It's been years since I spent serious time just being a tourist - particularly a backpacker. But I find myself now in Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo where I recently stayed in a really well set up hostel called Singgahsana Lodge in Kuching. It felt pretty weird mixing with a bunch of significantly younger backpackers.
The vibe wasn't that different, the clothes pretty much the same, but one thing had changed immensely.
The moment we walked into reception I could here the tones of a rather poshing sounding girl chatting on her mobile. I couldn't help ear-wigging the conversation. I sounded like she was talking to her mum about how much someone or other was winding her up and what to do about it. Over in the corner a couple of people were using their laptops and netbooks to surf the net wirelessly. There were mobile phones everywhere and I counted 5 PCS for internet access.
12 years back when I was backpacking properly, I still used Post Restante. There was an incredible sense of excitement about pitching up in say Bangkok and finding my way to the central post office. Asking if there was anything for 'Head'. The guy behind the counter would rummage through umpteen boxes and, just sometimes, crumpled and grubby, there'd be an envelope for me from home. Often I'd not read the letter it contained straight away, but would take it somewhere like a cafe or bar and pore over the pages... fantastically self indulgent... a momentary reminder that whilst the place I was visiting might feel like home now I'd been there so long, I was actually a foreignor still very much in a strange land. I had roots elsewhere.
But I'd go pick up mail maybe once a fortnight. And that was it... no more contact with the world outside my immediate environment. And I loved it that way - the sense of almost losing yourself in another place, another culture - the possibilities for being someone else, living a different existence for just a short while were immensely exciting.
Today I visited a cultural village where they put on a show of traditional tribal dances. I was again struck by the technology. One guy was playing golf on his iPhone. Another bloke was videoing the whole show - watching the real world through barrier of the LCD screen of his camera.
Technology is of course so empowering and enabling, but I'm becoming slightly smug about the fact that my mobile phone provider hasn't enabled roaming (despite my request to them to do so). I think I'm going to just call the voicemail and change the message to say I'm not in the country, don't leave me a message.
Travel for me is much about making connections with people - other travellers, locals, people in the travel industry. It's about lots of other things too - but ultimately it's people, what they do differently, what they think differently from me. And wondering what it would be like if I could be them for a day and live in their world for just a while. A sense of detachment, or otherness - I know I'm beginning to sound a bit overblown here... but what the heck... you could almost call it existential.
These days every hotel or guesthouse - no matter how far flung - is wired for email... so tempting to 'just check' and see if anything new has dropped into the in-tray.
But it's so distracting, so unnecessary. I have limited time here in a fascinating place...
Is technology killing the reality of travelling? Does a more connected world mean fewer real connections? I think so. Do you?
(Of course the ultimate irony is that to post this I've used the very technology I'm criticising)