When looking at Instagram or Facebook these days, you won’t be scrolling long before you’re inundated with stunning holiday “snaps,” self-conscious selfies, and image after image of people on the “perfect” holiday, in the perfect place, having the perfect vacation. Gosh, how times have changed!
When I first set out traveling, the internet didn’t really exist, at least not in the way we use it today. Planning and managing your travels then was unrecognizable from the current way of doing things. I poured over piles of printed travel brochures, paged through my old school Atlas, devoured well-thumbed guide books borrowed from friends, relatives, and neighbors, phoned foreign embassies to get visa information, spent hours in travel agents’ offices discussing flights, routes, and dates, all before finally settling on a destination and rough itinerary.
Overseas travel was a rite of passage for Australians in my generation; I was 21 and off to Africa on my own. My parents took me to the airport, waved me off at the departure gate, and informed me they’d be back to pick me up in a couple of months. What was supposed to be just a few months turned into a lifelong adventure. When I next saw my parents a year later, it was only for a few weeks, before they were dropping me back at the airport to head off again.
The internet and the modern technology it has spawned, have rendered travel unrecognizable from my youth. Travel used to mean leaving the familiar behind and traveling into the unknown. Nowadays, we no longer need to leave the familiar and, with a few quick Google searches, the unknown has become familiar, before you’ve even left home.
Many travelers over the age of 40 will remember lugging around cameras on their travels that actually used film! In far-flung places, you’d ration your photos, in case you ran out and couldn’t find more. You didn’t take hundreds of photos of everything and everyone, this was the pre-digital era after all, and you knew you’d have to pay to get all those photos developed when you got home. This was the days before cell phone selfies when you had to ask a friendly-looking passerby to take a photo of you in front of some particularly fetching monument or site, and whatever picture they took you were stuck with, there was no filter to add that extra touch of glamor!
Before the internet, we traveled in our own way. Perhaps we missed out on visiting or seeing some of those places now deemed Instagram worthy, but there’s a good chance our experiences were more authentic. Travel was a daily adventure. It was impulsive and spontaneous. You carried maps you opened, studied, and refolded again, often folding and unfolding them so many times they were in pieces by the end of your trip.
I hitchhiked my way around southern Africa in my early 20s, I often had no idea where I’d sleep or what I’d eat; life was an unplanned adventure. I changed my plans almost on a daily basis, depending on information picked up from fellow travelers I’d met along the way, making temporary alliances and traveling together with new acquaintances for days or weeks at a time, if they were headed where I wanted to go. I once met a New Zealander in a campsite in Zimbabwe and decided to hitch with him to Victoria Falls. We stood for what seemed like hours by the side of the road before someone finally pulled over and offered us a ride. Our Good Samaritan turned out to be both very drunk and a very bad driver! Unfortunately, we’d told him where we were headed, but after he’d reached into the back seat for yet another beer as he swerved dangerously around a few hairpin bends on the wrong side of the road, my travel buddy and I started making panicked semaphore signals to one another with our eyes and miming to one another that we needed to get out of the car ASAP. We convinced the driver to stop at a nearby town.
Unfortunately, the town was located on the top of a mountain, a mile off the main road and our drunken chauffeur kindly decided to drop us at the top of the mountain. After waiting for the coast to clear, we had to trudge all the way back down to the main road and stand waiting in the hot African sun for another ride to appear. I would be lying if I said there weren’t times like that when I felt a little unsafe, but I do miss the adventure and great unknown of traveling back then.
Communication With Home
Something else I miss about those internet-free travels is that in those days, there was no pressure to be in constant contact with people. Nowadays, as soon as most travelers arrive at their hotel, the first words out of their mouths are “what’s the Wi-Fi password.” When I was traveling, choosing and writing postcards to send home was an important communication ritual. I made regular trips to local post offices to send them and relied on poste restante for much of my communications from home. When I could find a working telephone booth, I made the occasional collect call to my parents, just to let them know where I was, and that I was still alive.
Don’t get me wrong, with my own children living far from home now, on different continents, I’m delighted to be able to talk to them, almost daily, by phone or WhatsApp. But I do sometimes miss being incommunicado, especially if I am on holiday and some work-related phone call or email intrudes!
In this day and age, it’s easy when traveling to escape onto your phone, to avoid the possible awkwardness of being on your own. Traveling in the days when you didn’t have technology at your fingertips, however, meant you had to work on your social skills and make the effort to create connections. There was no hiding behind your phone. You had to talk to and make friends with strangers.
The friendships I made were an important part of my travels. For years afterward, I kept in touch with people from all over the world. I had a string of pen pals I kept in touch with: a station hand on vast cattle property in outback Australia, a German au pair I met in a Sydney swimming pool, a retired Indian physicist I met on a Himalayan mountain who told me I reminded him of his deceased daughter, and an American girl on a college exchange program who I’m still in touch with 30 years later. There was something about travel in a pre-internet era that taught you to better connect with strangers.
Places To Stay
Backpacking around Africa in the ‘90s was a different life. With no Tripadvisor or Airbnb, finding accommodations was by word of mouth, guesswork, or by thumbing through travel guides and hoping the places mentioned were still operational by the time you got there. I slept in hostels, campsites, and even occasionally in the homes of people who gave me lifts. I once spent two weeks living with a family I met on a sleeper train in Zimbabwe and another time stayed with a family I met on a long distance bus journey in India. Most of my experiences were fantastic, and even the dumps and hovels made for a good story afterward. I dined out for years on the story of the time I’d turned out the lights in my hotel room in Nepal only to find that within minutes, the floor and bed were a sea of cockroaches!
When I first started traveling, almost 30 years ago, I went alone. Not because it was trendy or to “find myself,” but simply because I just didn’t have anyone to come with me. Travel without the security blanket of mobile phones, Tripadvisor, Google maps, Airbnb, and the like, made me a more independent and adventurous traveler and person, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, I met my husband when I was standing beside a dusty African road hitching a lift, and he stopped to pick me up!