The time of my life I most often recall is the month I worked like a galley slave on the open Atlantic sea. The year was 2003, I was 23 years old, and I took the job on a whim, desperate for adventure, finding myself? Maybe danger? Anything.
There was only me, the captain and the first mate. Our goal was to deliver the boat, a 41-foot catamaran, sailing it from the catamaran factory in Les Sables Dionne, France, through the Bay of Biscay and across the Atlantic, finally arriving in South Carolina. Between the three of us we had about half a dozen novels; the most advanced technological entertainment device, an AA battery operated Sony Discman. I finished the books in a week, and the batteries on the disc man died even sooner than that.
The talk was scarce as we worked in separate ongoing eight-hour shifts, adjusting the sails, steering the boat, making sure we did not smash into a passing freighter, stray buoy… sleeping whale. Or maybe we hated each other? But after a week the conversation was nothing more than a grunt and tap on the shoulder. We ate our boiled egg, filled our mug with tea and took a seat at the open-air helm by the stern. And for eight hours we just sat there alone with nothing but a compass, staring off at endless ocean with only our thoughts to entertain us before retreating to our tiny cabin to sleep.
This is the time I most often recall. Just sitting there at the helm, nothing in all directions. No sign of civilization. Nothing. And I miss it dearly, especially my shift from 4 am to 8 am. Spotting a hint of sea life or floating debris. The moon shining down, a swish of the ocean against the hull and flapping of sails. Then the slow colorful sunrise. For a full 30 nights in a row, this was my life. I was inspired like I never was before. I can´t put it into words, but I remember it felt good to know I was not the person I thought I was.
Due to storm damage we slowly made our way to the Azores for repairs, a set of islands a few hundred kilometers off the coast of Portugal. I jumped ship. I like to think I was nice about it. The captain did not seem concerned. He was wasted about an hour after we hit dry land. The second mate liked my idea and jumped ship too.
We flew to Lisbon then parted ways as I continued on to Amsterdam alone. I needed to go deep, to assess my experience at sea. I needed to get stoned out of my mind. And I did not just do that… I took mushrooms too. These little truffles called Philosopher´s stones. I munched them down with a British guy I met in my shared dorm room of the infamous Flying Pig Hostel. It was the first time for both of us, and we strolled the canals like floating deities and laughed like lunatics. We became best friends in 24 hours.
I eventually bought a Eurail pass in Paris and traveled in this wayward manner through dozens of hostels all over Europe until late 2004. No plans, no schedule, no computers except for the occasional dusty hostel desktop so I could email home. Completely solo but having little adventures and making temporary friends along the way. The faces that I remember I remember and it’s as simple as that. Just a smile on a face under a tuft of hair. I don’t know the names of more than two or three of these people today. The few photos I developed are currently stashed away in a box in my parent’s garage.
Now I own a hostel of my own. It’s standard to give a wifi code upon check-in and have the guest log into their smart device before they even enter their room. It’s standard to find a common area full of guests and dead silence as each person silently taps away on a touchscreen. We´re asked if we have some charging chord on a daily basis. I have an office drawer full of them because they´re often left behind like stray strands of hair. If our internet goes down I do panicked backflips to get it working again as soon as possible. The guests don´t just want it – they need it.
We collect friends and photos like strange currencies. We don’t want to throw them away and deep down we know we´ll probably never use all but a few. But we keep them anyway, find them in a drawer years later and say, “Why the fuck do I still have these?” before closing it again. Eventually, we have a big dusty jar of useless coins we have to haul around for the rest of our lives. But they´re currency! We can´t throw them away. I´ll sort them out and use them at some point, we think.
I don’t hate technological advances (Its more of a love/hate relationship). I believe they ‘re inevitable and quite handy. If you believe in futurist´s Ray Kurzweil´s law of accelerating returns, within a few dozen years, we´ll all be technologically connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week – a state he calls the singularity. So maybe in the year 2045, backpackers won’t even need to physically travel to feel the burn of ascending Machu Picchu or fear and jolt of being in the backseat of some foreign wild-eyed taxi driver. They can do it from home. Logging in, making friends and sharing sharing an experience won´t even be required because it won’t even be an option, it will be a stage of everyday human life, just like sleeping – and it will be completely normal.
Its fun to think about where technology will lead and I know this sounds so “doomsday cliché,” but it’s worth repeating. At some point the connection to the moment becomes artificial and lost. Real life that is happening right before our eyes will only be valid when seen through an electric filter of opinion and acceptance. We will think, if there´s no one else to witness this moment, then is it even worth doing?
I could be completely wrong and technological advances could take a different path, leading to a better and more enlightened state of travel. There are still times when I enter my hostel and see everyone engaged in chatter or each guest reading a book, an actual book printed on paper. The hostel desktop is sitting vacant.
I´m just happy I backpacked when I did. I think of my 2003 self and envy that guy. Because when I backpack today I have to fight the constant urge to login. I can barely take a photo without thinking of where I´m going to post it later. I get all moody and shifty-eyed when a hostel´s wifi is slow.
I´m going mad or just getting old, I often think to myself. I try to concentrate on pure poetic things like the beauty of the ocean or make an effort to say hello to the attractive face sitting across from me. I want that 2003 feeling back like when I was out at sea and the months of backpacking that followed, when the world and all of its inhabitants were a mystery and the answers were not laid out in front of me.
Would I have looked forward to my current myself and envy the person that I’ve become – an average idiot that likes to believe he feels comfort in simplicity yet still clutches to his technological vices?
About the Writer
Jonathan is a California native currently living in South America. He founded and for the past three years has been running the famous Castillo Surfista Hostel in Santiago, Chile. You can meet him in person and talk philosophy by booking through castillosurfista.com, follow him at www.facebook.com/besthostelinsantiago or stalk him through Instagram @castillojonm
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