Has selfie culture ruined the gap year?

Today’s backpackers are too trapped in their social-media bubbles to appreciate where they are, says William Sutcliffe. Not true, counters Charlotte Johnstone

08 October 2017 - 00:00 By William Sutcliffe and Charlotte Johnstone
Can you really immerse yourself in a different culture when you're constantly in touch with home?
Can you really immerse yourself in a different culture when you're constantly in touch with home?
Image: iStock

SCREEN TIME SPOILS THE EXPERIENCE: WILLIAM SUTCLIFFE

When I travelled in my early 20s, international phone calls were too expensive, so my only means of communication with home was by post. My parents would reply to my postcards with letters sent to places like: "Poste Restante, Kathmandu, Nepal."

I still remember the feeling of ripping open an envelope that had flown out from a distant place I could picture clearly but had barely thought of for days or weeks.

Compare this to today's backpacker, selfie-ing on every mountaintop, sending daily or even hourly updates to family and friends with details of their journeys, achievements, hotel rooms and meals.

Today's adventurers seem to think an experience hasn't actually taken place until it has been shared online

Every traveller throughout history has stored up anecdotes to impress the folks back home, but today's adventurers seem to think an experience hasn't actually taken place until it has been shared online, and "liked" by an audience.

The idea of the Grand Tour has been part of our culture since the 17th century. We have long accepted that for our moral and intellectual development, a long trip, involving total immersion in languages and customs that are unfamiliar, is essential. To understand the world, you have to see more of it than the small corner into which you were born, spending more time in it than a mere tourist passing through would do.

Travel, for the young, ought to be a profound experience which, through cutting us off from everything that has previously been familiar to us, challenges our beliefs and makes us see the world in new ways.

But with every backpacker hostel from Machu Picchu to Dharamsala offering wi-fi, is it actually possible for millennials to cut themselves off from home?

I recently stayed in a few backpackers' in Rajasthan, and what I saw saddened me. The lobbies are still filled with young people wearing tie-dye and sandals as in my time, but instead of reading Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, they are staring at screens.

A central purpose of this kind of travel is to "lose yourself" - to leave behind parents and friends and untether yourself from their expectations of who you ought to be. If you are updating your Facebook every day, projecting to your peer group a narrative of what you think they want to hear, you are plugging into those very expectations your travels are supposed to be helping you to shed.

When you're in constant communication, the pressure to project happiness, and to conform to the expectations of home, travels with you.

I'm grateful I got to travel in an era when, as you stepped out onto the hot tarmac of some distant airport, it felt like a freefall into a new world.

SMARTPHONES ARE A TRAVELER'S SECRET WEAPON: CHARLOTTE JOHNSTONE

I took my gap year a few years ago, and before I went I couldn't move for seeing other people's photos on my Facebook feed. Picture after picture of tanned feet in crystalline waters, yoga poses on a slab of Machu Picchu, dancing at festivals and so on would crop up every day.

At first I would wriggle with envy, but after a while they inspired me to stop stalling and head off for a gap year of my own. And I'm really glad I did, because it changed my life - just as William Sutcliffe's changed his.

The three months I spent in India and three in Zambia were the hardest and most rewarding times of my life. Despite the fact I had my smartphone in my pocket, I genuinely felt I had immersed myself in a foreign culture, and I learnt a hell of a lot about myself and the world around me.

Don't think teenagers in remote villages don't have Facebook accounts - they do. And you can friend them and stay in touch long after you have left

So I think Sutcliffe is wrong to question the validity of the experience of today's travellers. Of course the way we travel has changed; the world around us has changed.

There are lots of pluses: you can call home when something happens, book plane tickets on your phone, retrieve cash from an ATM, even find hidden temples on Google maps.

And don't think that teenagers in remote sub-Saharan African villages don't have Facebook accounts - they do. And you can friend them and stay in touch long after you have left.

Staying connected doesn't detract from travelling one iota: independence doesn't necessarily have to be solitary and young people don't need to be cut off from home to explore the wider world and appreciate their place in it.

Just as much as our parents' generation did, we millennials want to watch the sun rise over Buddha's footprint, share stories of getting lost in the Philippines, and make friends with like-minded strangers as we dip our feet into the waters of a deserted beach, which took us an overnight journey on two different buses to reach. The aspirations are the same.

We also have to address the same challenges. Saving up for, planning and executing a gap-year trip is hard work. And that's before you leave.

During the trip - even if you are only a text away from home - you still have to learn how to budget, problem-solve and develop people skills to survive the journey. And despite young people using the internet back at base after a day of exploring, look around most hostels and you'll also see us talking, debating the world, planning the future, making friends, face to face.

It must be lovely to indulge in the romanticism of yesteryear: those rose-tinted, gap-year stories of days gone by. Every generation thinks it's the special one. But the world moves on. And I've promised myself if I have children, I shall never put on a pair of Insta-filtered glasses and declare to them: "It's not like it was in my day." - The Sunday Telegraph

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