I HADN’T EATEN FOR 15 HOURS, my body clock was totally out of sync, and I had the equivalent of $4.60 to my name, the bills dense with the humidity of early monsoon season. The night was empty as I skirted puddles through the winding Southeast Asian streets in search of an ATM or register that would accept any of my foreign cards. After the fourth decline I stalled, finally at that crest where defeat and panic meet laughter. I was gently encased in a hostel-lent umbrella but for the steady, heavy raindrops that shattered on contact with the ground, shrapnel scattering indiscriminately, coating my legs with a sheen like sweat.
How could I have made such an amateur move to show up in a new country without cash?
Travel in 2014 brings with it its own set of complexities. For every app, every wifi connection, every shortcut that makes our journeys more seamless, there are as many things that can go wrong. This overexposure and instant access to information makes us dangerously cavalier, and these luxuries can dull our wits if we let them, not to mention replace the cultural experience we should be navigating, not Siri. We can, and should, use these conveniences to our advantage as travelers, but with them comes the responsibility to also retain the savvy of travelers past.
My borrowed umbrella began to cave from the assault above and I regrouped, letting any impending panic pass, the rhythmic rain a metronome steadying me. Ready to accept defeat and handle it all in the morning, I stood squinting, trying to find my bearings. The heavy rain cast a haze over signs and storefronts. I didn’t recognize anything.
I’ve traveled four continents and made many of those treks solo, and yet here I was in the middle of an alien city having allowed a dangerous mix of frenzy, panic, and misplaced confidence get me hopelessly lost. Newly minted backpackers are absolute machines with their money belts and travelers’ cheques and carefully organized itineraries, but when you slip into a comfortable lifestyle of travel, you can get lazy and cocky. With so many issues iPhone-solvable, it’s that one thing wifi can’t fix that’s bound to chase you down — and smartphones, online check-in, and foreign language apps can’t do away with the travel faux pas that have been there all along.
Hours earlier, I’d rushed to my gate at Incheon International and realized how little cash I had on me. I scanned the terminal and didn’t see any ATMs in my immediate line of sight, so reassured myself that there’s always one on the other side. Plus, even though I was arriving late, the buses would probably still be running, and those should be super cheap. I’d deal with currency later.
Now it was later, and it was a $40 cab ride and a cash-payment-on-check-in policy at the hostel. I balanced the umbrella with my neck, reaching for the printed map in my back pocket to find my way, but the ink splintered outwards in veins as the paper grew gummy. It was then that I heard the crash of a security gate thrown open, meeting its latch with a click.
Outlines stood silhouetted in the glow of the storefront, hunched and waving animatedly, summoning. I instinctively ran for cover, now standing at the edge of this shop filled with huge canvas bags of onions and potatoes and rice with the vertical rain at my back, licking at my heels, steam lifting off the front of my body and fleeing toward the dry warmth inside.
It bothered me, briefly, that in 21st-century travel being smart often means being suspicious of others’ kindnesses. But trust is part of navigating new cultures. We can forget that when we’re used to the protective filter of our iPhone screen.
The woman shuffled out of sight, the man stood nearby, eying me quizzically but kindly. His face was tanned and distorted by wrinkles, crevices intensified with each smile. She returned with three bowls of soup and set them down, fixing her stare on me. I’ve been in Asia long enough to understand this gesture was not a suggestion.
So we ate in silence, only the slurps of broth drowning out the ambient rain. I began to prepare my speech in the Korean I’d remembered before realizing with terrific terror that I’d been in Taiwan for hours now, and didn’t know a word of Mandarin — another thing I’d meant to not let happen. As if understanding my exhausted cultural faux pas, he took the lead instead.
The word itself sang, the reverent commonality of language piercing the silence we’d respected for many minutes now. Trying to mask my discouragement, I carefully unfolded the damp seams of paper. The map was ruined, but the address of my hostel was still scrawled at the top. He gave a short grunt, showed his wife and the two laughed.
“Days [holding up six fingers and gesturing ‘back, ago’ with his arms]. Germans. Here [pointing to hostel address]. In rain, too.”
I smiled and bent to collect my battle-scarred umbrella, now a heap of wet nylon gathered on the sidewalk. As my gaze pulled up it focused on two helmets the old man clutched with either hand, one held out for me.
As the old man’s scooter careened through the cobblestone alleyways, I struggled to strike a balance on the back, holding out the umbrella like Mary Poppins ready to take flight, shielding us, in relative vain, from the immovable mist. I’ll never know how he was able to navigate through the clouded, scratched visor, but we arrived at my hostel in no time, a few other travelers sharing a cigarette in the safety of the doorframe.
Sure enough, that would not be the last time I’d ride a scooter in the rain that week.
I still had no money. But thanks to 21st-century travel, I had options. Wiping off my weather-worn phone on my shorts, I crowd-sourced the hostel’s internet password from those still lounging around and placed a call over Skype to the 24-hour number on my credit card. Within minutes, I was taken care of, equipped with a plan and able to exhale. I joined my fellow backpackers huddled over half-full bottles of 7-11 wine and room-temperature microbrews, any hint of worry evaporated by the time my glass was full, and let the banter of late-night hostel conversation wash over me.
The modern conveniences of travel are incredible, and they certainly lower the barrier to entry to the backpacker world. The problem-solving prowess of travelers-past have been rendered obsolete as long as you have a wifi connection. But do these luxuries breed a laissez-faire attitude that results in us overlooking fundamental aspects to our travel? It didn’t even occur to me to check if I was visa-exempt until I was furiously Googling while in line at border control to Taiwan. It’s like knowing that we have easy answers in our fingertips prevents us from properly preparing for our stay in an area that actually is very foreign. So we freeze when we arrive and wind up not fully embracing the culture. The world is smaller and more accessible than ever, but is part of the genuineness of travel and respect for our destinations lost in the bastions of safety nets?
We probably will never reclaim the culture of backpacking from the pre-Smartphone days. I remember my mother’s own stories of backpacking Europe: the companionship bred from the isolation of travel, the focus on the simple life as you learned the basics of each culture upon arrival and through the duration of your stay, slowly, steadily and organically. Simple mistakes were avoidable because by nature, you were more aware. Life didn’t move at the pace it does now – for better or for worse. Now, we click away on iPads as imported Spanish wine flows into paper cups, speaking accented-English somewhere in Southeast Asia; effortless and dreamy conversation among strangers stalled by texts from home; days exploring cities marred by a constant search for Wifi, someone always needing to charge their phone. We travel to be free and immerse ourselves in a new place, but nowadays we’re all always anchored to somewhere else.
This evolution isn’t all a bad thing. The immense conveniences we’re afforded in our generation of travel are staggering and open up a truly unlimited number of opportunities. We can see and do so much more than ever before, change our plans at a moment’s notice and, as I now understand very well, the resolution to whatever your current predicament could be is often just a wifi connection away. But we mustn’t lose the savoir-faire of what it means to truly travel untethered, to step back from our own everyday modernity and experience the world without a foreign credit card and an Instagram filter.
This post originally appeared on Matador Network.
Cover photo credit: Les Taylor