Posts Tagged ‘being a tourist versus being a traveler’

Riding in the front of the bus, shrine on the dashboard of a bus I rode from Delhi to Agra, India, 2005, photo © 2005-2009 by ybonsey, all rights reserved
Riding in the front of the bus, shrine on the dashboard of a bus I rode from Delhi to Agra, India, 2006, photo © 2006-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

In 2006 I took a trip to Bangalore, India for work with several colleagues. Two of us decided we couldn’t travel all that way without an excursion up north to see the Taj Mahal, so we decided to fly into Delhi and do a side trip to Agra before our work schedule began.

The morning we left for the Taj Mahal, we got to the train station in Delhi late and in our haste to find the right spot to buy our tickets, we allowed a little man to take us by the elbow to what we thought was the train ticket window. Instead he led us to a bus ticket office where they convinced us that the train to Agra was sold out. The only option, they insisted, was to go by bus, which they said was also almost sold out.

Fortunately, they had two tickets left. Four chaps from Hanover, Germany, were also in the office buying tickets on the same bus; we figured that if they were doing it, it must be the right thing to do.

The little man guided the “Hanover boys,” as we called them, and us down an alley and up a side road to a busy street where the bus was to pick us up. I bought dried fruit from a vendor while we waited in this unconventional loading spot.

The bus arrived, pulled over, and up the steps we climbed to the main cabin. We spied the passengers already seated. Men with turbans and women with braids turned our way with blank stares. Not a single empty seat on the bus. That’s when the little man directed us to go left, through a little door—similar to the door of a cockpit on a plane—into the cab where he and the bus driver sat.

And that’s where we rode, all the way to Agra. Almost all the way to Agra. Once we got close to the bus station, the driver pulled over again and this time the little man kicked the Hanover boys and us off the bus. By then we knew we’d been sold rogue tickets, and the driver did not want any officials at the bus station to see a bunch of naive tourists who’d paid too much money (under the table, I’m sure) crammed into the cab.

I wrote about this experience—or, rather, one piece of the experience— in my Writing Practice on Writing Topic – Feet & Toes. If you look closely at the top photo, you can see the shrine that I wrote about and the Hindu goddess covered by marigolds. I offended the bus driver, and presumably the goddess, when I crossed my legs and showed the bottom of my feet to the shrine.

You can also see the reflection of my journal in the windshield glass. The cover of my journal depicts traditional Japanese woodblock art. And in a baggie next to the shrine is the dried fruit I bought for the road.

        View of the Taj Mahal from the entrance, photo © 2005-2009 by Robin, all rights reserved
                                         View of the entrance to the Taj Mahal, 2005, photo © 2005-2009 by Robin, all rights reserved

Two Views, view of the Taj Mahal from the entrance and the entrance from the Taj Mahal, photos © 2006-2009 by Robin. All rights reserved.

Our first full day in Agra, I got up at three in the morning, dressed in the dark, and met my work colleague in the lobby of our modest hotel. A rickshaw carried us through the cool twilight to the temple. We stood in the short line, which got longer as we got closer to the hour of 6 am. We paid our dues and spent the entire day wandering those sacred grounds.

I recently had a flashback of a place I went during my travels, but I couldn’t remember where it was. I saw myself and another person walking among ruins of red brick. I saw workmen rebuilding walls, and what looked like Sanscript writing in stone. It was only after I looked at these photos that I recalled that the place had been an area outside of the Taj Mahal.

My work colleague and I eventually did get to ride the train—something we wanted to do—from Agra back to Delhi. In hindsight I would have preferred riding in the cab of a luxury bus. The train was cramped and the rocking motion made many people sick. The bus ride afforded us a rare up-high view of India, whereas in the train my view was of slum kids begging for money and the woman across from me in the tiny cabin becoming increasingly pale as the train lurched from stop to stop.

I haven’t written much on red Ravine about my trip to India. Once, before the blog was even a blog, I wrote a poem called Cracker Jack that held imagery from the train ride, but mostly my writing goes to the present or the distant past. Rarely events from just a few years ago make such a central appearance.

Maybe it’s come on as I look to an upcoming trip to Vietnam. I’ve become comfortable in my lush Rio Grande Valley haven. It’s odd to think that soon I will in another part of the world, living a parallel life where flowers grow, vendors sell fruit, and enterprising fellows supplement their incomes by giving unsuspecting tourists new adventures that soon become crystallized memories.

View of the second-class cabin, train ride from Agra to Delhi, 2005, photo © 2005-2009 by Robin, all rights reserved

View of the second-class cabin, train ride
from Agra to Delhi, 2006, photo © 2006-
2009 by Robin. All rights reserved.

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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.)

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