Mar 28

The Curious Case of Julia Wendt; or ‘Modern Missing Traveler Syndrome’

julia wendt (image: Facebook)

 

Colombia’s growing network of technology-connected young people went into overdrive yesterday, following an emotional Facebook plea from a Swedish woman named Lena Wendt, explaining that her daughter, one Julia Wendt, had not been in contact with anyone since March 19 whilst traveling in Colombia. Julia had been in Medellin, scheduled to stay with a Couchsurfing host, and had apparently not been online in any form since the aforementioned date. This Facebook post was quickly picked up on by Colombians across the social media network, and ended up being shared over 11,000 times, throughout not just Colombia, but across the world. We shared Lena’s plea on our Facebook page, and all sat back, feeling slightly helpless and hoping that this young lady would turn up safe and sound…

Which she duly did, later that day, as El Colombiano confirmed, having been the first major Colombian news outlet to cover her disappearance. I read the headline (“Apareció turista sueca en Cartago“) and felt a tremendous sense of relief: as a ‘professional’ traveler myself, with a family who worries and people who care about my well-being, I could empathize with the fear and helplessness that Julia’s family must have been feeling. When your loved one is in trouble, thousands of miles away…well, there can’t be a much more harrowing feeling than that. The news began to spread across the same Facebook pages that had been reporting her disappearance throughout the day, and the relief was palpable across the social networks. It was then that I followed the link and really read the article describing the circumstances of her being found…

The day after her family had last communicated with her, Julia took off to a yoga retreat in the small town of Cartago, Valle del Cauca; where there was apparently no internet signal. She then fell ill with a nasty sounding virus that led to vomiting and dehydration. A person who had been with her for the past few days contacted El Colombiano to confirm her safety, and Julia herself commented: “Me encanta Colombia, la gente ha sido maravillosa y me han tratado bien, recibí buena atención médica, es un país increíble.” A happy ending all round really, and it really does sound like an honest mistake rather than stupidity or negligence…but this story got me thinking about a curiously contemporary travel issue, what I’m going to christen “Modern Missing Traveler Syndrome.”

 

julia wendt (image: Facebook)
The aforementioned Facebook post

 

Chris, I hear you cry, what is “Modern Missing Traveler Syndrome”? Well, I’ll tell you – it’s that strange new phenomenon that we have to deal with now that travel has become as globalized as any other pursuit or hobby, and that technology is now inextricably linked to the act of traveling…mass online searches (sharing, public appeals etc.) for someone who turns out to be just fine, usually because they haven’t been in touch with anyone in a while. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am in no way suggesting that them turning out to be fine is anything other than amazing, nor that this mass internet mobilization is not an incredible tool for helping to find missing persons – in fact, on this very blog we were able to harness the wonderful tools of modern mass communication in order to help a kidnapped woman reunite with her lost Colombian family after 30 years apart!  Technology itself can be a wonderful addition to a traveling experience, and provide much needed support to those back home, but it can be problematic at the same time…

All I’m saying is that the famously casual nature of many modern travelers, when combined with our constant online activity, has started to produce these bizarre travel stories when an entire nation mobilizes to recover a missing person who turns out to be in a hammock, getting in touch with themselves, blissfully unaware of the mass hysteria and fear they have (usually unwittingly) caused…It’s a phenomenon that can’t even be entirely pinned on the travelers: part of the problem with our constant connectivity is that it seems unusual or even frightening to people when the communication goes dead for a while. Admittedly in many cases all the panic is equal parts traveler-negligence and parental overreacting – this is a symptom of technological travel as well: this much inter-connectivity might be the new normal, but it’s hardly that normal, and I’m sure there are many parents out there would could do with relaxing a bit more. However, there are definitely ways to avoid causing quite so much panic…

 

IS IT SAFE FOR WOMEN TO TRAVEL IN COLOMBIA ALONE?

 

Just last December, for instance, a young British traveler in South-East Asia named Jordan Jacobs, after making a cryptic (and, it now seems, ‘fun’ induced) phone-call to his family about ‘not being allowed to leave’ the Thai island of Ko Phi Phi Don, ‘vanished’ for 5 days. His naturally distressed family put the word out and a mass internet search ensued – Jordan had, in fact, been “chilling out” whilst “perhaps having a bit too much fun.” He stated that he hadn’t had a phone charger for a couple of days, and was shocked to see his face all over the internet when he eventually deigned to log on. Lesson 1: don’t limit your communication with your family to the moments when you are most intoxicated…

Similarly, in 2013, a Californian man named Garrett Hand and his girlfriend Jamie Neil seemingly disappeared when traveling through remote regions in Peru: they had apparently told their families that they would be visiting very off-the-grid spots. However, when they had failed to register a sign of life for a month, Hand’s mother ended up calling in the Peruvian army to assist with the search. Hand and Neil eventually surfaced, quite embarrassed by the whole escapade, and his poor mother met with endless ridicule online for the outrageous crime of loving her son and wanting to hear from him…mothers, right!? Perhaps the army thing was bit much, but she was clearly quite stressed out…

 

jordan jacobs (Picture credit: Handout)
Jordan Jacobs: having ‘a bit too much fun’ (Picture credit: Handout)

 

In a way it makes you long for the ‘good old days’ when you could just travel around the world, occasionally sending some letters or making a payphone call, and people would assume that ‘no news was good news.’ I’m sure for many people unused to Facebook, Smartphones and modern technology, that reality still exists; however, for almost all young travelers, the internet has become the norm. I was actually on the cusp of this with my traveling experience: my first big backpacking trip (6 months in South America, aged 19) was undertaken before Smartphones were ubiquitous, when Facebook was just becoming a thing, and when communicating back home basically meant finding an internet cafe, sending a few 3 line emails, and logging off. Since then it has become remarkably easy to keep in touch with people at home…

This is, as someone who’s fond of traveling off-the-beaten-track, a mixed blessing: for your family it’s undoubtedly great, as they can worry about your whereabouts a lot less than they used to; for you, as a traveler, it can sometimes become a crutch – you spend so much time in touch with friends and family that you forget to live the actual experiences happening around you. However, as with most things in life, there’s a happy balance to be found! Being considerate of the concerns and fears of family and loved ones doesn’t somehow rob you of your ‘authentic’ backpacker spurs, or make you any less adventurous. And how long does it honestly take to send a simple: “All good, be in touch soon.”

My tip to travelers regarding keeping in touch has always been this: have a system with your loved ones in place before you travel, so they know how much contact to expect from you. For instance, my parents and I had a once-a-week communication system when I was backpacking in Asia – if I knew I would be off-the-grid at that time, I’d simply alert them and let them know roughly when they could expect to hear from me. And it worked out fine! If you’re someone who’s normally online constantly, updating statuses and checking-in, then a complete media blackout of a week, with no prior notification, is naturally going to get some people worried. OK, so a communication system might not be completely in the spirit of free-and-easy traveling that you’ve been dreaming of…but just compromise a little…especially if there’s a good chance that your family helped you fund your self-discovery trip!

Returning to Julia Wendt: once the news that she was OK had spread, and the initial relief had passed, many people began to laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole affair – the specter of Medellin’s grisly past had been raised, dark thoughts of kidnappings had surfaced, and it turned out she was busy meditating the whole time! It’s a bit ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’ really, isn’t it!? Except that I couldn’t stop thinking about her poor mother, thousands of miles way, terrified that her daughter was gone forever. I pictured my own mother in that situation. It made me quite emotional to be honest. So the only message I really have to anyone reading this is simple – travelers: call your parents! Email them! Let them know where you’re going if you think communication might be tricky there. People really do disappear when they travel: it’s rare, but those parental fears are not based on nothing. It was heartening to see Colombian people rally to the cause of finding this missing person earlier today…let’s not end up with a ‘boy who cried wolf’ situation.

However, thanks to the joys of the internet and “Modern Missing Traveler Syndrome,” I think we’ll be seeing a few more of these stories in the upcoming years. Let’s just hope they all end in yoga and meditation retreats…

Chris

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