Reflections from the Road: How Facebook Helps Me On My Travels

“Hitting up the churches and museums in Winnipeg today + the Osborne village shopping district, which is apparently like a shorter version of Gastown. Wanna see the architecture and then relax along la rivière rouge sous le beau soleil.

The photograph is of the cathedral in the cemetery in the saint boniface area of Winnipeg. So cool. Two girls were making candles inside when the wax caught fire and destroyed everything (including the 5000-volume library, alas!). This was in 1860. They’ve rebuilt it since.”

Facebook post from Winnipeg, Canada; July 28th, 2012

Don’t lie. We’ve all been guilty of this at one point or another. You look over at a backpacker on the bus, busily typing into their phone, entering a new status update that proclaims their new destination along with the new photo (or two hundred) of the day. Your forehead wrinkles, your eyebrows crinkle, and you turn away, back to the open scenery rolling by outside your window, wondering how on earth another person could be so absorbed by technology and the maintenance of a superficial image when beauty strolls by so close and refined, if only you’d look.

Wait, you did mean guilty of checking Facebook on your travels, right? Well, no, I meant guilty of judging people who update and stay tuned to social media while traveling.

Yes, I know what most people think when they see someone on vacation just thumbing away on their phones. You’re supposed to be focusing on the new sights and sounds around you! or Why are you so conscious about your image that you have to brag about every new thing that you do? Those opinions are completely warranted in some cases; I won’t discount the arguments that technology is making people more distracted and pulling them away from the real world. Face it; we are the generation that relentlessly, obsessively documents ourselves. Nowadays, people are more interested in taking a selfie and proving that they’ve been to said place than actually taking in the experience. That being said, social media has its good points, and many annoyed looks are merely the result of misled impressions.

“There was no end in sight. Yearning plunged into the distance; frost caught in my hair. Rushing passage, as ona sleigh in space. An intoxicating feeling came over me: a burgeoning sense of life, the limitless, exuberant pleasure of being in the world. The freedom of an hour in the Russian winterland. I loved life.

Years charged by, death wheeled over the earth, God and his stars perished in the West, and there was war on earth. I was a soldier in danger and in pain, a wanderer, a traveler in space. But I loved life.

Willy Peter Reese, 1944. He never came home.”

Private Facebook post from Prague, Czech Republic; June 24th, 2014

The quote above would have escaped my memory had I not saved it online. Re-reading it brings back the same feelings that urged my hand to copy Reese’s words. His words were a mirror to the infinity, that toxic contradiction of invincibility teetering on the edge of a dark crevasse; this I feel when prancing in a winter wonderland, but also when just in flight, in motion, in travel.

It’s sad to say, but I have a memory lacking in depth, in courage. You could argue that I could have just kept my thoughts in a notebook, but I run out of pages. Or I lose the notebook. I probably have dozens of notebooks stored in boxes in the garage; I’ve always been a packrat. But until I find time and the will to venture out to the spiderwebs and dust, there they shall stay: still, closed, aching. Like a time capsule, treasured and waiting.

On the other hand, my Facebook page could run forever; it scrolls off the screen for miles. I can check my account when I’m seventy-six (assuming I live that long) and I’ll still be able to see the thoughts I thought important enough to immortalize, share with the world. Facebook automatically records the time, date and location of writing – which is why it’s so important for me to pen down my reflections of an event at the time and place. It’s like the journalist’s way of holding to the truth, adhering to the authenticity of the moment.

There’s something to be said about writing from the place of now. There’s an urgency to write in real time, to write and immortalize your feelings right in that moment and right before that and right afterwards, because we know that if we leave it till tomorrow, we won’t be able to recall the small details, and if we leave it till the next week, we’ll only remember the highlights. Also true: tomorrow, there will be something else to write; the week after, even more. If I don’t write it now, the great likelihood is that I won’t write it ever.

“Oh, the many shades of Ireland.

I’ve seen it at its most dramatic, the colours vibrant and popping, and its most serene, like you’re invading a private world of nature that isn’t meant for human eyes. You can never get a bad photo of Ireland, this vast, beloved land is just too photogenic, almost to a fault. 😉

Made lots of progress today. Caught an early ferry from Cape Clear Island to Schull, on the Mizen peninsula, and spent the hour-long journey singing and watching the waves and the grey skies – was the only passenger on the boat, total five-star treatment, haha. Biked a total of 70 km today, whoot! The most I’ve done so far in a day this trip, and it’s been among one of the most scenic stretches of the Wild Atlantic Way. Truly, some of the sights I’ve seen are so rugged it makes me feel like I’m facing off danger just being in its awesome presence.The world is just too goddamned beautiful.

Another soggy day, the third wet day of the trip so far, but at 5pm, just when I went down to Mizen Head to get a view of the cliffs and the ocean from the southernmost point of the peninsula, the sky opened up and the sun came through – oh, what a glorious, much-appreciated entrance that was!

West Cork, you’ve been simply stunning! I’m a lucky girl. Tomorrow – crossing the border into Kerry, and beginning leg 2 of the journey.”

Facebook post from the County of Cork, Ireland; August 27th, 2014

One of the most powerful things I find, as a writer, is that looking back at your past entries, you don’t just remember what you’ve seen and accomplished, felt and survived; you also see a different side of yourself, a different maturity or state of mind. Four months before the dated post above, I wrote something in complete juxtaposition:

“I’ve had the opportunity to bike twice in Europe – the first was with my host in Glasgow, if you’ll remember, and the second was alone through the gorgeous grasslands and along the fierce highways. It’s a bit of a fear of mine to cycle alone in a foreign country, but there were so many nice people who helped me along the way.”

Facebook post from Bratislava, Slovakia; May 19th, 2014

Funnily enough, I don’t remember being afraid of biking solo through a foreign country. The immediate thought that would come to mind if you asked me what one of my greatest bicycle journeys (or any journey, period) has been is Oh, the time I biked for ten days around Ireland.

I don’t know if it’s possible to relive moments that have passed, but when I view something I expressed, whether a photograph, a written thought or a drawing, something calls to a long-buried memory tucked between the grooves and ridges of my brain. It’s like a quick flash in front of my eyes, a glimpse of a portal into a different world. It may not play out like an indie film, but all of those glimpses represent hand-picked slides of my past that I would not have remembered without a trigger. For that, I have to thank Facebook.

During my travels, I typically use Facebook at least once a day, unless I’m out in the boonies camping or on some long-distance sea voyage (the latter has yet to happen, sadly). Facebook, for me, is like a virtual diary with the added benefits of automatically sharing the thoughts and images I accumulate on my journey with all the people I care about. I use it to store and share my photographs, the precious moments lucky enough to be caught on film – photographs of myself in situations I won’t remember in a couple of years. A photograph of myself with two guys, all wearing sombreros, in Vietnam?! Check.

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Facebook also lets me keep in contact with friends I meet along the way and friends back home. When I’m lonely on the road, I know I can talk to someone with the touch of a button. Facebook also lets everyone know I’m safe, that I’m still alive. If I don’t post something for a while, people will at least know where I last was, on which day. That’s really important.

But, to some degree, you only post stuff to Facebook to show off, don’t you? One might ask me, eyebrow raised in doubt.

Well, I won’t disagree with you. Travel is, to a degree, a privilege, and while it took me a while to admit it, I have to say that I do take it for granted at times. When I traveled around Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand earlier this year, I kept on thinking about how lucky I was to have simply been born in the ‘right’ country, to a middle-class family with the kind of opportunities we have. I kept on thinking how countries in Southeast Asia were so affordable for people in wealthier countries, but how people from Vietnam, for example, would have to work for a decade or more just to afford one family trip to North America. I’m even lucky to just have a Malaysian passport; my citizenship allows me to visit 166 countries without a visa, or with a visa-on-arrival. That’s a huge amount of mobility that, sadly, citizens of certain other countries aren’t afforded. Life dealt me a pretty good hand.

But I don’t post photographs to show off the fact that I travel. Some travel companies are now taking on the slogan, “Take the next selfie in an exotic location to make your friends jealous!” That literally repulses me. Travel isn’t a competition, and if you think that way, you’re not thinking about travel right. Travel isn’t about one-upping one another for the title of ‘Most Countries I’ve Ever Stepped Foot In’. Travel isn’t calculative. Travel is about an exchange of culture, language, scenery, friends. Travel is about expanding our worlds, showing us just how small we are, teaching ourselves humility and patience. When I put up photographs from my travels, yes, it’s to show everyone I’m having a good time, but it’s also to showcase the beauty of the world, to give them snapshots of what else is out there beyond our comfort zones. A few of my friends tell me they live vicariously through my photographs and travel notes. I can understand that, because when I’m not traveling, I love looking at my Facebook feed, full of photographs from my friends who are frequent travelers, exploring South America and Europe and Asia. It keeps me invigorated, anticipating the next time I can get out on the road again, feeding my inspiration.

There will always be skeptics. My original title for this piece was “Reflections from the Road: A Defense of Facebook on my Travels,” but then I realized that sounded like I was seeking someone’s approval, or needed to prove something. In reality, I don’t, and you don’t. Opinions on social media seem to be divided into two halves: either people reveal too much of their lives, sometimes obnoxiously, sometimes mistakenly, or people filter their lives so that their social media accounts reveal only the parts they want people to see: the happy, glorious, brave side of them. To a certain extent, social media has masked anything that suggests true sorrow, anger or ruthlessness, and so we can’t be blamed for therefore thinking that social media is just for face, for show. But that doesn’t mean it’s all superficial. If you were to look back at what I posted when I was 15, you’d see that it’s all gibberish between young teenage girls. But I think if you looked at my posts in recent years, you could see the rawness of my heart.

“I know where I started out: starry-eyed, idealistic, ambitious and naive. Had the drive and the passion to take it all the way even through the dangers. I still hope I’m that naked flame.

But I wonder what kind of bad habits I have as a traveler. Sure, carrying just one backpack all around Europe has helped me get really far, but what about the deeper issues at play? They say take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footsteps. Do I take too many photos? Am I living in the moment? What kind of mark do I leave on the countries and people that have so kindly hosted me? I hope it’s a footprint that bears my changing identity, that remains bona fide and dedicated to the soul no matter the number of experiences that try to cull it.

But one of my biggest questions – and one of my scariest – is: Can I actually call myself a traveler, instead of a tourist? We always look at tourists with some extent of derision, rolling our eyes at their ignorant antics… As much as I hate to admit it, I do have a bit of the tourist in me, as much as I try hard to avoid that stereotype. One thing I have learned is that the next time I take on a long backpacking journey such as my summer in Europe, I will slow down.”

Facebook post from Dublin, Ireland; August 21st, 2014

Without these posts, these diary entries, I wouldn’t have remembered these specific moments. I’d say we are the sum total of our feelings, thoughts and actions, and if I can’t remember what I felt – the admiration, the inspiration, the luck, the chance, the fight – I would be missing out on a grand part of an experience of a lifetime. Where I might have only remembered the aftermath and the highlights, the great peaks and the final conclusion, with these posts, I have a second chance. I can go back to the in-between.

Yes, social media has made people even more vain and self-absorbed as before – but it has made people more self-conscious and vulnerable too. Social media has people doing all they can for a glamorous selfie, even risking their lives for what they think is the next coolest image. People have died trying to take selfies on top of high buildings and bridges, and in front of oncoming trains. I personally think this is utterly ridiculous. I mean, who wants to be remembered for dying for a selfie? Who wants to be remembered for being vain and stupid? Selfies are symbolic for the wrong things.

Photographs, on the other hand, are symbolic and metaphorical, for all the right reasons. When you put your camera in a stranger’s hand, you’re saying, “I trust you enough. I trust you enough to not steal my camera, and I trust you enough to capture a good image of me.” There’s a touching of hands, a gentle, friendly exchange of human contact. It’s no longer that ‘me, me, me!’ that the selfie screams, but an enveloping of ‘we.’ Photographs are an expression of our souls, and Facebook, for all its downfalls, is a platform for an exchange between us. I launch my wandering thoughts into the universe, virtual or not, so that it might draw out other wandering thoughts and conceive a conversation. I’m inviting people to join in, make themselves a part of my journey, and me a part of theirs.

“I went out to celebrate my last night in the eternal city, wanting to see the famous Fontana di Trevi which I’d left until the last minute. As I approached the junction at which I would turn and marvel at the fountain, I prepared myself mentally for the beautiful sight I’d imagined in my head – clear blue water lit up from below, shadows and light dancing lightly on marble, grand statues perched regally above.

I laughed my head off when I saw that the fountain was being restored. The pool was drained, the building was covered in ugly scaffolding, and a platform had been set up so that throngs of tourists could wait in line to get up close to the statues. Oh my, oh my, too hilarious. It both made my night and didn’t.

My first thought was that, oh well, Rome just wasn’t ready for me. So many buildings and sites were undergoing reconstruction/restoration. But then I thought – Rome, this marvelous city, this grand cradle of civilization that is almost 3000 years old and still so well preserved till today, this giant that tolerates the millions of tourists that stomp on its grounds, cough in its face, that leave after a brief three-day, two-night stay and call it “seeing Rome”… It does not have to be ready for anyone. It’s us that have to be ready for it.”

Facebook post in Rome, Italy; July 21st, 2014

It’s us that have to be ready.

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Images by Alaska Rue and Flickr