OMG! I nearly lost my brother in Berlin, Germany. But, I learned some priceless lessons about mobile technology in the process!
My dad, brother, and I started our annual “trip of a lifetime” in Oslo, Norway. We cruised through most of Scandinavia (including Stockholm, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark) like Viking warriors looking for new lands to conquer. And next, we set sail for Germany.
However, when we arrived, everything was in German (imagine that!), and unfortunately we couldn’t make out which train to get on. To make things worse, the Germans that we asked for help didn’t really understand our English, even when combined with frantic universal sign language.
Eventually, we figured out which train to take, but my brother’s seat was in a different coach. When my dad and I finally arrived at Berlin Central Station (a.k.a Berlin Hauptbahnhof), my 20ish-year-old brother was nowhere to be found.
You can probably imagine my panic! My heart wobbled like a plate of German grits pudding. I commanded my dad, “Use your phone to text him.” Well, my dad never gets the international service for his phone when travelling—he thinks he’ll never need it—but we needed it that day … or did we?
My panic went from churns in my stomach to flat out muscle-function failure. I plopped myself on a bench unable to think straight. As usual, my father didn’t share in my panic of immobility. He simply said, “I’m going to the bathroom and to change some money. We’ll figure this all out when I get back.”
Meanwhile, my brother had gotten off at the wrong station. Fortunately, thinking with his brain rather than with his mobile phone, (which also didn’t have international service), he managed to get on a local train and made it to the central station. I have no idea how he found us in that gargantuan mass of a station, but he did. As he explained, “It wasn’t hard to find the only man with a blue baseball hat and a Boston Red Sox logo on it.” LOL!
As I sat there on the bench, panic slowly receding, I realized that our dependency on the devices we use to connect, in fact, disconnects us from our instinctual ability to search, find, and problem-solve in situations that require us to be non-digital heroes in unfamiliar territories.
As much as I was panicking at the time, my brother was completely unshaken by his temporary disappearance into German oblivion. He didn’t panic! He used his English words to inquire, his analog eyes to read German signs (even though they made little sense to him), his hands to handle a paper map (almost a relic in the age of digital media), and the mobile functions of his feet to walk to the train that eventually got him to his destination.
So, based on my unexpected travel epiphany, here are some new—or newly rediscovered—rules for travelers in the digital age:
1). Disconnect from the GPS
Try reading an old fashioned paper map, tracing its directional veins with your index finger to find your hotel. Don’t be afraid to get lost in the cobble-stoned alleys of Prague, while marveling at the sight of imperial, orange rooftops of Old Town Square; and triumph in the feat of finding the landmark you have been walking for an hour to find.
2). Look Out the Window
Our devices are certainly life savers, but they have diminished the authenticity of certain life experiences in travelling – severing our ability to connect with companions sitting right next to us on a train. I can’t tell you how many times we hovered over our tablets to search for a Wi-Fi connection in the trains, almost missing the plush greenery and majestic mountains filling up the cumulus-clouded, blue skies just outside our windows.
As luck would have it, we didn’t have Wi-Fi on most of our train rides, and nature lured our eyes into its beauty. Taking it all in with our built-in optics system (a.k.a. eyeballs) was the only channel available to make the trip memorable. It turned out to be a much better experience than constantly playing with our phones and posting pics on Facebook. (Yes, I admit, I’m one of those frequent travel posters.)
3). Connect With Strangers
Strangers, too, became friends, as they searched our faces, instead of their phones and tablets, to find the right moment to say hello and begin a conservation that lasted the rest of the train ride—and became an imprint in memory never to be forgotten. With no Wi-Fi to cocoon us in our own binary space, we found that playing travelling games with strangers was a refreshingly fun way to break the awkwardness of sharing a closet-sized, couchette compartment. Eventually, the smiles and laughter eased the muscles into place and smoothed out the frown lines above our brows. If we had had Wi-Fi, none of that human bonding would have taken place.
So, next time you’re travelling for pleasure, unplug! Yes, I work for a digital marketing company, but I urge you to leave your phones at home or turn them off when you arrive at your destination; unwind by the blue-green waters of paradise; enjoy a cup of gelato, while people watching. Learn a couple words of the local language and become Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Germans (as in my brother’s case), Czechs, or Frenchmen for a day or two; and remember—or experience for the first time—what it was like when you didn’t have a mobile phone to save you from the “uncomfort-a-mobile” disorientation of being in a different country.
It turns out that even without a digital connection, we are still able to find our way back home!
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