Untethered Travel

September 27, 2013

From the movie

Being without a cell phone in Korea for the first time made me feel rather strange. I wasn’t experiencing phantom rings, nor was I really lacking in communication on my way out. If I had to describe it morbidly, it would be the way an amputee can still sense a missing limb; you know it’s gone, but you can’t help but feel something. In my case, I wasn’t suffering from the lack of a smartphone, but that of time.

Most of us these days don’t even consider wristwatches. Why bother when we have precise time measured on any one of several mobile devices: cell phones, iPads, notebooks. Naturally, access to such technology and information makes us some of the most unique human beings to ever walk the planet: the collected history of mankind in our pockets. But what many of us don’t consider is just how tethered we are to time with these devices.

Granted, people have had ways of keeping track of time with them for hundreds of years – pocket watches – but these methods were erratic, uncertain, imprecise: watches stopped working, slowed down, required winding. One could be reasonably sure of the time, but if you told someone to meet you at precisely 3:43 PM, his watch might differ from yours. Just enough chaos in the world to keep it interesting; didn’t Phileas Fogg, an intelligent man by any measure, lose track of an entire day?

Nowadays, we barely consider the effect of universally accepted time. We’re so dependent on just checking our phones to ensure we’re not missing anything, that that clock does in fact continue to tick without us looking. Although this does mean we’re unlikely to be late for an interview, it also completely runs our lives, second by second.

I don’t have a phone in Peru. Some people seem unable to wrap their brains around that idea, that anyone would voluntarily take themselves off the grid. It’s true, like my last days in Korea, I do feel untethered.

And it’s wonderful, not having to answer to that clock. I may not be able to Google at my leisure in the middle of the Plaza de Armas, but neither do I feel compelled to watch my time pass by the second. The movie In Time is a perfect analogy.

Though we certainly have more time than those living in the fictional “lower time zones”, we keep looking at our clocks in the same way: as though our lives depend on it, as though we’re going to drop dead if we don’t watch each second pass. We have to watch them, because it’s important to know how much is left. In doing so, we become slaves to them, living in the moment to only anticipate the next and wonder what we’re missing.

Living in such a manner has become second nature to most non-travelers: wake up with just enough time to brew coffee and eat breakfast, out the door in a rush to wait in traffic and start work at precisely 8:00, only to leave at 5:00 (no doubt counting down the minutes) and make the customary half-hour drive home. However, to travel in such a manner, as necessary as it may seem at times – early flights, bus schedules, guided tours, etc. – with a clock either staring one in the face or on one’s mind at all hours, would not only defeat the purpose of a vacation or vagabonding, but provide another layer of numbness on an already fading reality; every time I disconnect from the Internet and walk out of my door to face Arequipa, there’s a certain break in my perception of the universe, as though I had been aware of the entire world when I was online, and now I can only see my corner of it.

Well, guess what? That corner is what should be occupying my attention. A world that doesn’t conform to what your iPhone says it is, that has its own rules: people will walk up to you, taxis will run you down, and chaotic events will occur. All I can do is be uncomfortable enough to stay away from those clocks…

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