This weekend, I bought a big, new suitcase, which is currently standing impatiently in my home office, waiting for me to take it to India in January. This will be my fifth visit to the Subcontinent, and the first in which I bring a group of college students to study and travel for a month.
Many years ago, I, too, was a 20-something student, heading off to a foreign and distant land to study. Like the students I’ll be taking to India, I was an inexperienced traveler. Like my current students, I was excited, eager, a little naïve, and uncertain what I would encounter. But there was a fundamental difference between my international journey back in 1971, and the one my students will be taking next month. Back then, when you went away, you really went away.
These days, being overseas means being in continual and easy contact with everyone back home. You can call from your hotel and reach your party in a second. You can see their faces on Skype and chat as if they were in the same room. You can email on a daily basis and post pictures of your trip on Instagram. Not to mention that you also have ready access to funds through credit cards and ATMs. If you have a problem, you can get quick and convenient help. And you never wonder what is going on back home, because people are constantly posting it on Facebook.
One of the things I loved about traveling the world—as I did for many years in the 70’s and 80’s—was the sense of being totally on my own. It wasn’t as if I never got letters. They came, irregularly, every few weeks or so. And I could make a call—if I went down to the phone office, placed the call, and waited on a wooden bench in a spartan lobby for it to go through, between eight and twenty hours later. It wasn’t impossible to contact the folks back home, it was just darn hard.
Because I couldn’t rely on the people and services I was used to, I had to manage everything myself, and I had to use what I had on hand. When I was low on cash, I stayed in ratty hotels and ate fruit and yogurt from street vendors. When I got homesick, I made friends wherever I happened to be. When I was in dicey situations—and I managed to end up in quite a few of them—I figured out a way through them alone. It was terrifying, but it was also exhilarating, and it taught me a kind of self-sufficiency I would never have had if I’d been sending emails home every evening.
I’m not suggesting my students shouldn't bring tablets and laptops and stay in touch with people back home. These days, I do, too. Whenever I'm away, I email my husband every day, and we Skype when we have the chance. I post to Facebook, and I blog. The technology exists now, and there's no reason not to use it.
It’s just that I think 21st-century travelers are missing out on something. On a bit of the adventure, the challenge, the opportunity to see what kind of stuff you're made of when your normal life is stripped away. With all we've gained—convenience, ease, safety—we've lost something too. We can no longer know what it is to be a stranger in a strange land. We've lost the thrill of being a long way from home.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...