With his device suddenly gone, Intrepid traveller Jim discovered the importance of looking around instead of down at a screen.
On my first afternoon in Colombia, we made our way to Cartegena’s Old Town. Despite arriving early that morning, I couldn’t wait to throw myself into this 10-day adventure with Intrepid.
As our group walked through a colourful maze of buildings, markets and spectacular churches, I took seemingly countless photos in every direction, trying to take in as much as I possibly could.
I thought about how sad it was that whenever I mentioned visiting this country, the response from my American friends and family was usually one of caution. Colombia may be further out of my comfort zone than other destinations, but I was thrilled to be in a country where there was so much to soak in.
After a satisfying afternoon of exploring, Mark – a fellow American from my group – and I wandered down a busy street to head back to the hotel when we saw yet another stunning cathedral.
I’m not one to let my guard down, so you can imagine the horrible feeling I had when I reached into my pocket to grab my phone to take a photo, only to realise a pickpocket had got there first.
It was only day one of the trip, and I’d already lost one of three travel essentials, the other two being my wallet and passport. As it started to sink in that my lifeline and connection to the world was gone, I felt angry and frustrated. That device had been attached to my right hand since its invention two decades ago.
I retraced my steps to the last time and place I remembered using my phone. Realising it was a lost cause, we grabbed some beers in a cafe near the crime scene to take the edge off as I borrowed Mark’s phone to report mine lost and erase its contents. As I walked back to the hotel, my mind spiralled.
I was nervous the thief was assuming my identity and enjoying a spending spree on my Amazon account. I worried about how to communicate with my family and friends at home, especially since they were already concerned about my destination choice.
Once alone in my hotel room, I became even more stressed, so I took some deep breaths. As the air flowed into my lungs and my nerves began to calm, I reminded myself it could have been worse. I’m old enough to remember travelling without a phone before they took over our lives. I would get a new one back home.
It started to dawn on me that this could make my travels more interesting and satisfying, and I felt something shift. Phone-free, I could experience every day without the frequent distraction of a phone and all the ways it can pull you out of the moment.
I thought it would be tough to communicate with family and friends and my travel group, access QR codes at restaurants and my boarding pass, but thankfully, I was with kind companions and an amazing Intrepid leader, Martin, who helped with logistics. A fellow traveller even lent me her watch, telling me I was doing her a favour because it would help to get rid of her wrist tan lines.
Once I got past the anxiety of being phoneless for the rest of the trip, it was liberating. At the dinner table, I found my travel buddies elsewhere, texting and on social media.
While they disappeared into their devices, without mine, I was finally able to soak in my surroundings. I noticed details I’d normally miss. The decor of the restaurant, lively conversations happening around me and the delicious smell of meals passing by our table. I felt present in a way I hadn’t in a long time.
During a visit to The Gold Museum in Bogota, I remember pausing to sit on the steps inside the lobby entrance. A wall of windows in the lobby afforded a view of the world outside the museum. It was a fantastic spot for people-watching.
Almost everyone was staring at a little screen, but I was free to gaze curiously at people’s interactions. I watched an animated taxi driver ferociously work the crowd outside for his next fare. I noticed the smiling ticket vendor as she engaged enthusiastically with customers. At one point, I looked up at a dark and ominous sky to realise a rainstorm was imminent, and I didn’t feel the need to Google the forecast for confirmation.
I wasn’t thrilled when it happened, but by losing my phone, I regained so much. Without the intrusion of notifications every few minutes, I detached from the distractions of emails, social media posts and the responsibilities of running my own business at home. After years, I truly felt like I was on vacation, immersed in Colombia’s sights, sounds and smells.
As luck would have it, I did bring a camera on my trip, and I really enjoyed using it. It reminded me of the early days of my photography hobby. After spending the first day snapping pictures on my phone, I later realised I felt so much more in the moment taking in Colombia’s vivid cities, coastlines and scenery on my camera.
It may be fine to let your phone be a distraction during a commute to work or when you’re bored on the couch, but to experience a destination completely, I learned that you need to be present. While phones can be useful, they don’t always help you live in the moment.
On my next trip, I will give myself the best chance to soak it all in. I’ll still take my phone, but I’m going to put it down and look around. After all, that’s why I made the journey in the first place.
Jim travelled on Intrepid’s 10-day Explore Colombia trip.