On the Road

Skype Mobile and the Death of Travel

Skype Mobiles spell the end of real travel. People will bring their mothers along with them as they’re kept on a virtual leash of their own making. ..

The Skype mobile is now out and whilst it’s only available in certain countries, it made me want to cry as travel as I know it disappears under the onslaught of technology.

When I first started traveling back in 1995, every traveler knew what the words poste restante meant. It was the section in every post office where they would hold on to parcels and letters for you for months at a time.

It was usually a sprawling mess and some packages would like unopened for years. You’d try to predict where you’d be in 2 months time to pick up your special deliver or love letter from home and if your travel plans changed – as they always did – then you’d beg a friend to go and pick them up for you.

Then came email. I received about 8 letters in my first 5 years on the road and then 10,000 emails in the next 5. Internet cafes with defective keyboards and mind-wrenchingly slow connections opened up across the backpacker world and suddenly travelers found a way to fill those dead hours waiting for a bus.

I saw internet cafes across the third world logging onto their email accounts and it was like some strange mental virus had struck them. Locals stared in through the windows at these Western travelers plugged into the matrix and scratched their heads in wonder.

Then came the digital camera and travelers had a way to maintain their employee status even while on the road by taking thousands of photos and then spending hours uploading them to their blogs, email accounts and even websites. None of them were making any money, they just wanted some kind of tedious obligation to make their voyage more meaningful.

But here’s the thing: travel is all about the dead time. If half the point about getting on the road is to find out who you are and what you’re made of then you need the spaces in between. The 8 hour train delays, 32 hour bus rides and boring evenings in the hotel room where there’s nothing else to do other than listen to your own thoughts.

No one chooses to get stranded, sick or be lonely but these are the times we learn about ourselves and grow. The entire point of travel was to disconnect, unplug from the matrix and go where no one could reach you.

If instead we fill our ears with a non-stop barrage of songlists from our Ipods, movies from our portable DVD players and spend all our days in the internet cafe instead of experiencing the place we’re in then there’s not much point in leaving home to begin with. Not only do we never give ourselves a break from the mental candy we also never fully arrive at our destination – we’re still back at home as we send photos to our loved ones and write emails about the view from the internet cafe window.

Now with the Skype Mobile it will soon be free to have 24 hour conversations with our friends and family, filling them in on every rickshaw ride, sighing of an elephant or badly-spelt restaurant menu. Add a webcam and the next time you meet a traveler her mother back home will be asking you ‘where are you from and where have you been?’

The only good news is that mobile phone jammers are widely available in South East Asia and probably make a good investment to sell to pissed-off commuters back home…