The Problem with Instagram Destinations
I knew on some level what was going to happen, but she was adamant. She wanted to see the waterfall.
Before my friend arrived in Bali for her two-week experience, I had inquired about any “bucket list” items she wanted to experience and she had sent me some truly spectacular photos– some of them featuring golden beaches under spotless skies and others showing Lempusyang Temple (The Gate of Heaven), a spectacular edifice straight out of a fantasy world. She was especially excited about Tukad Cepung waterfall, a glimmering sheet of water cascading down a cliff into a shallow pool, where it nestles like a secret between high rocks. O, my heart– my gorgeous Bali.
I had to smile. One Tukad Cepung photo on Pinterest showed a woman wandering slowly through her private oasis, taking it all in. In another Instagram image, bathed in what appears to be the light of the gods, a couple stands transfixed before the waterfall, having possibly reached transcendence. Meanwhile, further down the screen, another couple channels their inner dirty dancing as he holds her aloft in the mist.
A picture says a thousand words, but sometimes that’s not enough.
The journey to Tukad Cepung waterfall begins with payment and then a walk into the gorge. I did my best to prepare my friends for what I experienced when I visited seven months ago. It had been relatively quiet then, although there was a half-naked woman in an iridescent fishnet top and thong bikini bottoms taking up all the good photo backdrops (she and her photographer were still there when we left 45 minutes later). Seven months ago, it was busy and starting to get busier as we were leaving, so I expected it to be the same way this time.
But as we pulled up to the entrance, I already felt trepidation. Even though we arrived around the same time as my last trip, there was already a steady stream of people headed down the path. As we joined them I was struck by the sheer number of us. Just an endless, slow-moving line, all shuffling towards the end goal.
Everyone looked Instagram-ready. Our anticipation now cut with rising doubt, we reached the waterfall at last to encounter a huge crowd squashed into a small space between cliff faces. The group was courteously standing back, allowing one person to go forward at a time for their moment with the waterfall to pretend they were all alone in a private oasis. After thirty seconds or so, their time was up and they would exchange places with the next person.
My friend– the one who wanted to see this waterfall so badly– took one look at this charade and said, “Nope.” We walked back up to the road. She said, “Please don’t take me somewhere like this again.”
I could hear the disappointment in her voice, and I understood– the photos we seen on Instagram and Pinterest go deeper than capturing gorgeous settings, diving right into the emotion of the place. What do we want when we travel? We want solitude. We want release from the stress that we carry around in normal life. We want a break from our routine, to step into the shoes of an adventurer, get a little crazy, find peace, novelty, fun, freedom. And yes, we want it to be private. Instagram photos capture all of this, giving us a glimpse of what it looks like when you achieve it. Or at least an impression.
What we want most is the story. The one where we set out early to find a waterfall, walking barefoot towards it, slipping into the pool and losing ourselves in the rhythmic sound of crashing water, birds calling, and emptiness. When we arrive to find 500 other people bubbling with excitement and fixing their hair with the same idea in mind, the fantasy is dashed once and for all.
The problem, as far as I can see, is that rather than creating these experiences, we use Instagram to manufacture an idea of them... we are the victims of Instagram and the perpetrators too. When we show up at a crowded waterfall that resembles an Apple store on release day, we have two options: to leave, or to play the game.
After all, the emotions that rise to the surface are complicated: disappointment and hurt, anger at all these silly people being loud and ruining the place, the stark realization that you are also here seeking the same thing– but no, you’re better than them– but no, you’re part of the problem too. Maybe you’re ruining the place. And on a different level, foolishness. After all, if you search “Tukad Cepung waterfall”, thousands of images show up. Of course there isn’t time for every person to have their hour of uninterrupted transcendence with a waterfall. We are not as unique as we thought.
And finally– longing. Such a deep, wrenching longing for that feeling of discovery and abandon and healing, of breathing out deeply, closing your eyes and having this moment for yourself. Sometimes it’s easier to accept the next best thing and take the damn picture.
Do I have a solution to Instagram destinations? Well, I would start with planning your itinerary very carefully even if it means skipping a lot of these places, or trying it out in the off-season (which is also a popular solution, so don't rely on it). I realize this is a depressing piece of advice, because popular destinations are popular for a reason– they are magnificent to behold, and so many are worth seeing anyways! However, a lot of these places are fads created on social media, giving the impression that there are only a tweetable number of things to do– only 8 places worth seeing in Bali, or only 3 hikes worth doing in Alberta.
Amsterdam is not advertising itself as a tourist destination anymore due to overcrowding, but grab a drink in Alkmaar nearby. To get to Moraine Lake in Alberta these days, you need to park in an overflow parking lot in a forest and wait, sometimes for hours, for a bus that will deposit you there with thousands of others. But these are the Rocky Mountains, a vast area full of lakes, tumbling rivers, breathtaking views, and beautiful hideaways. Sometimes it takes more grunt work to find places that are equally as beautiful off the beaten path. There’s a simple way to learn about them: Ask the locals.
Sigh. I realize as I write this that I’m also part of the problem. One fad destination will give way to another and another, and I've made it my business to show them to you. Maybe as travel becomes cheaper and the world becomes wealthier and more populous, this is inevitable.
What we can do is travel more consciously. I have learned from the waterfall experience, and from now on do my best to stick with off-the-beaten-path experiences in Bali (I have exceptions– some places are definitely worth seeing despite the crowds). When you’re with me, you won’t stand in line for a waterfall, but you will see outstanding places, meet some of my favourite Balinese friends, learn about this complex and beautiful culture, eat the most mouthwatering food in tiny restaurants you’ve never heard of, and take your time travelling along chaotic, winding roads. Nowhere is postcard-perfect, and Bali is no exception. You’ll see all of that too.
Whenever you’re travelling, I suggest leaving social media at home and enjoy the moment, because that is all you have. In a strange twist, having other people’s opinions foremost in our minds is exactly what stops us from having the experience we are so badly seeking. So do it for you. Travel without expectations.
Meet local people, try to speak to them in their language, learn something new, go on a local trek, settle at an outdoor restaurant for an afternoon, find the nearest watering hole and learn how to dance. Go into nature and just keep walking until no one else is there. And at last, in the corner of a tiny pub, in a forest clearing next to a stream, on a cliff you happened upon after asking someone for a go-to spot nearby, or next to a crumbling ruin without a name, you’ll create the moment you’ve been yearning for.
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