Being Present While We Travel

Being Present While We Travel


"Instagram travel" Is changing where we go and why.

The New York Times recently ran a story about a Hong Kong public-housing complex that has suddenly, randomly, become a hot "Instagram destination." Tourists flock to its blue-and-orange basketball courts, "craning their necks to get that perfect social media shot."

Tourists brawled violently while competing for the perfect selfie spot on a scenic Chinese mountain last week.

Meanwhile, stacking beach stones into monoliths to serve as selfie backdrops is a new fad that angers environmentalists who say it upsets seashore ecosystems.

The Museum of Ice Cream — I realized upon visiting — is neither educational nor really about ice cream but comprises thigh-high plastic lollipops, Fudgsicle wallpaper and rooms coated in whipped-cream cans: that is, scenes in which visitors are meant to photograph themselves.

The nature of — the reason for — travel has changed. Not just travel but nearly all human transit from Point A to point B seems to be less and less about Point B's intrinsic value and more about Point B as a backdrop against which to pose.

This change makes travel less about engaging with Point B than about proving to others that one is or was there. Like planting flags on territories won in games, selfies-as-proof are basic boasts: Ha haaa, I'm in Ibiza and YOU'RE NOT.

As someone with low self-esteem, I can't imagine wanting my own face to be in pictures of my trips. Granted, I envy those who can stand the sight of themselves. I envy their casual confidence. But just as I don't want to see my sallow, slanty-postured self obscuring Stonehenge or Cancún, I also don't want it to spoil the views of dazzling landmarks for whomever else might see my photographs. Why is she blocking the Acropolis?!

Like standing up in crowded theaters during movies, it seems rude.

But this is travel now: not places but places with us. The emphasis has altered. That we are in Cuzco matters less than that we are in Cuzco. This confuses me.

Our ancestors were armchair travelers: Reading or being told about a coral cave, say, they relished its image painted, printed, projected, then pixelated: wall-sized, palm-sized: still, then animated, making sounds.

Now, social media makes us all into instant traveloguists, stars of our own shows. One click and our friends, coworkers and ex-classmates bring us to Bhutan, boom, as we bring them to Memphis, more or less.

This is where extraversion meets high self-esteem. And yes, I'm jealous, but:

We who are not the type to make ourselves the subjects of things shown to others still cling to the obsolescent idea that destinations matter for their own sakes, for what they can bring to us instead of what we bring to them.

We who avoid being depicted tend to care more about what we see and feel and learn at Point A, Point B and the spaces in between than about using locations as decorations flatly framing us, building our "brands," drained of their history and depth.

Is this just my self-hatred speaking? Is that also why I nod sadly but sagely at this summer's news reports about travelers losing control of their cars and tumbling over cliffs while snapping selfies near tourist attractions? To keep tourists alive, one state in India has established "no-selfie zones."

Is it just jealousy that makes me say that every second spent on self-display is a second not spent gazing into a statue's eyes or wondering how many workers built this bridge and what they sang while doing so?

Traveling for the sake of self-display transplants such travelers out of the present into everlasting futures in which friends and followers admire staged scenes.

Traveling for the sake of self-display propels such travelers from spontaneity into performativity. It spurs its own set of needs and anxieties: Was that the best possible picture of my boba? Did I blink?

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