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I Traveled Without a Smartphone. It Didn’t Go as Planned

There’s a Reason the Amish Have Trouble with Recruitment

Luckily, checking out Amsterdam's tulips requires no technology! (Photo taken with an old digital camera, not a smartphone!)

Here’s a question I bet you can answer easily: What is the name of your favorite nearby place to eat, based on your exact location right now? Put your answer in the comments below (first give your location town or neighborhood, and then the name of the beloved dining establishment that’s, say, three or four blocks from you, so the rest of us can use your good advice).

You probably have a good answer because chances are, you know your surroundings pretty well. If I was sitting on my couch at home, I’d definitely know my answer, and I’ll share it in the comments below, too. But what I can’t do is give a good answer for 100 different neighborhoods all over the world, which is what I’ve needed this year on my one-year retirement.

My smartphone can tell me this with relative ease, using any number of dining apps. My trusty phone provides an entire travel team at my fingertips. Along with being my restaurant critic, it’s also my sherpa, navigating me through winding city streets; it’s my accountant, providing currency conversions and budget updates; and it’s my travel agent, keeping our itinerary organized and giving me deals on flights and hotels along our journey.

So why would I purposefully travel without this critical information? Simple — as a dutiful husband, I need to find new and clever ways to initiate pointless arguments with my wife. What better way to create needless frustration than to make an exciting but challenging trip around the world just a little more difficult?

Actually, we decided to go without smartphones or laptops for this five-day leg of our journey because we felt we were becoming too attached to technology, and a cold-turkey break might be relaxing, freeing and eye-opening to a more traditional way to travel. But as Megan turned off her phone during our flight’s descent into Amsterdam, she gave me a look that clearly said “Why am I doing this?,” which I was pretty sure was in reference to the no-tech agreement, and not our marriage.

In my defense, this "No-tech Netherlands" idea was a decision we both agreed on. I reminded my wife of that fact as we realized we had inadvertently shut down our favorite options to help us wind down at night — both our books (on the Kindle) and our favorite shows (on Netflix). Oops. Traveling like it was 1989 was going to be more challenging than I expected.

The first morning, we woke up late because we didn’t have phone alarms. Setting the hotel room alarm clock required an intricate set of button-pushing equivalent to that of a nuclear submarine missile launch. It was obviously far beyond my abilities or patience at bedtime, as evidenced by the ear-splitting alarm going off at approximately 4 a.m. Nevertheless, the next morning we were able to find breakfast without our phones when we saw a bagel shop close to the hotel. We’d been craving bagels for months, as they’re hard to find in most parts of the world. On our trip we spot bagel shops like rainbows, pointing and squealing with childlike glee at every one we come across. This shop was just a block from our temporary home — perfect.

Not perfect. The bagels were terrible, with both the consistency and taste of play-dough. Our first no-tech failure. But I can look back now and see that this shop was ranked 7.3 out of 10 on FourSquare, the app we use to decide on restaurants. That’s not stellar, but probably wouldn’t have been bad enough to stop us from going there. So we can’t blame these bagels from hell on our lack of technology. And overall we ate pretty well in Amsterdam just using our philosophy of eyeballing a mid-range spot that we see is popular with locals, or getting advice from the concierge.

Within a day of our tech cutoff, news of a huge D.C. story broke: Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey. I was dying to know what Twitter was saying about this story as it was breaking, but had to rely on television news from CNN International and BBC News. Instead of jumping from one individual Twitter thought to another, I listened to a detailed breakdown of what had happened and what it all meant. I didn’t get all the information as lightening fast as I would have on Twitter, but it was definitely less schizophrenic. Except Wolf Blitzer was a bit excited, talking in run-on sentences and frothing at the mouth at this latest ratings bonanza of the Trump presidency. But generally no-tech news wasn’t worse, just different.

Probably the most frustrating part of going no-tech was the lack of immediate gratification to obtain generally useless trivia. What’s the population of Amsterdam? How long after the war did Anne Frank’s father live? Were Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin more than just friends? Does Heineken taste so bad because it’s brewed with the tears of orphans? These are all questions I wanted to know but had no immediate answers. At one point I wanted to shout: “Excuse me, fellow restaurant patrons, does anyone have a set of encyclopedias I can borrow?”

The other big travel challenge was unique to our around-the-world trip. We’d been traveling for eight months, so our phones are really our only link to help us reduce our feelings of isolation from our friends and family — we’re not getting telegrams or carrier pigeons, and we can’t just stop by to see our people for a face-to-face chat. So removing the funny texts and Skype phone calls with friends and family just made us feel a little more isolated. Being disconnected isn’t as much fun when those connections are important to your happiness.

Conversely, the most interesting part was that I noticed the random strangers around me more than if my head was buried in a screen. And I developed probably less biased opinions of the places we visited. If you go into a restaurant or museum with the wise crowd of internet raters telling you what parts will be best and what will be worst, your opinions are shaped by those influences. In Amsterdam my opinions were my own — a survey of one. And Megan and I did talk more, we’d debrief on the museum exhibit, discuss the idiosyncrasies of Dutch culture, or just share a laugh at the kooky tourist family talking too loudly at the next table. That made Amsterdam more enjoyable.

What I think I’m supposed to write here is that going without our smartphones made us more “present” to experience the world we are in and to live in the now. I feel like that’s basically the message that everyone tells me about disconnecting. I think this is just something that Gen Xers say to try and distinguish themselves from those all-tech-all-the-time Millennials. Maybe I experienced more, but quite frankly, not using technology just made travel more challenging and less convenient. For some people that is freeing. For me it was … more challenging and less convenient. And I still don’t know how to work the alarm clock.


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