I Needed a Break
I decided I needed a break. From social media, and what had become compulsive checking for likes and views, or new and interesting distractions. From the constant barrage of bad to worse news. From the temptation to “just check in” with work.
When scrolling through feeds, I didn’t necessarily even know what I was looking for anymore — just something, anything, that would grab my attention, hold my attention for a few moments.
Reading articles like this, and others, which have been telling us that Facebook, social media — screen time! — make us unhappy, unhealthy, anxious and depressed, I decided to leave my phone home while I traveled. I wanted to unplug and reset. Back to basics. How hard could it be, really? I’d traveled many times before I ever owned a smartphone.
I decided to leave all electronics home, in fact, except a camera. Friends reacted with horror, family expressed dismay and concern. Wasn’t that risky? It was definitely foolish! How would I keep in touch? How would I navigate my way in the world? How would I even know what time it was? I questioned whether I was making the right decision, but I dove in.
The Bangkok Airport
After twenty hours of flight time, with a brief leg-stretch in Taiwan, I landed in Bangkok, and my husband and I were right on time to catch our final connecting flight, when we hit the custom’s line.
“What’s the address of your hotel in Chiang Mai?” the custom’s agent asked.
We were not staying in a hotel in Chiang Mai, we answered, but traveling on to stay with family in Pai. He didn’t seem to understand, and repeated the question. We repeated our answer. He repeated the question. We repeated the answer.
Exasperated, he finally said, “What’s the address of your hotel in Pai?”
We would be staying with family, we explained, not in a hotel. “Don’t you have a confirmation number for where you’re staying?” he asked.
“No, we’re staying with family. They’re picking us up in the airport.”
“You need an address. Can’t you look it up?”
Yes, we could do that. “Where is the business center? Is the somewhere we can get online?”
“Yes,” he seemed pleased, relieved even, “there’s wifi.”
“We don’t have our phones.”
He looked bewildered. He all but threw his hands in the air, “I can’t help you then! Get the address!” And he moved on to the next people in line.
Being without a phone does require extra planning, and double and even triple checking that you have everything you might need — because you can’t just log in to get whatever details you may find you’re missing!
Since we weren’t staying in a hotel, we had no confirmation details printed out, and since our family was picking us up in the airport, we hadn’t thought to write down their address to give to a taxi. Rookie mistake, I’ll admit.
We raced back to the airline desk and asked where the business center was. No one knew, and the clock was ticking on our connecting flight.
“We have wifi,” the woman said helpfully. But we still didn’t have our phones.
If we could get online, my husband said, he could reach his brother and get the address for our stay. Were they sure there wasn’t a business center nearby? There had to be one somewhere in the airport.
The same woman shook her head. They always just use their own phones.
At this point we were growing desperate. I was searching for a directory kiosk. My husband was cursing our decision under his breath.
The woman, wordlessly, mercifully, held out her phone to us.
In the tense and anxiety-ridden ten minutes that followed, we frantically messaged home to anyone who was still awake, twelve hours behind us, and got the address!
The woman at the airline counter called to hold the flight for us, “You can make it,” she said, as we passed the phone back with profuse thanks, “but you have to run!”
I also wasn’t able to make any updates. There were no posts or tweets or grams or snaps — and there was plenty to share! I was worried about how my absence would affect my views and likes, but the world continued on without me just fine, and my followers were still there when I came back.
In a similar vein, there were a few times I wanted to look something up, and I couldn’t. It was annoying for a few minutes, but in Sukhothai I found much of the information I wanted simply by reading the helpful interpretive signage placed around the site, and between the group of us, we were often able to stretch our memories and find the fact or date or name we were looking for.
Navigating around with family was great. They knew where we were going, and we just followed behind. But coordinating for breakfast, or to meet up when my husband and I went exploring in Pai on our own, would have required another level of planning. Since we don’t wear watches regularly, and hadn’t brought them — another rookie mistake — in the end my brother-in-law just gave us his phone. A minor inconvenience, but still an imposition that I hadn’t foreseen.
The Good Stuff
Even so, with a little more planning, I think the down sides could easily have been avoided. And the experiment brought me a lot of benefits.
I wrote three stories, and snippets of others, and came home with more ideas. I wasn’t sure I’d do much writing. In fact, I was concerned I would have to rush and struggle to meet my deadlines when I came home. But I brought a notebook and pens, just in case, and I found my mind swimming with story lines. The science tells us that our best ideas come when we give ourselves a chance to be bored, or at least a moment to relax from focused concentration. By taking a breath from consuming media, we’re able to process, consolidate, take apart, and reconfigure what we’ve learned in new ways. That’s what creativity is at its heart.
I saw amazing things, which I might have noticed anyway, but might not have. The gorgeous rice fields out the car window, an amazing variety of birds, tuk tuks and motorbikes weaving around each other on the streets, the tiny shrines dotting the entire landscape, urban and rural, thousands of cranes coming to roost in a hillside forest, the final rays of an orange sunset bouncing off the crumbling ruins of an ancient temple were worth taking in without distraction.
I connected with my family and made new friends. Without my phone to hide behind, I took in more of my surroundings, learned about five words of Thai, and practiced them every chance I got — even if I did repeatedly say “thank you” when I meant “hello!” But that didn’t matter. What mattered was creating a shared experience, enjoying good food and drink, and a beautiful place, and laughter. I had good conversations with family I hadn’t seen in years, and good conversations with new friends, whose English is much better than my Thai. I noticed I only really wanted my phone when I started getting sick, before I even realized I was ill, because I felt vulnerable. But the better thing to do there was to get some medicine and some rest, and I was back up again in a few days!
I’m a voracious reader, but I still read more. I’m often reading articles, news, and all the clickbait listicles on my phone, with a few books tucked around the house, too. I love to read, and do it often. But I actually got to enjoy and finish three real, paper books in the two weeks. Without the latest article on my current interest popping up, I only had the volume in front of me, with no distraction. It was just me and the turning of the pages!
It felt good not knowing, not worrying, not being bothered by all the noise of the world. I didn’t know what time it was, and it didn’t matter. I ate when I was hungry, slept when I was tired, experienced and absorbed and asked questions and talked. I may well have done all these things with my phone in hand. But I don’t know that for certain, and somehow I don’t think so.
It was easy to get back to clicking and scrolling. The first thing I did when I got home was run to my phone like a favorite child, turn it on, and scroll through my feeds. It was nice to be caught up, and I will bring my phone with me next time. But I think I’ll try to keep it off, in my room, keep it out of the experience, except where it may add to it — with a quick snapshot of some lovely thing I want to share and remember. I’m trying to do that more at home now, too — to keep my phone in my purse, and off the table; or even to turn it off, when I’m spending an evening with friends. It’s strange that this has become such a radical consideration, just being with the people you are with, without the possibility of involving anyone else.
Want to try going phone free? Check out National Day of Unplugging, and consider leaving your phone at home on March 10th.