If you want to go on a real adventure, it's time to chuck away your phone...
I watched him speedily run down the balancing plank, my enormous bulging suitcase balancing precariously on his shoulder.
He was only small; how the hell did he do that?! He quickly disappeared up a sqiggly stone alleyway. Oh gosh! Where was he going with my bag??? But before I had time to worry any longer, my attention was suddenly captured by someone calling my name.
I looked around eagerly for the voice, bright sunshine blinding me as I stepped out of the shade of the bunker. It was my uncle Noel; standing on the edge of the jetty, beer in hand, wearing a bucket hat and waving profusely.
‘How was your trip?!’ he laughed
‘Haha! – you look wrecked! Here, have this.’ He handed me the beer.
It had been a long trip, about 30 hours to be precise. I’d taken a flight, another flight, a minibus, another minibus and a boat, and couldn’t quite believe I was finally here.
I was delusionally tired, could feel my nose getting burnt in real time – and probably wasn’t smelling too fresh either.
The final sunrise crossing from Batangas to Sabang had been incredible. Black dolphins bobbed up and down around the boat, and I couldn’t get over how clear the water was. Houses built into the side of the hill had come into view as we approached the bay, with their presence only punctuated by enormous coconut trees and small rows of steps.
I quickly learnt the fate of my bag; it had been carried up to the house I would be living in for the next few months, and following its journey up, I also learnt there were no roads, the community was a maze, and if you ever wanted to receive any post, you'd be best off just moving back to the mainland.
Also, wifi wasn’t really a thing, everyone had a Nokia 3210, and tripping over one of the many meandering chickens was likely to be the only real threat to my personal safety.
It was 2008 and I was 18 years old. I had been half-way through a year living in Australia when my uncle had called. Did I fancy popping over to the Phillippines for a couple of months to do some scuba diving?
I'd booked my flight before he’d even had the chance to finish the question.
Without sounding too cheesy, my time living in the Phillippines was transformative. Along with becoming a PADI rescue diver, I lived among the locals and the families of the nine siblings of my aunt. It sounds like a cliché, but every day was an adventure; from learning about the ocean (there is some very weird stuff down there..), to trying the 'fish-eye' delicacy (I wouldn't recommend it), and drinking enough rum and coke most nights to sink a small dinghy. And then there was the karaoke.
I was a clueless fumbling Brit with absolutely no idea what the hell I was doing, but I was having a bloody good time anyway..
On a more serious note, living amoung a culture that was so different from mine, was something I, coming from a very British suburban upbringing; full of concrete, Topshop, and exam pressure - had never really experienced.
It was so free. No shoes, no television (unless you really wanted it), no mascara and no noise from the outside world if you didn't look for it. People were ok with needing each other in a way I hadn't seen before, and the Filipino culture left an indelible mark, that even 12 years later, remains a reminder that generosity, kindness and service to others are the bedrocks of any successful community. When I returned to the U.K 6 months later, I was no longer the person I had been when I left.
The experience changed me - and there is no doubt this one trip I took at 18 has had some long lasting impacts on my understanding of the world and my place in it. I became aware of my privelige on a visceral level, how insignificant I was (the world is really effing huge), and about how so much of our lives is shaped by the sheer dumb luck of the circumstances into which we are born.
Since this trip, the world of travel has massively changed. For one, the philippines is no longer an unsafe place to travel alone. When I'd arrived there in 2008, a car was arranged to take me to The Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Makati before my next flight. This had been a neccessity, rather than a luxury because Manila Airport was deemed unsafe for a young female traveller to stay for any length of time, and I rememeber quite vividly going through the airport and realising I was possibly the only western traveller there.
Secondly, the biggest change has no doubt come off the back of smartphones and social media, and recently I have started to wonder how developements in this area have impacted our ability to go on a real adventure.
At 27, almost 10 years after this trip, I went on a similar journey, choosing to do a ski season and relocate to a random ski resort in France. Although I was physically away from everything I new, I found it immensely difficult to mentally pull myself from the temptation to scroll through random facebook posts and respond to the ping ping' of instagram, whatsapp and anything else that pinged at me loud enough. 10 years ago i'd never had this problem and as a result of it, I found it much harder to mentally place myself where I was physically. With the run of a beautiful ski resort in front of me, why was I still being drawn to focus on this small metal lump of technology - and how did I make it stop?! For a while it felt like my trip was being hi-jacked firstly by my own egotistical urge to post, and secondly by people I didn't care about, doing things I had no interest in seeing.
My time in the phillipines in 2008 had been entirely my own. If you went away, you were away. Gone. Back then there were no smartphones, no instagram, no 'live-stream'. no 'stories', no snap-chat and not much internet, so showing the whole thing off constantly never even crossed my mind. It wasn't the dark ages, but you'd have to go to an internet cafe if you wanted the internet, and there was no way I could just take a picture and post it out to the world 3 seconds later.
I was just a kid who really wanted to go an adventure and the day I'd arrived, I hadn't had the foggiest idea what I was going into - or where I would even be sleeping that night. There were no facebook groups for me to join, no trip advisor reviews to read. I had no GPS in my pocket, no Uber if I got lost. My mobile had an australian sim and was near useless so all of my plans had been sketched on random bits of paper.
In hindsight, and when I compare it today, this was valuable experience and the part that actually made it a real adventure. Human beings learn their capabilities through what they experience and what they overcome and going it alone taught me to be resourceful. With no google translate in my pocket, I learnt that hand gestures and facial expressions can sometimes be enough and that most people are always willing to help you if you ask nicely.
With no smartphone, it was much easier to be present with where I was, and there was no temptation to either show off about it, or watch random strangers from my past bleating on about their loft conversion or their latest fitness plan.
In life, I believe the more you see, the more people you meet, the more unfamilair situations you place yourself in - the more accepting, humble, empathic, and fearless of a person you become. But how can you do that if you're compulsively live-streaming your trip? Or obsessing over how many likes you've got on that pic?
Travelling used to be a way for us to cultivate a bit of confidence and character, to go 'off into the wild' and re-join the real world 6 months later full or stories and new-found skills. It would test you, and you'd come back stronger for it. Yet I can't help feel the internet has made it all too predictable and easy, and its much harder now to have the testing experience that once made it what it was.
There is also no denying that social media has made travel a social currency, with many influencers visiting destinations purely to obtain an imaget that could elevate their personal 'brand'. The potential for lucractive finanacial gain has also made travel attractive to those who have no real curiosity to explore and understand the world around them - they just want to be famous and followed.
I understand the attraction, its only human- and I've posted a hell of a lot myself - but to me thats not real travel, and focussing too much on wanting to look good online can make you miss out on so much.
Being challenged and humbled by where we go and who we meet can be so good for the soul, but you have to put down your phone and allow that to happen. I'm guilty as charged, but Im learning it is a complete illusion that anyone really wants to see you sunbathing on a beach in barbados, and if I had been able to give live updates of my trip back in 2008, people would have gotten very sick of it very quickly - and there is no doubt it would have greatly compromised the richness of the experience I had, and the impact this had on my life.
Elizabeth Gilbert didn't live stream her way through eat pray love, she just lived it. You can't write about your experiences in real time, or you run the risk of never letting them actually happen. You have to put down the phone, and go with it, knowing that not recording every last detail won't reduce the value of the experience, it'll amplify it.
In my year away in 2008, I gained weight, I didn't wear any make up, I lost a lot of my stuff. I cried alot, I laughed a lot. I spent a whole 9 months in Australia and didn't even go to Byron Bay, which is something I know would horrify influencers today. There were no travel bloggers giving me a list of places I felt like I absolutely 'had to go to' and I was entirely free to let my trip unfold the way it wanted to. I had a blast - and it was entirely my own, no one saw a thing and it gave me a fresh motivation to go and live my life on my own terms.
The experience still gives me the courage to make braver choices with my life even now, yet had I spent the whole time trying to document every minute, checking up on back home and worrying if I looked pretty on the internet or not, I strongly suspect that would not have happened.
Thanks to COVID-19, the travel industry is currently in a state of temporary paralysis and we don't really know when or if things will ever return to the way they were. Personally, I don't think a pause is always a bad thing. I was getting tired of my own behaviour around travel. The temptation to take pictures and gram the heck out of everything was really starting to impact the value of my experiences - and I loathe how many of the worlds most beautiful places have now become 'influencer hot-spots', with people simply going there to tick another box off a list and brag about it online. Thanks to technology, something that was once about freedom, has become incredibly contrived. There was a real joy in not being able to google where I was headed next and see that 10,000 other people had been there first and it was much easier to truly connect with a place when there was no need to spend the whole time trying to get the perfect photo, obessing over reviews on trip advisor, or being pinged at by useless notifications.
A real adventure can't happen if you're always on your phone, and of the memories that make me smile on a grey tuesday, there is little to no recorded evidence any of them ever happened at all.
So when the world opens up again, Im going to try and live my next trip largely in private. I'll leave the sunsets and the bikini photos to the influencers, chuck my phone in my suitcase and do my best to try and have an adventure thats really just all mine.
Just like 2008.