Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Online Traveler

Sometimes I think I spend too much of my time these days online. Having a laptop with so much free wifi around is a pretty strong temptation. I see travelers everywhere glued to instant messenger and Facebook. Back when I didn't have a netbook, I tried very hard not to be one of those people. I didn't want to spend all my time in a foreign country browsing the same websites and doing the same things online that I'd do at home.

But my line of thinking has started to shift a little bit. I woke this morning in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, and checked my email and one of the three online news sources I regularly read. On it, I found the headline, "Bulgaria Still Stuck in Trauma of Transition."

If I hadn't seen that, I would have had no way of knowing that today marks the 20th anniversary of Bulgarian independence from its communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, and the start of a democratic state. There are no celebrations here in the former capital. There don't seem to be any celebrations anywhere.

The newest and poorest member of the EU is still showing a lot of ambivalence about its new democratic system. Probably the most impressive statistic I saw in the article was that, when asked if the changes in 1989 benefited ordinary people, only 11% said yes. It's a surprising sentiment I've found in a lot of different former soviet states, including places like (former) East Germany.

But my point isn't about the debate over communism vs capitalism (somehow still paired at the hip with democracy, as if democracy can only exist in a capitalist system). My point is that if I hadn't flipped on my computer and spent half an hour on the internet this morning, I would have completely missed the significance of this day in this country.

A lot of shelves and server space is filled by articles talking about how much technology, especially the internet, has changed the world. I don't know if I'm the most qualified to say anything about the subject, but I can tell you it's changed the way I travel.

I spent the first six months or so without any laptop of my own. I even left my old 30gig iPod Photo (remember those?) at home. I had a digital camera and cell phone that technically can browse WAP internet, but charges a hefty amount by the kilobyte in the countries where it works. Aside from the that, the only piece of technology I carried was a portable FM radio. My idea was that I wanted to immerse myself completely in the places I was, rather than sitting in my little American bubble with my American music and my usual American websites where I talked to my American friends.

I'd spend about three hours a week in an internet cafe on on a hostel computer, taking care of my photos, updating this blog, and checking my email. Sometimes, if I trusted the connection, I'd do some online banking to make sure my travel funds were under control. That was all I did with the internet or technology as we talk about it today.

The FM radio worked a lot better in theory than in practice. I got to hear some kids radio plays in El Salvador, and occasionally in major cities I'd find music stations (mostly playing American music), but when the thing worked, I mostly only got talk radio in whatever language the country spoke. Great, if I spoke the language. If I didn't, or if I was between cities (like on a bus, when I most wanted something to listen to), I was sunk. Plus the radio broke and had to be replaced twice, and then was stolen along with my sweater and had to be replaced again. Now it's broken one more time and I haven't bothered with a replacement yet.

Then came the netbook.

I wasn't sure buying it was a good idea. But it was a small, light computer, for about US$180. I fiddled with it some, spent a ferry ride between the north and south Island of New Zealand making a case for it out of duct tape, and got it doing the things I wanted it to. Which it mostly did, even with a tiny (we're talking 800x480 pixels tiny) screen, and a hard drive with only four gigs, more than three of which were taken up by the operating system.

I was still nervous. I determined to limit my time on the thing as much as my will power could allow, because I figured I'd  spend all my time online, not learning a thing about where I was, wherever I was.

But instead of locking me into a bubble the way I thought it would, it led me deeper into my travel destinations. First was the wealth of free information. I could check the local news in my language anywhere I got an internet connection often including responses from the people I met. Through first wikitravel, and then when I found they posted all their guides' info online for free, I could find out opening hours and tricks to check out experiences I otherwise wouldn't have known about at all. Then I could go out and use that information to get somewhere and try new things out wherever I was.

But the bigger impact for me was through online communities. Facebook of course lets me stay in touch with the hundreds of people I've met from all over the world. Travel forums and networks like Bootsnall and the Thorn Tree, I can learn a lot about different people's experiences in different places doing different things. If I wasn't sure if I wanted to do something, I'd just check the forums or other travel blogs to see what kind of people liked it (if anyone did).

But the by far the biggest travel community I've tapped online has been CouchSurfing. 1.5 million people in almost every country in the world dedicated to meeting each other and helping each other travel. And it's growing fast.

So not only has the investment brought in a wealth of information and opportunities, but it's given me free places to sleep, often free food, led me to art exhibitions and shows (yes, many of which were free), and made two-day acquaintances in Asia turn into friends I get to see again in multiple countries in Europe.

Most importantly, it's led me to some of the adventures I started traveling for in the first place. Midnight bus to hike up to the top of Mt Fuji? Tip off of Wikitravel. Cheap ride on the autobahn from Berlin to Munich in time for Oktoberfest? Arranged ride from German ride share website. Party on a skyscraper's helicopter pad in Seoul? Couchsurfing connection. Last minute deal on an icebreaker to Antarctica? Contact found on the Thorn Tree forum.

I'm surrounded by backpackers calling overseas for free using an iPod Touch and Skype. People are reserving hostels at 3/4 price on hostelbookers and hostelworld and finding them with their smartphone's GPS. Even my travel insurance is completely online, down to how I make claims if I ever need to.

Yes, sometimes I will end up curled up IMing my friends from home and watching reruns of the Daily Show. I still think a lot of travelers spend too much time on Stalkerboo-- erm, Facebook. If you're not careful, the web will shut you up in a bubble even more than I originally feared. But I think, if you can use it the right way, you end up getting a lot more out of my travels than you would have otherwise.

Anyway, I think I'll let the pictures do the talking when it comes to the stuff I've been doing offline in Romania and Bulgaria. The only one I can't share that way is the inside of the Peles castle in Transylvania. If I win billions of euros someday, I might buy it. Search online for photos of the interior if you want to know why (I sadly wasn't allowed to take any).

But here's the ending headline that has nothing to do with anything else mentioned in this post (don't you love it when I do that?). Tomorrow marks the beginning of a big transition in this trip: I'm going from Europe into the Middle East.  Tomorrow, with any luck, I will wake up in the city of Istanbul, right smack in the middle of the two. Stay tuned.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. This fits in between the travel tips and the regular blog posts....very interesting. Makes one realize we probably rely more on satellites than ocean floor wiring.
    Good reminder to be self aware of wonderful uses and potential avoidance/missed opportunities if too caught up in the screen(s).

  2. Hey hun,
    looks like travels have been going well since i met you for 2 seconds in xi'an! :)
    the first few lines of your post made me think of this comic:

    - couch surfing is fantastic! :)
    happy wandering,

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