A few months ago, I found myself hiking alone, hopping across streams in a rocky wadi (canyon) in Jordan. The sun was warm and shining bright above me, while the air was cooled by the trees, the shrubs, and water flowing by.
I could feel the nature and the freedom of the unknown around every corner. It was putting a giant smile on my face. This is exactly what travel is about for me.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and powered the screen on. While I didn’t have a data signal in the wadi (and hadn’t for more than a day here), I’d been tracking my progress with the GPS to make sure I could find my way back out. Sadly, the clock told me this was my turnaround point.
“Just a few more minutes,” I told myself, “let’s see what’s around that next bend.”
So I hopped across the stream again to navigate up and around the corner, when the rocks on the slope slipped under my feet, and my outside leg went right along with them.
I hit hard; like those times you find yourself on the ground, dazed and numb, unsure whether you’re actually OK when someone asks you. I did an inventory on my bones. Nothing broken, but the flesh on my arm was pretty torn up.
My camera, secured by a BlackRapid strap on my right side, was fine. It was lucky enough to be cushioned by my body. I reached in my pocket to pull out my phone. Less lucky… smashed like I’d never seen one smashed before.
So for the past 3 months, I’ve been smartphone-less for the first time in years. Here’s what it has meant for my travels and work on the road.
The Thing I Missed Most Was the Clock
I haven’t worn a watch while traveling for years, and this is the biggest thing that I noticed day-to-day. To deal with this, I’ve had to carry around my Nexus 7 tablet to keep track of the hours in the day.
I’m On Time, and So is Everyone Else
Without the fallback of a text message saying “Running late. Be there in 5!” people really try their best to be on time. I purposely tell the people I’m meeting that I can’t really be contacted by phone, and it’s made everyone more aware of time… even in persistently laid-back / flaky Chiang Mai.
The Cloud Is Awesome
Thanks to the automatic backups that my Android phone does in the cloud, the only things I lost were 2 short notes I made in Evernote the night before. All of my contacts, WiFi passwords, e-mails, books, music… you name it; all were safely backed up automatically.
I Didn’t Check Social Media as Much (and That’s Good)
It can be too easy sometimes. You have a spare minute or 2, and you instinctively reach for the phone to see if something interesting is happening somewhere that you’re not. 99% of the time, the answer is no.
I ended up following a self-imposed break from social media and it was pretty great. Less is more in the crazy world of tweets and likes.
What Did We Do Before Google Maps?
One of my friends still swears by paper maps, while another pops in an earbud and has his phone navigate him through the streets on his motorbike. I’ve always found myself somewhere in the middle.
One thing is certain, when you’re in a new neighborhood and you have somewhere to go, having a decent map on hand can make life a whole lot easier. I ended up checking Google Maps on my laptop before I left for the day, and then using a mixture of paper maps and the cached maps on my Nexus 7 tablet if I had it.
Not terribly elegant, but it worked.
A Smashed Smartphone Didn’t Affect My Work
It turns out that if I didn’t return an e-mail the second after the 3G pushed it down to my phone, the world did not actually collapse in on itself. (Admittedly, I knew this before). In fact, I ended up using more pen and paper for my interviews, and I found that to be less jarring for my subjects than typing madly on my phone in front of them.
A Smartphone Isn’t Necessary for (My) Travels
I (almost) never make calls anyways, and my smartphone has always been a mini-computer instead of a “phone.” While having the ability to make calls can certainly make things easier, I’m usually using the data connection for e-mail, news and maps.
I did make more use of my Nexus 7 tablet than I would have otherwise. I’d often have it in my bag as a giant clock / music player anyways. It’s only slightly awkward.
Back in Jordan that day in the canyon…
So after I gathered my wits, I rinsed my arm off and wrapped it in a longyi to protect it, and headed back out the way I came. On the way out, I met a young goat herder whose goats were foraging on the the greenery lining the sides of the wadi. He invited me over, and I showed him my phone and arm.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his less-smart phone to compare, and started played some of his favorite tunes for me from its distorted speaker. Then we had some lunch on the rocks by the stream.
Smashing your smartphone is hardly the worst thing that can happen on your travels. Remember what brought you along the journey in the first place, and never take anything you can’t afford to lose.
Have you lost / smashed a piece of gear on your travels? How did it change the way you traveled?