I'm going to sound like a bit of an old-timer here, but wow, the Internet has really changed travelling compared to 18 years ago. I didn't notice the effect so much when I visited West Africa in 2002, because that's a pretty poor part of the world and the Internet was still a bit of a novelty then, but here in the touristy parts of Central America there's wi-fi absolutely everywhere, and the effect on the travelling community is huge.
Of course, this isn't the first big change that travelling has been through. The first wave of what we now call backpackers came along in the 1960s and 1970s, when people started dropping out of society and hitting the hippy trail from Europe through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and India, and on to Southeast Asia. This led to an explosion of travel guidebooks, in particular the now ubiquitous Lonely Planet, and with the advent of cheaper air travel, people taking 'gap years' were everywhere by the 1980s, to the point where going travelling became a pretty standard thing for young people to do. And now the landscape is changing again, as the old paper-based guidebooks give way to the Internet as the go-to source for travelling information.
Peta and I straddle the first two eras of travel. Ask Peta about travelling through the Greek islands in the early 1980s, or riding a motorcycle through iron-curtain-era Yugoslavia, and it's a pretty different story to modern travelling. The Greek islands didn't have phones, and if the weather blew up, the ports would close, so you had to time your departures carefully if you wanted to make a connection on land. You just turned up on the islands and asked around for places to stay; there were no guidebooks, you just asked people where to go.
When I travelled in the mid-1990s, the guidebook was well established, but the Internet was in its infancy: only geeks had email addresses, and only cutting-edge technology companies had websites. I took an Internet-savvy computer with me on my travels, and nobody knew what it was for; I used to explain it away as a portable fax machine, as that's what people could understand (and, indeed, that's how I would send my writing to my family, as that was the only technology they'd have access to). Like all other travellers, I'd turn up somewhere and use the guidebook to find suitable accommodation, or if that was full, I'd just start asking around. Other travellers were mines of information, and we'd swap hotel details and ferry timetables like they were a tradable currency. And as for reading books... well, they really were valuable commodities, particularly in non-English-speaking countries.
But these days everything travel-related is online, and everyone seems to be connected, all of the time. TripAdvisor has become the go-to website for finding accommodation, Facebook is how we all communicate with people back home, and every other person seems to be a bloody travel blogger. Instead of getting off the bus and idly wandering to the nearest OK-sounding hotel in the guidebook, travellers now go online in advance, search through hundreds of options, read through other travellers' ratings (often from just a few days ago), and if they like what they see they can even click on the 'Book' button and pay for their stay in advance. It's a complete change-around from just ten years ago, when you could only access your email in Internet cafés and wi-fi was still pretty rare outside of the West.
For me, this is all a bit of a culture shock. Back when I learned to travel, I'd spend ages poring over the guidebooks, and soaking up every bit of information I could lay my hands on, from hand-copied maps to route suggestions, and I played with my itinerary for hours, wondering where I should go. I trained myself to soak up information like a sponge, mull it over and make a decision, and this worked really well when information was relatively scant. But in the Internet era, the sheer volume of data literally makes me panic and I get information overload. I can't cope; my brain insists on reading everything, and when faced with having to make a decision, it simply freaks out and freezes. It's most inconvenient, and I find I can only look at TripAdvisor for a few minutes before the red mist descends and I have to go and lie down.
Luckily Peta is much more adept at filtering out the reams of krud that you find on the Internet, so we're playing to our strengths. I'm good at planning interesting routes through countries, sorting out the finances, and documenting where we've been; and Peta is good at finding places to stay and eat. It's a classic male-female split, and it seems to be working.
And there is one huge advantage of being connected on the road that even I have to admit is a life-saver. On my previous travels, I'd have to carry my memories with me, and the prospect of having my bag stolen was a constant worry. Most travellers back then would have some kind of paper notebook in which they'd jot down their thoughts, and any photos we took would be on film. I remember travelling through India in 1998 with about 20 exposed films tucked away in my pack, worrying constantly whether they'd get waterlogged on the bus roof, or baked in the hot sun, or infested with ants, all before I'd had a chance to develop them. I'd also back up my writing to a chunky flash memory card, which was about half the size of a packet of ten cigarettes, and I'd hide it in my money belt, so if someone stole my computer, at least they wouldn't get my writing. I'd email my jottings home when I could find a connection, but that wasn't that often, and I could never email the photos home.
Luckily I made it through both my big trips in the 1990s and 2000s without having anything stolen, and by the time we went to India again in 2007, everyone had started going digital, and I remember being surprised about the number of laptops I saw in the guest houses. These days there are iPhones and laptops everywhere you look, and wi-fi is an essential aspect of the modern travel circuit, so at the end of most days I'm able to back up my writing and photos to my website. Although it would be a major pain to have my MacBook stolen, as I wouldn't be able to write any more until I found a replacement, at least I shouldn't lose any memories (and I'm still backing up to a USB stick which I keep in my money belt, just to be doubly sure – old habits die hard).
So although I might find it hard to cope with the information overload of modern online travel, there is at least a silver lining. Though part of me can't help wondering if the less popular travel destinations of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua will bring back the good old days, when less was – for me at least – more.