Learning from travelling

Lifestyle: Has Technology Stopped Me Living In The Moment?

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The forward-planner

I think we’ve all been guilty of it, you’re heading to a place you’ve never been, it might be an event in a new venue, a restaurant or even a new continent. The inner planner ignites and we enter that habitual urge to research and prepare, gaze over the restaurants reviews, menus and websites, in search for your perfect supper, or we might star a gig venue on google maps or find that perfect blog on Zimbabwean off-road cycling routes, for a very specific example! Technology has allowed us all to experience the event before we’ve enjoyed the actual moment of being there. I am as guilty as anyone for using the internet to embrace and certify my idiosyncrasies, be it the history of the Caucasus to discovering the track Giles Peterson’s played on 6music, a 1980s Jayne Cortez spoken word poem with the Firespitters if your interested. Truly, the internet can be incredible but i’m worried it pushes me to live in the past or the future, when really, I should be living in the moment.

 

Seeking the best

The realisation that technology can influence your experiences is evident in travel. It’s far too easy to arrive at a destination with a detailed itinerary, knowing everything from timings, pricing, local customs, best accommodation, best visitor sites, even the best time and routes to enjoy the top sites with. It’s bewildering to think that you could know your entire trip back to front before you leave the sofa. Planning to this extent means the mind is always preoccupied on “what’s next” and the numbing details of getting from A to B. I know, i’ve been there, watching the sunset on a beautiful mountain but thinking about the route down and the bus home. An unnecessary worry that I couldn’t control, neither change, a thought process brazenly developed from forward-thinking, which, ultimately, has been worsened by the internets ability to know and teach me everything. 

 

Even in a place as beautiful as Nepal the tech can pull you in

Even in a place as beautiful as Nepal the tech can pull you in

My phone the sage

So what can we do? Well, I’m happy to report that over the last 8 months I have started to disconnect, although running a blog can suck one back in. My phone sits eternally on airplane mode like an ancient sage, I can only get online in hostels and most of the time the connection sucks, which is a good thing. It means I’ve become better adjusted to reacting to life as it happens. Absorbed less by technology and more by the bustling places around me; the children drumming on railings outside the window or watching the sun rays radiate across a valley. What I’ve learnt is the ability to just enjoy what’s happening around me, even if it’s nothing.

 

Discussion 

This change in mindset has helped me reflect on my pre-travel behaviour. Checking the phone in every dull moment, knowing minute by minute bus times and every enquiry becoming answerable within seconds. Life on the road is not like this. I might only access WiFi every other day and bus times are pretty non-existent out of Europe. Sometimes if you want to get somewhere you just have to wait. The amount of discussion Ali and I entertain on topics and questions surrounding the places we visit makes for some interesting debates that wouldn't have happened with a connected smartphone. Technology would have stopped all these examples, and countless more, from happening. 

 

Meeting Micheal in Jordan got me thinking about living in the moment

Meeting Micheal in Jordan got me thinking about living in the moment

Pre-planning mindset

So does technology stop us living in moment? I think it’s very easy to let it. The devil makes work for idle hands they say, well if that's true then surely the devil had some input on the addictiveness of the smartphone? Knowing everything comes with some downers. One I have been considering is if you know everything about a place before you arrive then do you set yourself up for disappointment? When we visited the Terracotta army in Xi’an I knew the whole story from reading blogs and the (stolen/ borrowed) guidebook. It was not the epic Indiana Jones discovery moment I had expected because I knew the whole story already. My pre-planning mindset had spoilt it. The same can be said for art, food or any experience where the outcome, meaning or review has been laid out for you. The opinions of others can shape yours.

Live in the moment, who knows what might happen...

Live in the moment, who knows what might happen...

Off-grid

If your agreeing or mildly complicit of these traits you’re probably thinking, “what can I do to change this?”. Well I’ve had some thoughts you could try. Why not stop booking up all of your free time. Perhaps you could keep a weekend free and contact your friends or family on-the-fly. Imagine not knowing what your weekend might look like? Kind of exciting when you think about it. How about going off-grid? Spend an afternoon with your tech on airplane mode and see which discussions come up without readily available answers, no arguments though please! Equally, if you jump on a train and your phone tells you it will take 25 minutes but in reality it takes 40 you've really just set yourself up for disappointment. Perhaps knowledge isn't always power. Choices, options and information go a long way to causing disappointments, well illustrated in this TED talk by Dan Gilbert, which I think is spot on.

 

The surprising science of happiness

 

Out of thin air

Many of the best memories seem to happen out of thin air. The ad-hoc gathering or the impromptu bbq. The pre party before you head out is often the pinnacle of night, normally better than the night you’ve planned, right? The afternoon in the park where you invented that game with a stick and a hacky-sack!? You get the point. It’s ok not to have plans in the diary because it creates potential for the unknown, the random and the, hopefully, memorable and fun. I’m going to try this new mindset when I return home. Starting with a £5 a month contract with 500mb of data, which means no data in the modern world. I see it as a return to my teens when the world was unknown and less planned. Travel has helped me recapture my thirst for living in the moment and the first step is a detox from technology, perhaps some of you might join me...but remember a little bit of technology is fine, just for checking our blog :-)

 

Has technology turned you into a mega planner? 

Do you like to know all the information before heading out somewhere?

Have people always been as plan-minded and organised as we are now? Or do you think this a growing phenomenon?

I am interested to know you thoughts so please continue the discussion below in the comments box... thanks for reading.

 

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Travel: Are We All Tourists?

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tourist or backpacker?

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Unfortunately the phrases "tourist" and "backpacker" are often used to segregate travellers. Stereotypically, the tourist is the person on holiday, short on time and high on cash with a long list of must-sees. Rather romantically, the backpacker is a hippy and a vagrant, wondering the planet searching for authentic experiences and local prices. To get the most out of a destination you really need to dance on both sides of the tourist / backpacker spectrum. Increasingly, travellers are more atomised than ever, both from each other and even from local people. I believe that whatever you brand yourself we are all, to different degrees, tourists!  But having travelled for 8 months, it’s clear when over-tourism has gone too far, it can strip all the fun out of a place and it makes everything about money. Over-tourism can change the entire character of a place, eschewed for the big spending tourists rather than the people whose home it was. The ideal way to travel is to find the balance between the big attractions but also remembering to get off the beaten track.

Getting off the beaten track in Jaffna's fishing village

Getting off the beaten track in Jaffna's fishing village

Time-rich means money-poor

Time and money are huge factors for travellers. If you have money then there’s no reason not to visit every attraction and zip around town getting your cultural fill. But if you have money then normally you won’t have time and this is why ‘must visit’ ‘top attractions’ are always filled with people trying to squeeze everything into a short trip. The backpacker outlook is the opposite, switching money for time, the backpacker will probably have longer to explore a place but will have to pick their activities wisely to keep costs down. They probably can’t eat in the best rated restaurants or stay in the fancy hotels, but exploring local areas does lead to more time with local people and a better appreciation of what everyday life is like there.

 

The Lonely Planet

It’s a common sight to see some restaurants that are incredibly busy and then similar ones next door completely empty. This makes it easy to spot the places that are recommended by Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor. Often these places get lazy, they offer sub-standard food, varying customer experiences and always have higher prices. These establishments drift along in mediocrity on their once rightful recommendations. Sometimes, I see Lonely Planet wielding travellers following the exact route from their guide book too. Look, it’s totally fair to want the best experience for a short trip but the feeling of being on a tourist conveyor belt can feel decidedly un-special. This is where the backpackers mindset is different because they’re more likely to research their own path and avoid areas where local culture has been replaced by tourist culture. 

Hoards of visitors on safari at the Kaudulla National Park in Sri Lanka....it was still pretty amazing to see wild elephants though 

Hoards of visitors on safari at the Kaudulla National Park in Sri Lanka....it was still pretty amazing to see wild elephants though 

The Route

Nowhere was the set path more obvious than in our recent trip to Sri Lanka. The country is very beautiful, amazing local food, easy to navigate, with the friendliest local people we’ve met travelling and really varied activities like safari, trekking and beaches. We spent 4 weeks straddling both tourist hotspots in the centre of the country and getting off the beaten path in the north and east. What we noticed is that the touristic areas, like Ella, had the least friendly local people, the worst (and most expensive) food and the attractions were very busy with western tourists. Following a guidebook can often take you to the busiest, most expensive places with no local people, think western style restaurants and bars. When we reached these places the backpacker in us longed to be a few miles away where normal local life was continuing.

 

Over-tourism

What I believe, is that at its heart, tourism can create inequality between local people and their communities. Some get rich from guide book and trip advisor recommendations while others barely benefit. But even worse, increased tourism can actually separate local people and tourists. Local people cannot afford tourist prices, a place like Ella in Sri Lanka represents this perfectly. We asked ourselves why we would choose to eat in western style restaurants half way across the world, especially when the food is 5 times the price of the local food and nowhere near as good. Whereas in a local kitchen in Jaffna we could eat amazing curry, roti and kottu for pennies and chat with local people about their lives. One of those experiences you’ll remember forever and the other is just another night in a restaurant.

We met these handsome chaps after a unplanned wonder out of Trincomalee

We met these handsome chaps after a unplanned wonder out of Trincomalee

Finding Balance

But, living the continual low budget backpacker lifestyle can be frustrating. We had to balance cheap day to day living with the odd memorable activity, because why travel if you're not going to enjoy the local highlights? For example, we splashed out on the the safari in Kaudulla National Park and on hiring a guide to trek up to the top of the Knuckles mountain range. Finding a balance between the ‘wow’ tourist moments and the quiet local backpacker moments is, for us, the perfect way to travel. The thing to remember is that the Lonely Planet guide is a perfect start to exploring a new place but it is limited.  Following it continually will mean that only a handful of restaurants, guesthouses and tour companies benefit from your custom and they often offer western-style experiences. I do think that the LP guides are really useful but would advise that when you feel confident in a new place try putting it down and explore it on your own. Walk into a local restaurant, without an English menu, and ask about their food, or at least point at something that looks good!

 

The Signs

Because tourism is setup for short term travel experiences, there are lots of opportunities for local businesses to pray on inexperienced travellers. Long term ’backpacking’ does teach you how to avoid these little traps. Here’s a few to consider; there’s never one price for a service and it’s almost always negotiable, we’ve seen many people pay the first price without question. Restaurants all over world will try and add random meals to your bill and taxi and tuk tuk drivers will always start their prices high. If you don't deal or barter then you'll become a tourist who'll pay exaggerated prices, this only makes it more difficult for future travellers because businesses see that visitors are willing to pay more than they should, inflating the price further. As the prices go up so does the inequality between the rich and poor in the local community. When you see families flourish and others malnourished you can clearly see the problems that wealth inequality creates, it’s the same at home.

Sadly, one of the tea pickers asked us for money. When working people still beg it's clear that over-tourism has had a negative effect.

Sadly, one of the tea pickers asked us for money. When working people still beg it's clear that over-tourism has had a negative effect.

Helping All

Any person travelling abroad, in developing countries, are helping the community they’re visiting and we should feel happy that our money is spent improving people’s lives. But it’s worth remembering that too much tourism pushes out the local culture and then the people that make the place amazing are sidelined. One of the most touching things to experience, and learn from, is that it’s always the poorest people who have the biggest smiles and want to help you the most. So if you don't already, why not try balancing your travel between tourism and backpacker mentalities for an amazing experience that helps all the people in the community.

What are your thoughts on tourism? On over-tourism? And the stigma's of being a tourist or backpacker? Leave any comments in the box at the bottom.

 

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50 Things We Have Learnt From Travelling 

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We've been on the road for 6 months and we thought it best to mark the occasion with a reflection piece on what we have learnt along the way. Read on to get tips, hints and warnings from long term travelling. 

In no particular order:

1. Having a fixed plan rarely works out, long term travel teaches you to be flexible and adaptive in an array of situations.

2. Never get a taxi the from the bus, coach or train station after reaching your destination. The drivers always ‘see you coming’ and put the prices up. Grab your cab 5 minutes walk away as it will almost always be half the price.

3. Long term travel forces you eat in local restaurants, which normally serve the tastiest food anyway. But here’s a tip, don’t buy food from an empty restaurant, if the locals don’t eat there it’s no good.

4. Try not to book seats at the front of a sleeper or long distance coach, the drivers will chat on their phones, play loud music and you’ll also get a premium view of some terrifying driving.

5. Ear plugs are a constant saviour, forget them at your peril.

6. Always have two prepaid credit cards and make sure you’ve topped them up when travelling to a new country, there’s nothing worse then getting in late to a new place without any cash to draw out.

7. Always have a some passport photos printed for visas applications, they’ll sting you with extra fees if they have to use their visa control web cams.

8. Except that you will get sick. It’s basically impossible to avoid bugs if you want an authentic experience, certainly authentic food.

9. You also learn that most of the world survives perfectly well without fridges, clean water, soap or basic sanitation. 

10. Most countries have faster internet that the U.K. Germany and Norway’s trains had faster internet that our line at home! Although Myanmar’s sucked.

Remember to sign up a VPN when visiting China

Remember to sign up a VPN when visiting China

11. Most situations can be overcome with a smile, a few gestures or a drawing pad.

12. Many people have £2k DSLR cameras but shoot in automatic! Undermining the very reason to shell out for a DSLR.

13. Western tourists like to photograph landscapes whereas Eastern tourists take selfies of themselves in front of the landscape, just saying.

14. Asian culture is, in general, very generous. Even when they have very little, people will often share their food and drink with foreigners.

15. Most countries have two tier prices for products and travel, the best way to avoid paying a higher price is shop at supermarkets that use barcodes or shops/ restaurants with no English signage.

16. It’s important to take rest days during long term travel because it’s more tiring than full time work, think of it like a 7 days a week job! 

Remember to take some time out for travelling, as paradoxical as that may sound

Remember to take some time out for travelling, as paradoxical as that may sound

17. Occasionally a place will feel like ‘home’ or your ‘beach.’ You should change your plans to spend a bit longer there or you’ll forever regret it.

18. Fail to prepare, then prepare to fail! Always have a raincoat and jumper because you never know what’s coming...

19. If it smells bad it’s probably bad for you!

20. Don’t drink too much if you’re trekking the next day, it will hurt physically and mentally!

21. Learn  ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ as a minimum in all countries.

22. Never eat stinky tofu in China, it smells and tastes like drains.

23. Staying fit and slim is basically impossible when you eat out for three meals a day.

24. Life without with your phone on aeroplane mode is pretty liberating…. 

25. …..Although the first thing you do in a new hostel is login to the wifi, we’re all trapped in the Matrix!

26. However scary a new country may seem, rest assured there will be a well trodden tourist trail and lots of people. You’ll rarely find a place without other tourists.

So many tourists on Haungshan Mountain

So many tourists on Haungshan Mountain

27. After taking pictures of a few sunsets you soon realise you’ll never capture the in the moment experience, just take one photo when the sky turns from yellow to pink or orange and just live in the moment for the rest of it.

28. Do something every day that scares you, if you can.

29. You meet the best people when you’re in your favourite type of place. We always gel well with people in the countryside but stay well away from party hostels, we’re too old for that.

30. Save money on beer by buying it in rice kitchens, 7/11s, or mini marts and find a park or a sunset to enjoy it from.

31. Every few days you should treat yourself to a meal other than cheap rice or noodles, or you’ll never meet the doctors 5-a-day quota.

Amazing Indian curry in Mandalay, £1.40 each

Amazing Indian curry in Mandalay, £1.40 each

32. Distance from your old life really puts everything in perspective, most of the world doesn’t have a degree, high paid job or a mortgage and seem so happy.  Perhaps ignorance is bliss.

33. Travelling as a couple means you’ll learn everything about the other person. We thought we knew everything about each other after 10 years, wrong!

34. That old phrase ‘the more you put in the more you get out’ is so true of travelling. Very often the hardest, sweatiest and scariest bits end up being the most memorable.

35. As with all purchasing when you’re on a budget, always check other search engines agoda.com, booking.com and hostelworld before you book because they often have one-off deals, we have found many half price rooms on agoda.com over booking.com and vice versa.

36. The Yanks have it easy, their currency is the worlds default currency. Always have some emergency USD.

37. Keep your passport in a plastic wallet on your body at all times, we’ve sweated through our cotton pouches too many times, you’d barely know Mark’s passport is a British one.

38. Always steal coffee/milk/butter/salt/jam/shampoo/soap portions from hotels and use them at the cheaper hostels later in your trip who don't supply these niceties. 

39. Always confirm prices of the foods you want before ordering in a local restaurants, without menus a clever waiter may add on a few extra pence to your bill.

40. Always try and bargain. Although it might seem cheap to you, if you pay a much higher than local price it will only inflate future prices for future tourists. Just imagine how much your children might pay in 2040 if we all pay more than we should…

41. Getting a bike is the easiest way to get off the beaten track and create your own adventures.

Get some wheels to explore and adventure

Get some wheels to explore and adventure

42. If you are not feeling a place then just move on. Everyone might tell you ‘this place is amazing’ or ‘you’ll love it here.’ But you’ll soon get to know which kind of places suit your interests, don’t be afraid to move on early if you’re not feeling it and everyone else is.

43. Keep your plans loose, the best adventures always come from the spontaneous.

44. Don’t blindly follow guide books the whole time or you’ll likely end up following everyone else on the trail. They are great starting points in a new place but after a few days somewhere put it down and follow your eyes, nose and ears and create your own adventures.

45. Get rid of anything in your backpack you don’t use, send it home or give it away. Your back will thank you some day in the future.

46. Occasionally treat people you meet to something nice like a dinner, this flames the fire of the traveller circle of life. Someday someone will buy you dinner (so many people bought us dinner on this trip and wouldn’t let us pay a penny).

Thanks Maybe for taking us out for dinner

Thanks Maybe for taking us out for dinner

47. Forget about keeping your clothes clean, just embrace the hippy state of dirty traveller chic. 

48. Although we have met many cool people, don’t except to meet as many people as you thought before leaving. Being a traveller couple in our 30s means we generally bond with couples like us, normally in more remote places. We missed the travel party experience of partying our way across Asia’s cheap dorms in our 20s, I guess we’re just getting old! 

49. Although you shouldn’t expect a spiritual epiphany, there is something inspiring about living a completely new existence where you meet new people everyday, explore cultures and observe spellbinding sights. We feel like travel will change the direction of our lives, hoping to mimic the attitudes of some of the amazing people we’ve met in Mongolia, China and SE Asia. Perhaps the learning is just beginning.

50. The most important thing we learnt is that travelling is not as scary as it first seems. People are basically the same in all countries and there is human spirit to look after each other that is so easy to spot once you leave the safety net of home. Whether you start with smaller trips or plan something a bit longer you can't help but be amazed by the spirit of people. 

 

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50 Things We Have Learnt From Travelling, By Studio Mali
 

 

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