Traveling and telephones: a cultural gap

By Daniel Gilbert

This is the next installment in a series of articles about a summer spent in the Peruvian village of Cochas Grande.

One night, we all sat around the table waiting for Marco to come home. He had gone to Huancayo hours earlier to rehearse with a band without letting anyone know of his intention to stay late. By 8 p.m., everyone was making a concerted effort to steer conversation away from the only thing any of us was thinking about: The bus from Huancayo to Cochas did not run after 7:30 p.m. As I noted the strain on the faces of the family, a fear began to gnaw at me. What if he didn’t come back? Until he walked through the door, there would be no way of knowing the cause of his delay. There was no telephone in Cochas.

The lack of a telephone, a link to surrounding communities, regions, and other countries, brought home more than anything the reality of being in a small place. While I lay ill in bed during my second week in Peru, I looked at the four walls that enclosed me, the blue tarpaulin which served as a ceiling, and the warped wooden floorboards, and thought: Where the hell am I? The smallness of the place swallowed me. Who from my world in the United States would be able to find me in that tiny room, in that tiny house, half a mile up the mountainside in a town even few huancaínos knew? I had disappeared off the radar screen of virtually everyone who knew me.

In the developed world of fiber optics and telecommunication, miracles slip by unnoticed. We press buttons that emit signals which are in turn relayed over miles of electrical wire to place us in contact with someone in a distant destination within the blink of an eye. But the simplicity and ease with which we perform such tasks veils the wonder of what is actually occurring. It is an amazing thing to reach someone halfway around the world by pressing a button. Forget airline travel; telephones allow us to effectively extend our presence to most places in the world without even having to move. The sophistication of the telecommunications industry reduces the extraordinary to the ordinary.

During my three months in Peru, I spoke to my family in the U.S. a total of six times—about once every three or four weeks—via a pay phone in Huancayo. Keeping in close contact with friends and family was not practical, and while, I missed those at home, I grew to relish the detachment. When I first arrived in Peru, I was hyper-attuned to low pitches, conditioned to listen for the hum of my cell phone. It struck me that this was not a healthy instinct. In the developed world, we are accustomed to thinking that a cell phone allows us a greater flexibility in how we live our lives. Phones of all varieties are a great social crutch, providing us with almost unlimited access to our friends and acquaintances, and allowing us to change our plans up to the last minute. In Cochas, however, I was entirely inaccessible to anyone more than a few kilometers away. Nothing outside of the village—not a phone call, e-mail, or letter—could interrupt my life, nor could I reach back. The only people with whom I communicated were those within shouting distance. Things were remarkably simple in Cochas.

I’m convinced that while making a lot of phone calls involves little actual work, it is a tremendously draining activity. Though it requires no physical exertion, there is a difficulty inherent in communicating with people who are far away as though we were actually in their presence. Given the ease of making a phone call, this latter element is deceptively difficult. To present one’s self out of context is a strain, and as we weave webs of communication stretching to the far corners of the world, we do quite a lot of traveling. Rather than having our influence limited to the zone we physically occupy, we spread our influence wherever we choose. Our minds run circles around our bodies, so much so that we become mentally tired far more quickly than we are physically tired. The body has a natural limit to its speed: The fastest human can run 100 meters in just under 10 seconds. The speed of thought, however, knows no such limits. As we live and work in the world of modern telecommunication, it is clear that mind has left body in its dust.

But there are still those regions of the world in which an older social structure governs the relationship between thoughts and their mode of expression. In Peru, my mind was forced to keep pace with my body. I couldn’t communicate with anyone I couldn’t see. To contact someone who lived far away meant physically traveling that distance. In Cochas, there was nothing casual about meeting someone in an agreed upon location. It was not a matter of pressing buttons, but of riding a bus over primitive roads for an hour or more. Without the luxury of being able to cancel plans at the last minute, I had to be positively certain that I could meet someone at a given time and place. Rendezvous were complicated, difficult things, which rested on the sincerity of a person’s word and his ability to carry out promises. The difficulty of such contact turned a routine encounter in the developed world into something bordering on the miraculous.

On the night that we waited for Marco, uncertainty kept us all on edge. Suspense made us uncomfortable, as it should have. No one headed off to bed until Marco finally came through the door. I could not help but think of my own home in the U.S. where I have often found my parents sound asleep when I’ve come home late, as they trusted the telephone to let them know if anything was wrong. Fear and uncertainty are not pleasurable sensations while one is experiencing them. Yet at the same time, there is a certain vitality—a heightened awareness—that comes from not knowing. The convenience of the telephone cushions us from natural fears, and when life is too comfortable, it is easy to forget what it feels like to be alive.