The other day I walked groin first into a poll while touring around Prague’s Old Town. Sadly, this was not the result of me staring up at all the beautiful architecture in what I consider to be the most beautiful man-made city in the world. It happened because my eyes were glued to my phone trying to follow a Google map. (Its directional indicator is one of the most frustrating things in the world.) After the pain subsided a bit, I flashed back to 14 years early when my travel mate and I had been standing not too far from where this poll had attacked me. We were having a heated argument about how to get to our hostel while using the map in our Lonely Planet book, and this all got me to thinking about how travel has changed over the last 20 years and 51 countries I’ve been to. So, lets begin:
Lonely Planet is not the Bible Anymore
When I first started traveling, way back in the 20th century, I wouldn’t have dreamed of going to a country without my Bible (that’s how many travelers referred to their Lonely Planet travel guide books way back then). It had maps, lists of hostels, restaurants and bars with reviews, currency conversation rates, useful sayings, how to get from one town to another and lots of other helpful tips from professional traveler writers. How people managed to get around before them is an unimaginable to me as it must be for young travelers to imagine how people did it before the Internet. And not needing them anymore saves me about 10-30 dollars a country. (If you’re interested in learning more about how Lonely Planet came about and what travel was like before it, check out this article.)
Believe it or not, the first time I traveled abroad, the only email I had access to was AOL, and it was directly attached to one specific computer. This meant that when someone emailed me, there was only one computer in the world I could read it on. While it was great having a way to instantly deliver messages between continents, there was nothing instant about me being able to read them. It would often be weeks between me receiving an email and actually getting to that computer to read it. It was part-21st-century technology and part-telegram-service. Halfway through that year, however, someone told me about Hotmail, whose game changing advance allowed me to check my email from anyplace with Internet. All this said, I did my most important correspondence back then by mail, and I still have and highly value all those hand-written letters, but haven’t mailed one since.
In 2004, after half a dozen trips over six years, it finally happened: I saw another black person in a hostel. I don’t know how to account for the lack of diversity back then, but it applied to all races. It didn’t cause any problems, as I never felt excluded or discriminated against. Regardless, in the last few years, I’ve seen tons of people of all racial backgrounds coming from Western countries, but especially America and England. There have now been several times when I’ve been at hostels where all or the majority of the Americans there were nonwhite. Another change is that more people from Asian and South American countries are traveling.
Facebook has to be distinguished from emails. While both allow people to communicate anytime they want, the ability to passively stalk people makes it a million times easier to keep up with friends than email correspondence. It also allows people to simply post messages like “Anyone in The Balkans next week?” to pull old friends out of the woodwork. (Btw, I’ll be in Balkans next week if anyone is around.) Since it’s invention, I’ve been able to stay in touch and meet up with dozens of friends I’ve met out on my travels. I’m especially appreciative of how Facebook has changed travel since I’m still haunted by the last trip I took before getting it. I had a magical week in Budapest with a Canadian named Janine. At the end of the week, we decided not to exchange emails since we knew it would just fizzle out, all Before Sunset style. But I have no doubt we would have connected on FB and then…who knows?
There’s a lot of places in the world that don’t have a lot of hostels, such as India and parts of SE Asia. However, since the first time I went to SE Asia and specifically countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and even Thailand, hostels have exploded. Vietnam literally went from having one large hostel in Hanoi in 2012 to having several chains of hostel running up and down the country two years later. Similarly, in India I was constantly staying in brand new hostels (less than six months old) in just about every region I went to and they were often the only hostels in a town. In both SE Asia and India the reason for the lack of hostels was clear: getting a private room with AC could easily be done for ten bucks or less. However, some business genius finally realized a lot of young travelers were willing to pay eight bucks to cram into a dorm room with a noisy fan – if you’re lucky – simply for the chance to be more social. Hostels also keep getting more and more fancy/ hotel like in their decor and services offered.
Along with frequently being the only person of color when I first started traveling, there were also plenty of times when I was the only American. Upon returning to America to start college after spending a year in Botswana, I was the only person I knew of who had taken a gap year abroad. Over the years, however, I have met more and more Americans, while traveling and while at home, who consider travel a major passion in their life and who have the resumes to back it up. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the phrase, “I love to travel,” has become meaningless due to over usage on dating profiles.
From Film to Snapchat
One of the things I was most excited to do when I got back from my first overseas trip was to get my filmed developed. You can imagine how nauseatingly ill I became when I found out that of the 11 rolls of film I had used during my year in Botswana, only two were actually able to be developed. With film being at constant risk of being lost or damaged on a trip, it’s easy to see why the arrival of digital cameras was a welcomed improvement, but that still didn’t completely do away with the cliche’d story everyone traveling has likely heard at least once: Someone’s trip is just days from ending and their camera – along with all their photos – is stolen. In my case, not five minutes after I had pulled into my driveway, someone stole my phone out of my car as I was bringing in my luggage.
I think I’m not alone in saying that at a certain point in my trips, my collection of perfectly preserved memories becomes my most valuable possession. However, starting with burning pictures to CD and then cloud storage, this issue has been largely handled, assuming I bother up regularly upload my pictures. Add to this Instagram and Snapchat and it’s virtually impossible these days to come away from a trip without at least a few great pictures to keep as a reminder. And with Snapchat, I’ve been able to show friends back home aspects of travel I would have never thought to document before like the chaos that ensues when a long haul bus pulls into a bus stop and gets swarmed with people selling anything from water to slicing off hunks of freshly roasted pig to gum. “Chickle, chickle, chickle!”
Whats in the Bags
As it turns out, the first time I ever saw another black person at a hostel, back in 2004, was also the first time I saw someone traveling with a digital camera and laptop. Everyone in the hostel looked at him like he was crazy. Fast forward a couple of years and both items where ubiquitous, and a few years after that, smart phones joined the list.
Ease of Travel
Hop-on Hop-off bus passes, travel agents, packaged tours, backpacker districts, WiFi and numerous other things makes traveling today easier than it has every been before and the reason for this is that so many people have traveled some place before you did. One of the things that should convince anyone that people in developing countries aren’t poor because of a lack of hard work or good ideas is watching how quickly people in these countries will accommodate travelers (see the spread of hostels in Vietnam). Combine this with the increasing popularity of travel and you end up with a lot of services that make travel, even in developing countries, effortless and thoughtless. If a person has the cash, they can travel like a backpacker but not have to figure out any logistics or solve any of the problems that pop up when trying to navigate a foreign country on your own.
It used to be that when I walked into a hostel that my top priority was, once I had my bags in a relatively secure location – and sometimes before – to find a beer, a place to sit and someone to talk to. This was normally as easy as one-two-three. Now the first question I ask is, “What’s your WiFi password?” I have been to many busy hostels that were silent as everyone in the common areas had their face in a screen. Luckily, some of the countries I travel to have frequent blackouts that force people to socialize with people right in front of them.
I know, another change related to technology… but it used to be that when I rolled into a town, my travel companions and I would try to get off the bus and into a taxi as quickly as possible, especially if the bus was full of other backpackers. Why did we do this? Well, it was kind of like our own little version of the Amazing Race, and we needed to beat them to the hostel we wanted to stay at in case it was almost full. Despite these heroic efforts, there were more than a few times when the only hostel in town was booked and this could sometimes mean spending the night on the streets hoping a bed would open up the next morning, running all over town looking for another hostel, or sucking it up and paying for a proper hotel. Today you can book ahead, arrive in the dead of night and rest assured you’ll have a bed to sleep in. While this might be me channeling my old man, but I kind of miss the old ways. It made travel more adventurous and rewarded people who had hustle, think quick and who don’t like to plan ahead, like me. However, the more I come to understand my male privilege, the more I can appreciate this as being a positive development since it means a woman doesn’t have to show up to a town she doesn’t know at night and travel all over looking for a place she feels comfortable staying.
The Type of People Who Travel Is Different
As something becomes more common we tend to appreciate it less. While living in Africa, I could effortlessly go weeks without meeting another Westerner. The same could have easily been true in India, as well, with just a little effort on my part. That said, many other places I’ve been to are so overrun with travelers, a person could be forgiven if they didn’t know what country they were in. As travel has become easier, it has also become more popular, which has resulted in people who otherwise wouldn’t (and in some cases, shouldn’t) travel to do so. Largely this has been to the detriment of other people’s travel experience as with these newly embolden travelers comes an ever greater demand for comfort and familiarity because many of these travelers aren’t out to experience a new culture and adapt to new surroundings; they’re out for some good selfies, a lot of boozing and an intense focus on hooking up all to make their trip look something similar to EuroTrip or EuroTrip 3. (EuroTrip 2 was surprisingly well-written and moving.)
Western Union, Travelers’ Checks, ATM’s and Uber
If you’ve never had to go on a trip while bringing all your money with you on your person or in your luggage, you can thank the fact that ATMs are everywhere and the cards usually work internationally. My year in Africa saw me having to hide a year’s worth of money (only about 1200 bucks) in the form of traveler’s checks, which is to say nothing of having to hang on to my return ticket. One time I nearly missed a bus because a banker didn’t believe my counter signature on my travelers check was really mine. I was reminded by all this when I went to Myanmar a couple of years ago and had to bring all my money for the month with me because ATMs were said to be nonexistent. However, that was already changing and a person can pretty easily use a bank in the country now to get cash. Add to this that I can use apps like Uber and other things that already have my banking info, and even if I lost my wallet I could still book hotels, plane tickets and get around town.
Places are Disappearing and Emerging
“Go to Bocas del Torro,” was my top advice to anyone going to Panama in the years following my 2007 visit. It was one of those Utopian backpacking spots with an amazing, friendly small town, secluded beaches, tons of natural beauty and truly one-of-a-kind bars. Just four years later it was all gone. Not because it had fallen into the ocean or into disrepair; it was quite the opposite. It had built up so much it was not nearly as budget friendly and was now overrun with tourists and construction sites.
It is perhaps the biggest irony of traveling: Travelers will kill the places they love. Word-of-mouth and pictures-for-the-eyes go a long way in the travel community. Enough of either will eventually result in hordes of people venturing under ever more comfortable conditions to previously unknown locations. That said, while more than a few places I’ve come to love no longer retain much of what I loved about them, like Vang Vien, home of infamous tubing river in Laos, I also know this world is big, and full of new wonders for the next generation of backpackers who are willing to separate from the herd and take “The Road Not Traveled.” Keep in mind, according to the founders of Lonely Planet, Afghanistan was a hot spot for travelers in the early 70’s while Bali and Thailand were barely on the map.