Escaping Screens: A Tech-Free Travel Quest, Part I

Part I of a two-part travelogue. All artwork by Sol Anzorena.

In front of me, the Ganges is rolling placidly along. To my right, a saffron-robed saddhu, a Hindu holy man, fills his hash pipe in the shade. Behind me, a cow ambles by, and here comes a pig in search of breakfast trash. My little spot by the river is the very definition of peace, but in my head, the apocalypse is raging. Why? Because I’ve just been handed my favorite drug.

The pig comes closer, sniffs at my sandal. A turquoise-winged kingfisher soars majestically by and perches on the power line. But I barely notice. I’m not here. The saddhu glances between the hash pipe and me, then strokes his beard, thinking, “Wow. That guy’s got the good stuff.”

Heart racing, brow furrowed, sweat beads forming on my forehead, my pupils take on a pale blue glow. Commence the inexplicable laughter, the conversations and arguments with people who aren’t there. Gradually, I disconnect from my body and forget my surroundings. Ahhh yes….

The high is incredible, but the comedown is a real bummer. The paranoid thoughts, the dread of a thousand futures branching like a terrible tree, and the voices, the voices, the voices!

“In Italy, the death count rises higher and higher and—” The street dogs prance along the bank, snapping at one another’s tails.

“…a shortage of ventilators… vaccine to take at least a year…” A langur monkey breastfeeds her baby atop a trash can. An old woman loosens her robe to bathe.

“In America, Donald Trump…” Another turquoise flash: the kingfisher dives down and pecks the water. The Himalayas watch on. It’s getting harder and harder to distinguish between reality and my drug-induced visions.

Is the armageddon out there? Or is it… in here? Just in case you haven’t caught on yet, my drug of choice is the smart phone. You, me, and everyone we know: we’re all addicts.

I’m not the first person to write about digital addiction, but recent experience has given me an exceptionally keen awareness of it. For six months, my girlfriend Sol and I were traveling through India and Nepal with no phone, no computer, no tablet, no mp3 player—no gadget of any kind—with the objective of liberating ourselves from that constant drip of ones and zeroes.

Then my mother came to join us and handed me my old cracked-screen smartphone. Just imagine: six months of technological detox only to plug back in right in time to catch the new series, “Global Pandemic, Holy Shiiit!”

I’m not a lifelong technoskeptic. For me, this was an unlikely quest. I grew up on Xbox, Pokémon, Xanga, Facebook, and video game message boards. I once binge-watched an entire season of Game of Thrones in a single day. I believe I am what is commonly referred to as a “millennial.” Dancing makes me nervous.

If I can wake up to my phone addiction, so can you.

It is October in Delhi. I am immediately hit with sensory overload. The fragrance of temple incense mixing with sewage fumes, the spice market with the cow pies. The cacophony of traffic, horns employed like the echolocation of bats, trucks and rickshaws and motorcycles careening around sleeping street dogs. We make it to our host, arranged on Voice trembling, I ask, “Where’s the nearest cyber cafe? We need to let our families know we made it here alive—and maybe book the next flight back!” But he just laughs. “Cyber cafe? Come back five years ago! We’ve got a ten dollar smartphone now!” Yes, cybers: gone the way of the dodo and the cassette tape. We hold out hope for one in the next town.

A bus ride like a crushed sardine tin takes us to Jodhpur. Deeper, deeper into this alien world beyond two dimensions. Still no cyber cafe. Despair mounting. It feels like our life support has been yanked. I’m missing the Democratic debates! We resist the urge to ask what the hell we are even doing, but we read it in each other’s eyes. But then Rajasthan International Folk Festival begins. From a red-bricked medieval fort, we marvel at the blue city sprawled out ’neath the setting sun.

Only feet away, an old sarangi player with face wrinkled by a lifetime in the desert slices his bow back and forth, crooning to its rhythm with more heart than I thought could even fit in a chest. The stars are not yet out, but all around are the glimmers of screens raised high, phones recording phones recording phones recording a video of a concert not yet finished but already forgotten. I hear Sol sigh in recognition of the tragic beauty of that moment: it is a private performance just for us. In a crowd of hundreds, we are the only ones listening. Life too is a kind of concert, is it not? Ears tuning in like never before, we feel renewed inspiration for our quest.

On to our volunteer gig at a forest retreat near Bhopal in central India. We go to the stream everyday to play music. A loin-clothed saddhu comes to grin at us as he chews on his neem stick. Baba-Ji speaks no English, and we speak no Hindi. With nothing to argue about, we become fast friends. We want to remember him forever, but Sol the photographer has no camera, so she paints him instead, and his cow Nandini too.

Sol’s art was previously focused on depicting still images from the Internet, but now she must draw increasingly from the surrounding world and from her own imagination. She is exploring a technique called blind drawing, in which she moves the pen without looking at the paper. This means she cannot judge herself or compare her work to some notion of perfection, and the result is always an interesting surprise. For his part, Baba-Ji snaps a selfie with us. He invites us to a farewell chai, starts the fire with a plastic bag, then tosses the styrofoam cup in the bushes.

Everywhere we go, gazes are cast low, pupils shimmer with the pale blue gleams of junkies. The world is coming more and more to resemble an opium den. A sense of irony grows in me: India, one of the birthplaces of meditation and other practices to still the mind, is now very much in the throes of tech-induced ADD. I realize how naive I was to imagine that ascetic India could somehow resist the temptations of the 21st century. In my journal I scribble: “Wisdom of the East—dead?”

Missed a train because we couldn’t check its status on the app. Spent a freezing night failing to sleep in the station. Damn. As our trip advances, we become increasingly aware of the dark side of technology, but so too do we miss its utility.

Central Nepal. We rent a small cottage in a village in a valley for a month. We booked it weeks before, the last time we were able to borrow a phone. When we arrive after an exhausting day of travel, the place is nothing like the ad. No pretty blue paint and garden, only a bare concrete room, littered with someone else’s belongings, in a small house shared with a family with two screaming babies. Not exactly our idea of an art retreat. We debate leaving, but where will we go? We don’t have Internet, so we can’t plan. If only we had a phone: then we could spend all day comparing reviews until we hunted down another, better place. Instead, we are forced to stick around, accept what we’ve got, and have one of the best months of our lives, despite the rats. Like Sol’s blind drawings: you won’t believe the magic that happens when you cease to plan yourself out of existence.

No one speaks English in the village. We’ve got no social life, no shows, and nowhere to go. Bored out of our minds, we make more art, play more music, and write more stories than ever. What day is it? What time is it? It’s amazing how productive you can become when there’s no clock to race. And with frequent power outages and no alarm to wake us, we rise and fall with the sun. In every way we are tuning in to nature. My mind, once a browser with too many open tabs, is now more like the breeze across the yellow mustard fields. I remember it used to be difficult to read a whole paragraph in a book without wanting to check my email at least twice. Now I read entire pages without a flicker. Writing my stories with paper and pencil, I observe that thoughts move at a slower pace than that of rapid-fire keyboard fingers, and with no sudden popups or notifications, there is nothing to yank me out of my flow. I am also finally finding success with meditation. The backs of my eyelids have never been so tranquil. Sol used to be plagued by chronic nightmares. Three weeks without tech and they’re gone.

We are not completely cut off. Once a week, we ask our host for the use of his phone to write to our families. But now I feel that I am in control. I use the phone, not the other way around. Whereas before I’d get lost for hours and hours, now I feel the zombie glaze beginning to set in after a few minutes, and so I race to accomplish a very precise laundry list: write to Mom and Dad, jot down directions to Chitwan National Park, don’t check the news.

Our landlord always responds to these requests to use his precious device with shifting eyes. Later we will learn some of the villagers suspected we were not artists at all, but terrorists. Yes, I’ve learned a lot from asking for other people’s phones. No one has ever turned us down, but there often comes a very long hesitation before the eventual “Um… sure?” Because a phone is a chest of secrets, skeletons, possibly even compromising search terms on Google’s auto-fill feature (like “sexy lesbians good story hindi subtitles” as we saw on one occasion).

At Chitwan National Park in the lowlands of central Nepal, a tour jeep zooms by. In the open-air seats above, faces are smashed to cameras, selfie-sticks stretch high like insect proboscises. “Where’s the rhino?” a woman squeals. “I wanna see a rhino! Don’t you have GPS trackers installed on the things?” As the abrasive wind settles in the jeep’s wake, I recall the famous Pokémon song : “Gotta catch ’em all!” That was my attitude once, too.

With no screens, we’ve been forced to relate to nature as more than just a good place to take photos. Our guide is confused when we don’t photograph the peacock courtship ritual. “But how will you remember?” he asks. I tap a finger on my head: “Ancient technology.” But I might’ve tapped my heart too.

In that vast jungle Sol and I alone waste not a moment furrowing brows at the sun’s annoying glare. Instead, we soak it in. We have no checklist of animals the Internet told us we have to spot, so instead we notice the funny red beetles, the trees so tangled with vines you can’t tell tell where one plant ends and the next begins, the way the textures of the ground flow like a river when you walk, how every bend in the trail leads to new aromas. Sol can even distinguish between birdsongs. In contrast, the screen world is one in which every moment tastes and smells and feels of plastic, a sensory deprivation tank of ones and zeroes where we forget our own bodies. But Sol and I are literally returning to our senses.

Nature offers far more than a spectacular Instagram shot to make your followers jealous. It offers communion. In the shade of the towering elephant grass, Delhi traffic has never seemed so remote, and Earth so precious.