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Why Long Term Travel is More Like Real Life and Less Like Instagram.

In 2013, when I went location independent and started travelling indefinitely without a home, Instagram was still in its infancy. Thank heavens.

Although I had dreamy notions of what my life of long term travel might look like, I had somewhat realistic expectations of the challenges of a digital nomad: financial sustainability, the constant goodbyes, long stretches of poor wifi. Unlike my current Instagram feed, my head wasn’t exploding with perfect images of myself in a perfectly flowing dress on a perfect day in a perfectly isolated backdrop…

Every time I look at a sky full of stars, I know that the darkness within each of us is a thing of beauty too 👀 . . On a dark, lonely night in Pachmarhi – Madhya Pradesh's only "hill station", I found myself under an incredible night sky with a naturalist from @forsythlodge and a local guide from Pachmarhi. The three of us, lost souls in our own ways, stood there watching the crescent moon set behind the hills, spotting shooting stars, deciphering constellations and the rustling in the bushes beyond (this is tiger / leopard territory after all!), and sharing stories about the skies and the forests 🌏 . . Then a police jeep showed up and demanded to know what two guys and a girl were doing out there in the darkness 😯 This photo became our savior, as we tried to explain we're out stargazing and that's only possible in complete darkness. They left us with a warning to "do this stars thing quickly and leave" 🐾 . . Oh India, under a sky full of stars, your darkness is a thing of beauty too 😉

A post shared by Shivya Nath (@shivya) on

Don’t get me wrong. I love Instagram. In fact, I just made my 1000th post and will be celebrating the 30,000 followers milestone soon with some cool travel giveaways. I love sharing meaningful experiences about life on the road with my readers, learning from the photography style of fellow Instagrammers, and the general feeling of wanderlust whenever I open the app.

Yet I cringe every time I scroll through my feed. Because the depiction of long term travel on Instagram often tends to be far, far removed from reality. Here’s how:

The longer you travel, the more you look for deeper connections

When you’ve been on the road long enough, the thrill of superficial traveling – jumping into a taxi to see the five most popular sights in your time-bound itinerary – fades away. You stop caring about whether people judge you for skipping Venice to spend a week discovering Italy from the lens of a local artist, or for skipping the “must see” sunrise of Alishan (Taiwan) with scores of other tourists and their selfie sticks to spend a lazy morning in the mist-clad tea plantations of Fenqihu. You try to slow down and have real conversations with people, because it is serendipitous encounters on the road that keep you going.

However, instead of inspiring deeper connections and understanding of the places we travel to, Instagram often only inspires dreamy landscape shots, minus the stories behind them… and that sometimes gets on my nerves.

Also read: One Year of Travelling Without a Home

fenqihu taiwan, alishan sea of clouds

A rare sea of clouds in Fenqihu, Taiwan.

There are no perfect days on the road

Just like life. Ask any long term traveller, and they’ll tell you stories of miserable bus rides, bad food days, the nostalgia of a place that has changed for the worse, accommodation nightmares, stressful bank balance days… or even just days when you feel your life is too meaningless to get out of bed. But these little travel truths often get lost behind the facade of glamorous travel photos, and make the life of a perpetual traveller seem a little too perfect.

I’m not saying that Instagram should become a place to vent, nor should anyone with the privilege and opportunity to travel be ungrateful for it. But it’s important to keep it real, because a life of travel is nowhere as perfect as it can seem on Instagram.

Also read: Solo Travel Moments That Left Me Scared Shitless

How far should one go to get the perfect travel picture?

This has been a debate since pre-digital days, but I feel like Instagram has taken it to a whole new level. Is it okay to photograph someone with a beautiful face, without so much as building a personal connection with them? Is it okay to ask the owners to empty out their cafe so you can get a perfectly romantic shot? Is it okay to photoshop photos of cloudy days to look bright and sunny?

What about wearing a gorgeous dress and makeup and heels on a hike, or in a remote Himalayan village, or in the Amazon Rainforest… because your Instagram photos matter more than your comfort or the local sentiment? What about asking a tourism board for an exclusive tour of a popular place, so you can get (unrealistically) perfect photos without the usual crowds?

It keeps me asking, how much is too much? And doesn’t it beat the impulsive, unpredictable, imperfect charm of life on the road?

Also read: Simple Ways I’ve Changed to Travel More Responsibly

zanzibar beaches, pwani mchangani zanzibar, travel bloggers india

When real places are photoshopped, even surreal places make you wonder if they are photoshopped. Not photoshopped – Zanzibar.

Work-life balance as a digital nomad isn’t easy

Using technology to make a living on the go is hard work. Travel bloggers, social media influencers, photographers and coders I’ve met along the way all bear witness to that fact, my own journey included. These dreamy jobs may have the potential to take someone out of the cubicle and put them on the road to adventure, but they don’t come easy, certainly not as easy as they can seem on Instagram – quit your job, pack up, go.

Behind the enviable social media personas of digital nomads are years of struggle to make ends meet financially and get noticed in the online world. And even when they ‘make it’, this life is one of discipline, the kind that often requires you to meet deadlines even in the most blissful of places. Personally, it’s a life I choose, battle for and love everyday (well, almost), but I hate that Instagram photos often reduce it to sheer luck.

Also read: Things I Wish I Knew Before I Quit My Job to Travel

lake atitlan guatemala, digital nomads india, digital nomad travel blog

Self-imposed deadlines with a view in Guatemala!

Popular “Instagrammable” places are seldom what they seem

It took me a while to realize that what you see on Instagram is often not what you get when you really travel. That first happened when I stumbled upon a photo of the famous ‘end of the world’ swing in Baños, Ecuador – the photo of a guy swinging in the stunning backdrop of Tungurahua Volcano as it spurted out lava. It seemed like one of those places where it’d just be you and the wilderness. But when I reached there after 3 hours of hiking, I was shocked to see scores of people lining up to take photos on that swing! No isolation, no feeling of wilderness, no ‘end of the world’ charm. Yet when their photos go on Instagram, I could be fooled again.

I decided not to wait in the queue (like, seriously?) and started a dejected hike back. When I got lost as I always do, I got chatting with a local who referred to the swing as an ‘Instagram phenomenon’ – it was once isolated and hard to find, but a picture on Instagram made it viral and turned it into a picnic spot. Inspired, many locals had attempted to set up similar swings, and he pointed me in the direction of one, where only the owner’s kids were swinging. Seeing me linger around, they invited me to get into the makeshift harness (for unlike the famous swing with a slope below, this one is quite a fall!) and feel the adrenaline. But I digress…

This goes for many of the world’s Instagram hotspots – the Pulpit Rock in Norway and the infinity pool at Hierve el Agua in Mexico for example. Those perfectly composed shots cut off, sometimes even photoshop, all the other tourists and selfie snappers, creating an impression of a place that is at best, untrue. And that often leads to over-commercialization of places, and in general, unrealistic expectations of travel.

Also read: How Responsible Tourism Can Challenge Patriarchy in India

casa del arbol banos, banos ecuador, end of the world swing ecuador

Behind the scenes of that ‘end of world swing’ in Baños, Ecuador.

It’s not a happiness competition

After over 3 years of being location independent, I can tell you that long term travel isn’t about proving a point, or making someone jealous, or scoring a few more likes on Instagram. It’s about finding your bliss – your travel style, your life philosophy, your perspective. It’s about keeping yourself afloat in an ocean where not every fish matters.

It’s about being true to yourself, even if the number of likes on your photos suffer. And we need more of that on Instagram.

Andes ecuador, banos ecuador, instagram travel accounts

Finding my bliss in the Andes.

Over to you, how has Instagram influenced your notions of long term travel?

Connect with me on Instagram @shivya to travel with me virtually… I promise to attempt to keep it real.

42 Comments

  1. Shivya, I just love the honesty (as always) in this post. In this age when one feels pressurised to shout above the already existing din on social media, it’s a reminder to travel only for the love of it, rather than showing off. Thank you!

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  2. shaji a.k says

    wowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww wonderful your blog my dear friend , pls keep writing….ok i wish to read more and more new articles abt ur travel blog pls

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  3. Your story of the end of the world swing remindse of a conversation we had with a bio diversity student in Amboli, the western ghats. Facebook was king then and everyone was posting pictures of tiger sightings or an uncommon bird. And then there would be a mad rush to see the animal/bird. People would’ve invested in expensive lenses to get the shot they had seen on FB. And would go to any length to get their shot.

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  4. Hi Shivya,
    I completely get what you are saying. In this digitally connected world of 2017, many people feel pressured to create an online persona in which they appear to have the perfect life. And since, for most people, travel is a short vacation where they get to step away from everyday stresses and hassles, it’s easy for them to mistakenly believe that those of us who travel non-stop do live carefree lives. Kudos to you for being honest about the fact that that’s not really the case.

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  5. thank you for writing this post. It knock my head, literally. Made me think, if I am one of those instagrammer who want to have a perfect picture and forget to keep it real. It made me scroll back my instagram. Well, some of them are just perfect while some other are really real. Your post inspire me to keep it real starting now. Thank you Shivya.

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  6. Vibha Ravi says

    In the quest to record every ‘unforgettable moment’, we are forgetting to enjoy them. As bloggers, we have obligations to live up to, to create pictures which ‘inspire’ people to travel.
    I am guilty of the same, but sometimes you need someone who tells you to put that camera down. For you, it might be the person who got you jumping into Lake Atitlan. For me, it’s my daughter who drags me back to reality and helps me live the moment, rather than just record it.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Chaithra Mailankody says

    Hi, Shivya. I am a fan of yours. A wonderful thought throwing light on the reality behind the Instagram feed of a full-time traveler. Just a thought on the isolated spot mentioned in the blog which turned into a picnic location due to it going viral on the social media. Sometimes I feel it is better to avoid telling the world about the offbeat locations we come across. Many people are not sensitive to nature and local sentiments. Lots of people try looking for business opportunities in such places. The once quaint and serene place may turn into a commercial tourist spot as a result. Kodachadri hills in Karnataka was unknown until a few years ago. It became popular after a popular Kannada movie was shot there. It is now havocked by tourists from the city on weekends. The beautiful hill has become a place where people go to party and dump their leftovers at the peak(roads were dug out so that jeeps could carry people to the peak) and the village around the foothills. Only the trekking trail in between remains beautiful now. It won’t take long for that to get ruined too :(.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Anoop says

    The comment about popular “instragammable” places reminds of the time I woke up early in the morning to get a perfect shot of Sun rise above Angor Wat. Turns out everyone else had the same idea too.

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  9. Yes, I like your point. Dashing around taking photos of every hot spot just makes you a tourist. It’s too superficial. Better to get to know the people of the landscape, better to work/volunteer there, or stay in places off the beaten path. Better to look inside than find the best look from the outside. Thanks for your wonderful work. Safe journeys and Blessings ~Wendy

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  10. Lovely post Shivya. You have aired your views beautifully. Major chunk of people travel to photograph them at tourist hotspots and post it in social media aiming to improve their persona in the digital world. I feel this craze for clicking in turn has resulted in camera and mobile sales going up drastically.

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  11. I have to admit that you are right up there in my list of people who inspired me to muster courage to get out, visit places and pen down my real time take away.

    Last week I posted my first blog and I am certainly happier than before.

    Much thanks

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  12. You have very eloquently expressed a pheomenon which has taken over lives in general – To get that perfect pic with the perfect smile or moment or location as you have mentioned. There seems to be a competition out there and reality is getting obscured. .

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  13. Really appreciate you honestly in all of this! Sometimes people don’t realise and go too far in the persuit of whatever will make their instagram better. But you break free from this and that’s awesome, courageous and liberating to the conscience. May the road send more adventures your way and give bliss to your soul! Xx

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  14. Hi Shivya,
    OMG you couldn’t have said it better! I absolutely cannot believe ‘the end of the world’ swing had a line..so disappointing.. I felt the same way at Park Güel, Barcelona.. all the pictures I had seen on Instagram sans the poeple around had me believed that maybe it’s not quite crowded… only on reaching there I was totally taken aback! Had to try super hard for a shot without people in it… (was not worth it. For the rest of the trip I solely focused on just clicking pics as I liked with or without people in it. ). I think it’s the pressure of trying to show people these ‘instagrammable’, pristine, serene environment accessibility is a luxury… at the end of the day what I truly believe is that it’s important to actually live the moment and capture what inspires you.. 🙂

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  15. I think what matters is the real person comes alive on social media channels telling a tale through travel pictures. Glad to get a first hand account from you since I don’t know how Instagram looks like.

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  16. First, thank you for writing such a relevant post. Someone had to say it. We’ve a love and hate relationship with Instagram and there have been a thousand times when Vikas and I discussed how the app has started portraying us as people that we mostly aren’t. No doubt that we want to become decent photographers to save memories of our journeys and everyday life better. This attempt, obviously, shows in our pictures as well – what confuses me the most is the distorted definition of a good travel picture that unfortunately comes down to the amount of appreciation. Thanks to travellers like you and more, we’ve learned to not focus on who likes it, how many likes and how amazingly happy and gorgeous we look. Instead, write what we really want to share. Nevertheless, it is still confusing in my head. Can only imagine how crazy a full-time traveller like you would feel. P.S. – we love reading your notes on Insta as much as we love seeing the pictures. More power to you!

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  17. You raise a lot of great points here. Over the years, I have lost interest in taking photos of beautiful places or buildings and have become more interested in street photography and capturing candid moments. As you say, many famous places aren’t what they seem. I still enjoy visiting places even if they are crowded and touristy – famous sites are popular for a reason – but I prefer to find less visited and more local spots.

    Thanks for the great post.

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  18. I get this post at so many levels. I am not a travel blogger but I love travelling. I realized the truth behind the photographs two years back when I made my maiden trip to USA. That’s when I decided to not go by the lists of “must-visit” places and instead looked up local blogs and magazines to see what can be done. I put it to use in my trip to France and which lead me to Alsace and its pretty villages.

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  19. It’s refreshing to see another perspective of the glory of the social media nowadays and I can totally relate to you. Nothing wrong with Instagram but it definitely set a high expectation on people while in reality, well…

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  20. During my long term travel in South East Asia, I remember having so many great experiences and “picturesque” moments that unfortunately I wasn’t able to or simply forgot to take photos of. To think, if I had and was aware of its potential, my Instagram may be booming by now with likes and follows. However, I believe I had a better, more enriched experience without the worry of Instagram popularity and keeping up with the aesthetic. So I completely understand where you are coming from and my advice to everyone is to take photos to remember the moment rather than to be noticed online.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. hi
    Thank you so much for your wonderful advice, I’ve just set up a blog and I LOVE your advice, it’s helped me so much. This is the first time I’ve ever commented on a blog, I’ve added commenting onto my daily to-do list now thanks to the great post.
    Thank you

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  22. Hi Shivya, just come across your blog and realised that I started out at about the same time as you. I’m travelling in my motorhome, photographing and blogging. I’m not on instagram or twitter but still I get that feeling about genuineness you describe after waiting ages for all the other tourists to disappear! I too have learned that sometimes the “must have” photo pales into insignificance beside the “happened across magic moment” in a place that because of a friendly exchange with a local or the local wildlife puts in an appearance becomes a 3D memory to treasure.
    Enjoy your future travels.

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  23. Fascinating read.
    I like the question about whether to photoshop out clouds to make it look sunny. I think using photoshop to make a place seem better than it is defeats the purpose. I would rather see a true photo than a doctored representation of a place.
    I never use photoshop or filters on my photos. What I see is what I post. Simple as that. If there is people or a crowd in your photo then use it to your advantage.
    There is more skill in taking a good shot than there is in doctoring it afterwards.

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  24. You have no idea how much this blog has helped me. I’ve been trying to find out how people do it. How they get money for traveling and how they make it look so perfect and easy. Thank you for this blog and thank you for your other blog talking about how you get the money. I completely agree with you, spending your 20’s at a desk isn’t very exciting.

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  25. Thanks for this post Shivya,
    Has Instagram influenced my notions of long term travel? Not really. I love seeing photographs of other people, but I’m not on it! 😀

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  26. This is such an insightful post!! I’m definitely going to keep this in mind for when I travel in the future. I live for the little corners of the world that no one else has found!

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  27. Another very honest and realistic article which connects with people rather than creating some dreamy image of long term travel. I travel with family often and I see people just clicking pictures rather than enjoying the view and feeling all the real things around them. I also have few friends who roam just to take pictures and so that they can post it on Instagram.

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  28. Wow! Your whole travel journey is inspirational for all of us. I love travelling but due to my job and responsibilities i often neglect it but I am very much inspired by you and would plan my trip very soon and would definitely like to share my experience with you.

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  29. Very well written and true indeed. It is very easy to get drifted away in the world of likes and followers. Posts like these are a reminder of why we started travelling in the first place.

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  30. You are such an inspiration Shivya! Glad to be your follower and reading your story! Thank you for sharing such articles! More power to you and Safe Travels.
    XO

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  31. Rahul Sharma says

    Your articles are really amazing ma’am just wish could travel like you

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