Searching for Oman: Towards a disconnected 2023

Last month, I tried to recreate the serenity and calm of a past camping trip in Oman by disconnecting from the internet for three days.

A stream in Oman
A stream in Oman, photographed by the author in 2013 [File: Belen Fernandez/Al Jazeera]

Back in 2013, I went camping for three nights in a remote area of Oman at the invitation of some Arab friends living in Dubai. They had overestimated my hiking abilities, but made sure I did not fall off of any precipices.

We slept by a stream five hours away from where we had left my friends’ cars. There was no mobile phone reception, and a lone Omani shepherd was the only other human we encountered over the course of our stay. I spent the days watching the stream, wandering around some boulders and small caves, and eating a lot of nuts and canned tuna.

With no digital stimuli keeping me unnaturally alert at night, I slept an unprecedented 10-plus hours under the stars. My seemingly eternal state of agitation dissipated, and life became magically surreal in its simplicity. Then the nuts and tuna ran out, and it was time to drive back to Dubai, the internet, and everything else that is wrong with the world.

In the decade that has elapsed since then, the Oman camping excursion has attained an almost mythical status in my mind, with the stream symbolising a sort of pre-technological Eden where it is possible to clock 10 glorious hours of slumber on three consecutive nights – a feat that, post-Oman, I never managed to replicate.

While it is forever my dream to get a good night’s sleep, such dreams are difficult to reconcile with capitalism’s insistence on continuous productivity. Of course, capitalism does endorse such “leisure” activities as frittering half one’s life away on Facebook and other social media platforms that are toxic for mental health but good for corporate profit.

In September 2022, it occurred to me that I could simply disconnect from the internet in an attempt to recreate the Omani shuteye scenario. It was not until December, however, that I found the time. And so it was that, from December 20 to 23, my phone remained in airplane mode as I reacquainted myself with the off-screen world.

After spending much of the night of December 19 wide awake and fighting the impulse to squeeze in one last asinine Facebook post publicising my imminent internet hiatus, I officially disconnected at 5.45 in the morning on December 20. I promptly fell asleep, and dreamed a profound dream about trying to open a website that did not work.

I had timed my offline experiment to coincide with a Christmas rendezvous in Mexico City with my parents, such that they would not worry about me and vice versa. And while the Mexican capital and its more than 20 million inhabitants certainly offered a landscape quite different from remote Oman, the whole experience was still pretty sweet.

Almost immediately, I felt my shoulders start to descend from their normal position bunched up around my ears, where they waited in perennial anticipation of the next ding or buzz to indicate the arrival of a new email or Facebook comment. Over the coming internet-free days, my breathing would become less shallow and hyperventilation-prone, as I sensed personhood gradually seep back into my being: a former, pre-internet version of myself that I hardly recognised any more.

Offline, I was notably less irritable, and my blood pressure no doubt benefitted from the absence of annoying unsolicited messages from men, which had been known to provoke disproportionate rage in online me. By disengaging, I had resumed control over my own boundaries, and was no longer just a digital presence scattered across virtual spaces. I had liberated myself from digital dependence – if only for three days.

I started reading two books and was able to focus on the books themselves rather than the question of whether I needed to post a selfie reading them. I talked to my parents and fed the squirrels in the park. I remembered what it was like to do things and think things without the distracting compulsion to advertise every thought and action to one’s social media audience. I remembered when excitement did not have to be converted into a series of partying face emojis.

And when I did make one single, old-fashioned, non-WhatsApp phone call, it actually felt special.

On only one out of three nights did I achieve the 10-hour goal, but the other two nights were not bad, either. In the morning, instead of reaching for my phone, I would lie in bed and stare blissfully at the ceiling.

Obviously, three days is scarcely sufficient to recover from a lifetime online – and there were plenty of moments when I felt the urge to Google something completely unnecessary. At one point, I was nearly forced to sabotage my experiment when the Mexico City cab driver whose mobile phone had spontaneously gone on strike asked me if I could look up the driving directions to our destination. When his phone mercifully resumed cooperating, I was saved.

At 5.45am on December 23, I emerged from airplane mode and reconnected to dystopia in order to send my editors an article I had written offline. Out of the approximately 150 new emails in my inbox, exactly one was relevant to my existence. Twitter was convinced I was anti-white, and Facebook was Facebook.

I do not make New Year’s resolutions, but I am definitely dreaming of a much more disconnected 2023 – and a lot more staring at the ceiling.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.