Travel has become so much easier now that we have all this technology. Everywhere has wifi, you can use your data for free abroad, Google maps will navigate you around any foreign city without you even having to look up from your phone. It’s so simple.
And yes, having that technology is great. But you lose something at the same time. What might once have been an adventure becomes a pre-packaged trip; a pick and mix of interchangeable identikit elements.
I was reminded of this difference the other day. My long time travel buddy and I were in Amsterdam and he’d been told of a great bar in the North of the city. We tapped the address into Google maps and set off on foot. Three miles into the journey we became doubtful. We seemed to be walking through an unfinished housing estate, and I couldn’t envisage that there’d be a cool place to drink at the end of it. Filled with doubt and nerves, we almost turned back several times. When the paved road ran out and we emerged at a junction filled with gravelly holes, I really thought we’d blown it and were going to have to walk three miles home again. But then, between two lines of low concrete sheds, appeared a gate with the cafe’s name painted over the top. We walked through, and suddenly we were in hippy paradise. Tables in boats, floating man made islands, giant rocking chairs and rope swings.
I sipped my elderflower wine and laughed that I’d ever doubted we would find the place. I also felt a tiny bit sad. The harebrained scheme used to be a mainstay of my travelling adventures. A good harebrained scheme should involve the grain of a good idea swallowed up by a morass of questionable decisions. Essential aspects of the trip should be overlooked, and there should be a general air of danger, and a feeling that the whole enterprise is somewhat held together with spit and glue. This is the kind of travel that makes you feel alive.
To wit, my travel buddy and I once drove around the entire country, 1300 miles, without a map. We took off in the car with two dozen carefully curated mix CDs and a set of directions printed from google maps. We discovered at the first roadworks that the map in the back seat was in fact an A to Z of London. In these pre-smartphone, pre 4G days, we just followed signs for the north until we got back on a recognisable road. The same trip also involved an out of date map of Dundee that managed to send us into a questionable housing estate, a flood on the M90, conditions on the snake pass so bad that he had to take off his tshirt to mop the inside of the windscreen so we could see more than 18 inches in front of us, and some hairy moments in the Scottish highlands.
On another occasion we accidentally ended up sleeping rough in Leipzig train station because we failed to realise our overnight train from Frankfurt to Berlin was in fact a one hour train from Frankfurt to Leipzig, a six hour wait at Leipzig and then a one hour train to Berlin. When McDonalds opened at 5am it brought about a feeling of deliverance like the parting of the Red Sea. Astonishingly that wasn’t even the only time we slept rough on that trip.
A couple of years later, we embarked on a journey to canoe coast to coast across Scotland. Again, the trip was a mixture of careful planning and vague assumptions. We camped on beaches under the astonishing Scottish stars, and hitch-hiked with friendly Irish men to get to the fish and chip shop and the pub for a well-earned drink one evening. No one had a torch so we walked back by starlight. It was wonderful, it was haphazard, and it was a world away from the sterilised world of technology-aided travel that we knew. Wild camping meant no electricity (or showers or toilets for that matter) which meant no phones to guide us if we went wrong. None of us actually knew how to canoe, and it took most of a day for me to convince the others that it did in fact help if you rowed in time (“otherwise why would they do it at the Oxford and Cambridge boat race!”).
In a memorable incident, one of the guys accidentally kicked the other in the face, and it was left up to the medicinal whisky and small first aid kit to patch up the wound. It was unexpectedly 27 degrees, and we all burned and melted in various degrees. We had not anticipated that portage (moving the canoes around lock gates on the canals) would be so gruelling, and hadn’t rented a portage trolley. When it rained, it poured, and we were reduced to bailing out the boats with half a milk bottle. It was glorious.
That’s what you miss in this new world of sanitised travel. Adventure. It doesn’t matter which part of the world you end up in if you’re sitting on your iPhone posting elegant Instagram photos of your perfectly made up face. There’s no adventure. Adventure requires taking a leap, putting your faith in a slightly harebrained scheme. I’m not going to pretend it always works out; sleeping rough in a train station is awful. But we sat up all night and talked about things we’d never talked about before, stone cold sober, huddled in our sleeping bags. And living life with a few more rough edges helps you to realise that the greatest moments aren’t the glamorous ones, they’re the harebrained ones, the gaps in between.