8 Things That Happen When You Travel Unplugged

Not long ago, I was asked if I had ever participated in a “digital detox.” Now I’m all for consciously putting away your phone and your camera for an hour to experience a destination just for yourself. But I’d never dream of disconnecting myself entirely from all my tech. That is, I wouldn’t travel unplugged voluntarily… It was the first of many, many bus rides across the Mediterranean coast. My bus from Barcelona pulled into Montpellier around 7pm as planned. What wasn’t planned was the measly 2 percent battery power left on my phone. My seatmate had kept our on-board power outlet in constant use for the duration of the trip. I had just enough juice left to text my mother that I was safely in France and hopefully to secure directions to my Couchsurfing host’s address. Then I noticed where the now long-gone bus had dropped us off. Not at a terminal or station of any kind, but in front the parking deck for an outdoor shopping center. And of course, it’s clear on the other side of town from the apartment I need to find. So what do you do when you’re in a foreign city at sunset and suddenly find yourself “unplugged?”

Table of Contents

One: You panic.

I knew there was no way my battery would hold out long enough for me to get to my host’s apartment. I also had no clue how to get there. They hadn’t given me any directions and obviously with no phone, I couldn’t call and ask. I had written the address down to hand to a taxi driver, but there wasn’t a cab in sight. I had never traveled by myself without a phone before. Even when I am actively trying to keep my camera stowed away so I can experience a place just for myself, I always, always have my phone with me in case of emergency. Now that I’ve finally converted to a smartphone, I’m even more inseparable from my tech. I still enjoy long walks around new cities and beers with new friends. But I do rely on the knowledge that Google is on my side in case I get lost. This situation? This lugging my backpack around the outskirts of a new town at sunset? This was not good.

Two: You bless your packing list

Suddenly, I remembered something very important about myself. I’m a packing freak. And there was a little last-minute addition to my RTW packing list that was literally made for this situation. The external battery. My Anker battery is about the size of a tube of lipstick and it claims to add a full extra charge to most smartphones. I just needed to find a place I could comfortably sit tight for a few minutes, plug it in, and look up directions to my host’s apartment.

Three: You break your arbitrary rules

The only place nearby that seemed suited for such a task was, of course, a McDonald’s. I literally do not remember the last time I ate at a McDonald’s. While I’m not always the healthiest eater, I broke the fast food habit years ago. When I travel, I especially try to steer clear of it. Yes, I’m one of those snobs who judges you for eating at McDonald’s instead of trying someplace local. But guess what self? That “rule” that you can’t eat American food in other countries? It’s a completely arbitrary decision you made for yourself. And it might have been a stupid decision at that. So I swallowed my pride along with a couple French fries and settled into a booth while my external battery did its thing.

Three and a half: You panic again.

Then, the unthinkable happened. My charger cable broke. If God exists, he really didn’t want me to eat at McDonald’s.

The trams of Montpellier are hardly easy to figure out when you're traveling unplugged.
Montpellier’s trams have special designs for each line, so it’s easy to tell which train you’re getting on.

Four: You learn how to navigate for real.

Okay, self. You’re stranded. This is not a drill. It’s time to (wo)man up and figure out how to get around this tram system. No Uber. No Google. No phoning a friend. I don’t know how long I stood in front of that damned tram station map before finding the street name I needed. But I eventually did. I figured if I’m at the last stop of Line 1, I can just get on any tram that swings through and get off at the central station. Then I look for the Line 2 headed in the same direction, get off at this stop, take a right and a left and look for the building. And hey – I was right. There is little more gratifying than figuring out directions in a foreign city sans Google. I’d recommend trying it under less stressful circumstances.

Five: You become more willing to accept help.

I found the apartment building with little difficulty. But if there’s one thing a bright blue 40L backpack does, it’s make you stand out. Two guys heading into the same building asked if I need help. I speak enough French that we could communicate. Or so I thought. I said I was visiting their neighbors and gave the host’s name. (In case you haven’t noticed I’m not sharing their names or address for the sake of respecting their privacy.) They looked at me like I had three heads. Figuring I had the wrong building, I took another swing up the street. I was right all along, it turns out. But I did take a moment to reflect that under different circumstances, I might not have answered their call. One thing my RTW trip has taught me is how overly cautious I am of men. I’ll notice myself more willing to enter a souvenir shop or sit down at a cafe if the staff is mostly women. In this instance, accepting help from men wasn’t useful, but it also wasn’t unsafe.

Six: You pay more attention to your surroundings.

I finally made it to my host’s apartment and settled in for the night. The next morning, my top priority was replacing my charger cable. Now that I was no longer in transit, I could get out my tablet. (Doing so would have been more conspicious on the street.) It shares a charger cable with my phone, but I had just enough battery to look up the location of a cell phone provider in the center of town. As I got off the tram and made my way up the street to the Place de la Comedie, I realized something else about how I use my tech on the road. It manages my expectations of a new destination. I have a Pinterest board for every country I plan to visit. Each one is filled with ideas of how much to spend, where to eat, what to do. Without my phone, I couldn’t look up details on Montpellier before venturing into town. As a result, the vast pedestrian-only square of Comedie, its iconic Les Trois Graces sculpture, the leafy promenade of Esplanade Charles de Gaulle – all these famous sights of Montpellier made a much greater impression than they might have done otherwise.

Travel unplugged to make your own itinerary instead of following someone else's.
I spent far more time enjoying the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle than I would have otherwise.

Seven: You meet people you never would have crossed paths with otherwise.

After a few wrong turns, I found the Orange store, but was in for a lengthy wait. I stood near the checkout counter and for perhaps 30 minutes both I and an older French woman tried to catch someone’s eye. As the minutes ticked away, we started exchanging glances with one another and eventually she came over and struck up a conversation. My French isn’t good enough for me to understand everything she said, but I got the sentiment. She was going to have to pay through the nose for parking because nobody in the joint would help her. C’est ridicule, non? I truthfully don’t know why people like to disparage the French so much. Anyone who thinks they’re an unfriendly people has clearly never been to the south of the country. In Montpellier, especially, I noticed a very low approach threshold. For another example, after the double-parked woman got what she needed and left, I was directed to a different line. The woman in front of me had a child with her, a girl of perhaps 8 or 9. The lady behind me had a little dog on a leash. He was very cute and very docile, but still the little girl was terrified of him. She was so scared, she was literally whimpering into the folds of her mother’s skirt. In no time at all, practically everyone in the store was showing her how friendly the dog was. As she worked up the courage to give him a little pat on the head, people were chatting and killing the time they had to wait. It’s the sort of thing I rarely if ever see in America. Waiting in line at your cell phone provider isn’t the fun sort of thing you do on vacation. It’s not even the fun sort of thing you want to do on a RTW trip. But I feel like I got to be a part of local life for an hour and I saw how ready the French are to connect.

Eight: You become way more confident about your travel skills.

The charger secured, my anxiety subsided. But this little adventure in traveling unplugged definitely strengthened my travel skills. I know I am strong and resourceful. It doesn’t really matter what gets lost or broken. I can navigate. I can communicate. I can make things happen for myself.

Have you ever traveled unplugged? Tell me about it in the comments! Then read more about how I chose my travel tech in the first place.

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