Lifestyle Travel

How backpacking has changed since I went to South America in my 20s

I’ll admit that now I’m travelling in my thirties, no matter how hard I try, I’m just not as good at taking great Instagram pictures as a twenty-something. I’ve been taking photographs all my life and they’re not bad at all, but Instagram isn’t really about pretty pictures, it’s about selling a lifestyle. It’s also about looking fantastic and when you’re on the road, that is a near impossible feat.

Taking pictures at Inle Lake, Myanmar
Taking pictures at Inle Lake, Myanmar

There are certain features that travellers just can’t miss if they’re in a certain place. A picture in front of the Taj Mahal with nobody else in it. A pose in the peacock doorway of Jaipur palace. Perching on top of a vertiginous crag at Nusa Penida. There is pressure to get ‘the shot’, which is often harder than you would think with tourist crowds, high temperatures and limited time. Not to mention that need to wake at 4am if you want to be the first in the queue for the Taj Mahal.

I went travelling around South America with my friend when we were in our early twenties, in those halcyon days before Instagram. We didn’t need WiFi codes or a smartphone because they didn’t exist. Now, travellers carry everything they need to create content on the road and as I’m travelling in Asia, so do I.

It definitely brings more pressures and having the equipment and the great locations, means we use them to create. I’m writing this in a guest house in Mirissa, even though I’m getting up at 5am to go whale-watching. I understand the obsessive need to make content, as I often feel that way myself.

Luckily, I’m older so I concentrate on my writing and worry less about looking beautiful and showing off my lifestyle. I think it’s different for those brought up with social media, they know it is as something polished and aspirational. I remember when Facebook was blurred pictures of drinking games, drunken statuses and our parents weren’t on it.

In South America, we spent so much time drinking in hostel bars where we’d make eye contact with someone and then we’d join tables together. You struggle to make eye contact in this phonetastic world and sometimes people don’t want to participate but mainly, they’re just not bored enough.

If we were on a bus, we’d read our books made out of trees, but if we were at our hostel in the evening, you can bet your last bottle of Quilmes that we were bored. If we were sat alone and someone walked in, then we were happy. A chat with this person was our entertainment for the night and it was much better than queuing for a crap computer to send a few emails. There was nothing on the internet that could tempt us away from human interaction, especially if it involved handsome men.

We made idiots of ourselves but there is little evidence of it online or even in photos, save a few from the beginning of the night. Now people pap themselves to prove they’re having fun. It’s hard to be in the moment when you need to document things, with the added hassle of trying to look good. Although I did write a book about it.

We never really looked good and I don’t mean that there was anything wrong with the way we looked, quite the contrary, we looked fine. It was freeing to not make much of an effort, but now I see people wearing incredible dresses, tiaras, expensive jewellery and even white people in saris. How people fit these outfits into their luggage and how they launder them on the road is beyond me.

I respect anyone who puts time and effort into their social media posts as it’s difficult to build an audience and even harder to make money from it. Travelling can be hard enough without the worry that every photo has to be the best, that you have to look amazing in a bikini or you need to document your night out.

Technology has made travel better and easier in many ways but it’s hard to resist the influence of influencers. If you’re on a budget then it’s fine to be sweaty, dirty, hungover, sunburnt, smelly and a little bit frazzled. You don’t have to post every day, unless you want to, or create the perfect pose against the backdrop of an ancient temple, unless that’s important to you.

Take it from me, that backpacking is what you make it, not what social media tells us it should be and how we should look while doing it.


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