Ten hours into our Felucca ride along The Nile River, my mind no longer raced with thoughts from back home. It was now day five of our two week trip through Egypt and I had finally accepted that checking my email was out of the question. Although I had paid an added fee for international Blackberry service during my trip, finding any sort of signal seemed hopeless at this point. Upon first arriving to Cairo and realizing this not only frustrated me but had also instilled feelings of nervousness as I contemplated how I would survive without any contact with the outside world.
The first few days of our trip I found it hard not to text friends from home, send pictures to my family or even tweet a photo of the Pyramids, but once I accepted my fate I ended up having a much more meaningful and reflective personal journey. Ironically, two weeks after returning to New York, the violent protests broke out in Egypt, thus resulting in their president entirely shutting off their internet and cell service. After seeing all this take place from the comfortable couch in my apartment, I started putting things into perspective. How could I even consider complaining about not being able to make an unnecessary phone call while an entire nation had no choice but to be disconnected from the rest of the world?
This is not the first time I’ve struggled with a lack of technology during my travels. The same thing happened during my trips to South America and Europe. Each experience began with frustration but ultimately ended just as my Egypt trip had – feeling a comforting sense of freedom from not being permanently attached to my computer. It’s also a good reminder that the rest of the world does manage to service without a constant internet connection.
However, since starting my own travel blog, I’ve realized that technology is a huge part of connecting with readers. Recent trips to Chile and Mexico left me constantly fearful that I would not be able to tweet pictures or publish my articles fast enough. These experiences have made me better understand the need to find balance between utilizing technology and social media outlets while still living in the moment and taking mental pictures in your mind. It still seems strange to me when I see travelers tweeting about what they are doing every step of the way instead of actively living in the moment.
Here are five strategies for finding balance I now use whenever I travel:
Opt for a Pay-as-you-Go Phone
This is a challenge for any traveler, not just those in the travel or media industries. One way to have some sort of balance is to opt for a pay-as-you go phone from the local country you are visiting rather than upgrading your cell service to an international plan. When I studied in London during college I actually preferred having this sort of phone because I lost the temptation to chat with friends for extended amounts of time and instead walked outside and explored the city solo. Unlike most cell plans in the United States, pay-as-you go phones are just as their name suggests. You pay for a certain amount of minutes and when they run up you simply “top up” as Londoners call it. This way, you have a bare-bones phone that will help you in emergencies without taking over your life.
Determine a Time and Place
Another technique for finding balance is blocking off an hour a day just for technology. Instead of tweeting about standing in front of the Eiffel Tower or meeting a cute Italian waiter, enjoy the moment as it happens and reserve tweeting for a more appropriate time. All the stopping and texting one does in a day probably translates to more than an hour per day, meaning that you could have seen one more monument or had two more cocktails at the bar. When you dedicate a certain time each day to connect with people from back home, you get more accomplished in a shorter time span and you won’t stress out about not having enough time to explore the city.
Meet New Friends
Whether you are traveling solo or with friends, there is no reason why you can’t make new friends. Hostels are an ideal place to meet travelers from around the world and explore the city together. Some of my best friends are people I met during my trips abroad. Even if you never see them again, you will always have a memorable experience that you share. Another way to make friends is to go to local bars and coffee shops rather than sticking to touristy places. If you are naturally shy, use this opportunity to break out of your comfort zone and strike up a conversation with a local. If you are traveling to a country that does not speak English, make the most of the situation and practice the local language. I’ve found that after a drink or two, attempting to speak a different language somehow feels easier, even if it’s just the liquid courage talking.
Forget Foursquare and reserve your iPhone map service as a last resort. Instead of mapping out your day’s walking plan, simply walk outside and see where your feet take you. A lot of times I find myself hesitant to ignore my map and wander aimlessly, but once I allow myself to get lost I feel more like a local despite not having the slightest clue how to get back home. Another benefit to walking without a purpose is that more times than not, you find little coffee shops and restaurants that are so off-the-beaten path that you won’t even recognize the touristy parts of the city anymore.
Explore Your Other Interests
For me, the most beneficial thing about disconnecting with the outside world for a few days in having the excuse to rediscover a passion of mine that I often brush aside to make room for “more important” tasks. For example, I do some of my best fiction and poetry writing when I travel. Part of this is obviously due to feelings of inspiration I find from exploring new destinations but I believe it is also because I am not burdened by having to answer emails or make phone calls. Spending a few minutes alone each day does wonders for your mental health.
Megan Eileen is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Bohemian Trails, an online travel magazine focusing on art, culture and off-the-beaten path destinations. She is also a freelance writer and social media specialist based in New York City.