Travel Blog

Photography, travel, and self-reflection

How I Learned To Love Being Unplugged

One of the most challenging aspects of being a digital nomad is the ongoing struggle to catch a decent internet connection. When your business is online and you’re constantly on the move, good internet is essential, and not getting any is the same as not showing up for work.

You’ll arrive in an unfamiliar country after a ridiculously long flight and settle into your new place… only to discover that the internet is awful. Or nonexistent. A tourist can afford to shrug this off, of course, they’re on vacation. It’s good to unplug a while.

But for those of us who live and work on the road, a bad connection will cripple productivity. Our office is wherever we place our laptop, and jobs keep coming in despite jet lag, holidays, weekends. Work spans across multiple timezones. Our inboxes are always full, and social media never sleeps.

Until there’s no internet.

hiking-south-africa-hillary-fox

Unplugged on a photography assignment in Matroosberg, South Africa. We didn’t see another human for days.

Unplugged in Africa

I’ve spent most of the past year photographing throughout the Western Cape of South Africa. It’s a mind-blowingly gorgeous country, and my Cape Town base is a modern city. It was colonized by European settlers a few hundred years ago, so you’ll find plenty of Western influences: upscale malls, fine dining, great roads and world-class hospitals — the first human heart transplant happened in Cape Town back in 1967.

And yet, some of the infrastructure in South Africa lags behind. Despite all its progress, South Africa is still considered a developing country, which makes it difficult to work online.

Losing Power When You Least Expect It

They have this thing called “load-shedding” to deal with electricity shortages, where sweeping sections of the power grid will be cut off for hours, often without warning. It’s sporadic and can happen daily, especially in the hot summer months when demand is higher.

Hardlines That Hardly Work

While South Africa has very good internet compared to the rest of Africa, it’s still quite spotty and unreliable. I’ve found it to be a running joke among the locals… especially when I was getting download speeds of 0.69 Mbps, with wi-fi networking issues that caused outages roughly every five minutes. (I timed it!)

Cellular Data in The City

If you pick up a local SIM card, there is solid 4G cellular data coverage in the city, perfect for calling an Uber or checking Facebook. But as a long-term solution, such as tethering to work, you’ll quickly spend hundreds of dollars if you use the internet the way I do — as a photographer moving gigabytes of files.

And you’ll soon lose coverage once you venture off the beaten path. Each time I’ve traveled north into the South African wilderness, I was off the grid entirely.

Digital Culture Shock

When I arrived in South Africa in December of 2014, it stressed me out to be so disconnected. I’m one of those proud workaholics who can put in 80-hour work weeks, and I love what I do.

I’m used to being connected always. In Amsterdam, where I’ve lived over the past four years, I’m spoiled with a lightning-fast connection, wifi that never drops, and even a networked Drobo to keep my work safe.

It’s as plugged-in as it gets. But I’ve found after 15 years of working online, I think maybe it’s too much.

Ancient rock art found in Cederberg, South Africa. Completely off the grid.

Ancient rock art found in Cederberg, South Africa. Completely off the grid.

Letting Go of Constant Connectivity

I’ve spent more than eight months in Africa now, and I’ve learned that this “forced disconnectivity” is one of the best things that’s ever happened to my work, because less time online leaves me with more time to spend out in the field — where the the real work happens.

With less internet, I can spend more time outdoors exploring and photographing in this great city I love so much. When the network is down or the power is out, there’s no guilt about stepping away from the screen, because there are no other options.

Yes, the internet is a godsend for sharing. We share our creativity with the world in photos, status updates, and posts. We share our opinions and our latest selfies. We market ourselves in emails, we connect with like minds and make deals.

But before we can share, we must create.

By being unplugged, I have shared less and have often been out of touch with everyone this past year. I’m months behind on emails, and I know I’ve missed out on a couple of great gigs because I just wasn’t available. Some of my projects are sitting idle, which is a frustrating sacrifice.

But in 2015 I’ve taken more photos than I have in the last five years.

I’ve met so many wonderful people. I’ve climbed mountains and camped under the African sky. I’ve walked with penguins on the beach, watched wild baboons and ostrich run across the landscape, smelled wildflowers that exist nowhere else on Earth. I’ve seen so many brilliant sunrises and sunsets.

I’ve been fully immersed, less distracted, and free from all the noise. I’ve fallen in love with photography again, and I’ve become a better, braver travel photographer.

Stepping away from the internet for awhile helped me rediscover the deep inspiration that drives us all to create our best work. In a creative field, inspiration is paramount to success.

I feel like I’m truly living, and isn’t that the whole point? Because it feels wonderful to unplug a while and simply create.

Even if it means there’s a big stack of emails waiting for me when I get back.

2 Comments

  • Judith Mellet on Sep 30, 2015 Reply

    What a brilliant viewpoint, Hillary. Living in South Africa often forces one to focus on the half-full glass instead of on the half-empty one, as you are clearly discovering.

    • Hillary Fox on Oct 02, 2015 Reply

      Thank you, Judith. These little challenges are so worth it to live in your beautiful country. I just love South Africa! 🙂

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