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The digital tour bus

This is a true story. The names and places have been changed to protect the vulnerable.

It was a very hazy morning in the hills of Eastern Europe. It was early spring, so it was not warm, but not cold either. Though not foggy, there was the sense of enclosure that comes with fog. We were in a very small town that could be anywhere along the border of the former Soviet Union. An elderly lady ambled down a nearby lane with a canister of milk in one hand. Two dogs lay in a spot of grass next to the road, passively watching the bus roll by. Some minutes later the bus, a not-quite-new but comfortable touring model, made its first stop of the day. An old man, slightly stooped and dressed in an ill-fitting dark suit, waited at the portcullis of the castle.

No sooner had the bus stopped when three men in raffish casual clothing stepped quickly from the bus and moved to an open area of the castle yard. From various pockets they produced handheld devices with bulging proboscises of antennae. They gazed into the sky and pressed buttons to summon the gods of digital wizardry circling high above the earth–satellites that recorded their location and sent earthward a record of their presence–to somewhere.

This was not quite a normal tour. Having been told it would be unusual, my wife and I had signed on a month or two in advance. We were not sure what unusual meant. Certainly the itinerary was what would be expected when touring a province with a long history: old churches, castles, and manor houses. We figured there would be a mix of rural and small village locations, a leisurely run through green hills and quaint buildings. Poverty is pervasive in rural Eastern Europe, so we expected some dilapidation and perhaps a sense of remoteness–certainly in comparison to the big cities.

Tours usually have guides, of course, mostly younger people hired by the tour companies. Some can speak a language other than English and have knowledge relevant to the tour. Our guide, and his wife, were–to say the least–different. Both speak three or four languages. He is a well-known professor of art history and director of a major historical site. She is an interior designer of some repute. It was their tour and itinerary.

In this particular country three out of four people have a mobile phone, which they simply call a mobile. Our guide used one often on the tour, calling ahead to each place we stopped, which explained in part why there were almost always people waiting outside for us. On the other hand, we couldn’t recall other tours getting this kind of attention.

The bus was full. In fact, there was a minivan that trailed behind us–ostensibly with overflow, although it also carried two dogs. The 60 or so people on the bus were, by American standards, relatively homogeneous: white, mostly European, middle-aged, and couples without children. Conversations were a Babel of tongues: German, Polish, Finnish, English, Swedish, Italian, Portuguese, and Russian were among the languages we could recognize. I noticed several couples using palm computers for some kind of translation–no longer an unusual sight in Europe. By any measure this was an electronically sophisticated crowd. I suppose the tour could be considered two days of roughing it in the country, but these people were seldom out of touch and probably consumed more batteries than the stock of an average Wal-Mart store.

There was an unusual tension among the people on the bus. Normally on tours, couples stick to themselves, paired off by the bus seats. Though English is the common language, as a rule, most conversations between people of different nationalities are halting and therefore infrequent. That wasn’t exactly the case on this bus. While some people seemed content to be by themselves, there were at least as many who made the rounds, deliberately moving among the bus seats or circulating among the groups when we stopped. Others seemed to spend most of their time watching.

There were enough people who knew each other that a nascent camaraderie appeared, but for some reason it never took hold. Throughout the two days, some people continued to move about, making conversation, and others stayed apart. The mood was good, but not what I’d call happy. It was like a group of people who knew they were supposed to be having a good time, but were having a hard time doing it.

One thing that lightened the tour was documenting it. Did I mention digital cameras? Most people had at least one digital camera; several people were festooned with digital gear. It seemed that whenever people were at a loss for words, they took a picture. Of course, we were also seeing some very old and interesting places, and like tourists everywhere, the tableaux formed, a flash popped, and people giggled or frowned depending on their willingness to be photographed. There was so much picture-taking that it reminded me of the old gag: “How was your vacation?” “I dunno; the pictures haven’t come back yet.” That quip needs to be updated for the instant pictures of the digital age.

By the second day, people were relaxed about the photography. In fact, it seemed to suggest that instead of being a busload of strangers, we might have something to share. One event reinforced that idea. We stopped at a particularly unusual church in a very small village. Most churches older than a couple of hundred years have interiors made of stone. The interior of this 300-year-old church was wood. All the paintings–done in delicate shades of blue and earthtones and fully lined with luminous gold–were on wood. The ceilings were painted in the same manner, also on wood. The wood produced an unusual beauty, but also made the church vulnerable. Decades of neglect under the Soviet regime had brought it to where, if emergency measures weren’t taken, the building would have been lost. Our guide had raised $50,000 from each of four countries to save it. The unusual aesthetics of that church and the story of how it had been saved seemed to really affect this international crowd. At the end, we all gathered on the church steps for pictures. One person started taking pictures with cameras from six people. Then one by one, 20 more people stepped out of the group and took pictures. The repetition was funny and significant. An hour later on the bus a sign-up sheet was passed around encouraging people to share pictures via e-mail.

At the last lunch, we struck up a conversation with a couple that spoke with a distinct New England twang. As State Department employees they had spent 20 years running embassies in Niger and Cameroon; such stories they had to tell. At the moment the husband was chief administrative officer at a U.S. embassy in East Europe. It dawned on me that the pattern of conversation and behavior on the bus was indicative of diplomatic personnel. I asked him if he knew whether there were other embassy people on the tour. He looked at me sideways and smiled. “Sure. There are six ambassadors and their spouses, three military attaches, two U.N. representatives, and a bunch of administrative types like me.”

So, this was an unofficial outing for the leading diplomats in the country. No security guards, no pomp, just checking in by phone and GPS, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the military attachés carried guns, especially the guy with the dogs. Given the circumstances, I was glad we could still take pictures of each other and exchange them by e-mail, as we did with the couple from the American embassy. Sometimes and in strange ways, it’s technology that binds us together.

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