How do you travel around the world when you can’t speak the language and are completely foreign to the culture?
Where do you turn when your friends and family are miles away?

great wall solo

Feeling alone in the world?

Social Media.
When I say to you that our trip around the world was transformed by Twitter, Facebook and Skype, I’m not exaggerating. For people like Ish and I who are looking for answers in the moment, social media’s immediacy of response is a godsend.

Having my iPhone ( as well as two laptops and a motorola Xoom)  in hand as we traveled made a world of difference to our trip. Here are three examples:

1. It kept us in touch:
Outside of money and time, the number one thing that likely keeps people from doing a trip of this nature is the fact that you would have to leave home. Whether you have kids who need you,  parents who need you or both, stepping away for a travel break can seem impossible . Our jobs keep us tethered to home and mortgages require us to be present and earning.  Or do they?

What social media did for us was take away the guilt that accompanied leaving some obligations behind while providing us with a solution for taking other obligations on the road with us.

home again 2012Skype meant that the kids could show their grandparents how much they’d grown, that we could actually attend a friend’s Christmas party  and that professional obligations didn’t have to end when we left Toronto.

In fact, being away opened up new professional opportunities for me. I made television and radio appearances from around the world on CityLine, CTV stations, Breakfast Television and more. I knew when magazines were folding or expanding because of Twitter and Facebook. I could chime in with congratulations on births and counsel friends who needed a shoulder. I was away from home but not away from my life and I had the power to turn it all off if I wanted to.

2.  It taught us focus: There comes a time in every visit to a ridiculously exotic place that it becomes normal.
We spent six weeks in India. The first time we saw a camel on the highway I probably took 27 photos.

camels Seven days later, camels, cows, donkeys and pigs would pass us without a single snapshot.
We had acclimatized to the scene; there was a new normal.
Every time I made casual note of an experience on Twitter, it would result in :
“Wow. That’s incredible.”
“Really just there? In the street?”
“What does that feel like?”
“That. Is. Awesome.”
And every single time it would cause me to look at the experience with a fresh lens.
There are things we understand to be funny or different or sad or heartbreaking simply because of our shared experience as people living on this side of the planet. Social media meant I could bring that experience – in the moment – directly to the people on this side of the world who shared my North American sensibilities and have them understand why it would affect me as it did.Ethan Orphanage Shanghai

There are people who frown at the amount of time people spend on social media outlets. They believe that we are “wasting time” on Twitter and Facebook. I think what many of us in this room realize is that there is element of support that you garner in an online community that is just as strong or stronger than a gathering of your community in real life.
We talk a lot about staying in the moment of an experience. “Drop your cell phone. Shut off from the world,” we’re told. “Truly be in the moment.”
I couldn’t have been more in the moment than when I had people reminding me of how incredible each moment was.

Cam Chinese Dress

From “Frustration” to “Completely at Home” in the blink of an eye

3: It invited us in :
Social Media allowed us to make loud, unapologetic entrances into every country we visited. We were like a nosy neighbor on steroids. Twitter friends introduced me to their Twitter friends and Real Life friends in places we were visiting. The end result was that we felt more like a friend and less like a stranger.

River Nile Other Twitter and Facebook friends suggested ideas for us based on their own experiences in a place. It is because of Facebook that we ate to-die-for pizza in Argentina. It was because of Twitter that we visited the panda sanctuary in Chengdu. The couple who told us about the pandas went on to share their blog post on their visit, information on how to get there, what it cost and tips on when to go and what to do.
Which led to photos like this

panda cam

An experience we might have found but would have come at as tourists,  we were instead able to experience as seasoned local travelers. We didn’t make the rookie mistakes of coming in the afternoon (the bears sleep then) or starting at the front ( it’s more crowded). The information shared on social media changed the dynamic of our experience.

Your Turn: Do you turn it all off when you travel?

*This post includes excerpts from a speech I gave this weekend at the Social Capital Media Conference (#socapott) in Ottawa, Canada.*