DHRUVA BALRAM is a freelance journalist, essayist and fiction writer who has an ardent passion for music and travel. A lot of thoughts run through his head as he is constantly flabbergasted at the world around him – occasionally, he writes these down.
Dhruva’s story about disconnecting from technology inspired us so we invited him to write a personal essay for our Chronicles section. This section allows our contributors to share a variety of personal experiences in more free-form manner.
I left Canada to embark on a meticulously planned eight-month trip that would take me through four continents and over a dozen countries with Australia being my final destination. I decided, on a whim, to not take my laptop with me nor my iPhone, instead bringing an old, clunky Blackberry that couldn’t connect to the Internet and would only be used for emergencies.
I had worked as a music journalist before my travels and I was very much a part of the constant stream of information one gets drowned in on a daily basis. Getting paid to keep your eye on breaking pop culture news, surprise album releases and singles being dropped surreptitiously, my hands were glued to my phone and my eyes constantly absorbing inane information to find the one thing I could write about. My vision for what I wanted to do with my life became blurry, my creativity staled; I found myself becoming agitated with this addiction to the Internet, because if I missed out on a hot topic I couldn’t write about it, and if I couldn’t write about it then I wasn’t getting paid, and without money we can’t survive. It became this endless hamster wheel that I was running on and the water dispenser was spiked. Like a needle going into the vein I needed my fix before I had brushed my teeth in the morning. I would skim through emails, check if I had any important Facebook notifications, follow that up by looking at my Instagram notifications and then Twitter messages. Getting out of bed and starting my day became a distant thought when all these otherworldly sources of instant gratification that demanded my immediate attention were readily available on this tiny electronic device that also happened to be my alarm clock. All the news, events and Internet jokes that I had missed out on while I was resting my body had to be caught up on instantly, because god forbid I miss out on something that could be used as an ice breaker.
But getting back to the trip… Despite my best intentions, within the first week, my meticulous plans fell through – as they do when you travel – and I was forced to adapt quickly, hurrying to Internet cafes to buy last minute travel tickets. To be out of the cultural Internet loop was deemed to be uncool, and even while traveling one is expected to keep up to date to the point where I found myself uncomfortably taking someone’s Snapchat on Robben Island – Nelson Mandela’s place of imprisonment for eighteen years. Travel had become another form of narcissism. Traveling to meet other humans had become secondary to creating a persona of yourself on the Internet. The human connection was lost. The Internet had won. Or so I thought.
Thankfully I found the more remote I got in Southern Africa, the harder it was to find ways to get on to the Internet. The first time the feeling washed over me, I was sitting around a bonfire in a remote region of Tanzania surrounded by Masai tribesmen. It was an odd sensation, like touching sandpaper for the first time. A remarkable feeling; it will forever be burnt into my memory. It’s the antithesis to adrenaline, yet addictive enough to be chased with the same vigour. The second time was in an Angolan refugee camp in Zambia; being washed over with a sense of not just serenity, but a liberation from all things robotic and technological. It’s a feeling that’s incomparable to most others because of its rarity.
The men had come in dressed in the traditional Masai garb reminiscent of National Geographic photos I had plastered on my wall as a child. They sat around the bonfire and spoke in whispers, ignoring any of the foreigners that sat either side of them. Refusing to miss an opportunity like this, I got up and made my way over to them, engaging what I assumed to be the leader of the group in conversation, as he sat in the very middle of the collective. He was eloquent and responsive, ready with a coherent answer for whatever question I threw at him, delving into localised problems to the world at large. He had heard of Facebook and Twitter but didn’t own a cellphone, and had no reason to.
He told me of his wives – pluralized – and of his several children, his cows, which numbered in the hundreds and what that means in the Masai community. He delved deep into the religious rituals, the spiritual ceremony and the problems the Masai community face as they slowly get removed from their homes. Articles rarely tend to stick with one perspective for a lengthy period of time as human interactions do; you see the contours of their face adjust to the emotions with which they speak.
I felt like this feeling, this liberation and serenity had now become natural to me, as if all the troubles I had encountered while traveling were no longer an issue. I had stopped relying on technology to get me from point A to point B; humans had slowly become my only source of advice in a world where we tend to ignore one another for the bright glow reflecting off our absorbent faces. I didn’t feel tethered to my possessions, I was bereft of them. I had found my human freedom from an endless ocean of texts, phone calls, websites and social media likes.
The human connection we tend to forge when we disconnect from technology can be a profound experience, one that will burn into the brain for a longer time than the latest meme that everyone is talking about. This disconnection from time to time is the initial step that can lead to more profound experiences; engaging my adventurous self was profoundly more rewarding than I would’ve thought beforehand.
Published: July 2nd, 2015