The difference between travelling in the past and present
I’m a Gen X baby and we are the best generation ever, fact. Okay, so our parents divorced, our dads drunk drove with us in the back- not a seat belt in sight, our mums worked all the time so the whole latchkey kids thing was a bit rubbish. But the silver lining was it meant we could pretty much do anything we pleased. We could play outside with our friends for days on end without our parents even noticing. It also meant older siblings tortured us, with no parents to come to our rescue.
However, we grew up in the 80’s so we single-handedly destroyed the ozone layer with the volume of hairspray we used. Our teeth are a bit false now due to the amount of wham bars we ate but we had the best fashion- leg-warmers, neo fingerless gloves and lace in our hair. We ate egg and watercress sandwiches- God damn it. A time when comedians could say anything they liked as a joke and was taken as one and ‘woke’ was something you did in the mornings.
We raved in the nineties when everyone was loved up and things got a little bit sweaty and gurney. We took a lot of drugs and probably still do on the odd occasion. We experienced electronic music first and closed our eyes in euphoria, rushing our tits off to tunes in a laser-beamed club. Every weekend I left my flyer covered walled flat on Friday night to return on Monday morning- straight to work, sleep deprived but no comedown in sight. However, I did wear bright orange plastic baggy trousers with string coming from every pocket (of which there were many) and some electrical, glow in the dark, skin tight t-shirts from ‘Cyberdog’! Thank Jesus Christ there is no evidence of that floating around in cyberspace for all and sundry to see.
We were there at the beginning of the internet which makes us more tech-savvy than the baby boomers before us but lucky enough to escape being a self-obsessed millennial. Our first computer game involved a dot bouncing around the TV screen which was supposed to represent tennis somehow.
So now I will get to the point… The rise of the world wide web has revolutionised travel. I recently spoke to an 18-year-old gap year kid whilst volunteering in Kenya and described my first backpacking experience across Asia which was nearly two decades before she was born (I was only 17 at the time- I’m not that old). I explained that yes I travelled not Before Christ (BC) but Before the Internet (BI). Her forehead frowned in confusion. To reiterate, this meant I travelled before GPS, before email, before digital cameras, before Myspace (she didn’t know that either) and ultimately before mobile phones. I continued… I was armed with the bible- ‘South East Asia on a Shoestring’ Lonely Planet guide, and again I clarified what this was (making me reminisce, feeling melancholy that she would never know its importance). Then I told her on my flight out to Delhi in 1992 I sat at the back of the plane and chain smoked for the entire journey. Her jaw dropped, I was quite enjoying messing with her head.
The internet and mobile phones have made travelling ten times easier than it was back then. The first major difference being that you no longer have to endure a spinal injury or hernia wrestling with a one tonne backpack, then walking like Mr Universe pulling a car. The lack of a such a small device meant we had to carry guide books, reading books, maps, CD’s, a torch, camera film, photos, an alarm clock, travellers cheques, playing cards and a compact backgammon/chess set. Again I had to explain to my young friend what most of those things were (I understand the traveller’s cheque thing but an alarm clock- come on).
I went onto describe excitedly about buying the worst quality pirate and bootleg CD’s on the Kho San Road in Thailand- it was potluck what you actually got to listen to, once back in your sweaty, open topped room. Then for our evening entertainment we’d find a video bar to watch ‘Wayne’s World’ on an equally bad quality VHS for film night. Netflix what? Calling home was a luxury because it cost a kidney having to buy an international phone card not knowing if you would get through because of the dodgy connection or if anyone would actually be home when you called. It would be every three to four months before I would call home which my volunteering teen found mind boggling having family tracking on her phone still attached to her umbilical cord. Furthermore, I’d take just one photo, I repeated ONE photo of a sunset, a volcano, or one of the seven wonders of the world not knowing if it was in focus, or if my head was chopped off and no doubt having red eye until I got the film processed which could have been months down the line due to not wanting to carry more in your already elephant weight backpack.
After educating my bewildered volunteer friend what an American Express traveller cheque was, I continued recollecting about the laborious task of going to a bank in India and it taking three hours to cash a cheque. I’d watch a huge bank ledger book being passed to 7 different bank clerks (a little bell being rung every time the book needed to be passed by a small child to the next clerk) who all wrote down their own little responsibility to exchange the cash.
Also, having to write post cards or blue airmail letters then posting them home taking a month to get there. I’d inform my friends and family which big city I would be travelling to in the following month so they could send a responding letter to that town’s Post office. I recall those trips to the ‘Post Restante’ vividly every one to two months. I wouldn’t be able to sleep due to the excitement, trying to manifest hundreds of letters piled high, waiting. Passport at the ready, queuing impatiently, eyes bulging at the little cubbyhole marked ‘S’ to see if there were piles of correspondence. I’d rush back to the backpacker’s hostel to read my 15 glorious letters. These would be the rare moments I would feel homesick, even though the news was already 2 months old. Then I’d start scribblings down my last month’s adventures, replying to every single person, saying exactly the same thing, no copy and paste in those days.
Don’t get me wrong I’m not trying to romanticise travel back then because it was really draining. Attempting to fathom how to read a map is definitely overrated. When travelling through Asia it was tiresome when a bus dumped me in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. I’d just had to wait, praying that another bus would come along in the next day or two. Then the entire village coming out to stare at me, at arm’s length for the seven, long continuous hours, all manically fixated on the white people, they’d never seen before. Being stared at, in close proximity is not fun for a long period of time I can tell you.
Or in South America taking your life into your own hands when climbing volcanoes with one of the locals- proceeding to develop severe altitude sickness going up too fast, due to him not even thinking that westerners might have issues. Or when arriving in a new town searching an entire morning for a decent hotel at minuscule prices because there was no booking.com. All that time wasted in the wrong queue for bus or train tickets and finally reaching the front only to find you’re still in the wrong queue and told to go back to the first line.
However, there is a little sadistic part of me that feels very fortunate to have experienced travel like that, all those decades ago.
True, it was harder but I felt like a tiny, blonde David Attenborough, exploring undiscovered treasures, untouched by tourism. A time before you could climb to the top of Ayres rock. A time when there was tragically no need to cap the tourist capacity at Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat. A time before the traffic jam on Everest. Back in the day our trip advisor was word of mouth. Our WhatsApp was interacting with crazies from around the globe. Our gaming was playing a game of cards or backgammon with an actual living soul. I was lucky enough to visit San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia. I didn’t get to meet Thomas McFadden the auto-biographer of ‘Marching Powder’ but I did get shown around the prison by a notorious drug lord, my security- a Russian murderer and a Bolivian political assassin. There was a mini society within those walls where the prisoners had jobs to earn money, from cleaner to carpenter. There was a plethora of shops and different restaurants inside from Chinese to Italian, a well-established basketball team and not forgetting their very own profitable cocaine factory. I also experienced the most colourful, magical underwater world of snorkelling off Koh Nang Yuan, Thailand- I’ve yet to see coral or fish to compare on any of my travels.
I’m not knocking the fact that now I can go into a hotel in some part of the world and they’ll contact a tour guide or someone who can buy my bus ticket- job done! There’s a tourist infrastructure all ready and waiting for me at my fingertips. But there is something about the unadulterated adventure of not knowing what will happen next- what crazy, ‘no one will ever believe me’ memory that was made, or the unexpected dangerous ‘thank God I’m alive’ situation I got yourself into.
Tourism sometimes makes my trip feel sanitised, repetitive and uninspired. For example, when you go on safari in Africa and there’s 40 other jeeps speeding ahead to get a glimpse to the rarely seen leopard. Or going to see the gentle giant whale sharks in the Philippines to discover 50 other people clambering onto boats to swim with them too and then finding out they’ve changed their migration pattern because they get fed in that particular spot. Then there’s the huge gaping hole of guilt for what’ you’ve just done, not researching enough to make sure your experiencing responsible and sustainable tourism.
We can’t stop the progression of tourism, even now after COVID the masses are clearly trying to forget the time we couldn’t. The most significant realisation of the rise of tourism happened to me quite early on, in India. I travelled to Goa in 1992 and lived with a family for two months on the Calangute Baga road. I returned only 3 years later to discover the same road had been transformed into a bustling breeding ground of shops, hotels and restaurants. It took me over an hour to find that same family’s house and it wasn’t like I didn’t know the area. I was shocked at the development but knew it was inevitable.
But don’t panic not all is lost, there are still parts of the world that feel untouched. I’m currently travelling through Western Tanzania and I feel like that intrepid explorer again entering un-chartered waters. I don’t see Mzungos (white people) for days, the internet is as rare as the Migaloo- an albino humpbacked whale and I can only find out how to travel to my next destination through locals. Staying in a camping resort with its very own Zebra named ‘Zebastian’ who clearly didn’t like me and chased me every time I stepped out of my room. Every mode of transport is a gamble. Every 12-hour bus journey has been 16 with a burst tyre here or a jack-knifed lorry stuck in mud there. I took a 2-day train journey in a compartment with literally someone’s house in it and two screaming children. Arriving 5 hours too late for my connecting bus and then having to catch the next bus at 5am in the morning, only to discover I’d been told the wrong bus station and having to race 10km across town in a tuk tuk. Thankfully I caught that bus purely because the buses here never leave on time. I’m laughing because it is hard, I can lose my shit and sometimes I’m scared but it makes me feel alive.
On the plus side some countries are now safer to travel due to tourism. I had the privilege of travelling to Columbia in 2008, the start of the tourism boom which was impossible a few years before. But for me the most depressing thing of all that has changed travel by our extended hand- called the mobile phone, is that meeting and chatting to people has become a lost art form. I have always travelled solo which means I have always met plenty of brilliant, fascinating, diverse people from faraway places because basically I had to and that’s what solo travellers do. I can remember in India taking a book with me to restaurants on the nights where I just wanted to be alone, trying to avoid the inevitable conversation “Where are you from? Where have you been? Do you fancy a chillum?”.
But sadly when I enter the chill out area of a hostel nowadays everyone is scrolling- not even bothering to look up from their devices. Ironically, social media has appeared to have made people more insular. But there is one bonus surrounding mobile phones and the generation of selfie makers. I sometimes feel like primatologist Jane Goodall observing chimpanzees watching tourists who are trying to take that ultimate Instagram pic… for hours. I can leave, find an underwater cave, visit an exquisite market, and abseil down a waterfall and they’re still at it by the time I return.
So what next? Now that we live in a world where we ridiculously need a visa to work in Europe maybe space travel is the next best thing with the first space hotel set to open in 2027. However, I think I’ll keep my head in the clouds and my feet firmly on the ground because my favourite thing to do when I’m in the middle of nowhere is looking up at the thousands of brightly shinning stars, not surface them.
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If you want to read more of my travel blogs links below
Or you can read excerpts from my book ‘Samba, sex and self-loathing’
Map reader- Leah Kelley
Sweets- Polina Tankilevitch
Ghetto blaster- Pixabay
Rave- Harrison Haines
Old computer- Bert
Person with backpack- Lalu Fatoni
Camera film- BalÃ¡zs Benjamin
Letters- Ylanite koppens
Machu Picchu- Errin Casano
Ankor Wat- Daniel Lazarov
Chess players- Jose Vasquez
Coral and fish- Kal Rivero
Whale shark- Emma Li
Tourist looking up- Tom Wilton
Selfie girls- Rodnae Productions
Scrolling on phones- Fauxels
Space woman- Mikhail Nilov