandwich in a restaurant across the road, but they did something.
If you needed a break from the hassle or heat, you read or chatted with other travellers. In those times of respite friendships were started and travel companions were made. Now, while travelling to places of legend such as the Inca city of Cusco or to the ruins of Angkor Watt, in the wired century we can also choose the individuality and loneliness we have strived to achieve at home. Taking with us, as Paul Theroux puts it, the desire for salvation in the Internet.
I’m not advocating prying people away from terminals while they’re Googling cheap flights, or skimming through reviews on Hostelworld. Websites that give up to date information on accommodation, reliable bus companies and that warn of scammers selling non-existent cross border bus tickets are invaluable, and I use them all the time. Nor would I ask that Facebook or YouTube be blocked. No one is immune to the unfamiliarity of places outside of our perceptions, and at times we all need something we know.
But what is the point of travelling to far away places, where Wifi is the most important requirement after hot water? Have we become so smug with posting our status or trying to excite jealousy from people both imaginary and real, that we have forgotten why we got on a plane or train in the first place? Is the morning spent trying to upload a spread of oversized unedited photos on a slow broadband connection worth the frustration, or would it have been more fulfilling to stare at locals from restaurant chairs on a sidewalk, safely tucked into a comfy chair?
Nothing is immune to change, and backpacking with its metaphors of idealism and discovery is no exception. We can argue and sneer that just as the blazing pace of globalisation over the last ten years that has pulverised bucolic beaches and chased away their inhabitants, so too has it made everything available with the click of a button or a thumb pushing down on a touch screen. It’s inevitable and we’re defenceless. If a place doesn’t blow you away, why bother with squashing into a bus and trundling off on a dirt track?
But despite having seen all the photos on the Internet, and read first hand accounts posted two days before advising you to avoid a place because it was boring, or even better, dangerous, there are still places that dazzle and awe. It just takes a break from the screen to think about and find them and to talk to people with stories to tell, grateful that you’re visiting their country, and eager to ensure you enjoy your time there. And these places don’t even need to exist in the physical sense, which brings to mind another quote from The Beach. And me, I still believe in paradise. But now at least I know it’s not some place you can look for, ’cause it’s not where you go. It’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something, and if you find that moment… it lasts forever…
No experience is the same and you may be disappointed, but when you’re thinking about what to do and the choice is the Internet or a stroll, go for the latter.
Garland, A. (2000) The Beach. London: Penguin.
Theroux, P. (2008) Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. London: Penguin.