A lot has changed since I first strapped on a backpack 20 years ago. Social media has been invented for one. Mobile phones and laptops are essential travel items and people are always ‘connected’ with the outside world.
Working in travel I’ve noticed peoples travel patterns have changed as well. The surprise element is not what it once was. People can read hundreds of reviews about hotels and services before they arrive, travellers are better dressed, and more people are travelling in general. But things change and it would be boring if they didn’t.
Here’s a collection of things I’ve seen change from when I first started travelling, some which still exist and some which have become part of a travellers legacy.
Snail mail — postcards
I actually still love sending postcards but wait until returning to London before posting them. Back in the day I would spend hours wandering around and following bad advice to find a post office for stamps. Postcards were what people in the real world did before Facebook in order to let people know we hadn’t been sold into slavery.
Yes Mum, I’m still alive
In the ‘good old days’ calling home was an ordeal. First find a shop selling phone cards through a series of miscommunicated hand gestures. Then scratching off the silver surface to reveal a series of number underneath, and finally, finding a phone box. After typing in 30 or so numbers, it was a case of screaming down the phone and repeating yourself to various members of the family, all to a cacophony of traffic and beeping horns.
Where to go and what to do
Once upon a time travel guide books and folding maps were god, or at least a bible for reaching the Garden of Eden. Of course now all you have to do is Google and you’ll find all the info you need. I remember if the Lonely Planet map was wrong then I got lost. If the prices were wrong I had to try budget for it, and if something changed I had to wait until the next edition for it to be corrected. I once left my guide book at a bus station in Bolivia and very nearly broke a sweat because of it.
The Gortex Kids
The first time I found myself surrounded by the Gortex kids (as I call them), I was on a 4 day boat trip through the Patagonian Fjords. I remember walking outside to be surrounded by a sea of people in thick colourful jackets, with zippers done up to the mouth. At that stage if I got cold, I just put on another jumper. Clearly I didn’t get the memo!
Burning photos onto disc
Once upon a time, photos were taken on rolls of film with no guarantee how they would turn out. After winding on a roll of film, sometimes it wasn’t until I’d taken more photos than I should have that it was clear the film hadn’t rolled into the camera properly. Once a roll was full, I would scour the streets for a photography place to copy my photos onto a disk. I had an intense fear of losing reels of film so would develop them, keep the negatives and burn two copies onto disk. Honestly, it made sense at the time but now it feels like a very convoluted process.
When I moved to China, the first thing I did was learn the Mandarin character for ‘internet cafe,’ this became my connection to a world free of propaganda. I don’t know if internet cafes even still exist. It was a lucky dip if the cafe had a high speed connection or if it would creep along to the sound of a fax machine. I also remember having to pay for an hour just to check one email.
Tiny travel towels
Perhaps the most ridiculous of inventions and one I never gelled with. Tiny ‘travel towels’ which stank after a few washes and never quite dried the body. I carted one around for months on end until I got fed up, used it to clean up split rum, and threw it away. Do these still exist?
Carrying an actual calculator
We’ve established that mobile phones didn’t exist so I carried an actual calculator to check exchange rates and stay within travel budgets. Seriously, the humble mobile phone has replaced so many different things.
Going off the grid
When I first started travelling ‘going-off-the-grid’ meant just that. Hotmail had only just been invented, WhatsApp was like something from the twightlight zone and apart from the occasional postcard or phone call home, it was every man for himself.
Paper flight tickets
Apart from your passport, the flight paper ticket was the item you absolutely could not lose. It was a lifeline with the real world after the money ran out. Perhaps it was the thought of being stuck in Narnia with the witch and the lion that put the fear into us, or perhaps it was the idea of going through the ordeal of replacing it. We also had to phone the airline two days ahead of the flight to confirm we would be on the flight! Can you imagine doing this now?
Let there be music
Before every 20 hr bus ride I would have my CD disk-man, a CD wallet stuffed with disks and a pack of batteries. It was the same before every long trip. But the bigger challenge was whether to buy batteries from the local market and run the risk they were of poor quality, or pay an extra few dollars and buy what looked like a decent brand.
My CD disk-man ran off batteries so when they ran out I had two choices:
Switch the music off
Listen to the music slow down until Bob Marley sounded like he was stuck in a K-hole and singing two octaves lower
Travellers cheques – RIP
Travellers cheques were NEVER about practicality, they were, and have always been a total ball-ache. Did it keep my money safe? Hell yes, because no-one wanted to exchange them for real money. Were they practical? Oh my god no, because no-one wanted to exchange them and those that did, checked them so many times it made me feel like a conman.
Watching inflight movies on a single big screen
Which movie will it be today and how close to the shared screen will I be for a decent view? Two of the most important questions for any old-school economy traveller. Of course, the big problem was switching the film on midway through and having to watch it to the end, before going back to see how it started. Naturally I couldn’t sleep until I knew if the Titanic really sunk or if Forest Gump made it back from his run across America.
An alarm clock that wasn’t a phone
Yes, a real alarm clock. One that had to be wound up and made a noise that was impossible to sleep through. I once ended up with two clocks after I stole an identical one by accident from a hostel.
Knife, fork and spoon in one
Perhaps the greatest travellers tool ever created. It was literally one piece of metal which split into three useful eating utensils — like metal origami.
No travel adaptor required
Imagine travelling without an electronic camera, phone, laptop, iPod and a tangled mass of chargers filling up your pack. When I started travelling, having a backpack stolen wasn’t a big deal as long as my day pack was still ok; these days it would be a saga. I never even used to travel with a mobile phone so going off the grid was real as opposed to a clever Facebook update!
Wearing a waist money belt was a given
Ahhh the days of the waist belt, how could I forget. Tan coloured to blend into the skin (tee hee), two zips because it was important to split the paper flight ticket and currency, and absolutely bulging under a thin t-shirt to give away that element of surprise. I never gelled with money belts — plus they needed washed often.
Bob Marley was THE travel album
I became a Bob Marley fan from travelling, mainly because Bob Marley was the only singer that would blast from cafes, restaurants, beach huts and headphone speakers. One Love was apparently all one needed, well that a henna tattoo and some colourful wrist bands to pull off that ‘uber cool’ travelling look.
Yes, hard to believe I know but once upon a time, long term travel wasn’t a fashion show. It was a case of packing clothes that would do the job, but weren’t necessarily going to make it back home with you again. ‘Going out’ clothes were the items which were clean.
Yes, things have changed since I started travelling, but what’s even funnier is there are probably people reading this blog who started travelling in the 1070s and are thinking, wow you travelled with music? I’ve embraced the world of travelling with modern technology but once in a while I do love to switch off and travel like I used to.
Happy travelling folks.
P.S – In case you’re looking for the ultimate gifts for travellers, read this short blog.