On Traveling: Unplugged

by Beth Whitman (April 29th, 2013)

unplug logoA couple of weeks ago, reports surfaced that Alec Zimmerman, a young woman from the Seattle area, disappeared while hitchhiking from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Peru. She hadn’t been heard from by her family and friends for a few days and her loved-ones started to get worried. The couchsurfer whom she had stayed with prior to leaving BA had been circulating fliers at the truck stop where she was last seen and by day six, the FBI had been contacted.

But then Alec logged into her email and discovered that there was an international incident caused by her going off the grid for less than a week. She was safe. She was just unplugged.

Her family had good reason to be concerned. According to this article on King5, Alec had been robbed several times while backpacking, once at gunpoint.

So, I appreciate the fact that Alec’s family was concerned about her but, previous incidences aside, it made me realize how short a time period it takes for us to be off the grid before we might cause a similar incident in the international press. We are so connected now that in less than a week of a traveler not having “checked in,” the worst is feared.iphone crushed

I spoke with Sarah Stuteville for this Seattle Times article and in that conversation we both talked about the freedom we felt from our early travels (pre-Internet) and how we could be gone for months on end without having contact with our family. I remember sending long letters from Vietnam to my parents, popping them in the mail and hoping they’d get there. On rare occasions I’d try to call home, but the expense (at about $5/minute) prevented me from doing it often.

Alec herself admitted to feeling “liberated” when she was offline for that week.

Well said.

Without the pressure of having to check email, update your status on Facebook or tweet a photo about your latest meal, you’re FREE! Free to actually live in the moment and enjoy the experience rather than worrying about how to capture it.

I know there’s a camp of travelers that stays connected – tweeting about their travels and posting to Facebook regularly while on the road. And, look, I’m guilty, too, of posting my travel photos and food pics. But I’m saying that there IS value in spreading your wings without succumbing to the addiction of constantly being online.

Do I think that a solo woman hitchhiking through South America is a good idea? Mmmm, no. But I think that Alec’s bigger failing was to not set better expectations with her family. Simply letting them know that she may not have constant access to the Internet might have prevented this incident.

Ultimately, I hope her liberating experience taught her that there’s more of that to be had. She can now intentionally set out to be off the grid (I just hope it’s by bus, rather than by thumb). And I hope we can all learn a lesson from the experience. It’s OK (even good) to be offline, just tell your mum first.

Travel Well,


Related links:
On Traveling: Transformative Travel
On Traveling: With Resilience
On Traveling: Solo Safety Issues

Photo credit:
iPhone cracked: thetechbuzz

On April 29th, 2013 at 8:28 am, Lauren said:

Setting up expectations beforehand – exactly! So much of the news coverage on this fails to address that issue. If you’re planning to un-plug, let your nearest and dearest know, with an approximate logging-back-on date so they don’t worry. But it is interesting that it’s got everyone talking about un-plugging. That’s a valuable conversation to have.

On April 30th, 2013 at 12:59 pm, Aleah | SolitaryWanderer.com said:

I read about her case. While it’s very good that she’s safe and sound, she should have kept her family informed on where she was. It’s very understandable they’d be worried especially with the number of news reports nowadays about women travelers coming to harm.

On April 30th, 2013 at 6:36 pm, wandering educators said:

yes, she should have told them she was going off the grid for a bit. i don’t blame the family for being worried, either! but getting off the grid is ALSO wonderful, powerful – just should be done right. :)

On April 30th, 2013 at 6:42 pm, Steve said:

I think this is why I enjoyed Myanmar so much – nothing worked so we were forced to unplug and fully enjoy in the scenery. But you’re right, definitely let people know beforehand!

On May 1st, 2013 at 8:53 am, Cat of Sunshine and Siestas said:

Traveling and trying to find time to write home and keep your family informed can be really difficult. I read about Alec’s case with interest and a pang of guilt for not always telling my family about all of my travel plans – they’re huge scaredy cats! Even I went to Morocco for three days I was made to contact my boyfriend every evening. This was before smartphones that could hook up to Internet, and even sending a text message was at an exorbitant rate.

I’m hoping to spend some time disconnected when I do the Camino de Santiago this summer, but between using my smartphone as a GPS, sharing with my readers and trying to raise money for a pediatric cancer support fund, I have a feeling that I’ll be far from unplugged!

On May 1st, 2013 at 8:58 am, Larissa said:

I read two parallel issues here: Managing expectations regarding contact to ensure safe travel practices. . . .and the more global (no pun intended) concept of getting off the grid.

It’s good to keep family and friends informed (especially if you won’t be doing much informing for a while. . . ). But totally lovely to be off the grid–giving us the ability to truly travel and live in the moment, absorbing the culture into which we have immersed ourselves.

That said, I’m getting off the internet right now and going for a walk in the woods 😉

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