Being There

Put down your smartphone—the art of travel demands the end of multitasking.

In the Information Age, with constant connection to home and work, we've diluted what it means to experience someplace new. (Henry Lin/First Light/Corbis)

Road-warrior hell: I get off a 15-hour flight from North America and turn on my BlackBerry at some Asian airport. Instead of focusing on the immediate environment and the ride into town, I am engrossed in the several dozen e-mails that piled up while I was en route, a third of which require a serious response, and one or two of which relay worrying news. As if that isn’t enough of a distraction: throughout all my journeys, because of the 12-hour time difference, each morning in Asia begins with a slew of e-mails from the East Coast, again requiring responses, again relaying crises to deal with. Wherever we are, we are all always available, and everybody knows it. The media tell us how lucky we are to live in the Information Age. I believe we have created a hell on Earth for ourselves.

Let me bore you with the old days: In the early 1980s, nobody had advance notice of my arrival anywhere. I’d fly to Addis Ababa to cover a famine, or to Sarajevo to cover the preparations for the Winter Olympics, armed with only about eight names and telephone numbers. Because I did not have to waste time sending e-mails back and forth for days to set up appointments, I had that much more time to read about the history and geography of the country to which I was headed. And you know what? When I arrived and dialed those numbers, about half the people on the list answered and were pleased to meet with me: after all, I had come all this way, completely dependent on their hospitality. And so hospitality was offered. And those people introduced me to other people. It was all so much more efficient then. Now, after corresponding for days with someone just to arrange a meeting, when you arrive at his office thousands of miles away, he answers some of your questions by referring you to a Web site.

I am not saying information is now harder to come by. I am saying the intensity of the experience of foreign places has been diluted. The real adventure of travel is mental. It is about total immersion in a place, because nobody from any other place can contact you. Thus your life is narrowed to what is immediately before your eyes, making the experience of it that much more vivid.

It isn’t just the landscapes that are overpowering, but the conversations, too. Real conversations require concentration, not texting on the side. The art of travel demands the end of multitasking. It demands the absence of bars on your smartphone when you are in a café with someone. That’s because travel is linear—it is about only one place or a singular perception at a time.

In 1973, upon graduating from college, I traveled for three months in Communist Eastern Europe. Not only could nobody from home contact me, there was no real news about the world in the English-language newspapers where I was (the International Herald Tribune was banned in many places or arrived days late). My interactions with the young East Germans, Poles, Hungarians, and others I met along the way were intense in the extreme. Indeed, these were rich personal lives I encountered, precisely because the political and public spaces were so barren. I never forgot those faces, those conversations. That was the summer of Watergate, about which I couldn’t have cared less.

More recently, in the early years of the last decade, I sailed with a friend every summer throughout the Canadian Maritime Provinces, as far north as Newfoundland. Except in a few towns, we had no cellphone contact and no access to e‑mail. After a week, I would settle into a meditative peace, helped by a bottle of French Bandol every evening. There is no entry for a traveler as dramatic as one by sea, and I’ll carry with me forever the pen-and-ink, charcoal sight of the Louisbourg fortress emerging out of the dirty white fog on Cape Breton, as well as the wild, short grasses that summarized the celibate, sculptural beauty of these northern seascapes. It was a world of gray rock, dark spruce, and silver-blue.

Travel is like a good, challenging book: it demands presentness—the ability to live completely in the moment, absorbed in the words or vision of reality before you. And like serious reading itself, travel has become an act of resistance against the distractions of the electronic age, and against all the worries that weigh us down, thanks to that age. A good book deserves to be finished, just as a haunting landscape tempts further experience of it, and further research into it. Travel and serious reading, because they demand sustained focus, stand athwart the nonexistent attention spans that deface our current time on Earth.

During that summer in Eastern Europe almost 40 years ago, I found myself in a small lodge in a Romanian forest during two days of rainstorms. I read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons there. And so I experienced solitude rather than loneliness. Nothing existed for me except the worlds of 19th-century Russia and late-20th-century Romania. That was travel! Utter isolation made it possible. Because there was no mobile hot zone to reenter when I arrived in Bucharest or some other Balkan city, there was also nothing to look forward to, or to dread. The present moment was then truly sacred.

My friend now plans to sail the Northwest Passage in a small boat, which means being essentially out of electronic contact for about four months in the High Arctic. I can’t go along. My day job makes it impossible. I remain a prisoner of the BlackBerry nightmare. But I know there are people like my friend whose circumstances are different, who will opt for authentic experience, who will resist. Only because of them, the art of travel lives on.