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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

May 3, 2014 at 9:17 PM

Do you really need all that stuff? Vacation and the search for simplicity

(Photo: Jason Preston)

(Photo: Jason Preston)

There are worse ways to be bad parents.

In a small beachside store in southern Mexico, our nearly 2-year-old son pointed up at a hammock stuffed with colorful toy balls. “Blue!” he said. We fetched the clerk, who fetched it out. “It’s yours now!” I said, and he gripped it in both hands, beaming.

Seconds later, I took it back. Our cash was at the apartment, and this store — of course! — didn’t take credit cards. My smile became a blush, and the clerk watched us go like the silly foreigners we were.

It would not be the last time we’d feel like tech-spoiled strangers on our weeklong stay in a tiny coastal town. Nor the first. I stared at the old cassette stereo in our living room for a full minute before I realized I had to plug it in to turn it on. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to lock the keypad on our old-style loaner cellphone.

And when I put the phone’s charging cord in the wrong port, I sent loud radio static through the middle of a crowded restaurant for more than a few horrible seconds.

It was another world, but then again: It wasn’t that long ago I paid in cash, used old phones and played the stereo. Was it?

At the town’s pop-up produce market, I did a double-take when the clerks recorded my purchase — most of it mangoes — on a legal pad. Of paper.

My brain assured me Important Things were missing at that quaint, open-air hub, but what was there for the locals to miss, really? The ability to have their name attached to every transaction? The privilege of joining loyalty programs and having coupons sent in the mail?

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Simplicity never looks more beautiful than when you’re on vacation. Or seductive. Or achievable. Are you sure your life needs to be as complicated as it is, the palm trees or the water or the mountains always seem to ask. I doubt I know anyone who’d stare at them, feet up, and answer, “Yes.”

And all the shiny objects of our digitally superpowered lifestyle — well, they never look duller. New gadgets. Apps. Stuff to do so you can do more stuff. It seems a lot less necessary when the Caribbean laps at your thighs than when tech gurus preach it from the headlines.

Bring work and home and responsibilities back into the picture and the clarity fades fast — but not the feeling that something’s gotta give. It’s practically baked in: Every day we want to make our hectic lives more simple, which is another way of saying, easier to enjoy. It’s just not every day some quiet retreat gives us the perspective to know it’s possible — even if just in the little places we think it’s not.

I was sitting in a Belltown coffee shop last year when I got to know a guy who went back from a smartphone to an old cellphone, better known in our enlightened age as a “dumb” phone. It wasn’t dumb enough: He had hacked it so that he has to dial each person’s number digit by digit, touch-tone style. That was the simplicity he wanted, so he got it. And oh — he works in tech.

The day after our walk of shame out of that beachside store, our son got his ball. Orange, this time. “Up in the sky!” he’d say, and I’d hurl it as high as it would go.

The simplicity of vacation will never fit all of life. My aunt and uncle live and work in the Mexican beach town we stayed in. They love it, but to them, it’s hardly the paradise it seemed to us. They’re taking their vacation next week — in South America.

But it’s inspiring anyway.

It’s easy to keep my head down under a gray Seattle sky. To my work, to my inboxes, to my do’s and must-do’s and coffee shops and desks. I wrote this column in the sun at Magnuson Park, Mount Rainier rising over the water from the southeast. As it turns out, lunch can fit in a sack, and I don’t need an Internet connection to write words down. It’s a heck of a thing to forget.

I can’t wait to see what else this trip will help me remember.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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