The Failure of Travel Apps

How I had to walk through Cassiobury Estate to find Hogwarts.

Rachelle Erzay

London isn’t as cold as they say it is in winter. London isn’t really that cold at all, in my opinion. It’s when you get out into the boondocks that you feel the wind rush through your clothes, slicing away at your skin through various layers of material. Getting there is almost worse. I took the Tube; a dirty, grey, and hot place where clammy bodies press to your chest, forcing you to breathe in their sweaty breaths. You’re forced to see their lives on their Facebook pages not because you want to, but because their phone screen is inches from your face, its owner not seeming to mind that you’re fogging up their screen. Slowly but surely at each stop, they drain away like water from a bathtub, taking their slurping, whirlpool lives with them as the wind blows more cold air through the open train doors. You don’t realise the chill until you are left at the end of the line.

All I knew about Watford was what my iPhone told me; this was the stop we had to get off at to get to the bus that would take Michelle and I to the Harry Potter Exhibition at Warner Brothers Studios. It all seemed very straightforward; a path already trodden for us to follow. The train pulled up at the lonely station, coming to a grinding halt at the end of the line. We got off and the wind took the breath from my lungs as we huddled together, climbing grey steps to walk through equally grey tag-off terminals, to find ourselves standing on a pebbled sidewalk in a time-warped kind of English suburbia. Cassiobury Estate, I know because I Googled it.  Cassiobury was a sleepy type of suburb characterised by those 1930s mock-Tudor style houses that imitated medieval cottages with pitched rooves, half timbering, mullioned windows, and high chimneys. It was quaint, almost gothic, in its remembrance of the past. But while I was admiring the cottages, Michelle was frantically waving her iPhone 6 about like a white flag calling for a cease-fire in this reception-free black-hole of an outer suburb.

We were awkward; clumsy like the rain that was pooling in the random gaps between the small round pebbles making up the pathway. We were pooling in a place we weren’t supposed to be. I knew this because I had the courage, as Michelle had said, to use my vocal cords (and not my fingers) to ask for directions. It occurred to me that human interaction was a new thing for Michelle and to possibly every 20-something who had grown up with fingers attached to their phone. I don’t exclude myself in this exactly. I can barely call up the dentist and make an appointment, but I know that technology is not always reliable and I fear my generation has forgotten how to deal with reality when technology fails them.

The man behind the station help counter had a shiny bald spot and glasses that were slightly wonky to the left. His voice was muffled behind the thick wall of plastic between us when he said we had taken the wrong train. We were supposed to be at Watford Junction, and that was a 30-minute walk through Cassiobury from where we were. It’s at this point when travelling that the road should be open – memories to be made and adventures to be had – when you are lost and unsure of where to go next. “The road less travelled,” my parents say, “is better than the road travelled most.” I would say few have walked through Cassiobury with the intention of finding Hogwarts, so the possibilities were endless. What they didn’t know is that in my generation, our reliance upon technology means getting ‘lost’ is almost an impossibility. What is the point when Google Maps makes it easy to get everywhere? What is the point in adventure when you have a travel app that tells you all the places you must see and all of the food you have to try? We left the station on foot and began trudging through the suburban planes of downtown Cassiobury, while I was hoping for a wild adventure to take place somewhere between Ricky and Station Road.

One that that I have learnt through my travels is: getting ‘lost’ isn’t as great as people say it is – especially when your sole companion consumes copious amounts of online content as if they were starving. Michelle was a classic example of my generation’s addiction to social media. Her eyes were red and bloodshot from a night of hard Instagram scrolling, and drool hung from her cracked lips after an hour-long trip of Internet deprivation. Her gaze darted back and forth as I guided us through the straight hedge-lined roads and driveways. Every so often, she would grumble about not knowing where we were going, wanting to detour from our given directions because her phone was wanting to take us in the opposite direction. But the directions we were given were simple, and my trust was completely broken in our useless pieces of technology, so we continued. At some point, we found ourselves unable to cross a highway, but there was a neat little underpass perhaps 10 feet to the left, which appeared to go straight underneath and across to the other side. Michelle however, was set on turning back and taking an alternate route – Google Maps trumps a Cassiobury local, it seemed. Watching Michelle scroll through her iPhone 6 devouring the ample amounts of useless information clogging up her newsfeed, and then Google (which seemed to offer her a peace of mind when spoken directions hadn’t), I became angry. At her, at society, and at myself.

What I hadn’t realised until that point was two things; Michelle’s trip was dictated by her access to reception and the Internet – the grandeur of travel reduced to the direction of Google Maps – and that her trust in technology was far greater than that of her trust in a human being. And then I realised a third thing – something that hit the hardest (because we all hate admitting to ourselves that we do the things we hate seeing) – I wasn’t any better. I did use the app that got us into this mess to begin with.

While I cannot complain about how much easier technology has made travelling, because it has – checking into our flight was less of a pain – I must firmly state that technology is an opportunistic life form that has done an Alien on us all. By that, I mean suckered its probing tentacles onto our collective face, and inhabited our every waking thought and activity of the day. From monitoring our heart rates, to sending us “cute” messages about traffic on our way to our partners’ place, or sending us to sleep at night with artificially beautiful wave sounds. While I love those wave sounds and I love that I know the roads to avoid when getting to my partner’s home on time, I don’t like my dependency, and I don’t like our collective dependency on the virtual. Instead of feeling and mistaking our way into our unique travel experiences, the technology of travel apps are picking and choosing the right aesthetic locations to visit, the local “secret” delights to try, and the top shortcuts to take to get lost on specifically. Why must we consume Instragram-able inexperience, when all we need for sustenance is the actual experience? Why must the trust of a human being come second to the faith we have in Google Maps for directions?

Google Maps wasn’t the only thing to get us to our destination, believe it or not. It seemed the Cassiobury local knew what he was talking about. The Golden Tours Shuttle bus was grand from a distance. The giant “The Making of Harry Potter” sign plastered along its side brought flashes of my childhood heroes – Harry, Hermione, and Ron – flashing to my mind and I found myself smiling despite the rain that had begun to pour. The smell of wet grass and fog hit my throat as I waited for Michelle to catch up.

“We made it. Alive,” I said to her as we stepped onto the bus, our Vans squeaking on the plastic steps. I don’t think she heard me. Instead, her head was turned towards the bright yellow sign reading “FREE WIFI ON BOARD” in Arial Bold Font. Figures.

Throughout the rest of my travels with Michelle, I constantly questioned the role of technology and social media and the effect it has on the experience of travelling. Being the semi-narcissist that I am, I’d like to believe that I’m different and that my travel experiences aren’t like that of everyone else’s. However, with technology being the way that it is, and travel apps seeming to dictate where we go and what we see and what we do, perhaps there isn’t a difference at all. Somehow our sense of adventure is locked away in our iPhone, or Samsung, or Nexus, and that’s a much colder experience than a boondock suburb of outer London.

 

*Names have been changed.


Amended version uploaded on June 19, 2017.

Originally published on February 22, 2017.

Creative Commons License:

Creative Commons License
The Failure of Travel Apps: How I Had to Walk Through Cassiobury Estate to Find Hogwarts by Rachelle Erzay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

 

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