Travelling off the beaten track has really taught me a lot about the modern phenomena of FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. This is when you are consciously bothered by the idea that somewhere else, or someone else, has something better than where you are at present, be it the physical environment, lifestyle, or even the company that they keep.
In recent times, social media has amplified this type of anxiety, as we all post our edited highlights onto timelines and publicly accessible accounts. We’re all sharing more about our lives than ever, but we’re also deliberately doing so in a way that can be harmful, if we let it. I’m also a part of this process, after all, I promote this blog on Instagram and Twitter, not with photos of myself at my laptop, or in my 9-5 office job, but with stunning photos of Vietnamese landscapes. Wouldn’t you rather be here?
This is part of the reason that I’ve started avoiding some of the most popular tourist sites in Vietnam. I wouldn’t be silly enough to avoid all places that other people visit, because they’re interesting, and hence attract a lot of visitors, but I’ve started choosing alternatives, e.g, Cat Ba instead of Halong, staying in Trang An in Ninh Binh instead of Tam Coc, seeing Ha Giang (Meo Vac and Dong Van), not Sapa. This was the right decision for me because I need to learn to be comfortable with my decisions, which reflect who I am as a person (although a person is always much more than the sum of their actions, of course). I know that I like being in places where I can feel in touch with the landscape and local community without a lot of other tourists, and that I prefer less crowded places in general, and I use these values as the basis for my travel decisions.
An example of where I deviated from my own preferences and regretted it is as follows; I was staying at a hostel in the middle of a picturesque landscape in Ninh Binh. All of the other guests were renting bicycles and motorbikes. I don’t usually drive a motorbike, and didn’t want to hire one, but everyone else convinced me that I just had to hire a bike. After all, it was the best way to see all of the scenery, and wasn’t the scenery stunning? Did I really want to miss out on that experience? Plus, the social media shots of everyone posing with their bikes were going viral. I don’t usually enjoy cycling, but hey, when in Rome (or Trang An)…
Against my better judgement, I hired a bike, and set out. It was far hotter than was forecast, and I hadn’t cycled in a while, nor was my bicycle the most road-worthy of vehicles. Within half an hour I was stranded in the middle of the Vietnamese countryside, my water bottle lost after I’d steered into a pothole at the edge of a busy carriageway. I was aching and dehydrated. The effort of pushing or cycling was too much. Thankfully, a passer-by (in the form of an Australian man with an Alsatian at the helm of his motorbike) stopped, re-directed me, and gave me some water. The lesson? I could have still seen the same views had I walked, and appreciated them all the more because I was less tired. This was what I did the next day, and instead of spending energy trying to cycle in the sun, I brought an umbrella to provide shade, and took my sweet time strolling through villages, away from the traffic.
In addition, learning how to be truly present in the present is probably one of the best lessons I’ve taken from travel. If you appreciate the scenery, the space, the here and now, you feel as though you are capable of anything, regardless of what has happened in the past, or what might occur in the future. I say might, because I often become too focused on the idea of “this will happen” or “what if this happens?”. This are terrible anxiety traps. Much better to think about the future as a place where endless things can happen, but the vast majority are either beyond your control, or not your concern. Especially if you’re truly living in the present.
The reason this kind of mindfulness links to travel is because living in the present seems easier to achieve when we’re in a new environment, or physically removed from our homes and places of work. When we live in the present, we take stock of all that we can be, unrestrained by the past or the future, and we realise that although we’re not perfect (and neither is the place we’re in, not matter how idyllic it looks), we’re enough.