SocietyJune 8, 2024

I survived in another country without a smartphone – this is my story


Alex Casey spends the weekend in a new city without her trusty iPhone, and lives to tell the tale.

The flip phone was fucked, and apparently so was I. In the line for customs at Melbourne airport, I flipped open my ancient bright orange Alcatel to reveal an alarming number of crosses on the screen where the signal should be. I tried to send a text, and it failed. I tried to call one of the three numbers I had written on a post-it note and stuck to the back of my passport for safe keeping. Nothing but a long angry beep. I had forgotten to Google the emergency number in Australia before I left, so I couldn’t even call the police.

My heart skipped as the pixels on screen began rearranging. Perhaps a text from my beloved finally reaching yonder trans Tasman shores? “NETWORK LOCKED” the phone suddenly proclaimed, “ENTER PASSCODE FIVE TIMES”.

I am about as far as you can get from a chill traveller. Last year my husband Joe and I went on a big Europe trip, and I printed out every single ticket, booking and QR code in the event that a solar flare might take down the global internet network and make it awkies for our strict 10.45am entry to see Monet’s Water Lillies. I then arranged each piece of paper chronologically, colour coded them by city with post-it flags, put it all in a clear file and then never touched it again for the entire trip. I believe Beyonce calls the condition Virgo’s Groove. 

It is with this extremely poor astrological foundation that I accepted a challenge from Jetstar to travel to another country like it was 2009 to celebrate their 15th birthday. No more Google Maps, no more Uber, no more Instagram, no more trawling Urban List. Instead, I had a pocket Lonely Planet, with the city map on page 44 highlighted with all the important locations (HOTEL, UNIQLO, CROISSANT), I had a 2000s digital camera that I borrowed from a friend, I had the aforementioned cursed bright orange flip phone, and I had my late 2000s iPod Nano. AKA: I was ready. 


In the Jetstar check-in line – I resisted the urge to check in online even though it made me feel sick – I cross referenced the handful of numbers I needed on my dumb phone one last time. Sending final farewell messages from my smartphone, I turned it off and plunged it into a side pocket in my bag under the eight pairs of underpants I brought in the event that I caught a famed case of Melburnian diarrhoea over the weekend. I made a silent vow: the iPhone only goes on if there is a natural disaster, or if I see someone from Married at First Sight Australia at Hungry Jack’s. 

With my paper boarding pass in my hand I was faced with three hours to kill before my flight and no social media to scroll. I took my time choosing some pieces of sushi and watched a family take photos outside the official All Blacks store on their smartphones. God I wished that were me. At least I had my book (Twilight, the only book of the late 2000s) and my old silver iPod Nano. I delighted in the gentle sound of the click wheel as I settled on an old XFM broadcast with Stephen Merchant, Karl Pilkington, and pre-transphobic Ricky Gervais. Happier times. 

Note the very cool money pouch

Alas, the joy was not to last, as I quickly remembered my Nano had a dicky jack and only worked if the headphones were jammed in at a very specific angle and held there with a vice-like grip. I stuck the Nano between my knees and clenched as Karl Pilkington’s slack-jawed musings returned. Watching the departures board, I realised I had become so reliant on my emails that I didn’t even bother to write down any of my return flight details. I flipped open my phone to text Joe, but my old dumb phone could only send messages in a manic jumble. 

“Ht eelttre sekep muljbing” [the letters keep jumbling] I wrote. 

“Are you having a stroke?” he replied. 

I bought a That’s Life! magazine from the airport shop, staggered by the series of shocking headlines (‘Eek! I kept my mother-in-law in the microwave’, ‘My seven-year-old has a six-pack’). I checked the horoscopes: “deliberating on decisions can be wise but doing so for too long can prompt you to talk yourself out of making a decision at all”. A friendly backpacker interrupted my train of thought, asking me to look after her bags while she went to the toilet. No time to deliberate on whether her bags had a bomb in them or not. 

On her return, we got chatting. She was from the Czech Republic and was heading home after two years working in Lake Tekapo. She liked the friendly New Zealand people but didn’t like Auckland. We yarned all the way onto the plane and she said she’d try to find me on Instagram. As I took my seat, there was an announcement that the entertainment services onboard weren’t working. I accidentally put my book in the overhead locker and couldn’t bear to ask the elderly man sitting in the aisle to move. 

I stared out the window for the full three and a half hours, intermittently flattening myself against the seat so the guy next to me could film the sky on his phone. 

I took one (1) photo of the sky and this was it

Arriving in Melbourne and realising my dumb phone was network locked, I headed straight to the Optus desk for some Gen Z support. “Look, I wouldn’t call it a dumb phone, I’d call it… interesting engineering,” one of the friendly clerks mused. “I would call it suspicious,” said his coworker. I tried both an Optus and a Vodafone sim card and neither of them worked, so I had to buy a brand new Nokia brick. Everyone seemed concerned about the frazzled New Zealander hastily requiring a burner phone and muttering about still not knowing the number for the police.

Completely blind to giant bright red SkyBus signs plastered from ass to ankle throughout the airport, I asked a man where to get a SkyBus ticket, and then another man where the SkyBus stop was. Half an hour later I was off the bus and had my Lonely Planet out, walking confidently in the direction of “HOME”, marked on my page 44 map. “Meet me at Hotel Indigo at 7pm” I had previously texted my Melbourne friend Geraldine, as if I was Poirot or something (I also wasn’t sure if that reference worked but couldn’t Google it to check so it stays). 

Remarkably, my friends were there as arranged. We caught the tram to Pellegrini’s, one of the oldest Italian diners in the city. There’s no menu, nothing to Google, so we ate what we were served: ravioli and rigatoni with chilli flakes, big slabs of buttered bread, washed down with icy watermelon granita. We caught up about life and chatted to Rocco, who has worked there for 54 years. He handed us old photographs and talked about his dear friend Sisto who was tragically killed in a random knife attack in the city in 2018. Nobody looked at their phones once. 

After our meal I posed for a photo on my digital camera outside the restaurant. I looked unbelievably tiny – not in a snatched way, but like a Honey I Shrunk The Kids way. After a solid five minutes of cry laughing my friends put me on the tram and told me to get off somewhere before the Yarra River. I somehow made it home safely and watched 2001’s Cats and Dogs on the hotel television (no Netflix allowed). 

Hold me closer tiny dancer


I woke up to an extremely sparse text from Joe announcing that Morgan Spurlock, star of the documentary Super Size Me, had died. There was nowhere near enough information about the circumstances of his death, and I couldn’t Google to read more. Instead I headed downstairs and asked at the concierge desk where I should go for brunch with another old friend. They both got very excited and drew all over my page 44 map. “I know the weather isn’t great but you have to go to Piccolo and get the crème caramel ice cream,” one of them told me. “It’s so fluffy.”

Meanwhile, her coworker was jotting down which trams I should catch on my map. “If you go past H&M, you’ve gone too far; if you start going downhill, you’ve also gone too far.” With some time to kill before brunch I followed their recommendation to have an early morning stroll along the Yarra River. I wondered how often people ask for directions or recommendations at all these days. The jogger that I asked to take a photo of me next to the river certainly seemed like she had never been asked that before in her life. 

Me, as photographed by a perturbed jogger

I walked towards the asterisk I had labelled CROISSANT on my map, stumbling upon Hosier Lane, a famous laneway covered in graffiti that would later be crawling with people taking Instagram photos. For now it was just me and a couple of very splotchy seagulls. Up the block I found a long line of people queuing outside Lune, allegedly home of the best croissants in the country. It took an hour to get to the front door, and I counted eight different times people walked past filming the line and four different FaceTime calls from the line. The croissant was fine.  

With page 44 flapping in the wind, I mooched my way through the city to Hardware Lane to meet up with my old childhood best friend Emmie who I hadn’t seen in a decade. She showed me photos of her two beautiful children on her iPhone and I, smartphone-less, described my dog’s ears in painstaking detail. The cafe, Triim with two i’s, mucked up her order and made her coffee with cow milk instead of almond milk. We laughed about how she hated cow milk even when she was a kid, famously once eating her cereal with orange juice at a sleepover.

Would we have got that moment had we walked into one of Urban List’s finest Melburnian alternative milk spots? I think not. 

That afternoon, page 44 guided me to Federation Square, where I was going to meet my friends and visit the National Gallery of Victoria. “I’m outside the NGV” I texted Geraldine. “Are you by the thumb?” she replied. I could see no thumb, but also couldn’t drop a pin or share my location, so I rang her and took to explaining what I could see around me, and the colour of the bricks I was standing on. Turned out she was at the main NGV and I was at a different NGV, where I took unbelievably pixelated photos of Dali, Rothko, Degas on my Nokia, just as they intended. 

Me and the famed thumb

We did a classique Melburnian rooftop bar and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image next, where I took a single photo on my digital camera of a scary doll from the Round the Twist series. In the hour-long queue for SOI38, a Thai restaurant in a carpark I’m told was once visited by Eric Andre, I discovered my Nokia brick had Snake on it. I stared at other people’s Instagram feeds over their shoulders, desperately trying to get any crumb of information about Spurlock, or absolutely anything else. 

Over dinner, I was reminded again of another crutch that smartphones provide. My friend Felix was talking about a show he had seen in the comedy festival by Taskmaster UK contestant John Kearns. I stopped him – I had seen every season of Taskmaster UK, but could not for the life of me bring John Kearns to mind. What transpired for the next 30 minutes was my friends trying to describe a bearded, glasses-wearing ginger man like a game of Guess Who, while I shut my eyes and screamed at them to not to show me a picture because it was supposed to be 2009. 

The food was extremely delicious and we stopped at Piccolo for dessert. On the concierge’s recommendation earlier that morning, I got the crème caramel ice cream. She was right: it was fluffy. Chowing down on the cone, I walked towards ‘HOME’ on page 44, still furious that I could not remember what John Kearns looked like and had no way of finding out beyond going to an internet cafe. I wasn’t sure how I would even find an internet cafe without Google. 

Delicious Thai food. Not pictured: John Kearns


Woke up none the wiser about who John Kearns is or what he looks like, but it was OK because I was about to embark on my biggest mission yet – to go to the Queen Victoria Markets and then to the Little Italy neighbourhood of Carlton. All the way off the page 44 map to page 63! Having immediately forgotten the tram instructions from the concierge, the guidance of several strangers eventually saw me on the right tram, headphones jammed into Nano jack allowing me to listen to snippets of Lady Gaga’s ‘Summer Boy’ (2008). 

It was early enough that the city was still waking up, and people from the night before were still winding down. I watched two ginger blokes in their 30s struggle to open a blue Powerade outside Coles. Could either of them be John Kearns? 

At the markets I followed wherever people were queuing like a lemming, nabbing jam-filled mini donuts as breakfast dessert before devouring a cheese and spinach borek for breakfast dinner. There was a stall selling really awful Taylor Swift counterfeit merch, presumably a hangover from her enormous MCG shows, and I simply had to buy a T-shirt. The vendor didn’t have a mirror, but offered to take a photo on my phone. After I told her I didn’t have a smartphone, she snapped a picture of me looking utterly gormless on her own phone and quickly deleted it. 

Can’t choose a wig, don’t have a phone

Perusing the enormous market, I realised how much I had come to rely on constant communication with other people as a way of informing almost all of my decisions. I held up two woollen scarves next to my face for about 30 minutes, riddled with indecision without a group chat for support, until a woman took pity on me and told me which one to buy. I wanted to get Joe a pair of Ugg slippers, but I didn’t know which colour he would like. Trim or no trim? “Trust your gut,” he texted. Trust my gut?! Don’t even know where my gut is, can’t Google it sorry. 

Ambling out of the markets with an undoubtedly wretched colour of Uggs in my bag, I eventually found a map on a lamppost like some kind of cartoon character – it is truly remarkable how easy a city is to navigate when it has proper public transport and signage. Walking past the old city baths and the old gaol, I bought a freshly baked madeleine on Lygon Street and ate it in the park while scrawling down thoughts in my notebook. Thank god I couldn’t document the moment on Instagram, because rest assured it was the manic pixie Melbourne dream. 

I met Geraldine in a nearby neighbourhood for one last lunch, having learned to describe my location slightly better than just by what type of raw material I was standing on. As we crossed the road, there was a thunderous explosion nearby that rattled the entire street. I grabbed Geraldine’s arm, bravely pulling her in front of me like a human shield. Could this be the emergency event I needed my smartphone for all along?! I didn’t even know where I was to mark myself safe on Facebook. And I still didn’t even know the number for the police?!

It turned out the noise was just a woman’s bike tyre popping, but by god was it the talk of the town. Having stared death in the face, I said goodbye to Geraldine after lunch and headed back towards HOME with a newfound sense of confidence. Even when the tram had to divert off its regular route, I barely flinched, simply stepping off and coolly whipping open my map with the aplomb of Jim Carrey (I had fallen asleep to 2003’s Bruce Almighty the night before). That’s when I realised I was near a page 44 asterisk I hadn’t made it to yet: UNIQLO. 

My beloved page 44 by the end of the trip

It’s a dangerous game, walking into a Uniqlo without any real idea how much money you have in your bank account and no real way of checking, and I’d like to keep the decisions I made in that store a secret between me and the teller. What I can tell you is that she graciously pointed me in the direction of the Muji store, whose teller graciously pointed me in the direction of the Myer, whose teller graciously told me where the front door was when I started to hyperventilate at the perfume counter that I would miss my flight and/or never see the light of day again. 

With roughly five hours until my flight home, my Virgo butt scuttled back through the grid of the city, barely needing a map at this point, to grab my bag from the hotel and get the SkyBus back to the airport. The concierges cheered me on as I raced out the door, the most low stakes Amazing Race of all time, and I made it to the bus with more than enough time to totally repack my bags and squish wretched Uggs and Taylor Swift T-shirts into unspeakable places. 

My hand brushed the smooth, cool edge of my smartphone as I rustled around in my bag, and I felt my whole body jolt, not unlike Bilbo when he sees the One Ring and has a momentary tizzy. It had been over 48 hours without touching my iPhone, but it had truly felt like an entire lifetime. I was determined to hold onto The Moment for as long as I could, pacing around Melbourne airport lathering myself with La Mer and spritzing Chanel No 5, wolfing down Hungry Jack’s (no MAFS stars present) while furiously thumbing through Twilight. Anything but be on my phone again. 

I passed out on the plane and awoke back in Christchurch, some time after midnight, holding my Nokia brick phone like a baby holding a dummy. Fossicking about, I pulled out my iPhone and turned it on, ready for a torrent of news, work emails, group chat gossip, and hopefully a follow from my new friend from the Czech Republic. There was just one message from Felix when I checked my Instagram DMs. “Welcome home” it said, followed by a photo of a bearded ginger man in his 30s wearing glasses on the set of Taskmaster. 

John Kearns, my old friend. 

The author’s flights and accomodation were paid for by Jetstar, not John Kearns.
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