When I travelled in my late teens and early twenties, my only communication with home was by postcard. My parents would reply with letters addressed to, for example: ‘Poste Restante, Kathmandu, Nepal’. I still remember the feeling of heading to a central post office, fingering through a huge box of letters in the ‘S’ box in the hope of finding a flimsy airmail missive with a few fragments of news from London. Even more powerfully, I remember the thrill of success – of walking out into a sweltering street buzzing with the sounds of chai-sellers and rickshaw horns, ripping open an envelope that had flown out to find me from a distant place I could picture in every detail, but had barely thought of for days or even weeks. International phone calls were prohibitively expensive, with every minute costing the equivalent of a night’s lodging.
Compare this to the modern backpacker, selfieing on every mountaintop, sending daily or even hourly updates to family, friends and acquaintances with details of their journeys, achievements, hotel rooms and meals. Every traveller throughout history has stored up anecdotes to impress the folks back home, but while I had to hold mine in for weeks on end, today’s adventurers tend to behave as if an experience hasn’t actually taken place until it has been shared online, and ‘liked’ by an approving audience. The idea of the Grand Tour has been part of our culture since the 17th century. We have long accepted that for our moral and intellectual development, a long trip away from home, involving total immersion in languages and customs that are unfamiliar, is essential.
To understand the world you have to see more of it than the small corner into which you were born, spending more time than a mere tourist who passes through in a protected, home-like bubble. Travel, for the young, ought to be a profound experience which, through cutting us off from everything that has previously been familiar to us, challenges our beliefs and makes us see the world in new ways. But when so many relationships and social-support networks are conducted digitally, and with every backpacker hostel from Machu Picchu to Dharamsala offering Wi-Fi, is it actually possible for millennials to cut themselves off from home? What has this done to the nature of travel? Twenty years ago, I published the novel Are You Experienced?, which the Lonely Planet guide to India (despite being heavily mocked in the book) has hailed a backpacking classic. It is a satire on young travellers, telling the story of a couple who represent two of the most prevalent responses to the subcontinent. She loves everything and is taken in by every pseudo-mystical hippie she meets on the road; he hates everything, can barely handle life without first-world comforts. Their romance does not flourish. When they eventually separate, they find themselves utterly alone, cut off from anyone who can offer the slightest word of support, in a country they simply do not understand. This word, ‘alone’, no longer means what it meant as recently as the Nineties.
One of the strangest things about entering your third decade as a professional writer is that your early novels begin to read like historical fiction. When I try to describe the pre-internet era to my own children, I can see in their eyes the same look I gave my grandmother when she described milk being delivered by horse and cart. Researching an updated version of Are You Experienced? for a screen adaptation, I recently stayed in a few backpacker hostels in Rajasthan, and what I saw saddened me.
There used to be a significant distinction between a holiday, where you took a short break from routine, and travelling, where you went far away, for a longer time, expecting to return altered by the experience. Middle-aged tourists want a western-style bubble of air-conditioned buses and continental-breakfast buffets, and this is no doubt still sneered at by backpackers; but for the young, the bubble that really matters is social media. Wherever you are, from Kerala to the high Himalayas, hostel lobbies will be filled with young people wearing the same tie-dyed T-shirts and sandals as in my time, eating the same dhal and rice, but instead of reading Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, they will be staring at screens, updating friends at home on what they’ve done that day, keeping up on the gossip from whatever town, suburb or campus they supposedly left behind. A modern traveller will probably be more concerned about whether their room has Wi-Fi than whether it has a bathroom. To be disconnected is unthinkable. Tourists have their physical bubble; travellers have their virtual bubble.
Both groups have one foot firmly planted at home. So where does this leave the idea of travel as a journey of self-discovery? My novel makes fun of middle-class white people who think they have ‘found themselves’ in India. Yet two decades on from having mocked this idea, I find myself nostalgic for it. However much I may have satirised the notion of ‘finding yourself’, I do feel that a central purpose of this kind of travel is to ‘lose yourself’. From the Grand Tour to the Gap Year, this is why it is important to get away – to leave behind parents and friends – to untether yourself from their expectations of who you ought to be. If you are updating your Facebook wall and Instagram page every day, projecting to your peer group a narrative of what you think they want to hear, you are plugging into those very internalised expectations which travel ought to be helping you to shed.
These smiles, which last for as long as a smartphone shutter click, sum up for me the trap that has caught our young. When you’re in constant communication, not just with close friends but with everyone who follows you online, the pressure to project happiness, and to conform to the expectations of home, travels with you. Travel is not just about what you go towards, it is about what you leave behind. When I was young, you could walk away from your entire life just by getting on a plane. For the Wi-Fi generation, home follows you everywhere. It seems amazing that communication by Post Restante and Instagram are only 20 years apart. I feel immensely grateful that I had the opportunity to travel in that era when you stepped out onto the hot tarmac of some distant airport and it felt like a freefall into a new world.
William Sutcliffe’s new novel, We See Everything, is out now.
I took my gap year a couple of years ago, and before I went I couldn’t move for seeing other people’s photos on my Facebook feed. Picture after picture of tanned feet in crystalline waters, Vrksasana yoga poses on a slab of Machu Picchu, dancing at festivals and so on would crop up every day. At first I would wriggle with envy, but after a while they inspired me to stop stalling and head off for a gap year of my own.
And I’m really glad I did, because it changed my life – just as William Sutcliffe’s changed his. The three months I spent in India and three in Zambia were the hardest and most rewarding times of my life. Despite the fact I had my smartphone in my pocket, I genuinely felt I had immersed myself in a foreign culture, and I learnt a hell of a lot about myself and the world around me. So I think Mr Sutcliffe is wrong to question the validity of the experience of today’s travellers. Of course the way we travel has changed; the world around us has changed. There are lots of pluses: you can call home when something happens, book plane tickets on your phone, retrieve cash from an ATM, even find hidden temples on Google maps.
And don’t think that teenagers in remote villages don’t have Facebook accounts – they do. And you can friend them and stay in touch long after you have left. Staying connected doesn’t detract from travelling one iota: Independence doesn’t necessarily have to be solitary and young people don’t need to be cut off from home to explore the wider world and appreciate their place in it. Just as much as our parents’ generation did, we millennials want to watch the sun rise over Buddha’s sacred footprint, share stories of getting lost in the Philippines, and make friends with like-minded strangers as we dip our feet into the waters of a deserted beach that took us an overnight journey on two different buses to reach.
The values and aspirations are the same. We also have to address the same challenges. Saving up for, planning and executing a gap-year trip is hard work. And that’s before you leave. During the trip – even if you are only a text away from home – you still have to learn how to budget, problem-solve and develop people skills to survive the journey.
And despite young people using the internet back at base after a day of exploring, look around most hostels and you’ll also see us talking, debating the world, planning the future, making friends, face to face. It must be lovely to indulge in the romanticism of yesteryear: Those rose-tinted, gap-year stories of days gone by. Every generation thinks it’s the special one. But the world moves on. And I’ve made a mental promise to self. If I have children, I shall never put on a pair of Insta-filtered glasses and declare to them: ‘It’s not like it was in my day.’