I spent the past week "off the grid" in Kenya on safari. It was fantastic, a marvellous trip, except for the part where I couldn't check my email.
The camps we had booked into promised Wi-Fi access in the main lodges, if not in individual rooms. But in the places we stayed, heavy rains had caused an internet providers glitch: no downloading a new book on an e-reader, no online games for our children and no sending (or receiving) very important work messages. I had forgotten to set up one of those "I'm away from the office" messages on my email before I had left Abu Dhabi, which meant that anyone writing to me wouldn't get an immediate answer.
Out there in the Kenyan bush, the scariest thing I confronted was the reality of my internet addiction, that lure of immediacy promised by the internet: download the new book right away; Google the answer to your questions right now. What is the point of seeing a lion eat a zebra if you can't immediately share photos with hundreds of "friends" in your social media feeds?
I have been reading lately about Lady Hester Stanhope, an intrepid English woman who travelled around the Levant in the early 1800s, dressed as a man. Her correspondence with England took months to get back and forth: simple questions about finances, family matters or gossip floated unanswered in ways that to us seem unimaginable.
Before our trip, I had uploaded some documents to "The Cloud" thinking that I would avoid carrying bulky files while I travelled. But the internet problems meant that the only clouds available to me were those sailing above the Mara, in air so clear I could watch cloud shadows glide down one side of the valley, move along the valley floor and then vanish up the far side of the hills. Occasionally, we would see stripes of rain in the distance, looking like threads hanging from cloudy cloth, but after the rains that knocked out my internet lifeline, no other rain reached us - and as if to apologise for knocking out the internet signal on two separate days, we saw double rainbows.
We had timed our safari in hopes of glimpsing the Great Migration but the rains in both Tanzania and Kenya had disrupted annual patterns. Much of the migration had already headed back to Tanzania before we got to Kenya. But a large portion of the animals, lured by the new grass in Kenya, had swerved back around. We caught up with a small group of wildebeest (about a thousand strong) heading across a small tributary of the Mara River towards the rest of the herd. And although the river was too shallow for us to produce the kind of crocodile carnage my children were hoping for, the spectacle was awe-inspiring nevertheless. We watched for almost an hour as the animals started to cross the river, hesitantly at first and then in a seemingly endless stream, leaping through the water and up to the grassy plains on the other side.
Tearing ourselves away from the crossing, we bumped along in the jeep, alongside the herds, which paid no attention to our clicking cameras. When our guide turned off the jeep engine, we were engulfed in an almost prehistoric silence, which is to say that all we could hear were animals: wildebeests ripping at the grass, warthogs grunting at their babies and the whiffle of an elephant spraying dirt across her back to cool herself off in the hot afternoon sun.
That silence sent home the second lesson of our trip: in the grand scheme of things, I don't matter very much. In fact, I wonder how much any of us matter as individuals, outside the tight circles of families and friends, compared to things like the immense rhythms of the migration or the vastness of the savannah. Sadly, our most profound effect as a species may be the damage we have done to the environment but scientists suggest that if humankind were to vanish from the planet overnight, the earth's environment would eventually repair itself and it would be as if we never existed. The world, it seems, would do very well without us.
I know what you are thinking: I am about to tell you that I returned from Kenya having renounced my electronic addictions. Nope. As soon as we were back in Wi-Fi range, I plugged back in, only to discover that my unsent and unanswered emails had led to, wait for it, no crises whatsoever. It seems that a person could live a bit more like Lady Hester Stanhope; maybe everything does not have to happen "right now".
It was a fantastic trip. I can post the photos on Twitter if you want.
Deborah Lindsay Williams (mannahattamamma.com) is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi