I have a desk calendar from a travel agency that shows travel advertisements from early 20th century, selling the exoticism of each destination, be it Alaska, Tokyo, or Norway. One century ago, those posters could be found in Batavia, but your ancestor was likely unable to visit those places. In those days most people could not afford overseas travel, and only exceptional men of color could travel. It was unusual for a woman to travel by her own accord.
Even a decade ago, travel still posed many challenges. You still needed city maps and road maps. Your dad’s GPS made weird suggestions. Budget flight was a fight cage (even now overhead baggage is still free-for-all in all flights). Internet roaming cost a fortune, and people complained/bragged that their BlackBerry roaming bill reached millions. And to think that at that time we have got Google, hotel and mall websites, and Yahoo!.
Perhaps there were also TripAdvisor, Google Maps, and several travel blogs, but travel, both domestic and overseas, was still tricky. Or full of surprise and adventure – if you see it optimistically.
Being a loner, I was excited when I had the chance to travel with friends to Singapore in 2010. But I still hesitated to take AirAsia at that time, and my travel agent recommended Lion, which had included everything in its ticket. I happily picked up my friends at Changi the day after my flight and shared my passion for Singapore’s metro train.
Then to my horror, I found that I did not share a room with just another man, but with five other people. Turned out this arrangement was quite common among Indonesian groups. While I worried that the hotel would find out and kick us out, nothing happened, and I wondered that Singaporean hotels couldn’t bother anymore with Indonesian groups. But what mattered was everyone stayed together and had fun together, right?
By early 2010s, I had been able to create my own program, bypassing travel agent – at least for domestic and regional travels. Booking my own flight, hotel, and noting down places to eat and shop. For many well-traveled Indonesians, though, self-booking was full of hassle and it’s better to rely on friends to book and arrange everything. Then the wireless big bang happened.
People were not ready for smartphones a decade ago. We worried a scratch or drop would turn any touchscreen phone into a brick, Indonesian mobile connection was unreliable, and “roaming plan” mattered only for people who used BlackBerry for business e-mails instead of group chat.
But about five years ago, Indonesian operators adopted the third-generation cellular network, touchscreen devices got reliable, application became the key piece of a mobile phone, and the roaming cost decreased. More hotels, cafes, and even transport companies offered free wireless internet.
If my destination is still in Southeast Asia, then I book the airline and the hotel as soon as possible. If the destination is farther, I would come to the travel agent with preferred airlines and list of hotels, readily comparing the schedule, price, and the advantage/disadvantage of the hotel location (I’m not sure all agents are happy with this behavior). When everything’s taken care of, I would spend days obsessed about the packing checklist, list of places to visit, about the transport options, and what to buy or experience.
Those perfect plans, are of course, prone to fail. One airline asked for travel insurance, and luckily I could buy one online at the last minute. It was a far cry from the days when I forgot to bring a photocopy of my passport when applying for travel tax exemption. I also almost forgot to activate the roaming plan, and got it just minutes before boarding.
Even with Google Maps, it is easy to feel disoriented in a city you’re unfamiliar with, and it is a hassle to sit down and check where you are. Otherwise, just walking on and get lost can be either thrilling or frustrating. Battery drain is a constant worry, and unlike several other people, I’m yet to find luck in finding new travel companions, despite the abundance of dating and social apps.
There’s also virtual travel, the easiest one with Google Street View, which was used by one agoraphobic woman to build an Instagram community. Now I access it if I miss Melbourne or fulfilling my college dream of being a Yokohama resident. In April my parents fulfilled their dream of touring western Europe by train, and I virtually joined in online, from tracking the flight path to taking a virtual tour through Paris. Still, Street View is restricted in Germany and probably Austria too.
It was more than indulgence. My parents’ train tour came just in time for the rail strike in France, and I had to monitor the SNCF railway company website and social media accounts for updates. When they could not leave France, I had to e-mail their hotel in Switzerland, while checking Swiss’ train timetables. I also informed them of church service time every Sunday. Finally, I helped monitored traffics in Jakarta and Bandung on their way home.
A decade ago we could keep in touch with others across the sea with text messages, while now we use messaging apps that also instantly send images and even videos. I could specify Ovomaltine and Dutch book I wanted to have with screenshots, even knowing the price and which nearest shop sold them.
Airplane food is more likely to get better than the legroom at economy class get more spacious. Still, you’re living in the best time to travel. With strangers less interested to talk to each other on the plane, you can watch and read whatever you want. And today’s airports are designed to balance the stress of queues with the comfort of having your personal spaces.
Travel might be less adventurous, and might be safer now, but I would still argue that it is never boring.
Read Mario’s take on the battle over pork in Indonesia and follow @MarioRustan on Twitter.