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Behind the scenes

Opinion: Want to travel smart? Ditch the smartphone

By Anita Isalska   2 July 2014 3:08pm Europe/London

One minute you’re a carefree traveller. The next, you’re treating your smartphone like an extra limb. Lonely Planet editor and tech addict Anita Isalska looks at the benefits of travelling off the grid. 

Ends of the Earth: enjoying an escape from social media at the Eqi glacier, Greenland. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet
Ends of the Earth: enjoying an escape from social media at the Eqi glacier, Greenland. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

 

I have a sixth sense for free wifi zones, gold-standard SIM-swapping skills, and I’ve been known to go ‘old-school’ and upload pictures at far-flung internet cafes.

I never thought I’d be this way. First it was a navigation app here, scanning for wifi there, harmless. But soon I was on to the harder stuff: tweeting each adventure, Instagramming food around the world, bumping elbows with exasperated travellers as I panned my phone to capture a panorama.

I could claim it’s generational or ‘essential for research’, but who am I kidding? I embraced connectedness, and technology-free travel soon became an alien concept. Do I ever switch off? Only to conserve battery power.

But in Greenland last week, staying at an isolated camp forced me to unplug. Glacier Lodge Eqi (glacierlodgeeqi.com) is a five-hour boat trip from Ilulissat, Greenland’s third-largest city. The camp overlooks a glacier that continually calves icebergs into the sea. The boat journey takes you close enough to hear the glacier groan as chunks of ice tumble into the water, in an explosion of frosty mist.

As you’d expect for such a remote spot, the camp has no phone signal, certainly no wifi, and barely any plug sockets to charge up your signal-less gadgets. For those who crave isolation, it’s a retreat to savour. For me, it was social media cold turkey.

Travellers come to Eqi to hike past waterfalls and lagoons, but I arrived during a furious gale. Dramatic weather is routine in Greenland, even in summer, but this squall was so extreme we were advised not to stray far from camp. Walking even a short distance seemed to suck the air from our lungs. There was nothing to do but wait it out.

With seemingly endless hours and nowhere to go, conversation in the camp’s tiny cafe was soon abuzz with minute observations. The colour-change of the seawater from slate grey to jade. The angle of the waterfall was noted, calculations about likely wind speed jotted down for laughs. Glacier-watching became a gripping spectator sport. Travellers applauded if they spotted an especially large berg. A Danish-language spotter’s guide to Greenlandic birdlife became alarmingly well-thumbed, grouse pictures perused with interest.

Adjusting to this slower pace, it began to dawn on me: somewhere, somehow, social media had morphed into a reflex. I had believed I was capturing moments, but in reality my busy thumbs were inhibiting travel’s most profound pleasures. How fully can you appreciate a vast glacier or meadow of wildflowers when your brain is subconsciously selecting the right Instagram filter, or the perfect six seconds to film?

Had I found the antidote to hyper-connected travel? Or would these lessons all be erased with the first blip of a mobile signal, chiselled into 140 characters and forgotten?

Part of me knew I’d race for the nearest plug socket once I returned to Ilulissat. But staying on this lonely stretch of coast made me put down the phone and embrace isolation – and I know it won’t be the last time.

Anita Isalska is a writer and editor based in Lonely Planet’s London office. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.