Left to my own devices.

Are we travelling with too much stuff?

Words: Lee Tulloch

The British foreign correspondent and publisher Nancy Cunard used to travel the world with her portable typewriter slung over her shoulder in a shawl.

I own an old 1930-era Remington portable, to remind me of what life was like before laptops and iPads. It’s heavier than a handbag of bricks, although I still find the click-click sound of the keys hitting paper immensely satisfying. It’s fanciful, of course, but it seems to me that words have more significance when they make a sound hitting the page and when they are constructed of flawed letters made with ink rather than pixels. But I digress.

As much as I find slogging through the mud at the frontline of the 1936 Spanish Civil War carrying one of these brutes unimaginable, I sometimes think: at least Nancy didn’t have to deal with Instagram.

Modern portable devices may weigh a fraction of the poundage of the old fashioned typewriters, cameras and leather-bound journals foreign correspondents toted in the days before Steve Jobs, but what professional and pleasure travellers alike have offloaded in weight, we’ve gained in clutter, physical and psychological.

1936 Nancy would to type her reports up and wire them and then retire to the bar with Pablo Neruda and a sherry. But for modern-day Nancy, no such luck. Her Twitter and Facebook feeds would require constant updating, she’d have to download, edit and post the images on her digital camera, photograph the meagre rations she had for dinner to show her followers on Instagram, make a Pinterest board of Spanish national costumes, and then…well, I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few social network tasks.

I can string a few words together, but I’m a very poor a photographer (I have a tendency to place my thumb over the lens). And yet, the advent of social media means that I have to be at least minimally adept at capturing images for Instagram, Facebook and all those photo-heavy apps that people love sharing. Words aren’t that interesting, apparently, at least according to social media gurus – you need to get your story out in pictures and video.

Maybe I could do everything on my Samsung Galaxy – take photos, type in notes (my big thumbs making multiple errors on the tiny keyboard), email finished stories, dictate observations, tape-record interviews, post to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds and to Pinterest boards. But I happen to like taking notes. On paper, in a notebook.

I have a bookshelf full of travel journals, in different colours and sizes, the physical record of where I’ve been and what I’ve done, containing ever-deteriorating examples of handwriting and sketches. (I blame my laptop for this decline in writing skills.)  Between the covers of these books I’ve captured more than words, but the scents, stains and debris (paper napkins, drink coasters, pressed flowers) of my wanderings.

I need an extra arm when I travel, or at the very least, a juggling diploma from Circus Oz.

But here’s the thing. In order to be both traditional (take notes in a notebook) and modern (shoot Instagram images on my iPhone and snap photos on my digital camera) I need an extra arm when I travel, or at the very least, a juggling diploma from Circus Oz. Yes, I have pockets and bags, but there are certain moments when a scene requires a few scribbled notes, a digital photo or video and an Instagram almost instantaneously.

I suspect I’m a one-woman traffic hazard, looking up (to view architecture) and looking down (to watch out for potholes) and stopping and starting while I juggle various devices to record a scene. Remember those funny old one-man orchestras? That’s me.

Recently in Istanbul for the first time, I ran around an unfamiliar city, glancing down at my journal to take notes, stopping and snapping the occasional image as a visual note or for my Facebook feed (my husband took the professional images) and then swapping the camera for my iPhone when I thought an image would work for Instagram. I was so busy doing this, I caught my foot in on a loose cobblestone and ended up with my face in a filthy gutter.

But worse than the indignity, when we returned from Istanbul, I wondered, did I really see the city? I spent so much time looking at it through screens or with my head down scribbling about it, I didn’t stop to smell the pomegranates, so to speak.

You don’t have to be a journalist to come home after a trip and ask yourself the same. Everyone  is his or her own publisher these days, as they say, then it’s not just travel journalists who are multi-tasking on the road.

Visit any monument in the world – the Taj Mahal, a lookout in the Blue Mountains – and few people will be seeing it with their own eyes. The human race is about to collectively develop some very strange shoulder muscles to facilitate the constant need to hold a small object between itself and the object it is viewing.

It’s anti-social-media. Is it also anti-life?


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