I knew something was wrong when instead of descending onto an arid coastal road, I was motoring among green, rolling hills. I immediately suspected Hummus was to blame.
My 18-year-old daughter had dubbed the disembodied, British-accented, female voice of the GPS mounted on the windshield of our rented car "Hummus," following a food/GPS naming protocol that began five years ago when she started calling the disembodied, British-accented, female voice coming from our German GPS "Spaetzle."
We were traveling through Israel for a week during her school spring break. Having left Jerusalem that morning for the Dead Sea, we were hoping to flop around in the mud on the shores near Ein Gedi, climb Masada and float, unsinkable, in the salt sea.
I'm familiar with Israel's geography and had assumed the GPS would send us east for a short distance before moving us south along the coastal road. I followed Hummus' directions mindlessly, but when green hills showed no signs of morphing to tawny rock mesas, I took out my iPhone to check its compass reading. It said we were headed southwest, and I knew we should be going east or south, or at least southeast.
I pulled over and offered Hummus alternative destinations along the Dead Sea, but no matter where on the coast I instructed her to take us, she continued to calculate a route that first headed southwest. It finally dawned on me that she was programmed to avoid going through the Palestinian West Bank.
I'm not averse to traversing the West Bank. I had traveled through it for a week last year and had spent part of the previous day in Bethlehem. While I'm aware there are some tense areas in the territory, they're certainly no more threatening than parts of big cities in the U.S., which a GPS presumably would not consider off-limits.
We ended up approaching the Dead Sea from below its midpoint, and the extra miles we drove meant we didn't have enough time to climb Masada (we also had an appointment later in the day to visit relatives in central Israel).
For me, a GPS is a guilty pleasure I indulge in only while traveling; I don't have one for my personal car. But though Hummus was generally efficient (and kind enough to alert me to speed cameras), I'm thinking I may forgo renting a GPS on my next trip.
I'm upset that I missed Masada, but I don't blame the GPS. I'm more upset with myself. The episode got me thinking about what else I was missing by relying on this technology.
For years, I happily explored dozens of foreign lands relying on a combination of maps and the kindness of strangers willing to help me get back on track. After I started using a GPS, I began to lose my orientation within a country, considering only the endpoints of the line I was etching from "point of interest" to "point of interest."
A country, of course, is much more than the sum of its museums, restaurants, battlefields, hotels, theme parks, spas, stores and scenery rushing by. A trip is defined by more than its famous landmarks.
Getting into a car and then turning left or right on command until a checkered flag appears on a small screen is certainly efficient, and you might never get lost, but something gets lost nonetheless. A trip is so much richer when you're fully conscious of where you are at any given moment.
The best travel agents and tour operators know this. It's not a question of having a tour escort keeping up a constant stream of chatter about each passing historical marker (I think travelers tend to tune that out after a while), but rather it's understanding the importance of giving guests a clear sense of orientation as they move from place to place.
It's done during pretrip planning by experienced agents. It's done by tour operators during the trip, with maps and evening discussions of what clients will be seeing the next day, by building time in for clients to explore on their own and by making "sense of place" as high a priority as advice about shopping.
On the other hand, there are tour operators who design their businesses to mimic that of a robust GPS. They disempower clients, encouraging them to go only to places they are led. They have perfected the art of hand-holding and believe this will instill a sense of gratitude, perhaps dependence, that can be converted into repeat business.
Throughout the past decade, there have been trends toward "authenticity" and "experiential travel," as well as technology trends that have had the effect of depersonalizing travel and distracting us from being fully engaged in our trip. The futurist Scott Klososky predicts that one day there will be trips marketed as "technology free": no cellphones allowed, no WiFi available, no recharge stations along the way.
I have mixed feelings about that. While there's something appealing about writing letters by hand and being "out of touch," I also used some technology during the trip, notably translation apps and my phone's compass, which made my trip more pleasant without distancing myself from people and places.
A rule of thumb on technology and travel should be based on connectivity. If technology reduces your connection to where you are and who you're with, simply disconnect it.
A GPS would fit that category. If I next find myself driving through Russia, it will likely be without "Blini."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.