As soon as I stepped onto the trail of the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal, backpack on back, boots on feet, I was overcome by a dizzying combination of anticipation, nostalgia, and pure, unadulterated joy. As soon I’d finished the trek two years earlier, I knew I’d be back; back to the fresh air, the yaks, the blisters, the punishing climbs and the spectacular views. I took immense comfort in the fact that amongst the flurry of progress, of smartphones, laptops and Wifi, where I found it hard to drag myself away from my various screens for more than half an hour, there was a place that forced me to unplug. I could tear my eyes away from the various screens in my life, and refocus them on the panorama of rushing rivers and the mighty Himalayan mountain range.
About five hours into the trek, the final climb of the day loomed before me. The path zig-zagged steeply between tilled fields to Bahundanda, a collection of colorful wooden houses clustered on a hill overlooking the sprawling valley; my home for the night. In the two years since I had last visited Bahundanda, it seemed little had changed. Goats still perched precariously on the hillside. Women still trudged up the steep hillside, impossibly large baskets strapped to their foreheads, their bodies hunched with the weight. The town still looked sleepy and isolated, far from the busy main road that reached further and further into the trekking area every day.
And then I saw it, a freshly painted ‘Free Wifi’ sign swinging above the worn sign at the Hillview Guesthouse. Two years ago, the newly fitted outlets and electric light bulbs had been a point of great pride for the owner of the guesthouse; then, the idea of Wifi in this peaceful, isolated village had seemed – to me, at least – unthinkable, and not at all desirable.
Like most of us, I rarely go a full day (okay, a full hour) without checking my email, posting pictures of food on Facebook, or getting sucked into a loop of endless top 10 lists, but something about live tweeting your Himalayan trek just didn’t sit right with me. Those freshly painted signs and proud owners were a constant presence throughout the trek. Instead of enticing trekkers with 24-hour hot showers, owners bragged about their 24-hour Wifi and charging stations. And while the guesthouse owners were understandably proud of this new development, I was much less impressed. At best, I was slightly scornful of the smartphone-using trekkers around me; at worst, I was downright rude. On the third day, when we came to a fork in the road, my German trekking buddy whipped out her smartphone and consulted her GPS. I managed to resist the urge to grab it out of her hands and hurl it into the valley below, but only just. “Wait, let’s just try to figure it out with the map. Anyway, if we do get a bit lost, that’s sort of part of the fun, isn’t it?”
She smiled uncertainly at me, “Well, you don’t have to look….”
But, of course, I looked. I saw the little blue dot (us) on a stretch of trail—admittedly, not exactly close to where my map and I had deduced we were. I couldn’t help but be just a teeny bit impressed that this little phone could pinpoint my exact location on this winding dirt trail. But, not one to let go of a grudge easily, I told the (just slightly, remember) impressed part of my brain to shut up and continued scowling at every screen I saw. For the first week of the trek, I scoffed at trekkers who uploaded nightly snapshots of 'dal baht' to Instagram. I turned my nose up at those consulting PDF versions of elevation maps, favoring the paper version, now creased from its daily use. I sat with my dog-eared book, secure in the knowledge that I was doing this right, unlike the technology-addicted trekkers around me.
And then, on April 25, 2015, the earthquake hit. I was lucky enough to be in Manang at the time, acclimatizing before the highest section of the trek. Crouched in the doorway of my small wooden cabin, I watched panic-stricken locals clump together in the streets, far from the unstable stone-walled houses, clouds of snow erupting from the mountainside. Manang is spread over a small plain, and thus relatively safe from avalanches, the primary concern when you happen to find yourself in the Himalayas during an 8.1 magnitude earthquake. Everyone in Manang was shaken, confused, and thirsty for information, but unhurt. It was quickly apparent, however, that the rest of Nepal hadn’t fared so well. Reports came in sporadic bursts. Rumors spread quickly while reliable information seemed almost impossible to find.
“I heard the roads are blocked both ways! We won’t be able to leave Manang for a week.” “A blizzard’s coming, and it’s going to be a big one.” “Did you hear? There were earthquakes in the US and India too—it’s like Armageddon or something!”
Street view of Manang - The lull before the storm
Phone lines were down all over the village. Locals and trekkers huddled around radios, thirsty for news. And then, less than 24 hours after the quake, trekkers started whispering about a guesthouse that was rumored to have working Wifi! Almost instantly, crowds of trekkers crammed into the guesthouse, logged on, and spent the rest of the day checking the status of the path and reassuring frantic friends and family members. Suddenly, it didn’t seem like such a bad thing to be a little more connected to the outside world. Suddenly, instead of scoffing at my trekking buddy’s smartphone, I was eating humble pie and begging to borrow it. Suddenly, the appearance of Wifi on the trail didn’t seem so bad. Header picture by Steven Campbell
WiFi on the Trail - A good or a bad idea? What do YOU think? Share your comments below!