There’s a balance to be struck between taking too many and too few techy gadgets on an expedition. I’m a bit schizophrenic in this area. I’d like to say I’m
a natural Luddite — last year I hitched home from Armenia with only a knife, phone and poncho — but I also greatly value the usefulness of certain technologies.
But some technologies become nothing but a fad, or — worse — create more problems than they solve. Over-complicated computer systems in small libraries. GPS navigation units which send drivers, despite warning signs and the presence of bridges. Fashion accessories, which also happen to play music; several times the price of equivalents from companies other than Apple. Phones for which 99% of the functionality has nothing to do with the act of making a call. What was wrong with those little pink library cards anyway?
This kind of stuff gnaws at my sensibilities, which tell me that every free-new-extra-added-bonus-feature attached to my life actually has a diluting effect on the whole. (As well as making my bike weigh more.) On the other hand, I would be extremely reluctant to sacrifice a digital camera while travelling. Or my video camera. Or internet cafe stops. I want to share what I learn — how else to do it? Do I need to think harder?
Is my bicycle itself a high-tech gadget? How about a cycling computer — is it important how many kilometres I rode today? Should the number on the screen make me proud of or disappointed with myself? Does it add to or detract from the experience, which, when you’re on a bike trip, isn’t about yesterday or tomorrow but purely about right now? How much does each piece of technology enhance or impede the adventure?
What about techno-travelling in general? Recently in Cairo I stayed for a couple of days in a hostel (unusual, I know!). Every evening I would return to find assorted guests from distant lands scattered about the generous rooftop terrace area, snatching brief, efficient snippets of conversation in between staring at the screens of their mini-laptops. You could feel the waves of don’t-disturb-me through the warmth of the late summer dusk. Isn’t social encounter part of the lure of the road any more?
It appears that today’s traveller often carries a complete virtual world with them. I can follow ‘tweets’, real-time one-line updates, from people who are cycling across the emptiness of the Nubian desert, as I was doing exactly a year ago. (It’s just so old-fashioned to be disconnected from the internet while you’re in the middle of the Sahara, let alone waiting a week or so before telling the world what happened today.) Who honestly enjoys this style of look-at-me-I’m-travelling broadcast more than a well-written book or series of thoughtful articles? But it’s easy to get sucked in.
For an upcoming adventure, I have a few decisions to make. Should I take a GPS as a navigational backup, or stick to my tried and tested method of taking the modal average of three different locals’ directions? How about a mobile phone to keep in touch with loved ones when I stumble across a pocket of reception? Twitter updates? (Actually, that’s a no-brainer — wait ’til I get back and grab a cuppa!)
Do I need a full-on tent, or will I be OK to bivvy and take a tarp shelter in case of rain? How many pairs of pants should I take? Just the one, as usual, in case of torn trousers? Do I need to load myself down with tools and spares for every eventuality, or just trust the proven reliability of my bike?
I somehow enjoy this weighing up of the options, the unavoidable mistakes and the consequent refining of future decisions. Reducing weight is paramount: My aim is to take nothing I can live without.
The important thing that I try to remind myself is that there’s no beating those moments of pristine, indescribable beauty, watching shooting stars from the perfect wild campsite, or feeling the wind in your face at the summit of the highest pass, or the recounting of rose-tinted escapades from the comfort of home. These are things that I’d never pass up for want of a gadget.
UPDATE: In early 2011 I conducted an experiment. I took a netbook and 3G phone to Scandinavia and attempted to write a daily blog from my frozen tent during the one-month winter tour. It was a bigger success than I could possibly have imagined. The lesson? Daily blogging is sometimes worth the compromises involved. Sometimes…