Easier should not be confused as better.
WILLIAMSBURG, Brooklyn- I was walking down Broadway in Brooklyn beneath the elevated M line in this no-man’s-land of shoddy construction sites and abandoned wrecked cars between a hipster zone and a Hispanic area when a man approached me from behind. I became aware of his presence and looked over my shoulder to face him. As I did I saw a bespectacled middle age white guy in a green sweater reach out a hand and kindly patted me on the shoulder.
“You’re like Tom of Finland in a deserted city,” he spoke with a thick European accent. “Just walking around taking everything in.”
“Sometimes I feel that way,” I said with a laugh … but really, he had no idea.
I then watched this mysterious man scamper across a street as the light for oncoming traffic turned green, and then he was gone.
Who the fuck is Tom of Finland?
Seems about right …
I used to always just walk around cities, just looking around, frolicking with serendipity. Then at some point I became much more purposeful. I took on projects that demanded strict scheduling — arranging interviews and site visits, traveling on other people’s dime for speaking events, needing to get X amount of research done before returning to my base of operations — I started small companies, I had a family. There are things that you gain from being purposeful, but there are also things that you lose — such as noticing what is happening right in front of you. On this day I was being purposefully not purposeful, if I could say that …
At some point I realized that no matter where I went, no matter how many random turns I took, no matter how unfamiliar the streets I walked down, I could not get lost. It was just impossible. If at any point I lost my bearings and wanted to find my way back all I would have to do is take that little rectangular box out of by bag.
This made me feel kind of nostalgic. Getting lost used to be a fundamental human experience — everyone would get lost every once in a while. And nobody probably ever thought that there would be a day in the future when you could no longer get lost. Kids of this era may never experience the vertigo of being lost in their entire lives. Even my own kids, who have traveled to dozens of countries, have probably never been lost before. I can still remember the fights my parents would get in when we’d be riding in the car somewhere and my dad would invariably take a wrong turn and get lost … We used to have paper maps and road atlases and pieces of scrap paper with directions written on them. Compass mounted to car dashboards with a suction cup were standard.
We lost something by becoming perpetually found.
As for recreational traveling, getting lost and finding your way was part of the fun. You feel a certain way when lost that you don’t feel at any other time: the slight panic, the elevated alertness, the mental process of spatially putting the pieces together to figure out where you are in the world and where you’re trying to go, the feeling of accomplishment when you finally found your way.
You once needed skills to travel. You once needed to know how to read a map and use a compass. You had to be able to orient yourself according to the time of day and the position of the sun. You used to have to divide cities up in quadrants based on landmarks …
Traveling through the nether-regions of the world used to be impressive. Now it’s something that anyone can do. And nobody is impressed anymore. Pick up your phone, book a flight; pick up your phone, book a hotel; pick up your phone, book an Uber. Can’t understand what someone is saying? Pick up your phone. Want to find a good restaurant? Pick up your phone. There’s nothing to it– no strategy, no hard-won experience, no challenge. You don’t even need to talk to anyone anymore. When I was 10 years into my travels I’d tell people about it and their eyes would get all big and they would get excited and ask questions. By the time I was 20 years in nobody cared anymore. Now when I tell people that I traveled for 20 years through 90 countries 90% of the time it elicits zero reaction. I eventually just stopped mentioning it …
I recently saw a European family on the subway here huddled together with a big paper map of NYC in front of them. It was something that I haven’t seen in years … and I took a picture of them and sent it to friends, joking about them being time travelers or something. I laughed at them, but something about it made me miss the past.
Maybe the old days really were better.
Every generation produces a new batch of old people claiming that things were better in their day. The standard response is to just shrug or roll your eyes … “Whatever, gramps.” But what if they’re right?
Think about it like this: over the past five generations in the US there’s been a steady progression of development driven by technology. In each generation, life became easier, more convenient, and streamlined. In each generation, we became more reliant on machines, vehicles, and electronics. In each generation we placed less importance on skills, craftsmanship, self-sufficiency, family, the tangible, and the local and more importance on saving time, buying things, the industrial complex, the broader society, the virtual, and the global. At each stage connivence is gained but essence is lost.
So maybe that succession of disgruntled old bastards were right.
Or maybe I’m just taking my rightful spot in line — a disgruntled old bastard with a thing for maps.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
April 9, 2023, 10:16 am
You’re right about how things have gotten easier and the old ways (for the most part) have dissapeared. I was just reading that 86% of the people in the world have a smart phone … you got a picture of some of the 14% who don’t have a smart phone looking at a map.
What happens when the smart phones don’t work? I guess I’m a nut for asking that cause why would the smart phones not work?
You may be “a disgruntled old bastard with a thing for maps” but that’s not a bad thing.
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