I just returned from two weeks in Belize, where I decided to travel without a phone, tablet, or any other Internet-capable electronics. On vacation to far-off places, I often opt to disconnect blissfully from email, Facebook, Twitter, and the endless stream of headlines that I find myself otherwise scanning almost obsessively.
In Hopkins, a charming, ramshackle seaside village where everyone says hello when they pass (in fact, they say “all right, all right” in greeting), I felt most acutely that my decision to go without a smartphone was the kind of choice that only a pampered, first-world citizen would make.
I didn’t set off to go cold turkey. I was travelling with my husband who brought his phone, which we used occasionally to call ahead to check availability at hotels after first looking them up on Trip Advisor. I definitely factored his phone into my decision not to bring mine: there’s some security in knowing you can call for help in a jam.
Belize is part of the British Commonwealth but considered by many to be a third-world country. It’s terribly poor. I was therefore surprised to find that every guesthouse and hotel in which we stayed had free Wi-Fi, as did many cafés and bars. The connections weren’t totally reliable and surely not fast enough to stream video, but perfectly serviceable for looking up hotels and other travel information.
Most towns we visited also had an Internet café that was quite expensive by local standards. Nearly half the population of Belize lives in poverty. Only a few main highways are paved, and most people in Hopkins get around via foot, bike, or bus — mostly retired U.S. school buses. Internet access at the café would be a luxury for many.
The challenge for some locals, then, is getting ahold of a device to connect to the free Wi-Fi that serves tourists. In Hopkins, we chat with a fellow in his mid-20s, “George,” who is the caretaker of the small guesthouse where we stayed. (I changed his name for the sake of his privacy.) He has an ancient flip phone stamped with Verizon’s logo that he uses to call the owner of the place after we show up unannounced.
What he really needs though is a phone that could connect to the Internet. The net café was too expensive — US $4 an hour, he says. If he only were to have a smartphone he could use the free Wi-Fi at the guesthouse or many other spots in town for email. George had met a California girl (“my dream come true,” he says), and very much wants to keep in touch.
The small library in town that’s very popular with local kids has just the opposite problem as George. When I pop in, the volunteer who runs the library was setting up six brand new laptops that had been donated. The problem, she tells me, was getting an Internet connection to let the kids start using the computers. Belize has widespread government corruption, and in a remote town like Hopkins, hooking up a new connection can take forever, she says.
After a few days in Hopkins, meeting people like George and the librarian, my decision to disconnect on vacation felt trite. There’s little satisfaction in deliberately giving up something, as if I’m making a great sacrifice, when so many people around me very much want that same thing but can’t get it.
And I always knew that I could get online if I had to — and in fact I did. I was glad to have my husband’s phone near the end of the trip when I woke up with a mysteriously swollen eye. We took a photo and emailed it, using the free Wi-Fi at our hotel, to a doctor friend back home who told me to relax and take a Benadryl. I was fine by the next morning. In the end, all I had to do was reach for his phone.
Nancy Gohring’s work has appeared in Wired, the New York Times, the Economist’s Babbage blog, MIT Technology Review, Computerworld, CITEworld, ITworld, and many other publications. She started writing about cell phones when they were huge and expensive, and now covers a wide range of technology and science topics.
The library mentioned in the story, Miss Bertie’s Library, was built in 2008 by Peace Corp volunteer Bertie Lee Murphy. An outdated Web site describes the library and links to Murphy’s blog where she recounts how she built it. Contact and donation details on the site may not be accurate; you can email the library at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was produced by The Magazine. It costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and subscriptions include free access to 150 past articles — our full archive. We commission original reported articles and essays, and run five in each issue every two weeks. You can get a free, seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.