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Serendipity is Dead!

My sophomore year of high school, my friends and I, after being regaled by tales from our older siblings of backpacking through Europe, decided that the summer of our junior year we were going to do the same. When I presented the idea to my parents, their response was “if you can pay for it you can go.” Of course, this was said under the assumption that there was no way in hell I could save the money needed for the trip.

Keep in mind air travel was quite expensive at that time, and the minimum wage, for which I was barely qualified for, was $3.35 an hour. But much to their chagrin, I was able to get a summer job and job during the school year.

Remarkably, I somehow managed to earn enough for a roundtrip air ticket, a Eurail pass and a meager amount of money for hotels, food and other necessities. I left for my trip armed with my passport, what I could carry on my back and the backpacker's bible, Europe on $25 a Day (the going rate at the time for a backpacker's lifestyle.)

It was 1980s, and, of course we did not have cell phones, computers or any way to learn about the destination except through books, maps, recommendations, and experiences. So, this meant we got lost, found ourselves in tenuous situations, ate some of the worst and best meals we ever had and met some amazing (and not so amazing) people. But the bottom line was that we were experiencing things. Not the same thing everyone experienced, but our own unique experience that often happened by chance. Of course, we saw the Eiffel Tower and the Parthenon, but the real journey was what happened around those landmarks. We did not take the trip to take pictures, in fact I think I had one roll of film and took a total of thirty-six pictures, of which probably less than half were usable.  The purpose of the trip was to experience, gain new perspectives and grow (Okay, also to meet girls, drink and eat hash brownies, but that other stuff as well.)

Fast forward to 2024 now besides our backpack we also carry our smartphones loaded with apps—Google, Instagram, TikTok, and the like—serving as a digital compass. While these platforms have revolutionized the way we explore the world, providing instant access to the 'best' restaurants, views, and experiences, they've also significantly diluted the genuine essence of travel. The spontaneity, serendipity, and personal discoveries that once defined the adventure of exploring new places are slowly fading away, replaced by an increasing homogenization of travel experiences.

That trip I took when I was 17 changed me as a person, I had barely left the 3 Boroughs of NY (who counts Staten Island and the Bronx?) Traveling throughout Europe changed my world view and gave me a wanderlust to explore places that the subway didn’t go. 

Having caught the travel bug I decided to move to Japan after college, based solely on the fact that it was one of the few countries where my Finley honed "skills" (native English speaker) could get me a job. Back in those days Japan was not considered tourist destination, it was very expensive and viewed as a strange and foreign land (they even ate raw fish!).  Initially it was hard living there, it was too expensive to call home so most of my communication was done by mail, which took weeks to arrive. The only English media I could find was one hour a day of the Armed Forces Radio, and on a rare treat I would go to Tower Records and purchase the Sunday NY Times to get news from home. (Interesting note, that is Tower Records still there!)

This forced me to really learn about Japan, from my initial stages of taking waiters to the window to point to the food I wanted (which was usually not what I thought it was; that hot pot I pointed to was filed with cow innards and not beef. I quickly learned what motsu nabe was- and will never forget).  I got lost on trains, had to ask humans for directions and found myself in random bars and restaurants where I had an amazing time and, in a few instances, made life-long friends. I truly had an authentic experience because for independent travelers there was really no inauthentic experience, until #socialmedia.

I recently went to Japan after a 6-year absence and was amazed at the masses of tourists (including me of course ;-). In the most popular destinations, the tourists outnumbered the locals, with people waiting in lines to take pictures at “Instagram famous” spots. Many restaurants had long lines of gaijin who all got the same recommendation from Google (“best ramen nearby.”) People follow digital maps to get from point to point with no wasted effort and time, and no possibility to stumble on an empty shrine, a hidden sushi shop or bump into your future spouse (I actually met my wife of nearly 30 years ago on a train in Tokyo, I would have never noticed her if I was looking down at my phone.) Today, you don’t even have to learn a few words of the language as the translation apps take care of that for you.

Algorithms dictate the content we see on social media, based on what is popular or trending. When travel destinations or restaurants become 'Instagrammable,' algorithms push them to the forefront, encouraging tourists all seeking the same photos and experiences. It's a stark contrast to stumbling upon a hidden gem by chance, a serendipity that algorithms can't replicate.

Before the age of social media, travel was an expedition into the unknown. You would arrive at a destination armed perhaps with a guidebook or recommendations from friends but without a minute-by-minute itinerary formed by trending hashtags. You might stumble upon a quaint café on a cobblestone street or find a hidden beach through casual conversations with locals. Today, those organic discoveries are often replaced by the top ten lists on travel blogs and 'must-visit' tags on Instagram and TikTok. The sense of serendipity and personal connection to a place is lost when everyone's journey becomes a carbon copy of someone else's social media feed.

Perhaps one of the most damaging aspects of social-media-guided travel is the pressure to document everything. The urge to capture the 'perfect shot' can dominate the experience, turning what should be a moment of personal reflection or awe into a staged photo opportunity. I see so many times people running to get "the shot" only to walk away without taking the time to truly understand and enjoy what is in front of them. What could be profound experiences turns into mere backdrop for social media.

Social media has undeniable benefits for travelers, offering inspiration and information. But its influence is a double-edged sword. The risk of reducing travel to a checklist of social media hotspots, devoid of surprise or personal discovery, is real and growing.

To recapture the essence of genuine travel, perhaps it’s time to put down our smartphones occasionally and let serendipity guide us. As the saying goes, not all those who wander are lost—especially if they wander without the need for social validation or social media directing their every turn.

I realize that times change, and I might just be that proverbial old guy yelling at kids to get off my lawn, pining for the good old days. But I personally feel a loss when I travel because I, too, am not immune to this and find myself having more and more social media-sanitized experiences. And I am especially sad that my children and their children may not experience the serendipity that makes travel (and life) so rewarding.

What do you think?


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