Last Update: 8/6/2014 7:02 PM
By Julia Lee
It all started in September 2011 when I chose to invest in a Samsung E1200 phone that came with a “superior 5-way navigation key”, “anti-dust keypad”, and “high-quality MP3 ringtones”. With this non-flashy phone, I thought that I would fit right in with locals.
And I did, mainly with the fifty plus demographic.
When people talk about development work challenges, I never imagined that competing with my students’ smartphones would be one of them. Were my impromptu song-and-dance routines about English grammar not entertaining enough?
Of course they weren’t.
Even in the distant corners of rural Ukraine, the smartphone has built a home inside people’s hearts, minds, and palms. In a country where politics and ground transportation are unpredictable, a smartphone is a source of solace.
When you realize that you booked a 10-hour train ride in a cabin with fully sealed windows in the summertime, you will need something to carry your consciousness away to a better place. Most locals dealt with this predicament by devesting, eating a variety of pickled snacks, or jamming in their headphones the minute they located their seats.
I, for one, am not comfortable with showing skin in public spaces. Eating on moving vehicles always makes me nauseous. And lastly, I did not own a mobile device with a headset jack. As a result, getting from Point A to Point B in Ukraine was always challenging for me.
Usually, I would memorize the details of my ticket the night before so I could immediately get to my seat without any fuss. Then, I would will my mind and body to get into traveling mode: blank face, no sudden movements, and basic pleasantries in Russian.
Depending on the crowd that was being transported with me, different situations would play out. Sometimes people let me be with my thoughts for the full 10 hours and other times people loudly whispered their conspiracy theories about me whenever I accidentally made eye contact. But most of the time, I would have a question that desperately needed to be answered. So I would search for someone who was fully dressed, not suffering from food coma, or tied to their phone and I would ask them my question. They would usually answer it.
And from this small interaction, more questions would follow. Additional answers would be provided and eventually, stories would be shared. Time would pass more happily and comfortably in this traveling sauna because we found connections we didn’t believe to be possible.
To be honest, I probably would have enjoyed the train rides more if I had an iPod filled with Radiolab podcasts, but this lack of technology freed me from my shyness of strangers. And now, I’m a professional when it comes to random conversations on public transportation. Just ask the people who take the N train in San Francisco.