The sun pouring down on Chiang Mai, Thailand, feels like the heat radiating from an uncooled stovetop burner. Pinned beneath the rays, the light beats down on me and the heads of thousands of fellow tourists all milling around one of Thailand’s largest temples. Armed with my floral wrap and a pair of blue slippers, I quickly slip into the modest apparel and walk carefully around the perimeter of a massive golden Buddha, its paint glittering in the humid afternoon air.
To my left, a group of monks, or bhikkhus, share a quiet laugh among themselves. Their marigold-colored robes catch the movement of a small, infrequent breeze and one of them reaches out to pull his garment closer to his skin.
Directly before me stands Wat Suan Dok, one of the country’s largest temples; and to my left is a woman gazing at her iPhone, missing it all.
In September 2015, I left my college degree, my family and the United States to embark on an 11-month mission trip to 13 countries. One of the biggest decisions I encountered in the process of trying to pack one year’s worth of possessions into a 65-liter backpack was whether or not to bring my iPhone with me.
“Think of all the new Instagram followers you’re going to get!” My co-worker, in his attempt to celebrate my new adventure, had unwittingly shown a spotlight on one area of deep insecurity. While I can say with a clear conscience that I never chose the trip with any intention of boosting my social media presence, the opportunity to show off my exotic lifestyle was intoxicating.
After all, how many girls in their early twenties create Pinterest boards about jetting off to Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia with nothing but a backpack and a half-caf latte? It was for this reason that I departed Hartsfield-Jackson airport the morning of September 6th with a $180 refurbished Windows XP laptop, my iPhone safely stored in a drawer at my mom’s house.
I wanted to find out what it was like to live life in every present moment, instead of watching moments unfold from behind the camera of a smartphone. Were there moments when I regretted my decision? Sure.
I can think of a handful of times when I can recall thinking, “It’d be really great to get a shot of this.” But the process of traveling the world without technology allowed me more than the opportunity to be fully present—it helped me dig out roots of comparison.
The process of traveling the world without technology allowed me more than the opportunity to be fully present — it helped me dig out roots of comparison.
Instagram had become a form of validation for me—and if you’re reading this wondering how such a thing could be so, I’d challenge you to look a little deeper into your own motivations. At its core, social media is a game. We open the app to admire a few photos, but we’re mostly looking to have others affirm us.
The men and women with the great number of social media followers are the most beautiful, most well-traveled, most exciting. They do things the masses don’t, and it creates a compelling mixture of admiration and jealousy, fueling us to work harder to create and broadcast the perfect image.
I knew if I was going to truly enjoy my year, I needed to disconnect from a device, and show up to the beautiful, the boring, and the ugly.
Bus rides became something of a community event. Instead of sitting bent over a phone, I caught up with teammates or watched movies on my friend’s laptops, one earbud in my ear and one in theirs. Moments when people around me clamored for group shots or tripped over cracks in the Southern Asia pavement to get a better angle at buildings, I stepped back, letting my eyes be the camera.
In the end, I’m certain I missed some incredible photo opportunities. But the memories that I have of my trip will live on forever in my mind, instead of in the square capture on an iPhone. More than that, my happiness is no longer influenced by the number of people jealous of my adventures.
And to me, those lessons were worth so much more than a bump in follower count.