One morning, a decade ago in Laos, I woke at dusk on an elevated bamboo platform – a makeshift camping site inspired by too much Thai whiskey – in the Nam Song River. As I was wiping the sleep from my eyes, I noticed several baby elephants bathing in the river just metres from where I was sitting.
I frantically sorted through my purse for my camera but when I found it, the battery was dead. So I slumped back into my seat and fixed my eyes on the elephants. A sort of resigned peace descended over me as I sat there. I was the only one to take in one of the most beautiful scenes I had ever encountered, and it would always remain that way. The mountains in the near background were covered in a light mist, and the air had a slightly sticky chill to it. I watched as the elephants filled their trunks and sprayed each other before being corralled by a handler and ambling off toward the road.
I recall trying to soak up every minute of those elephants; it was a rare moment both wholly focused and uninterrupted. Our attention as travellers – as in daily life – is now typically much more fragmented. Thanks to a confluence of devices and conveniences, we can no longer simply enjoy a moment. We have to record it, share it and proffer the humblebrag. We wander down the beach not because we want to see the view, but because it’s the view we want to show other people on Instagram.
Once, when I was at a restaurant in Athens and trying to take a picture of the faces on my heaping pile of fried smelts, a waiter leaned over my shoulder. "What, you going to put the fishes on Facebook?" he asked. I was. I did. And he even gave me the perfect caption.
Thanks to a complete inability to moderate our own behaviour surrounding digital devices, a new "digital detox" travel trend is being marketed to the masses. At Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire in England, guests are asked to surrender their devices in return for detox smoothies and Sodashi therapy. At the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica in Peninsula Papagayo, guests can trade their phones for tech-free activities, including Latin dance classes or a sunset catamaran cruise. In 2012, the entire country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines tried to entice travellers with a techfree package that excluded phones, the Internet and televisions, but included access to a life coach and a guide (ironically, digital) to taking a break from tech.
Intrepid Travel (one of the world’s biggest tour operators) just announced a new package of digital-free tours – to North Morocco, Ecuador, India and Thailand – that require participants to sign an agreement that they won’t text or even take pictures for the duration of the trip. "In turn, participants will be rewarded with a connection they could never find through Wi-Fi," promises a press release.
Amanda Williams, a blogger based in Ohio, tried Intrepid’s eight-day Ecuador on a Shoestring tour – from Quito to the Amazon jungle in Banos – and she swore off her smartphone, laptop and camera for the duration. "The experience forced me to look at my usage of technology and call it an addiction," says Williams. Despite enjoying a vacation from her selfie, she acknowledges that there were parts of the trip when she wanted to communicate her experience. "I wanted to Snapchat from the end of a hike that overlooked the most incredible valley in Banos," she says. "But I quickly realized that I could tell all those things once I got home."
So much of the satisfaction we get from a trip is capturing memories, and reporting those details back to friends and family – increasingly, over social media. A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures can even help us to engage with an experience in a more meaningful way. But that seems to suggest some moderation, and not the chronic attachment to screens so many of us exhibit.
"It’s nice to see life through a camera because you get to record it for reflection," says Jessica Renshaw of Virtuoso-affiliated agency Renshaw Travel in Vancouver. "But you have to think about the intention of the trip. If it’s to reconnect with friends or family, observing everything through a screen might not be the best way to do it."
Julia Buckley, a journalist based in Cornwall, England, tried a digital detox in the Umbrian countryside in 2015, and she initially floundered while trying to recall how one conducts oneself in the absence of digital paraphernalia. "I was literally climbing up the walls that first night," she says. "I went to bed at 7:30 p.m." But eventually, she realized that the absence of constant activity was the point. "I completely relaxed," she says. "Everything felt calm, like I was really immersed in the landscape. I could focus on the sound of this stream about a half a mile down the road and if I was on my computer, I would have missed it. I was actually watching clouds."