What I Wonder When I Wander: How does technology affect the essence of travel?

what i wonder when i wander

Today’s post is my attempt to scratch a subtle, yet persistent mental itch I picked up as Dani and I spent 35 days traveling overland through Patagonia earlier this year.

I once started reading a book called ‘In Patagonia‘. I found the writing as monotonous as the Patagonian steppe it dutifully described, so I never finished it. An impression of Patagonia was made as an untamed, soul-crushingly unvarying place unlike anywhere else in the world.

It was 2003, a time just before Facebook, YouTube, travel blogs and Google Image search would have provided me with millions of ‘real-world’ views of what Patagonia was really like. Instead, I put down the book, never looked at a photo and had only the expectations created by what I myself had imagined.

el chalten mountain topsCut to 2013 when the two of us set off from Santiago, planning each small block of the trip southward as we went. In order to plan, we used personal recommendations from fellow travelers, travel blog posts, Wikitravel, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, Google Maps and travel articles written in national newspapers. Because we were traveling in February peak high season (something we would not recommend), we relied on,, Hostelbookers and TripAdvisor online to book ahead when we could.

Every boulder, llama, emu, and miles-long stretch of nothingness mentioned in ‘In Patagonia’ has been documented somewhere online. Views of hikes we had yet to take, dishes served at restaurants we had yet to visit were all online, and decisions on where to eat, what to hike, what tour companies to choose for the more adventurous activities were decided by this online research, with Lonely Planet as a backup option we tend to use only for the ‘Getting in and Out’ section and many of the maps.

The trip went flawlessly through some of the most incredible landscapes we had ever experienced. You can really feel the difference day by day, through empty barren land, beautiful green lakes, the ever present Andes mountains, glaciers, the weather gets colder and you add a layer of clothing as you head southward step by step to the end of the world.

And yet…part of me felt like I was cheating.

Where was the spontaneity, the risk to match the rugged landscape? No matter how barren and remote each town was, with the exception of El Chalten in Argentina, we had strong enough wireless internet connections in hotels and cafes to plan each step of the way. That is, until we found ourselves entirely stranded and the only way to make it from Porvenir to our final destination, Ushuaia, was to hitchhike across Tierra del Fuego. This was the most adventurous part of our trip, the story we most often tell of Patagonia and the least safe I ever felt all at the same time.

broken windshieldIt was during this time that I read the book Without a Spare, by life-long traveler Bonnie Kassel. We have since met Bonnie in person and are glad to call her a friend (and this month’s GlobetrotterGirl of the Month on Tuesday!). Without a Spare is a memoir spanning her entire life of travel; the title comes from one adventure during her year in Africa when she and her friend were forced to change the tire on their tiny VW Beetle, and continued onward to traverse massive sandstorms in the Sahara for days and days without so much as a spare tire. Focused on telling the adventures, she only offhandedly mentions picking up wire transfers sent to banks abroad or leaving notes for travelers in hotels in order to meet up in another country a few weeks later. She might have meant these as minute details, but as we read the book, it was hard for us to even fathom the logistics of traveling without technology. We transfer money and withdraw it from an ATM within seconds, we add travelers and locals we meet to Facebook and are forever connected.

Bonnie tells stories of travelers hacking their way across swaths of jungle in the name of discovery and exploration. Today, travelers do less discovery and more self-discovery, curating their own travel experiences rather than exploring the unknown.

With today’s technology, travel experiences are more like pruning a bonsai tree than hacking through a jungle.

Such a massive amount of information has killed the need for spontaneity while traveling. 30 years ago there would have been no guidebook, and 10 years ago little online coverage. But today, a smartphone has GPS, and there are guidebooks and apps for everywhere you want to travel.

Does technology create separation? 

Not only does access to technology and information affect our expectations, but in how we perceive the entire travel experience. As a photographer, Dani sees the world through a camera lens and even when she is not actually taking pictures, the way she walks through a city is by keeping her eyes out for what would make beautiful pictures. She sees the world in patches of 4 x 6 photos. For others, their world might be shaped in Valencia or Rise filtered Instagram photos or how to edit the recorded experience to upload onto YouTube. This has always been the norm for artists, poets, professional photographers and filmmakers, but today we all have technology as we travel to document and create media to be published in an instant.

globetrottergirls instagramWe are all interpreting travel through technology. Spontaneity aside, does technology separate us from the actual experience?

See it. Snap it. Share it or send it.

On the day we arrived in Valdivia, Chile, a massive sea lion jumped over the cement blockade of the famous fish market along the river. Within seconds, dozens of locals and tourists alike became like animal paparazzi, whipping out iPhones, iPods, tablets and digital cameras to film and photograph every second.

There are probably over 1,000 images of this ten-minute block of time.

It was as though an alien had landed. Dani being the only true photographer in the bunch, she jumped down much closer for better photographs and ended up talking to a fish monger about how this happens fairly often. At his insistence, she even ended up petting the blubbery beast before he flopped back into the water.

valdivia sea lion ipad photoSnap, snap, snap. The people in the crowd raised their tech higher and higher to get the pictures, and then before he was even gone, their attention shifted toward processing and sharing the images of what they had just witnessed. Of all the people who gathered there, I wonder how many of them actually watched the way the fish mongers tossed fish guts over to lure him back into the water.

It was as though the importance was capturing the image of the experience, rather than experiencing it for themselves.

How much of what travelers do is for the experience vs for the picture of the experience? The worst example of this was in Luang Prabang in Laos.

One popular activity mentioned in every guidebook or blog is to climb to the top of the Phou Si temple at sunset. Climbing to the top of a hill to experience a peaceful sunset at a Buddhist temple.

Luang Prabang touristsIn reality, hundreds of people balance on a small outcropping around the top of this temple, elbowing each other out to plant their tripods down to get the best shots of the sunset experience. Snap, snap, snap of professional grade paparazzi lenses was joined by constant chatter by indifferent tourists who made their way up because somewhere online, someone said they should see the sunset up here (and yes, we were guilty of this as well.)

The crowd missed out on the actual peaceful, contemplative experience in favor of documenting the idea of what that could have been like.

Why technology opens up a world of travel 

If this post is spiraling downward into a rant against technology, let me flip that around right now. The truth is, without technology, Dani and I would be unable to live the life of our dreams.

We run an online travel publication from our laptops. Technology allows us, and thousands of people like us, to create a business and travel the world while we do it.

In order to research destinations and experiences, we rely on crowd sourcing websites like Tripadvisor and Foursquare, travel blogs and new apps packed with content in order to focus on what we want to do and share with our readers. We record video on our iPods, take photos with a dSLR, and in order to publish this content, we require hotels and cafes with speedy internet connections.

jess working in a cafe in BerlinWhen we get to a new city and we’re starving, Dani hops on Foursquare to find a nearby restaurant that comes highly recommended, Airbnb allows you to find quality apartments to live in local neighborhoods, and housesitting websites connect homeowners with housesitters from around the world so everyone can travel longer for else. Want to hitchhike across Germany? There’s an app that gives you wait times for popular pick-up spots on the highway. Love art museums and happen to be in Berlin/London/New York/Singapore? There’s an app dedicated just to that, too.

When we meet other travelers, we also trade technology – more specifically we trade folders stuffed with hundreds of gigabytes of movies, music, TV shows and eBooks.

In fact, the laptop has become the modern day campfire that travelers gather around.

The conversation might be about a shared love of The Wire or Dexter, whether the common ground is pop culture or not, the connection with new people is created nonetheless.

When we met Without a Spare author Bonnie Kassel for dinner in New York City recently, she said something that really made me think. “Whatever happened to travel being about getting away from it all?” And thinking about Bonnie’s incredible adventures, a part of me is drawn to travel for escape’s sake.

Dani with her Asus NetbookIn this TED Talk, author Sherry Turkle argues that devices remove us from the highs and lows in life because they allow us to dip in and out of a virtual world. She’s got a point. There you are, enjoying the beach so much, you want to share a picture on Instagram. Suddenly you’re so busy hashtagging you end up losing five minutes of the very moment that was so good that you had to Instagram it in the first place.

Travel is no longer about #escape 

That aside, however, I argue that technology is what allows us to create and sustain meaningful connections through and in spite of travel. My best friend just had a baby this week in Denver (welcome to the world, little Lina!), and I spent half an hour ogling at her from Berlin via FaceTime. Dani gets pictures of her nieces sent to her via iMessage almost every day. These pictures allow her to witness little moments in their lives she would otherwise miss if she still chose to be nomadic in a time before this level of personal technology.

Travel isn’t about escape, anymore, nor is it solely about discovery. Technology today allows travel to be about expanding your horizons and maintaining meaningful connections with friends and family as with the new friends you meet along the way.

luang prabang sunset
The temple sunset in Luang Prabang was actually stunning…
Opt In Image
Beyond the Blog: Get updates straight to your inbox!

Keep up with me! Get updates, additional stories that don't make it on the blog, future travel plans, and travel tips. I also answer reader questions and have some pretty sweet travel giveaways exclusive to newsletter subscribers!

Tags : What I Wonder When I Wander


  1. Jess, you bounced back and forth so many times that I’m now dizzy and ‘may’ get lost in gibberish. You did a great job of presenting both sides to this modern day dilemma.

    You may put me in the same era and thoughts of how technology is changing travel as your friend Bonnie. BTW, I’m going to go out right now and get her book. No wait, I’m going to go straight to Amazon and order her book on line and have it delivered to my door so I never have to go “out”. 🙂

    You mentioned, at one point in your “rant”, that there were no guide books 30 years ago. Well, I’m here to tell you I have one of the first copies of Tony Wheeler’s “South-East Asia on a shoestring”, 1977. (I treasure it like having a Gutenberg Bible). I know, I’m splitting hairs, as it’s 39 years ago, but what the hey, I’m here to rant too! lol

    Next to trying to determine which direction to go when I start traveling again next year, the decision of how much technology to take with me is also a tormenting albatross. I’ve always traveled with an SLR so I’m sometimes part of that crowd that is always sizing up situations with what it will look like as a 4×6. That’s been around for a long time. And, back in the Daze before laptops, I relied on my Short Wave radio to listen to the BBC and Voice of America for what was happening “back in civilization”. Also, I always looked forward to the once a week publication of Time magazine, reading it cover to cover. It was always an expedition to find a newsstand on Tuesday mornings for my fix.

    Communication with others? That was giving out the addresses of the American Express offices where we would be months ahead of time. That way, our friends and family could write to us and we’d pick up their letters when finally arriving months later. And it worked, most of the time. And while we were at it, the American Express offices were where we would extract money from our account back home. We’d walk out with green backs (for exchanging on the black market) and a stack of travelers checks. ATM’s didn’t exist back then. To get the local currency, was paying an exchange rate at a bank in exchange for the now historical “Traveler’s Check”. And that was only 25 years ago! Only? We’ve come a long way.

    I tend to think I’m going to limit my tech equipment when I take off again. I enjoy the serendipity of travel too much. Also, I don’t need to have a blog as a source of income either. Having too many devices, and you start limiting what you do for fear that you’ll be ripped off. Sometimes, less is more. However, I don’t chide the younger set for their technology addiction. We all have different comfort levels. Give me a lonely planet guide book and I’m good. Well OK, and probably a laptop too. I’m not that neanderthal.

    1. Hi Steve, good to hear from you on this. Glad you appreciate my balanced approach at the dilema. I didn’t actually mean to sound ranty. Again, I love technology and although I feel that there is some sort of spontaneity missing because of it, I am just not the kind of adventurers who would have wanted to explore without it. I love downloading dozens of apps about each place we visit and am fascinated by all the companies that spring up around travel, like Airbnb, which revolutionized not only the vacation rental industry but real estate in general in some cities. I don’t like that people are obsessed with getting pictures of everything rather than experiencing it for themselves, and sometimes I get frustrated even with Dani who, if she forgets her camera and sees something beautiful, sometimes can’t appreciate the moment and instead feels sad she missed the shot. But I think that’s a bit unfair to say, too, because she is a photographer by nature, not just an iPhone instagrammer, so that’s also something a bit different. What I meant about there not being guidebooks, is that 30 years ago there were plenty of places that were still not in guidebooks. Places in subsaharan Africa, for example, where you would have had to arrive and actually ask people what you should see and where you should go. I think South East Asia has been a destination for a longer period of time. I do find it fascinating about having money wired and getting letters sent places months in advance! I do remember using travelers checks, I’m not that young! Even in 2001 when I moved to Guatemala for two years, I had hundreds of dollars in travelers checks that I would cash, but the thought of having money wired to a country that I wouldn’t even get to for two months and it just being there when I arrived – and then how to budget so I could sustain myself until I got there – phew, that’s just very foreign! I love ATMs! 🙂

      1. Oops, miscommunication again, the major problem with all in this world. Not intentional, but shit happens.

        I didn’t use the word “wired”. Before we left on our trip, we had our investment consultant put all our money in one of three places: long term, medium term and short term investments, to be drawn upon as our trip progressed. I did a budget based on where and when we’d need how much money over the two years we’d be gone. The first two months through Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia would cost more than then a two month period in Thailand, Nepal and India. He also set up a bank account in the American Express system for us. Every month, he would check the bank account to see how much we had drawn out and replenish it so we’d always have at least a couple thousand dollars in it for future withdrawals. He had our schedule and knew if we were going to be going to a high or low cost location.

        So, whenever we’d progress to our next country, we’d go to the American Express office, and use our American Express Card to make a draw from that bank account. I guess it was sorta like a debit card setup before debit cards were even invented.

        While there, we’d also check to see if we had any mail and give them a forwarding address (the next American Express office on our route) so any future mail would not be sent back to the sender, but forwarded. 🙂

        In addition to this mail scheme, and the only other means of communicating, we’d make a phone call to our parents at least once a month. One month to my parents, the next month to my wife’s parents. They in turn, would call each other to report any new news.

        Also, I know what you mean about the guide book selection 30 years ago! Talk about information overload nowadays. Like you said, in many places you’d just have to “ask” a local for whatever. Well, I don’t feel like that’s such a problem. I enjoy the mystery and adventure of a new place. I find great satisfaction and strokes to my ego in doing these travel chores. It’s good for my self esteem to continually prove to myself that I can do it, and I don’t need any help. I know, this only works for travelers who are not on a fast-track schedule. My thinking is that if I’m not there, then I’m just here. No problem, I’ve got lots of time to be anywhere.

        Thanks again for this “Wonder/Wander” series. It’s a keeper!

    2. Steve,
      How is it possible that our paths never crossed. Not at American Express on Connaught Circle in Delhi, not in a small “office” changing money on the black market in Egypt or Kenya, not waiting on line to make that phone call back home? Of course, I agreed with everything you wrote and how exciting and challenging it is to discover things on your own. Thanks for taking me down memory lane to the “good old days.”
      Bonnie Kassel recently posted..Colonial Carribean

      1. Bonnie,
        Ya know what? I was probably across the street, laying on the lawn reading my mail on Connaught Circle. I was in that AE office in Cairo several times and couldn’t believe they had forwarded our mail because we were a week late getting there! And, I was already out of the back room of the back room at the central market in Nairobi, after changing money on the black market. That’s not such a good memory, as I was pick-pocketed within 10 minutes on the sidewalk after leaving that back room. Duh! And, thank YOU, for the memories. I’m sure our paths will cross “again”, somewhere, somehow. (standing in some ATM line in Chiang Mai)

        1. That’s the difference between being a man and a woman, Steve. My money changer “Joe” in Nairobi, followed me out to try and talk me into going out with him!

          I’m currently housesitting in Mexico and about to go into the pool to do laps in theprobably vain attempt to work off last night mojitos.
          Bonnie Kassel recently posted..Colonial Carribean

    1. That’s a great point about learning from others, too, Andi and something I actually cut out because MAN can I write long posts 🙂 But honestly a while back I wrote that I think podcasts saved my life, for example. Two years ago I was feeling unhealthy, 100 years old, achy, had brain fog and was unclear on what I wanted out of life. Because of the technology to allow podcasts to exist, I listened to several different podcasts that taught me about my health, mental wellness, I learned about spirituality, business – all from these free little seminars constantly in my ears. I can’t imagine who I would be without having those podcasts and the space that travel allows for me to listen to them!

  2. I think I’m more connected now on the road while running my website than I’ve been ever before.

    On a previous trip I’d go weeks without talking to any friends or family, now, I’d be surprised if its more than a day. While its nice to be building and working on something as I travel, part of me does with I could just unplug and have no tech with me at all.

    I know why your torn, I feel it too.
    Adventures Wtih Pedro recently posted..Planning a Round the World Trip: How to Budget

    1. Hi Pedro! We love being more in touch now than ever, too. I didn’t mean to sound torn, to be honest. In the end, I love technology, I wouldn’t even be traveling without it because I am just not the adventurous type to be hacking my way through a jungle or honestly traveling without a spare. I love that for me, travel is about seeing the world and yet being more in touch with people than ever before, just like you. Instead of unplugging like a detox, I just wish I could manage my time better and be able to resist the call of tech late at night or first thing in the morning (ie, no email first thing, etc!) 🙂

  3. Interesting topic. While technology has its flaws, I think it makes travel more accessible for different kinds of people. I’m sure there are a lot of people who might not have felt brave enough to travel when it meant “hacking their way across swaths of jungle”, and having limited contact with friends and family home; but, technology provides a safety net that makes new places seem less intimidating. If that gives more people the confidence to travel, then it’s definitely a positive thing.
    Jessica recently posted..Sunday Snapshot: Darvaza Gas Craters

    1. I agree with that idea, Jessica, for sure. The only way people will ever be able to understand each other is by understanding where they come from – and that requires travel. Travel might separate us in some ways, but it also knocks down the idea of the ‘other’ which is so important!!

  4. . . . I’m thinking about Burma, and the sunset I went to view in Bagan. It started out as a serene and tranquil experience, gazing out at the tops of the golden pagodas that dotted the countryside, the setting sun glancing off of these holy shrines, lighting them up with a halo-like effect. It was heavenly. It wasn’t long before tons of people climbed the steep pyramid I was on, chatting, laughing, cameras clicking. All of a sudden it felt like Club Med Burma . . .

    . . . I’m thinking about Cambodia, and the temples I went to view at Angkor Wat. Just prior to exploring them for the first time, I had lunch at my hotel. I was deep in a book on the history and meaning of these marvelous edifices. The dining area was hushed, until a young woman walked in and, talking in that unaware way on her cell phone, chose a seat quite close to me. She was chatting mindlessly about having seen the temples that morning, and she sounded less than enthused, and more than vaguely bored. I wanted to throw my chopsticks at her . . .

    . . . I’m thinking about how I would self-impose a “time out”, in order to process my experiences by writing in my journals. I would sit in the lobby of a grand hotel, order tea, and write for hours on end. I was often conflicted about the use of my journals and camera, wondering if I were hiding behind them, and if I was allowing them to cut into my real life experience. But I came to respect that the writing and photography had its own value. More often than not, I was on sensory overload, and it helped me to organize my thoughts and feelings . . .

    Thank you, Jess, for exploring this particular topic. It should give all travelers pause for thought. You did it brilliantly. I’m enjoying your readers’ comments. Hats off to you! From Joan, a friend of Bonnie.

    1. Hi Joan! Any friend of Bonnie is a friend of ours!! You describe those romantic moments I always expected to have, like sitting in the lobby of your grand hotel. In reality, I’m instagramming a picture with free wi-fi at Starbucks…but it is of the ‘setting sun glancing off the holy shrines’ so I just don’t know if I am actually missing any of the essence because of technology or not…

  5. Jess,

    With all the evidence, good and bad (Civil Rights Movement, Stalin, concentration camps, landing on the beach at Normandy), you still seem intrigued how we could have all functioned so well without technology. A more personal example is when Bob, a Canadian doctor, fell madly in love with my friend Barbara at a Mombassa (Kenya) tea room. She wasn’t ready for a relationship and left for India. Bob found her in an ashram (American Express bulletin board, New Delhi), but she still wasn’t ready to date anyone. When he caught with her again in Kathmandu (Poste Restante), she was impressed with his determination and they became a couple. Fast forward forty years: happily married, two children.

    And one correction if you don’t mind. Yes, you would still be able to live the life of your dreams without technology, it would just be different. If you loved to cook before there were microwaves, you still would have cooked.

    I loved this post. It’s an important topic that everyone is discussing or should be. Keep them coming.
    Bonnie Kassel recently posted..Colonial Carribean

  6. Jess,

    I wanted to keep my comments on the dark side of technology you broached in a separate email. Far more disturbing then ruining Luang Prabang, Pompeii, and the current Rain exhibit at MoMA (after waiting on line for hours– only there to take pictures of themselves AT the Rain exhibit) “the importance is capturing the image of the experience rather than to experience it for themselves,” are the people snapping photos of panicked victims in burning buildings, fighting off an attacker, etc. Just before I left New York, there was a big uproar about the guy who took pictures of a woman who’d fallen on the subway tracks before she was killed, rather than drop is camera and run to put his hand out to help her up. These things need to be discussed, so thanks again for writing this blog and getting us all talking. ( Don’t think you’re the only who can go on a rant!)

    Oh, and a complete non sequitur–you think wire transfers are obsolete? Even they weren’t possible in most of the world. Everyone wore hidden money belts because we all carried cash that we changed on the black market!!
    Bonnie Kassel recently posted..Colonial Carribean

  7. Hi Jess, having just started our travels, I have been pondering this topic in particular already in only our first month.

    I am concerned that so far we have been spending so much time researching for the important places to visit we are not experiencing the adventure of our amazing trip.

    I don’t necessarily wish to go to the island where The Beach was set if there are some 300 other people crowding and clicking their way through what should be a moment to sit back and let the environment explore your own inner self.

    A great post and certainly an eye opener for me to pursue the moment and not just the story.


  8. Thank you for this post, which hits a lot of tender buttons. Being a fan of pre-ATM travel writing (Evelyn Waugh, Paul Bowles, early Paul Theroux), I’ve always equated foreign lands and the act of travel itself with the evanescent mystery of the uncharted road, only occasionally noted down on pen and paper. On previous journeys around the world, we have prided ourselves on leaving laptops and phones at home, leaving only room for a mediocre camera. However, we have recently embarked on our own long term travel experiment. Having decided to keep a blog detailing our trails and travails (I know, how original!), I’ve come to the realization I’m spending a great deal of my time in front of a laptop – either trying to come up with something mildly appealing for the blog or just finding accommodation and other pedantic endeavors.

    I can completely relate to the Luang Prabang situation; same with the Angkor Wat anecdote mentioned by Joan above. I’ve been to both places, and found their beauty sometimes undervalued by fellow travelers too busy trying to get the perfect photo or too jaded to really care.

    History is a continuous but evolving loop. At some point, receiving Time magazine in a remote corner of the world with a mere 2 week delay must have been perceived as the height of technological and logistical achievement. Nowadays, we have new tools and gadgets, but the goal is still the same: to stay connected. Does it take away from the travel experience? Are we failing to become immersed in a culture/place because we are too busy letting others know we’re there? I am for now unable to shake off the nagging feeling that I’m somehow cheating. But I guess I’ll be blogging about it too at some point…

  9. It’s a double-edged sword, really. Without technology, where would we be? But with the technology, we miss out on those moments that we want to record in the first place, as you say!

    I went up to watch that sunset in Luang Prabang on my birthday in 2009, and I coiuldn’t believe the scene. Unfortunately, I felt I had to head back down before the sun had even set because I couldn’t face climbing down those steps with 100 other people at the same time. It also reminds me of this post you wrote:

    I think that I’m not quite old enough (though Zab is!) to appreciate what it must have been like to travel without technology, or at the very least email. When my mother was 23, she went to India on a work placement and to travel for about 2 months. And she could only communicate with her family by post. BY POST! Can you imagine?

    At the same time, though, it annoys me when, for example, my teenage students would say if stranded on a desert island that their mobile phone would be the most important thing for them to be able to keep with them. (Sorry dude; no power outlets or phone signal on this imaginary island.) Are people really becoming that dependent?
    Sam recently posted..200 Days of Travel

  10. Yes Sam, I can imagine only being able to communicate with family and friends by post. But I’m not sure you can imagine the incredible excitement of waiting and finally receiving a letter from someone you love who’s away.! And now we have a box of these long cool letters with amazing stamps right at our fingertips! The love letters sent from my father to my mother from overseas during WWII are still treasured now seventy years later.
    Bonnie Kassel recently posted..Colonial Carribean

    1. Bonnie, that’s so true – you know we still send postcards, but people aren’t even that excited to get them, probably because they are already aware of what we are up to through social media. But they are the only non-digital evidence that we ever traveled, because everything we do is online…

Leave a Response

CommentLuv badge