How to: Lean In While Abroad

Contributed by Victoria James


Digital Packing List:

1 Tablet: check

5 Seasons of Breaking Bad:  check

16 Movies on Netflix’s Instant Queue: check

24 Hours of Pete Tong’s Essential Mixes: check


Looks like you will be very entertained on your next trip to…anywhere.

On second thought, why even leave home?

Wait a minute- isn’t the whole point of traveling to “get away from it all,” including your normal routines and surroundings?

A recent article by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni explores our troubling habit of spinning digital cocoons for ourselves while traveling. Even though the Internet makes mincemeat of time and space, is that really what we should be taking advantage of while in Reykjavik, Curitiba, or Valparaíso? For example, even though Bruni is in Shanghai, he describes his desire to binge his favorite TV episodes (which he conveniently downloaded, along with hundreds of other digital snacks), check in with his usual followers and loyally cruise through an endless turnstile of bookmarked sites. In defense of the Internet Bruni argues, “in theory the Internet should expand our horizons, speeding us to aesthetic and intellectual territories we haven’t charted before,” but unfortunately, “cyberspace, like suburbia, has gated communities.”

Bruni’s digital routine is ready and waiting, but so are Shanghai’s notoriously delicious soup dumplings. What to do, what to do?

Bruni surprised himself when he realizes how tempted he was to stay put in the hotel room, clad in his jammies, equipped with iPad and WiFi. Bruni embarrassingly admits that he initially preferred to watch American television than explore one of the most dynamic cities on earth. Whoa.

Taking a page from Kurzweil, Bruni describes the merging of man and machine, explaining that most of us never have to unplug ourselves if we don’t want to: “it’s a function of how so many of us use this technology and how we let it use us.”

“Traveling without seeing” is the expression Bruni coined to describe our habit of turning into digital hermits when abroad. A comment by Patrick from Raleigh hits the narcissistic nail on the head: “I often see tourists in beautiful places stop, take a picture, and move on without stopping and looking at the scenery. I see people at the Met taking pictures of the art without looking at it. The irony is that the Met has hi res digital images already on their Web site. There are probably hi res pictures for most of the popular tourist locations, so put down your cameras and start looking at the world.”

While new sights, smells, languages and interpretations of what constitutes public health and safety can be rather unsettling at times, Bruni’s message is overwhelmingly to lean in whilst traveling. Even if your feet hurt, your camera battery is dead and you’re almost out of money, take advantage of those last few days, hours or minutes to engage with a new place billions of people can only dream of visiting.

Still need some digital detox, but are intimidated by the long lines at tourist attractions? Here’s a list of 10 untouristy things to do from Travel & Leisure’s Erik Torkells.

  1. Stay local

  2. Get a massage or a haircut

  3. Skip the souvenirs

  4. Work out

  5. Rent a bike

  6. Run an errand

  7. Find your crowd

  8. Go to a neighborhood church

  9. Watch sports

  10. Linger

While traveling abroad may be a very overpowering experience at certain points (including those questionable empanadas and death defying rickshaw rides) it’s all a part of the trip. While Bruni’s piece is in no way encouraging readers to put themselves in danger in the name of an authentic experience, he does chide himself and others for being all too complacent in their high-tech hiding places.

So the next time you’re far from home, vale la pena and hop in the nearest bus, taxi or tuktuk and never look back.

Photos by Victoria James