It’s hard to go anywhere in 2017 without seeing most people, young or old, immersed in some sort of technology. So it was a bit of shock when I found myself on a 22-hour train ride without service or primary access to my social networks.

Earlier this month, my teammate Karissa and I set out on our first Challenge for Change (C4C) VIA train trip of the summer to Halifax, Nova Scotia and back again.

I can relate to the separation anxiety most millennials experience when they don’t have their smart phones; the constant urge to scroll through Twitter and Instagram, the incessant need to check my phone even if it’s only been a minute since the last ping from a notification.

It wasn’t until a patchy no-service area along the tracks in eastern Quebec that I really had to let go.

 


My useless phone was left to charge in the cabin and Karissa and I made our way to the dining car for dinner. Walking away from my phone was embarrassingly more challenging and anxiety-inducing than it should’ve been – almost as if I was leaving a part of me behind – or at least my connection to anyone or anything that wasn’t on the train.

We were seated with an eager 9-year-old boy, Dominik and his grandma who didn’t speak a word of English. “My grandma is taking me to see the Ocean,” he told us. As he recounted stories of what it was like to move to Canada from Germany three years prior in ways only a vibrant child can, I thought about how difficult and disorienting those first few months would have been. He didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived, but was so nonchalant about the challenges of adapting to his new surroundings. “I picked it up pretty quick!” he said. His stories made me think about how brave immigrant children have to be and as I continued to listen the urge to check my phone and the paranoia I felt of missing something faded away.

Dominik participated in a listening exercise and recorded a conversation with solo-traveller, Kacey Jones, 21.

The dining car was a breath of fresh air compared to other dining experiences I’ve had on solid ground. The clinking of plates and cutlery was quickly drowned out by laughs and chatters as people exchanged travel stories and food recommendations from across the aisle. Pairs were seated with other pairs – most often people they had never met – and instead of instinctively retreating to their phones, passengers were actually forced to listen to each other, get to know each other, and connect with one another.

When you’re on the train, there’s nowhere to rush to next and no texts or emails that need your immediate attention. There are no repetitive Instagram feeds cluttered with pictures of food and intricately dressed plates. Instead, there are meals to be shared with new friends whose life stories and experiences are far more interesting than the selfies and cat videos plastered across my Facebook homepage.

As our journey continued, I started to notice more and more passengers abandoning their tablets and smartphones and a real sense of community began to develop across the train. That’s when I realized, this is what Challenge for Change is all about.

Challenge for Change is a project about conversations, but more importantly, it’s about creating connections. There’s something unique that happens between two people when they converse face to face, unhindered by technological distractions. The closer we got to our destination, the more of these moments we witnessed. This is where the heart of our project lies – we’re encouraging people to establish connections through conversations, rather than through a screen.

I’ll be honest, coming out of my technological bubble wasn’t easy. Like so many, my first instinct was to get frustrated when I didn’t have service or WiFi. It’s ironic that our desire to be digitally connected means that you can miss out on a real connection with someone sitting right next to you – an interaction that is often so much more rewarding than putting all your attention on an inanimate object, just like I did.

My conversation with Dominik made me excited about life again. As a twenty-something grad student, it’s so easy to get overwhelmed by deadlines, job applications, and maintaining a social life. It took talking to a little boy to reinforce the importance of adventure, exploration, and the people you meet along the way. That ‘no service’ symbol on my phone was no longer an annoyance to me, but suddenly became a sign of value; a reminder to put it down and live in the moment.

After spending the night in Halifax, we boarded our train to begin the journey back to southern Ontario. Down the platform, we spotted Dominik and his grandma boarding along with us to head home.

“We saw the Ocean,” he said. I couldn’t wait to hear all about it.