Friday, March 18, 2016

The changing face of travel

Reading an article recently got me reminiscing about the first real trip I did.  Not the week I had in Tunisia riding camels.  Not the week in Ibiza, avoiding San Antonio.  An actual backpacking trip.  Years before flash packing was a glint in an entrepreneurs eye.  There was no "flash" in the travel we were to embark on.  Not even on the camera we had.  No, seriously, it had NO flash.  There are probably people reading this who don't understand that statement.  Does this help?

Example of 110 camera, introduced by Kodak in 1972 
My, oh my.  Taking pics on that old thing.  And wandering to the chemist on Pitt St Mall in Sydney, paying extra to get the 1 hour processing.  The height of excitement.  Then, when the pics came, nervously flicking through to see what of the night out in Kings Cross actually got captured.  I lost count of the times we either exclaimed, who IS that?  Why is that girl sitting on your knee?  Who are those lads drinking schooners with us?  Those halcyon days.

The intention is not to rehash the original article I read, but to give me chance to reflect on times past, and the changes that seem to have happened over the years without me really noticing.  I still feel like that excited 23 year old.  Knowing there is a whole world out there to explore.  I am a little older, and wiser now, but I still have that excitement about the world.

Traveling in 1994 was very different to traveling now.  No email.  Internet?  What was that?  All we had was our trusty guide book of choice.  Mine being then, and still, Lonely Planet.  But what hefty tomes they were.

Booking your next hostel over the actual telephone.  The big ones in the street, that you put coins into.  Not the one in your pocket the size of a small caramel slice.  No kids, those weren't invented at this point.  Mobile phones, not caramel slices. 

Passing on your contact details by getting out a pen, and ripping a piece of paper from your travel journal.  Knowing that you were never going to see, nor contact 99% of the people.  But it felt good to do it anyway.  With your new lifelong "friends".   That is something that never changes, whatever the technology we use as enablers.  Friendships don't need social media. 

And as for writing to let people know what you were up to.  Well.  You had to actually write.  With a real pen.
Poste Restante.  What a quaint idea.  If you wanted a letter to reach you on the road, you told people which city, or town you would be in, and added c/o Poste Restante.  And miraculously, it arrived.  You went and queued up with all the other travellers, and vagabonds, with your identification.  And collected your mail.  I still have a box full of letters from that time, collected from post offices around Australia.

A few years after that seminal trip, I found myself back down under, travelling around New Zealand, tying in a quick visit to the sister, who at this time was living it large in Bondi.  Sans children.

What was this strange phenomenon whereby fellow travellers were jumping straight off the bus upon arrival in Christchurch, and running into the nearest café?  All lined up, clearly visible through the front window of the cafe, each sat at a computer terminal.  Were they taking some kind of online exam?  Playing computer games?  No, the age of the Internet cafe had arrived.  With pay as you go access to email, and allowing you to upload (if you had the time and money for the incredibly frustrating upload and download speeds) photos.  At lot had seemingly changed since 1994.  A brave new world indeed.

I had to join this brave new world, and so, far my next major trip, a round the world (RTW in travel parlance) I found myself travelling all the way to Leeds to hunt down an elusive Internet cafe.  I say ALL the way to Leeds, and those readers from home will know this is not far at all.  But in those days, it just highlights how few and far between these mythical Internet cafes were.

Not that I knew what one of these places of magic and mystery were, but I had read that I could go there and get an email address.  Whatever that was.  A legacy of this remains to this day, the reason I have "99" appending fcormack on my hotmail account. This was the year I set it up.  A poignant, and constant reminder of a marvellous year.

Having an email address was only half the story.  Finding a place down a dusty side street in Delhi that somebody had told you had a computer so you could email...who exactly?  I think I was an early adopter in this email malarkey, which meant the options of who I could write to (electronically) were very limited.

And boy, were these internet connections slow!  You paid by the 5, or 10 mins usually.  And before you had written "wish you were here" you had spent next week's beer and bed budget.  Imagine my relief some years later when Stelios finally got into the game, creating his big orange "EasyInternet" cafes.  Game changers at the time, that I have used in places from Berlin to Barcelona. 

Traveling now is unrecognisable from my early days.  My last real trip was at the end of 2010/start of 2011, all around South America.  Most people I met were carrying expensive bits of kit such as MacBooks, and large expensive SLR cameras.  Not to mention the mini computers, masquerading as phones, in their pockets.  Or it's the ubiquitous tablet, used to capture and share every waking moment of their trip.  Be it the food.  The amazing sunset.  The "undiscovered" beach they have just discovered.  The one first mentioned by Tony and Maureen Wheeler in the very Lonely Planet guide to South East Asia, Across Asia on the Cheap, from 1973.

I have a wry smile to myself, seeing some of the content in today's travel blogs.  From the "digital nomads" currently traveling all four corners of the earth.  They sometimes really believe they are exploring uncharted waters.  Seeing things with human eyes for the very first time.  The reality is that they probably aren't even the first person in their hostel to see it.   But you know what, that is part of the beauty of travelling.  Thinking you are Phileas Fogg.  Educating the masses to the big wide world out there. 

What is true is that the act of travel is no longer a luxury.   Or even a rite of passage as it once was.  It's just something you do.  Because you can.  Because life is short, and it sure beats working.  And because the world has shrunk to the point that any of us can be anywhere we want to be.

You just need to decide where that is, and make it happen.

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