On the Road

There’s No Travel Like Time Travel

Until someone invents a machine to help us go back to the uncomplicated past, the modern traveler flees to the Third World to escape the 21st century.

You know, for all the uproar being made about the inhuman sweat shops that are propelling China towards economic prosperity and maybe World War III, the same dens of abused workers were commonplace in London or New York less than a century ago. Hell, Central American immigrants picking oranges in Florida for Coca-Cola (Minute Maid) are still suffering under indentured labour, too afraid to complain in case they get deported.

The diseases we see on the streets in the Third World are the same ones that caused many of our great grandparents to kick the bucket, malaria was one of the perks of a Grand European tour until the 50’s, along with good wine, olives and syphilis.

The traveler sees corruption all around the world but it wasn’t so long ago that even the average city cop in New York used to walk into a store with his hand out for his dues. Women in the 19th century England were considered the legal possessions of their owners. And the streets used to be full of people buying and selling stuff and they didn’t require a bit of paper allowing them to.

In short, many of the things that we see and wonder at when we hit the road were commonplace in our home countries some decades of centuries ago.

I remember seeing my first traditional iron in India. Instead of being powered by steam, it was a huge chunk of metal with a tray of hot coals on top to flatten the clothes. It was then I realised that I was living in a society with precious little idea how anything used to work. I learned shortly afterwards that paper used to be so precious that when people sent letters they first wrote across the page, then turned it 90 degrees and wrote across their original sentences to maximise the available space.

In a sense, you can travel just as much with a good history book than by jumping on a plane. The difference with modern time travel is that you actually get to see our own pre-technological and social history, albeit in a different cultural and geographical wrap. And as much as the world is homogenising, the differences are likely to widen as a whole array of gadgets takes us into a hi-tech bubble of our own. Could the average American teenager work out how to use an old dial telephone in a hotel in India?

Online, social network, friends list, updates, connectivity – how much of this could mean anything to a farmer hoping the temperamental rains won’t force him to push his daughter into prostitution in Bangkok?

Or for all the hype made about the hi-tech future of somewhere like India, web 2.0 really doesn’t mean much to someone who has zero chance of getting a telephone line in their lifetime, or even clean drinking water and a regular food supply for that matter.

On the other hand, it might be the accelerating pace of our own societies that keep closer and closer tabs on where we are, who we are and what we’re worth that send us fleeing to the kind of place where we can meet someone new without having to study their profile for their movies tastes and personal life philosophy first. Where we can walk into a cafe to eat without checking its popularity online first. Where we can walk along in a pair of light shorts and a t-shirt and not have to keep padding our pockets to check that our Blackberry is with us.

Most travelers will probably end up being 100% online (local infrastructure prevailing) every minute of their trips and only the odd road junky freak will opt out, probably enduring heaps of grief from their families for doing so. I can hear it now.

Where’s Dad?

We don’t know.

When’s he coming back?

No idea.

How can we find him?

You can’t.

How could he be so selfish?

In the modern world our lives come to belong less and less to ourselves. Maybe that’s why we love to go time traveling so often to meet the kind of people who still have lives of their own. They make their way through the world without needing to know there’s such a thing as a virtual world. Theirs is all real. They eat, drink, fall in love and raise children and all of it without once updating their Facebook account.