How traveling taught me to disconnect from my phone and connect with the real world

We live in a hyper-connected world. Never before has a generation been so relentlessly defined by communication. Think about it: when was the last time you walked down the street without instinctively pulling your phone out of your pocket? According to a new study, we touch our phones over 2,500 times a day. Let that sink in for a second. Sure, “touching” is a pretty broad categorization, and includes swiping, picking it up, tapping it, clicking it, and so on. Still, the average Joe engages in roughly 80 “active sessions” a day. That means checking emails, scrolling through Facebook, stalking exes on Instagram, checking in at brunch, etc. That’s absolutely bonkers.

I’m not saying I’m any better. The first thing I used to do in the mornings was check my notifications. I hadn’t even had my coffee yet, and already I’d be bombarded with dire world news, emojis by the bucket, and friends’ relationship problems. We process an unreasonable amount of information on a daily basis, most of it dispensable. As a result of this compulsive need to constantly be in the know, our attention spans have become shorter and shorter. When was the last time you watched a movie from beginning to end without clocking out from time to time? We’ve become so used to flooding our brains with unnecessary information and imagery that there’s barely any room for our own thoughts. And who are we if not our thoughts? We think, therefore we are, after all.

For me, the one thing – the only thing, really – that has worked as a sort of antidote to this overpowering need to be a sponge to the constant stream of information is travel. When I’m on the road, everything else falls by the wayside. New sights, sounds, and smells flood my senses – it’s intoxicating. All of the useless junk normally monopolizing my synapses starts to feel pretty inconsequential. At first, it’s an uncomfortable feeling. Like with any addiction, we have to pry ourselves away from our unhealthy habits before we get to reap the rewards. We go cold turkey, and for a while, it makes us feel like crap.

Anyone who’s ever been without Wi-Fi for a couple of weeks will tell you the same thing: it’s damn hard – until it isn’t. For me, it typically takes a few days to acclimatize. At first, we feel disconnected from the world. Over time, we slowly come to realize that what our phones provide us with is nothing more than a snapshot specifically engineered to satisfy our supposed needs. (You look at a pair of sneakers once, and they follow you to your grave. Once, dammit!) When we disconnect, we eventually become a lot more aware of what’s actually going on around us. We start noticing the little things again, like someone smiling at us from across the room, a beautiful sundown, or a path we never thought to walk down before. It’s a little like watching your favorite VHS from your childhood as a Blue-ray for the very first time.

When we leave our routine behind, even just for a little while, we learn to genuinely connect with people again. We find out about their stories, their ambitions, the moments they’re most proud of, and the ones they’d rather forget. Unlike ad targeting on social media, which just reaffirms our – let’s be honest – pretty restrictive world views, listening to people’s stories from across the globe – the rickshaw driver in Delhi, the Masai in Tanzania, the little Berber boy in Morocco – forces us to abandon our confined cosmovision in favor of something more all-embracing.

In turbulent times like these, marked by cynicism and fear of ‘the other’, the most compassionate thing we can do is switch off our phones and switch on.