My Whites, laundry on the line on my rooftop terraces, downtown Granada, Spain, photo © 1987-2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
The first time I got on a plane I was 17. Mom said to dress up for the occasion; she normally wore a skirt and heels for plane rides, and she sometimes took a Valium right before the flight. I wore jeans and clogs and acted like I’d been flying all my life.
The travel bug bit me on that trip. I was like the kid whose parents never let her eat candy. Awake for the first time to its pleasures, I couldn’t get my fill. I vowed I would become a world traveler.
At 26 I moved to Granada with $6,000 cash and two suitcases. I trusted everyone and made friends easily. Within weeks I was heading out with Teresa and Alicia to see the country. I became fond of saying, “I’m taking a vacation from my vacation.”
Within a year I’d been all over Spain and Portugal, plus France, Germany, and Denmark. And nary a picture to show for it. I had Dad’s old Kodak yet I brought home exactly seven photos—all grainy and dark. I do, however, have four filled notebooks. And a handful of postcards I never sent.
Yesterday we walked to El Torcal, an eerie rock mountain, and we got a ride down with a busload of little boys. They were singing songs and clapping.
When it comes to traveling abroad, I have a mental block about cameras. For as long as I can remember, I believed that a photograph could never do justice to reality. Cameras proved a poor attempt to capture something that defied ownership—the experience itself.
I also saw cameras, like maps, as the domain of tourists. (I have spent hours wandering lost in foreign cities, unable to ask for directions and too proud to consult a map.) In Spain I was ashamed of the loud, nasally, jogging-suit-wearing Americans who stood in front of cathedrals, snapping shot after shot, and then bothering passersby to take that final picture that contained the entire family.
I was a traveler. A world citizen, not a visitor.
And so my arrogance accompanied me to every place I visited (and every experience had) since. Standing amidst throngs of Vietnamese peering up at a Virgin Mary as tall as a building to see if we could tell whether it was rain or tears running down her cheeks. At the train station in Delhi, searching my purse to find change for an old woman with an open trachea cavity. Walking at dawn through an entryway that opened onto gardens and pools, the white marble of the Taj Mahal shimmering like an oasis.
I’ve been to Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua. Costa Rica, Mexico, and China several times each. Singapore, Ireland, Israel, South Africa. Most of the photos I have from those trips (if I have any) were taken by friends or co-workers. There I am, the only white person in a pub in Soweto. (I even took my camera to South Africa, pulled it out during a safari then put it away whenever people were around.)
I missed my opportunity to capture the phenomenon of “the Jeepni”—those long, open-air Jeep-buses—that dominate the streets of Manila, even though they captured me.
Only 7am yet it seems as though the city has been alive for hours. Everything is coated with a gray dust that goes from black at street level up to the color of light gray in the sky. Signs: U Want 2 B Rich? and Fish-Head Pet Store & Tire Repair. A man is cooking roadside and another bathing himself. People adorn their Jeepni’s: Gemini, Godspeed, Lady Rowena, The Born Winner, Something Special, Jesus the Provider, Jesus the Savior, Jesus Love, Holy Jesus. Jesus has a corner on Jeepni names.
Poverty looks the same in all the places I go. Too narrow roads lined with shacks selling snacks, fruits, peanuts, corn. Children and animals too close to the cars and buses and motorbikes that go careening through the streets. All things for sale, recycled, old mufflers, tires, plants. The Jeepnis choke out black smoke as they wind their way through the streets. Cheaper than buses, but to ride them you have to hold a handkerchief over your nose.
It’s been more than two years since I’ve traveled abroad. I’ve enjoyed the time off. I went to too many places. I hardly remember most of what I saw. It’s been good to stay home as my girls have gotten older.
But finally, it’s time to start up again. In less than two weeks, I’ll take a trip to Vietnam. It’s part of an assignment that will probably take me there at least one more time, maybe more, in the coming six months. I have zero photos from my prior two visits. This time I intend to whip out my camera, whether people notice or not.
I know what’s changed. It’s this blog and the opportunity to publish my photos and write about my trips. (I fear I’ve exchanged one form of arrogance for another.) But no matter the motivation, I aim to make up for lost time.
How about you? Do you do photos or do you just do?
(The top six photos were all taken by me in 1987-88 while living in Spain. I scanned them for use in this post. The four images at the bottom of the post are postcards I purchased that same period in Spain.)