I should have known that I was in for a life of technological abstinence after my 16-hour bus ride across the barren Peruvian desert from Lima to the remote seaside town of Lobitos for a two-week volunteer and surfing program.
When I got there, I tried to call my parents to tell them that I was still alive, even after a rickety ride on a “moto,” a modified motorcycle which resembles a loud, buzzing three-wheeled golf cart. But phone reception, as I discovered, is also a hot commodity in a town that is more concerned about getting clean water. (A water truck comes by every other day to supply the whole 500-person town, but sometimes it doesn’t show up.) In the end, I never did call my parents.
As the days went by, I did manage to get my hands on some of that sweet, sweet Internet. Rural Peruvian Internet, however, is about as fast as the rural Peruvian donkey is smart. Remember the days of dial-up? It took an average Web page about two minutes to load, giving me time to go to the bathroom, get some crackers from the kitchen, clip my toenails and think about what I was going to do once the page actually loaded.
Having no phone or Internet abruptly changed my daily habits. Every day when I woke up, my first thought was not to check my e-mail, but to eat breakfast and go surfing. When I was bored, it never occurred to me to go online to watch “The Office”; instead, I read books, talked to other volunteers and hung out with the locals. I stopped caring about the next call, text message, or e-mail and just focused on my day-to-day life.
Of course, there were drawbacks. Namely, my parents didn’t know that I was alive for three days after I had arrived in Lobitos. I didn’t have any idea if there had been a major global catastrophe, and I would have had no idea if something bad had happened to anyone I knew. For two weeks, I experienced nothing beyond my physical surroundings, my only escapes being reading and sleeping.
In the words of Joni Mitchell, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. While I missed my phone and Internet, I realized that I only needed them to call people I knew, and to make sure that my life beyond rural Peru had not gone down the waterless toilet bowl. Since I only had precious minutes of dial-up to use, I dispensed with my high-bandwidth thrills: no Facebook, no YouTube, no tech updates, no chatting. Despite all the advances that the Internet has seen over the past decade, I needed none of them. While I desired senseless videos, I only needed good, old-fashioned e-mail.
Today, the Internet offers us an immense variety of strange, entertaining experiences, from sending animated greeting cards to each other on JibJab to speaking to a Norwegian stranger over video chat on Chatroulette. Our phones have become more than just a means to hear someone else’s voice; they now let us play games, find restaurants or unlock our car doors. But when you have access to neither of these things, you realize exactly why you need them. We pay ridiculous sums for our seemingly indispensable iPhones when all we really need is a phone; I spend hours and hours on addictive Web sites when all I really need is e-mail.
We might be back from spring break, but give yourself another week’s break by turning off your technological gadgets and diversions. Use technology when you need it, not when you want it. I spent two weeks with my eyes closed to the outside world, and my life did not come down crumbling and burning. Close your eyes to distraction, and they open to true experience.
Will Moritz is a sophomore in Trumbull College.