I just finished riding the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia in less than 40 minutes. Thanks to Google Russia, desk-bound wanderers can make the 5,000+ mile journey without having to parse a single Cyrillic sign. The Guardian wrote a thought-provoking article last week that questioned whether this kind of virtual travel will replace the real act of travel. In a follow-up post, Andy of 501 Places compared the Google version of sliding past Lake Baikal to his own experience riding the Trans-Siberian Railway 15 years ago.
For those who love to travel, “virtual travel,” whatever that comes to entail in the future, will never replace actual travel. While cool, watching a 40-minute video of Siberian countryside roll past the window of a train is not how my imagination conceives of virtual travel. I love the process of traveling: the planning, the transporting, the navigating, the communicating. Sightseeing, relaxing near the pool, and eating out are just slices of the greater travel pie, and it would be difficult to classify myself as a Traveling Savage if I didn’t love it all. Perhaps people who don’t like traveling will really dig this so-called virtual travel. Will folks even consider themselves to have traveled to the places they watched, like “oh yeah, I’ve been to Vladivostok” after seven minutes on the Google train? Mmm…nah, don’t think so.
Upon reading the Guardian’s article, my first thought was not about virtual travel, but rather how technology is changing the way we travel. I’d had the same thought as I researched an article on Edinburgh’s watering holes and used Google Maps to locate the pubs I visited last summer. The ability to map just about any place in the world and view it at street level is mind-blowing. Let’s take a collective moment and appreciate our existence in a sci-fi novel.
[moment of silence]
Now I’m a gadget geek. I’m an early adopter quick to get new toys. I spend the vast majority of my time in front of a monitor when at work and play. What I’m trying to say is that I love technology. But it can be a bit of a toxic friend when it comes to travel. Here’s why:
- The mystique. The number of travel-focused apps, photo galleries, information sites, and virtual mapping toys available to travelers are nearly irresistible prior to the trip. What’s there to resist? I never would have said this five years ago, but I think there’s value in limiting your exposure to these tools. The line is indistinct, but too much investigation about a destination can drain away some of the mystique and the excitement you feel when you arrive. The last thing you want is a feeling of familiarity when you step off the bus.
- The moment. How many times have you cut short your appreciation of a vista to bust out the digital camera and capture it? Or futzed with the video camera in the midst of a particular hilarious event? In my experience, far too often. Especially when the moment would have been much more satisfying if I’d just taken it at face-value and appreciated the fact it was happening.
- The maintenance. What will you find in many travelers’ packs? Smartphones, laptops, e-readers, and iPods just to name a few. With SIM cards, flash memory, adapters, and chargers, technology is needy, and travelers spend heaps of time searching the local markets and shops for these techie accoutrements. That doesn’t even include the time you spend cussing out your dead phone and ensuring everything is sufficiently charged.
Do you feel technology is wholly good for travel? What technology couldn’t you live without? Which devices or services do wish never existed?
Original photo by The Hamster Factor via Flickr under Creative Commons