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On family vacation to India, teens forced to unplug

CNN logo CNN 9/18/2018 Cynthia Durcanin, CNN
a cow standing on top of a building © Michael Leavitt

When we told our two teens they had to leave their phones at home for an upcoming trip to India, they looked at us as if we were asking them to give up a kidney.

Imagine your kids unplugged for a day let alone a month in India during the monsoon.

But my husband had spent six months traveling in India and knew that this kind of travel could have a profound effect upon them for years to come. We wanted our kids to feel the awe of the Taj Mahal, not share it on Instagram, to know what it felt like to be alone in your thoughts in a country of 1.3 billion people, to experience the India seen through the window of an all-day train ride.

Our daughter Eva, 14, wasn't thrilled, but was more or less resigned. Eli, 15, wasn't going down without a fight.

He spent a week lobbying against the plan. "How about letting us have our phones at night at the hotel?" and "If I lose my phone, I'll replace it with my money."

The Taj Mahal relection is seen on Yamuna river in Agra on April 16, 2016.Britain's Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge are schedule to visit Taj Mahal later in the day, during the last leg of their India-Bhutan visit. / AFP / Prakash SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images): The Taj Mahal relection is seen on Yamuna river in Agra on April 16, 2016. Britain's Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge are schedule to visit Taj Mahal later in the day, during the last leg of their India-Bhutan visit. / AFP / Prakash SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images) © Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images The Taj Mahal relection is seen on Yamuna river in Agra on April 16, 2016. Britain's Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge are schedule to visit Taj Mahal later in the day, during the last leg of their India-Bhutan visit. / AFP / Prakash SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

And finally, "How will I take photos?" That was an easy fix. Long before smartphones, there was something called a camera.

Offline adventures

Teens can survive a family vacation without their phones, even enjoy it. What may seem like a punishment can be a plus.

a person sitting on the side of a mountain © Michael Leavitt a group of people walking down a street with Taj Mahal in the background © Michael Leavitt

A 2016 Common Sense Media survey shows that 50% of teens feel addicted to their mobile devices. Increasingly, parents are recognizing the need for their kids to reboot, in some cases, outsourcing the job to a digital detox camp.

But these camps are pricey and often feel forced. Besides, why eat tasteless camp gruel when you can have Neapolitan pizza or bouillabaisse on a family vacation?

Leaving a phone behind can be a great opportunity for your child see the world through their own eyes again. Sometimes they will be bored, but boredom is good for the brain.

Research shows the brain requires recovery time to allow for growth and to hold onto to new memories.

A vast country, we knew that India would provide unforgettable stories for years to come.

We began our journey in Mumbai, a city of 18.4 million where simply crossing the street is like trying to cross the track at the Indy 500, blindfolded. For the uninitiated, there are YouTube videos, even blogs, but we had Sujata, a family friend who instructed: Do it quickly, don't second guess and never stop.

Frozen at the curb, we were unable to put that first foot forward. Imagine massive boulevards, horns blaring, a free fall where red and green lights mean nothing and no actual lanes or crosswalks.

The streets are teeming people, animals and every type of motorized conveyance imaginable. Yet the locals cross with a calm, almost graceful ease, in sync with a rhythm of humanity that is incomprehensible for most Westerners.

Once initiated, Eli and Eva looked forward to the terrifying thrill of each crossing, finding it far more exhilarating than any online game.

Personal encounters

After a day of sightseeing, we planned to meet Sujata for dinner at a nearby restaurant, an easy walk we were told.

Ha! We got hopelessly lost along the way at the historic Crawford Market, a sprawling maze of narrow streets, shops, stalls and warehouses. My husband and I had brought our phones for emergencies, but our service had not switched over yet and our map was useless.

Then, without warning, a torrential monsoon drenched us to the bone as brown water and debris gushed over our sandals.

Willing ourselves not to think about the content of the water, we sought refuge in a jewelry shop. The sympathetic owners let us borrow their cell phones to contact Sujata to make a plan B.

That night at dinner we laughed until we cried as the kids shared each excruciating detail of our travails over a meal of festival dishes at Samrat Restaurant in the Churchgate area.

"It was kind of an adventure," Eva said. "If we had our phone, everything would have gone smoothly and have been less interesting. We would not have met the people in the jewelry store or have this funny story."

From Mumbai, we took an overnight train to Goa. After settling into to our compartment, a young man from across the corridor asked whether he could charge his phone in our outlet.

He was in the Navy, from Rajasthan and had relatives in the States. We talked politics, his and ours, history and literature, as he made notes about Rajasthan in the margins of our guidebook.

When we thanked him he replied, "It's my pleasure and duty. You are a guest in my country." In him, our children experienced an India they might have missed had they been under the thralls of Candy Crush.

Our fellow passenger was the embodiment of genuine hospitality as his need for technology and our lack of it brought us together.

'You don't need a phone to live'

Midway through our trip, we arrived at Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India for the nation's Hindus. Each year more than a million Hindu pilgrims flock to the banks of the sacred Ganges River for religious bathing and to perform funeral rites. We planned to spend three days in Varanasi, which puzzled many of our Indian friends.

Sadly we soon found out why: India's holiest city is also one of the dirtiest. Piles of garbage line its narrow streets and in the monsoon season the riverfront floods spewing raw sewage into shallow ditches across the city.

Exhausted, our clothes reeking of exhaust and feeling rattled after a rickshaw ride where a massive bull got so close I could feel his breath on my leg, we retreated to the serenity of The Gateway Hotel Ganges. It had been a challenging day for all.

As my husband and I left to decompress over a stiff cocktail at the bar, I gave Eli, a die-hard Formula One fan, my laptop. "Do you want to check out the latest races?"

A digital detox doesn't have to be absolute. It's all about balance.

On our final day in India, we visited the Taj Mahal. The sky was overcast, a light rain was falling and this wonder of the world was covered in scaffolding. Not Instagram perfect, but without digital distractions, it was pretty perfect to us.

Back home, Eli reluctantly admitted that he felt more present during our trip.

Eva was more philosophical. "It's not like I went for a month without water," she said. "You don't need a phone to live, it's a privilege, not a right. But I'm glad I got to experience India like people have for so long."

Cynthia Durcanin is a former editor of Elle.com in Paris and teaches fashion journalism at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

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