On the 9th of December in 2015, I set out for a camping trip with my three young children to the Sapphire Coast of Australia, toward the New South Wales and Victorian border (Figure 1). The last time I had driven through this stunning part of the world, was when my parents decided to take their four children across country in a Ford Cortina station wagon to visit their first cousins on apricot and citrus farms in South Australia.
Everyone lived in the moment. No one took pictures of their food to post to Instagram.
I turned eight years of age over that summer, and the memories of that trip are etched into our hearts. We’ve laughed countless times over events on that holiday, all of which were borne from a “lack of access” to technology, resulting in “close-ess” and “togetherness.” Loxton, South Australia, only had two television channels back then-the ABC news, and 5A which showed endless games and replays of cricket. While we grew to love cricket — we had no choice – we welcomed every opportunity to physically help our cousins gather fruit using nothing but ladders and our bare hands.
It was the festive season, and I remember lots and lots of family gatherings, parties, and outdoor lamb-spit barbecues. We gathered to eat, and dance, and our elders reminisced over what life was like in the village in Greece, and tell us funny stories about growing up with hardly any material possessions. Highlights included: when a photographer visited the village once every other year to take pictures with his humungous boxed contraption, which he would hide behind; the memory of the first time a car was spotted trying to come into the village; walking to school one hour away with shoes made out of goat skin (if not barefoot); and the harsh unheated winters and boiling hot summers over scenic Sparta.
It was a kind of celebration of life when I think back. It was so carefree, clean and pure, and joyous! Everyone lived in the moment. No one took pictures of their food to post to Instagram, no one had their head buried in front of a screen watching YouTube on demand, and we were outside in the fresh air awestruck by the beauty of the glistening stars that shone so bright in the night sky (and getting bitten by mosquitos while doing so). It was a kind of SnapChat without the “Snap.” On that trip I gained an appreciation for the land, and its importance in sustaining us as human beings.
As I reflect on that time, we travelled through remote parts of Australia with nothing but ourselves. We were too poor to stay at hotels, so dad ingeniously turned our station-wagon into a caravan, or so it seemed to us when the back seat folded forward and the travelling bags were placed on the roof rack secured with a blue tarpaulin.
No one had their head buried in front of a screen watching YouTube.
We had no mobile phone in the car, no portable wifi-enabled tablet, no gaming DS, and certainly no down-screen DVD player or in-car navigation system to interrupt the ebb and flow of a family confined to a small space for six weeks. Mum would put on a few Greek cassettes for us to sing along to (Dad’s “best ofs” which he had dubbed from the radio), and we paid particular attention to the landscape and wildlife. Mum would tell stories nostalgically about the time before we were born and how she left her homeland at seventeen on her own. And dad would talk about the struggles of losing his mother just before the start of World War II, and how his schooling was interrupted in third class as towns were burned to the crisp by the invaders, and how lucky we were to have a chance at education in a peaceful nation. All the while my brother Arthur was pointing at how far we had driven with his AO mapliterally thousands of kilometres-which gave me a great sense of space and time that has stayed with me to this day. And of course, I do recollect the unforgettable chant of my little sister and big sister in near unison, “are we there yet?”
Last December 2015, after a demanding year in my various roles that included bi-monthly long-haul travel, I was determined to “shut down” the outside world, and give my children what my parents had given me, in all the same simplicity (Figure 2). I somehow needed to give my children my full attention for a four-week duration without a laptop in tow, ensuring that my body and mind would recover from the year that was. I knew I was drifting into overload in September 2015, when on one occasion, I found myself asking my husband which side of the road I should be driving on, even when I was in my hometown.
When one loves life and what they do, it is easy to feel so energized that you don’t feel the need to stop… but “stop” I did. I wanted to reconnect with the natural environment in a big way, with my kids, and my inner self. I found myself asking those deep questions about creation – who, what, when, how? What an incredible world we live in! How does it all work and hang together as it does? I felt so thankful. Thankful for my family, my friends, my work, nature, life, Australia. It is so easy to take it for granted.
Each day, we’d choose a different place to visit, not excluding unsealed roads that led to secluded beaches, lakes, and inlets (Figures 3 and 4). Every morning we were awakened by the birdlife – a strange creature would call out at 4:30 a.m. for about 15 minutes straight, and then give it a rest; spotted lizards a few meters long on the road, and lots of kangaroos coming out of hiding at dusk to socialize. While we swam we could see the fish in the sea (with and without snorkels), and we got to speak with complete strangers, feeling like we had all the time in the world to do so.
At historical places, we learned about indigenous people like “King Billy” of the Yuin clan who would often be seen walking unheard distances in the 1950s in the dense shrub between Jervis Bay and Eden − 300 km (Figure 5).
My kids began to make comments about how resourceful the aborigines would have been, catching fresh fish, making new walking tracks, and being blessed to live in a pristine world before the built environment changed it so radically (Figure 5). It was not difficult for me to imagine throwing in my current lifestyle for the serenity, peace, and tranquillity of the bush. The kids and I would be outside under the sun for at least 12 hours each day, and it was effortless and filled with activities, and so very much fulfilling (Figure 6).
The kids didn’t watch any television on this trip even though they had access to it in one camp spot (Figure 7). I spoke on the cell phone only a handful of times, and on some days I did not use electricity (they were my favorite days). Many times we did not have any cell phone coverage for large parts of the day. I learnt some important things about each of my children on this trip and about myself and the world we live in (Figure 8). And I’d love to do it all again, sooner than later.
We’ve been sold the idea that technology provides security for us but I am of the opinion that at least psychologically it leads to insecurity (1). It is a paradox. My eldest kept asking what we would do if we got a flat tire or engine trouble deep down a dirt road where we had no connectivity, or what we’d do in the event of a bushfire (Figure 9). Good questions I thought, and answered them by driving more slowly and carefully, avoiding sharp rocks and potholes, and more than anything, turning to prayer “God, keep me and my children safe. Help us not to panic at a time of trouble, and to know what to do. Help us not to be harmed. And help us not to have fear.” For all intense and purposes, technology which has been sold to us for security, breeds a false sense of security and even greater fear. We have learned to rely on mobile phones or the Internet, even when we don’t need them. It has become a knee-jerk reaction, even if we have the stored information at hand readily available.
Depending on our work, we can feel captive behind the screen at times, or at least to the thousands of messages that grace our laptops and mobile phones.
I am thankful I turned to art on this trip – a decision I made a few days before I left my home (see cover image of this issue). I loved speaking to real people, in person, and asking them to participate (2). Being able to hear their laughs, and see the expressions on their faces, and listen to their respective stories was so satisfying. On a few occasions I embraced people I met after opening my heart to life matters, challenges, joys, and sorrows. The cool thing? I met lots of people that reminded me of my mum and dad; lots of people who had three or four or more (or no) children – and felt connected more than ever before to the big family we call “society.” We’d sit around at the beach, at the rock pool, or the camp site, listening and learning from one another, and somehow indirectly encouraging one another onwards. We soon realized these were shared experiences and there was a solidarity, a “oneness,” an empathy between us.
We returned home a few days early due to heavy rains, and unexpectedly I did not feel the drive to return to my email trove that I figured had grown substantially in size. The thought crossed my mind that I could get heavily depressed over the thousands of messages I had missed. But I controlled that temptation. The last thing I wanted at that point was to get bogged down again in the rhythm of the digital world. Friends and colleagues might have been shocked that I did as I said I would do – utterly disconnect – but I learned something very fundamental… time away from the screen makes us more human as it inevitably brings us closer together, closer to nature, and also brings things into perspective.
Depending on our work, we can feel captive behind the screen at times, or at least to the thousands of messages that grace our laptops and mobile phones. They make us even more digital and mechanical – in intonation, action, even movement and thought. Breaking with this feeling and regaining even a little bit of control back is imperative every so often, lest we become machine-like ourselves. It is healthy to be “Just human,” without the extensions and the programs. In fact, it is essential to revitalize us and help us find our place in the world, as sometimes technology leads us too quickly ahead of even ourselves.
While it is an intuitive thing to do, you might find yourself having to work that little bit harder to make the unplugged time happen. But breaking free of all the tech (and associated expectations) occasionally, reinforces what it once meant to be human.