It used to be easy to get lost. Pick up your passport, board an airplane, and zoom, you were gone, disconnected, all on your own, until and unless you stopped by an Internet cafe or an international phone booth. Nowadays my T-Mobile plan gives me free data roaming in more than a hundred countries, and even those without, like Vietnam, where I write this, tend to have near-ubiquitous wi-fi.
I’m not here to wax nostalgic about the bad old days. Sure, there was a certain romance in getting your most recent news of the world from a four-day-old International Herald Tribune in a dusty hotel on the edge of the Sahara, just as there was romance in finally unearthing a long-coveted out-of-print book in a secondhand bookstore; but T-Mobile and Amazon are unquestionably, objectively better.
What’s more, as travel has gotten easier, more people are doing it. Living and working in East or Southeast Asia has been a rite of passage for a certain socioeconomic cohort of Westerners for more than a generation now. Both that cohort and its destinations have grown far more diverse, and the same temporary mini-diaspora now happens in reverse, too. Again, these are excellent things which bode well for the world.
It’s true that getting lost is good for you: it immerses you in the alienness of your new surroundings, and teaches you how to rely on yourself rather than your smartphone exocortex. But you were rarely ever lost lost in the bad old days. Instead you clutched your Lonely Planet guide, your bound-paper exocortex, and went only where it told you to go.
It’s said that travel these days is too easy, too connected, too familiar, too homogenized. And it’s true that it can be … but that same connectivity can and does unshackle you from the guidebooks. You can still go get lost in an alien world if you really want to, although admittedly nowadays you have to mount something of an expedition to make that happen.
In Alex Garland’s novel THE BEACH,a character utters the immortal line “One of these days I’m going to find one of these Lonely Planet writers, and I’m going to ask them, what’s so fucking lonely about the Khao Sanh Road?” (An infamous hyper-Westernized backpacker nexus / party zone in Bangkok.) And it’s true that technology has, in a way, prompted the Khao Sanh Road to metastasize across Asia, and beyond .
But let’s not look down our noses at it. That fungal ferment which looks like the mixed dregs of multiple cultures may yet mutate into something new and interesting and important itself; and the truly lonely planet is still out there. You just have to work a little harder to find it, now.