“I’m just old enough to remember what it was like to travel without a cell phone,” says Sara Clemence, a freelance travel writer and the former travel editor of the Wall Street Journal. “There were advantages and disadvantages, of course, but now everyone is taking selfies, checking Facebook, texting somebody they don’t need to be texting—and missing out on the destination around them.” This bugged Clemence so much, she wrote a book on the subject. Away & Aware: A Field Guide to Mindful Travel (Dovetail Press, 2017) is packed with practical advice on how to draw technological boundaries and reconnect with a destination through analog means. We caught up with Clemence at her home in New York City to ask what inspired the book and how she learned to stop worrying and put down her phone.
As a travel writer, you face constant pressure to document what your life on the road is like. Was this notion of mindful travel a big departure?
It’s easy to get sucked into social media, but I’m not the world’s most egregious example. It’s not like I looked up from my phone in Venice one day and was like, “I haven’t looked around me!” But since writing the book, I am increasingly conscious of how different travel feels when I’m interacting less with my phone. Doing stuff on your phone can be really efficient. You can figure out how to get from place A to place B quickly or find a restaurant. But “most efficient” doesn’t always mean “best.” If you don’t use your phone to figure out public transportation, it will take longer. But this is a vacation, not a commute. Who cares?
If you don’t use your phone to figure out public transportation, it will take longer. But this is a vacation, not a commute. Who cares?
Technology preempts a lot of conversations we might once have had with strangers—like asking for directions or chatting up a bartender.
Completely. It changes your vibe. Say I’m traveling with my family in Hamburg. The kids are hungry, so I’m looking up a lunch spot on my phone. I stop hearing my own children. I’m so focused, it’s like my brain goes inside my phone, and I just tune out sights and sounds and smells around me. It’s weird.
In the book, you advise asking strangers for restaurant recommendations instead of vetting everything online. But what if they give you terrible advice?
Well, sometimes the recommendations you get online are also terrible. And sometimes terrible is an experience, too! This is part of the modern travel affliction: We feel like we need to maximize every moment. Everything needs to be the best meal or the most beautiful food shot or the most amazing sunset—but that’s not real life, it’s not real adventure, and it’s not real travel.
What was your research process like for Away & Aware?
I did a bunch of reading about what device use does to us, and how it affects our bodies and brains in negative ways. Then I started thinking about the way we travel and all the things we are doing with our phones that we don’t actually need phones to do. Like taking photographs. We can shoot an infinite number of photos with our phones—it’s easy, it’s convenient, and it allows us to experiment. But it also makes us mindless in the way we shoot. One of the things I suggest in the book is going back to 35mm. With film cameras, you have a limited number of shots—so you’re not just pushing the shutter button willy-nilly. You think about what’s worth using a frame on, which forces you to consider your surroundings more closely.
Right. Suddenly you’re not taking 65 photos of your sandwich.
You might not even take one photo of your sandwich. You might be like, “You know what? It’s a sandwich.” [Laughs]
The point of a vacation is to take a break from your hamster wheel of a job, but social media can often just put you on a different kind of hamster wheel.
That’s right. I was in London recently, and I saw more people preening and pouting and trying to position their selfie in front of Big Ben than I saw actually looking at the thing! We spend half of our vacations figuring out how we’re going to portray our vacation. [Social media] is affecting the travel industry, too. Hotels and restaurants know that if their place is Instagram friendly, it’s like free marketing.
This is part of the modern travel affliction: We feel like we need to maximize every moment. . . . but that’s not real life, it’s not real adventure, and it’s not real travel.
Has writing this book made you more cognizant of your own tech habits?
So much more aware. People get in line and they pull out their phones. People get on the train and they pull out their phones. When we have a free space, we automatically fill it with technology. When I instinctively reach for my phone now, I pause and say, “Do I really need to do this or can it wait?” I try to be observant instead. Who’s on the train? What are people wearing? What conversations are taking place around me?
People pay good money to go on digital detoxes or sit in silent retreats. But your book advocates a more moderate approach. You encourage readers to choose a place on the “spectrum of disconnectedness” that’s comfortable for them.
I have never purposefully taken a digital detox. I have unwittingly ended up in places where there was no cell signal, and I once lost my phone in Stockholm. My husband felt so bad. He was consoling me, but I was like, “You know what? It’s OK. It’s just a thing.” And the next few days were really enjoyable! It was liberating. A digital detox vacation seems kind of gimmicky; just be thoughtful about how much time you want to spend with your head buried in your phone versus being aware of the world around you.
What happens when analog technology fails? The map is outdated, or the disposable camera blows out every picture. . . .
Look, you have to be OK with things going wrong. If you have to get across Copenhagen to your 7 o’clock reservation at Noma and it’s 6:15 p.m., maybe this is not the time to bust out the paper map and try to remember how to navigate. It’s about situational appropriateness. [Laughs] But if you’re in Paris and you have a loosely structured afternoon, who cares if you get lost? And here’s the thing: Technology isn’t infallible. A few years ago, I did a story about traveling with Google Glass. And frankly, it was terrible! I was in Puerto Rico and I wanted to find interesting architecture. A building popped up in the Glass, but the address was completely wrong. It had me running across a six-lane highway, trying to find some building that didn’t exist. [Laughs] I never found the building, but when I removed the glasses, I saw a lovely little beach that I never would have stumbled across otherwise.
Your book warns against overstuffing an itinerary. It also says it’s OK to be lazy and even suggests taking a nap. That’s so audacious, especially for travelers who feel like, “Hey, I didn’t come this far to sleep!”
Cramming 10 cities into eight days has always been a bad idea, even before we had phones. It doesn’t give you the mental space to appreciate what you’re experiencing. Would I rather glimpse six monuments in Washington, D.C., or have a really lovely experience at one lesser-known museum? I go for the latter. I just got back from six months of traveling with my husband and kids; we went all over the Caribbean and Europe. It was an amazing experience, but it didn’t give us a lot of processing time. Instead of reflecting on what we’d just done, it was on to the next thing. That can be true of a shorter trip, too.
One of your book’s suggestions for slowing down is to board a random bus and see a part of a city you would otherwise miss. Have you done that before?
Yeah! That idea came from my mom. She was a really adventurous traveler. We rode the bus together in Hong Kong. It’s relaxing because you’re not going anywhere in particular; you’re just sitting on a bus, seeing what you see.
You also recommend food quests—exploring a specific cuisine or dish in depth. What was your last food quest?
Pastéis de nata. They’re these fantastic egg custards they make in Portugal. My husband and I spent half of our trip seeking them out, comparing notes, and asking locals and restaurateurs which pastry shops made their favorites. It was exciting because it gave our trip a theme, but it was also a good excuse to connect with people. They felt like their culture was being seen and appreciated when we asked questions.
Some of your book’s suggestions read like interventions—attempts to put physical space between a person and their device. For example: Instead of checking the time on your phone, get a watch.
Totally. Because if you look at your phone, you’re going to see a text message that popped up, or an Instagram notification, or a New York Times alert. It’s all about interrupting the cycle and breaking these habits.
Things like Google Maps, translation apps, and currency converters seem so indispensable today. But people traveled for thousands of years without them. Do you think other generations were better off?
They probably had more exciting travel experiences because there was a greater sense of discovery. More surprises. You had to be more open and adaptable and attentive to your surroundings. On the other hand, having all of this information at our fingertips makes travel less scary and more doable. I try to imagine my mom, who in the late 1960s was hopping on ferries in Asia by herself, not really knowing where she was going to end up. Can you imagine doing that today without looking it up first? Where is this thing going? Is there an Airbnb on the island? No?! I can’t imagine taking that kind of leap into the unknown.
WHERE TO ESCAPE IN CITIES AROUND THE WORLDYou don’t have to go far to get offline. Here’s where Clemence recharges in seven of her favorite global cities.
Paris: “Atelier Brancusi at the Centre Georges Pompidou is often overlooked. It’s a re-creation of Brancusi’s workshop, full of his minimalist, soothing art.”
Milan: “I love the heart of the Brera neighborhood, with its narrow pedestrian streets and cool shops. There’s great people-watching from benches and cafés, too. Everyone there has such style.”
Venice: “Giudecca is a much quieter, more local island. I especially love Artisti Artigiani del Chiostro, where you can stroll around a serene courtyard and watch glassblowers, mask makers, paper artists, and other artisans at work and buy directly from them.”
Hong Kong: “Po Lin Monastery is a lovely escape from the buzz. You can also share a vegetarian meal, sitting at communal tables, at the monastery’s restaurant.”
Charleston, South Carolina: “The city has a number of beautiful churches, which are great for escaping the crowds, cooling off, and having a little thinking time.”
Washington, D.C.: “Dumbarton Oaks is a historic estate turned museum, garden, and research center. It’s off the beaten path in north Georgetown and pretty unknown. I love walking the terraced grounds and exploring the small galleries of pre-Columbian art.”
New York City: “At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, everyone goes for the impressionist or Egypt galleries. But my favorite is the under-trafficked Asian Wing, specifically the Astor Chinese Garden Court. It’s this traditional Chinese scholar’s garden, tucked away indoors. The galleries themselves are quiet and dimly lit, with scrolls, Buddhist art, and decorative objects like vases and carved boxes. Some might find the pieces boring, but I think they’re fascinating, and nobody’s standing next to you, trying to get a shot of it.”