Travel is Education

Someone told me that with Google Earth, Wikipedia and other instant information tools readily at our fingertips these days, there was no longer a need to travel to foreign places to get a sense of culture, language, food, geography and all the other elements that a trip outside of one’s physical boundaries provide. While armchair travelling has never had it better, I beg to differ with these pundits of inertia.

I recently wrote a novel set in a part of France I had never visited (my travels in that country up to that point had been limited to Paris and environs). With the assistance of all the online tools and data repositories available to me, I wrote copiously about Strasbourg and Metz, and not in our present day either, but around the time of the French Revolution. Something irked me on completing the book. I had not captured the soul of these places. So I travelled to those two cities and spent some time soaking in their atmospheres.

The first thing I noticed was how poorly I had estimated distance, especially if travelling by horse and carriage, and how differently the shadows fell on old buildings at certain times of the day; and the variance in colour of the Vosges Mountain range in the distance, for online photographs create their own hue and are never like the real thing. Dwellings had added an extra floor with each passing century and the ones I had to hunt down were the crumbling three•storey structures with wide doorways for carriages – these were the ones that harked back to the period depicted in my novel. I had to blot out the sound of motorized traffic and imagine the clop of horses’ hooves on cobblestone streets that still paved the inner cores of these cities. I sat on canal banks and watched swans whose ancestors had floated on those same waters three hundred years ago, waters carrying the blood of citoyen killed in the mass upheavals of those times. I was so absorbed in the scene that I thought I heard voices. Was I finally communing with the soul of this place?

From a young age I have always travelled abroad. I even set an ambitious goal for myself once, of visiting one new country for every year of my life. I am probably running two countries shy of that target, not brought about by a diminishing of interest but because there are not many new “safe” places to explore anymore, given that the world is caught up in a war between the haves and the have•nots, and “equalization” methods such as kidnapping and terrorism now extend to tourists as well. Even Mother Nature has been angry, unleashing temperamental outbursts at the most inconvenient times: I escaped the tsunami in Japan in 2011 by a couple of weeks, and was rocked and rolled by an earthquake in Costa Rica last year, then stranded due to a flood in Nicaragua on that same trip.

But I continue my pursuit, and to stretch my goals, I have just completed a novel set in Cape Town, circa 1794. Even though I used my trusty online tools to the maximum once again, visited the reference library several times, and had two South African friends fact•check my work, I know what is missing. Needless to say, when funds and time permit, I will be heading off for a date with the Soul of South Africa.

Trying to imagine life without social media

I tried to recall life without social media. Wasn’t it just a few years ago when I walked around without a portable device strapped to my waist, a device willing to announce my every grunt, burp and fart to the external world, if I only let it?

Without social media, my concentration would improve, that much I am sure. I would not be constantly interrupting my daily chores to go check that infernal device for the latest chat or inspirational message. My self esteem would mature for I would not have those “likes” to prop me up but would have to “like” myself instead. I could spend many hours with just me and my thoughts and reap the inspiration that comes from a stilled mind. I would not suffer from “too much information,” a syndrome that makes you skim the surface of everything, just to cope, and miss some of the major issues in the process. I will get to talk to people instead of sending them written messages even when they are in the next room. Friendships will be few but more lasting and not something to be activated and deactivated with the push of a button.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be “famous but poor” anymore. Instead, I would be “unknown and still poor.” I wouldn’t get to play closet politician anymore for my audience will have disappeared. I’ll have to stand up in my little room and declaim, to myself. Or join a political party and schmooze my way to the top over a number of years, not in mere days that it took me in the social media world. I would not have a test market for my writing. I would not be connected to the pulse of my peers, forever unplugged from their thoughts, drives, fetishes and joys. I would not be let into their living rooms, introduced to their families, invited as a virtual guest to their parties, or exposed to their embarrassing moments when they suffered mental or wardrobe malfunction and decided to share (or bare) all via the instant photos uploaded to my “stream.” Yes, I would have to kiss goodbye to my voyeuristic but engaged life.

Someone recently told me that “there is no going back.” We seem to have crossed a threshold into a new pattern of social behaviour that is irreversible. And I am not sure we are unique in that respect. Did people go back on their old habits when new inventions collided with their social lives in the past: the telephone, the TV, the car, the supermarket, the microwave, and canned food? Digitization and sharing has now replaced the communal life of the village where everybody knows everything about everyone else. Even the anonymity of cities—something I used to love to escape to occasionally—is breaking down under the new rules of conduct, where city dwellers cooped up in glass towers and matchbox condos, ostensibly isolated, are connecting with each other like never before.

Okay, so there is no going back, we are the social media generation, suck it up and get on with it. But there needs to be some “information firewall behaviour” called for; the confidence to switch on and off when needed, without the pressure to be “always on” in order to be relevant, despite Facebook and Twitter sending you those “How are you doing?” messages when you are minding your own business, or Klout warning you that your score is dropping because you have been silent for awhile. Taking social media•less vacations is a good idea, and retreats from “always on” to just read a book is also good for the soul. And most importantly, selfishly carving out time for contemplation and meditation is paramount.

Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest, where did leave my Blackberry…? There really is no going back, is there?