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 😉
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
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.
Travel with someone who wakes you up at 6 am, because it looks like a good morning to jump in the lake! 😂 . . That's me, plunging into the cool waters of Lake Atitlan this morning, in the shadow of Volcan San Pedro 👊 . . As much as I love solo travel, it's refreshing to be in the company of someone who pushes me out of my comfort zone. Who's that person for you? Tag them in the comments 👇 . . #theshootingstar #guatemala #dayofthegirl #girlhero
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.