When traveling, putting reality on vacation

I’m starting this with a longish quote from journalist Janet Malcolm. Don’t let its length deter you. It’s quick and breezy and devilishly smart — and, for seasoned travelers, likely very apropos.

“Without knowing exactly why, I have always found travel writing a little boring, and now the reason seemed clear: travel itself is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison with ordinary life. … (Our homes) are where the action is; they are where the riches of experience are distributed. On our travels, we stand before paintings and look at scenery, and sometimes we are moved, but rarely are we as engaged with life as we are in the course of any ordinary day in our usual surroundings. Only when faced with one of the inevitable hardships of travel do we break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”

Despite the faint bite of the discontent, Malcolm doesn’t sound like a traveling grump to me. She crystallizes, I think, the realities of moving about, strenuously seeking the kind of transcendence concomitant with the very best travel.

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Meeting people is easy. (Tokyo)

But it’s only part of the picture, which is, of course, far richer than the one she paints. She’s right: travel is largely a “pallid affair” compared with actual daily living, which thrums with family, friends, work, pets, a house — all that fluid, unpredictable, tangible, huggable life stuff. And true, staring at paintings and cathedrals can sometimes be a static, numbing, “low-key emotional experience.”

Yet for this hardened solo traveler, it can be a challenge to keep the noise of real life on mute. Alone, I have to seek human contact, that great distraction from oneself, though mostly on my journeys I will go hours, even a day, without speaking so much as two or three words. I live largely in the bustling mental metropolis of my mind, Pop. 1. It is very noisy. Reality isn’t easily shaken.

Naturally, I see all the sights, monuments, museums, theater, ruins, vistas, cemeteries, etc. of a place. The beaten path does have detours: I’ll observe the riverside cremations of human bodies in India and Nepal or witness the ritual slaughter of sheep at a mosque in Istanbul. These extracurricular excursions pry open the head to strange wonderments and infuse a journey with reality-excusing exoticism.

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My cave hotel, Cappadocia, Turkey.

Yet it’s never so perfect. Life’s banalities and hassles don’t just vaporize once you’re negotiating the lunatic streets of Tokyo or chilling in your stunning cave hotel in Cappadocia. Workaday concerns, from money and transportation, to waiting in lines and surmounting language barriers (that’s always entertaining, even fun, I find) barge in, upending the illusion of Being Far Away.

I hate to admit to boredom while traveling, and I combat it fiercely. I get restless and disappointed when I linger for more than 20 minutes in a cafe reading the paper or simply decompressing. I like to move, sustain a momentum. But then you risk rushing and, the upshot of that, running out of things to see and do. You max out the city, at least for a time. Even when this happens I invariably rally, recharge, suck in a second wind and begin to discover all over again.

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Cool guys I met in the Grand Bazaar in Aleppo, Syria, before the war.

I’ve blogged that taking photos of locals profoundly enriches the cultural experience. You meet people that way. Or vice-versa. I have met dozens of terrific humans around the world by pure serendipity — at a bar or bazaar, in a museum or on a train. Meeting people is easy.

But some effort is required. In India, during Diwali, the Festival of Lights, I bought a wad of fireworks for a gaggle of kids who were gathered in front of a convenience store. They lit them off and had a ball. So did I.

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Kids, fireworks, India.

It was one of those transporting, non-static moments of travel that happens when you crawl out of your head, search, stretch and explore, and, as Malcolm says, “break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”

But in this case the real is peerlessly human and rapturous, the very definition of surpassing lackluster reality for something almost impossible to attain in everyday life — the transcendent.

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Picturing people, peripatetically

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Harajuku girl, Tokyo, Japan.

When I travel abroad, once or twice a year, I keep my digital point-and-shoot camera in my outer coat pocket or untangled in my messenger bag, always at the ready, grabbable, right there for the right shot.

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Beggar girl, Old Dehli, India.

I’m something of a shutterbug, a total amateur driven by the blameless enthusiasm of a self-taught neophyte, toting a picture-taking toy. But I learn fast, and one of the early lessons in my journeys was how dull so many of my photos were. They were dry, clichéd, postcardy, filled with stolid buildings and objects and places you’re supposed to photograph just because you’re there and you want indelible proof that you did indeed behold the Mount of Olives, Ghiberti’s bronze doors or the Hanoi Hilton.

They weren’t awful, but they were lifeless, generic. What they missed were people and faces — humanity. I almost always travel solo, and, anyway, I’m not a big fan of pictures of friends and family standing robotically in front of oceanfronts and monuments.

So I started seeking locals for my shots. The approach not only improved my photographs but also improved my travels. Suddenly I was paying more attention to the daily activities of people, their work, play, drudgery and joys. Observing residents in action literally put a face on a place and deepened the cultural experience.

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Religious man, Jaipur, India.

Sometimes I “sneak” photos of people engaged in everyday life — men bathing in the Ganges in Varanasi, India; a man selling prayer beads to a customer in Istanbul; a student bicycling in Beijing — yet as a general rule I approach subjects who have a striking face or are wearing an arresting outfit or are doing something vaguely exotic and ask permission to take their picture.

This requires a spot of nerve, especially for an introvert like me. But I’ve found that in many places, if you’re courteous, low-key and smiling, people are receptive, even eager.

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Girl, Istanbul, Turkey.

I’ve had great success in Asian nations, where residents display a friendly excitement and curiosity toward the dopey American who wants their photo. Children in developing countries are especially agreeable to having their picture taken, mugging, posing, snatching at the camera to see their image. (Though, with both young and old, you should be prepared to drop a couple of coins into outstretched hands when you’re through.)

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Buddhist monk, Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

This is a selection of portraits I’ve taken around the world. They are the simplest of snapshots done with basic consumer digital cameras, not phones. They are carefully framed, yet quickly shot. I take only one picture of my subjects as a matter of speed and courtesy. There are no re-dos.

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Old Delhi, India.

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New Delhi, India.

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Hanoi, Vietnam.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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Boys, Istanbul.

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Kids and cow, New Delhi.

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Smoking woman, Istanbul.

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Udaipur, India.

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Praying man, Beirut, Lebanon.

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Udaipur, India.

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Istanbul.