Several years ago, my husband and I took our three children to Pompeii -- the ruined and partially buried Roman city near Naples, Italy. As one of the most spectacular sights one can see in a lifetime, I was sure my children would be forever affected by their firsthand encounter with the history of this special place, destroyed during an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. but rediscovered in 1738.
As I looked upon the children, my chest puffed out with the pride of a parent trying desperately hard to show her children the world. But then my suddenly very bored 6-year-old son turned to me and said: "Mommy, I wonder if anyone has ever made an M&M as big as a cookie. Could we try sometime? I really want some M&Ms." What? How could he be talking about candy? Doesn't he realize where he is?
I was reminded of that story this past week when my husband and I took those same three children -- now aged 13, 15 and 18 -- to Mexico. We snorkeled in cenotes, toured Chichen Itza, and climbed the ruins at Coba. And yet the number one question that came up again and again was: "Do you think this place will have Wi-Fi?" Huh? How could they possibly care about "being connected" when they were touring incredible natural wonders and witnessing an ancient culture that's still very much alive?
Well, they did -- at least at first.
It's unbelievable to me how something that was a rare perk only a few years back is now considered as indispensable as a napkin or toilet when traveling in any part of the world.
At our first hotel, we did indeed have Wi-Fi -- and I'm guessing my kids' collective sigh of relief was heard as far away as Brazil. But at our second hotel -- actually a condo -- we did not. And guess what happened? Absolutely, positively nothing. Did the world come to an end because we couldn't read about Kanye West's most quotable moments of 2013? Uh, no. Was there an uproar? Well, yes, but it was a short-lived one.
As the vacation went on, and they navigated this unfamiliar terrain together, my three teenagers actually re-discovered the art of having fun without the Internet. (I should mention that we never had TV during our trip.) One son re-read "The Catcher in the Rye"; another learned how to use my husband's GoPro.
One evening all three had a contest to see who could build the tallest tower out of playing cards, an endeavor that requires an abundance of patience (and the simple ability to create an upside-down "V" with two cards about two inches apart). Sure, the structures were precariously balanced, but they also provided a real sense of accomplishment, especially for my daughter when she managed to outshine her stunned brothers with a five-story structure.
Most nights, we also played poker by betting with toothpicks. We enjoyed raucous rounds of B.S. -- a simple bluffing game also known as Cheat, Bullshit and Bologna Sandwich among other names. And, when everyone else was taking an especially long time getting dressed, a few of us also played solitaire.
After eliminating the temptation of technology, I almost immediately noticed a shift. For once, nothing was competing for my kids' attention. I spent a lovely afternoon lounging on the beach with my daughter, talking about nothing but her friend group. You can't imagine the amount of discourse that results from asking a 13-year-old girl to reveal which of her friends is the funniest, the kindest, the most polite -- and so on.
Being completely disconnected allowed all of us to be fully engaged in what was going on around us -- and with each other. As I've said before, the interminable chatter created by all the email, the tweets and the Facebook postings of daily life has become like a car alarm that won't go off. Without all the pressure to surf, "like" and Snapchat, we felt much more relaxed, our attention spans extended.
If you ever get the chance, visit the cenotes -- or sinkholes in the Earth's surface -- that dot the Yucatan Peninsula. Tour archaeological sites like Coba and Tulum, as well as the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. Circle the main plaza in colonial towns like Valladolid. And take a long break from technology. It will be one of the best things your family's ever done.