Solo traveller Rosita Boland never takes a camera with her when she goes on holiday. Here’s why.
People always ask me why I love to travel so much. The answer is really simple: pure curiosity. I love seeing new places, having new experiences and meeting new people. For me, it’s about trying to understand a little more about the immense and glorious world we inhabit. I can never get enough of it.
I’ve been travelling since I was 19, starting with a month inter-railing around Europe. After college, I went to Australia for a year, most of which I spent hitchhiking and camping by myself around that vast and wonderful continent. Then I kept going. I’d work for a while, save up, and then take off again. I went to Eastern Europe and Turkey for seven months after the Berlin Wall came down. Nepal overland to Turkey, South East Asia, South America, Central America, New Zealand. My most recent long-haul trip was six months, which included six weeks in Ubud in Bali, which was the basis for the last chapter of my book, Elsewhere.
On all my journeys, I set off alone, and I don’t have a single picture to show for any of them. I went by myself because I didn’t have anyone else to go with, and I had no intention of sitting passively at home when the world was out there, calling to me. Yes, sometimes it was lonely, but mostly it was thrilling and amazing and I was proud of knowing I had ownership of my own life choices. Yet, oddly, it’s the fact that I never came back with any photographs that seemed to fascinate people more than the fact I travelled alone, and still does.
In the beginning, it wasn’t something I ever thought about. I have always kept a diary when travelling, so from my perspective, I always had a record of where I’d been and what I’d seen. Taking photographs simply wasn’t a priority. Besides, 30 years ago, it was really expensive to develop film. I had briefly had a cheap camera as a teenager, and I was not a proficient photographer. It seemed both a waste of money, and energy, to get terrible pictures developed.
Then, even when cameras went digital and taking pictures cost nothing, it became a conscious choice. I didn’t want the stress of choosing what to photograph. I didn’t want to travel with anything valuable. I didn’t want to edit my experiences while I was still having them. Mostly, though, I just wanted to experience the moment.
It sounds obvious, but it’s worth stating nonetheless: there is no right or wrong way for anyone to travel. It’s not a competition. There aren’t any rules. Most people love to take pictures when they are out in the world, exploring. I’m just not one of them.
For me, the more I travelled, the more I learned about what I loved best. One of them is feeling truly far away. I always want to try and be fully present in the place. While I love Twitter - what journalist doesn’t? - I never post anything on any social media platforms when I’m travelling.
This is partly because I like to keep certain elements of my life private. I don’t actually want my social media followers to know where I am at all times, nor what I’m up to, or who I’m with. But it’s more than that. It’s hard enough to feel truly elsewhere these days, in an era of globalisation, with mobile phones and Google and social media, where you can interact in real time with people at the other side of the world, if you so choose.
My complete lack of interest in taking pictures, let alone posting them to social media, is also probably because when I started doing long-haul travel, more than 30 years ago, social media didn’t exist. Nor did the internet – or not to us ordinary members of the public, anyway. I wrote letters instead. It seems fantastically archaic, but one of the great joys of being away for months was periodically going to American Express offices to collect the mail that was kept there for me. I had a rough idea where I’d be in about six weeks time, and that’s the address I’d put at the end of my letters.
The thrill of arriving in a city and taking a rickshaw to collect my letters was on a par with Christmas as a child. My best ever trove was 21 long letters, sent to me at Agra, India. I spent an entire joyous day reading and rereading them in a rooftop cafe with a view of the Taj Mahal.
You’d have to be living in a cave not to be aware of the phenomena that is Instagram, and people sharing images of them living their best lives, often in exotic places. Like I said, I’ve never viewed travel as a competition. Because it really isn’t. A hundred people could go to the same place, and each of them would have their own unique experience there, because we are all different.
It doesn’t surprise me in the least that some choose to curate their experiences by selecting images to post to social media. We all curate our travels to a certain degree: what I write in my diary when I am out on the road is only a tiny fraction of what I’ve truly experienced.
It’s really nobody’s business except your own how you choose to mark your travels. Instagram is just a sophisticated version of the former trope of showing off your holiday photographs when you get home. Except this time, you’re showing them when you’re still in the location, and to far more people than your family and friends. It’s a different metric, and a different audience, because we live in different times now, not to mention the fact that some people can usefully monetise Instagram to fund their travels.
But you’ll never see me on Instagram when I’m out in the world. All I want is the simplicity of inhabiting the moment, and revelling privately in being elsewhere.
Rosita Boland is senior features writer at The Irish Times. Her book Elsewhere: One Woman, One Rucksack, One Lifetime of Travel (Doubleday Ireland, £14.99) is available to buy now