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August 28, 2013

Picturing the photo-free vacation

This is Scotland, and I am tasting Scotches. Very fine ones, in fact. I should be happy. Even giddy. But there's a problem. I can't even see the drams - much less sip any.

Smartphones have suddenly sprouted like shiny bamboo shoots. People in my tour group are squeezing in front of me and elbowing me out of the way.

There's a woman with not one but two phones happily clicking away. A man wearing tweed is hopping as he snaps, which blocks a taller man behind him. I watch the tall guy drag over a chair from somewhere and begin shooting what has to be a hawk's-eye view of the scene.

Is the Duchess of Cambridge here? No, what the flashes are highlighting is, well, whisky. Images of a desk clerk pouring. Pictures of a drink.

As quickly as I can, I grab my camera, set the settings, flip on the flash, and - for reasons I'm not sure of - something makes me stop. Just this once, I'm not quite up for battle. I slink over to a plate of scones.

What's going on? The single-malt shot: It will not be mine.

Everyone else will snag much better images than I will. They'll be grabbing Facebook traffic the very second they post them.

I will drink my unrecorded whisky in disgrace.

               - - -

               

When it comes to taking photos, I almost always try hard. I dance a samba the minute I'm lucky enough to reel a good shot in. But every once in a while, I have an intrusive thought: How many tidbits from a vacation does a traveler need?

I've started to think that snapping strings of pictures is a kind of nervous tic. A way to box up travel, show it off and take it safely home. It seems like the only convincing reason for a world that suddenly appears bored with plain old experience (yawn, another day in Rome) until the instant it's captured.

What makes a man hold up the screen of his picture-enabled iPad to block out a squadron of sun-bright parrots in Brazil? What causes a woman in a safari jacket to pose for a series of self-portraits? When it's sunset. In Kenya. When a brushfire tints the sky. When there are giraffes - softly bending - only a few yards away?

Why do people point lenses at unphotographable rain in rain forests? Or shadowless snow on top of ice on top of the Arctic Sea?

Why do diners in a Hanoi noodle joint forget the slurp, the steam, the shrimp curled up inside their pho? Everyone likes images that are sharp and evocative and good. But of every mouthful, at every meal?

I'm the first to admit: Whether it's a recipe or a blog, words arranged on paper look a lot more polished when they mix with pictures. Colors are a fast and fashionable crowd. A sentence skulks around in horn-rimmed glasses. Paragraphs hate parties. Pages are painfully shy.

So I get that hotshot photographers are proud. They can spot us amateurs coming, and they suppress a smirk. I know just what they're thinking: No fire in our bellies. No guts. No decent equipment. No game.

And when push comes to shove, I realize that they're right. That shot that caught the drama of an accident, in a dusty alley, deep in the medina, in between souks, in Fes? Not mine. I missed the action. I was engrossed in spooning up sauce with couscous at a cafe lunch.

That image that made the Atlas Mountains look luminescent, and picked out a lantern moon? I didn't take it. I was too busy skidding on pebbles. Too busy poring over a map. Too busy wiping my brow.

It may be simple jealousy, but lately I've felt a secret, giddy relief when I enter a place where pictures aren't allowed. Is it a tropical garden in Burma full of expansive blossoms and enormous trees? I might see a butterfly against a branch without the scene being backlit by a dozen flashes.

Is it an almost-famous restaurant in Madrid? I'll be able to actually taste and digest without a tablemate photogenically rearranging my food. Unruly lakes of gravy, hills of mashed potatoes? Do not sculpt. Here comes my knife.

Can you find flavor in a photo? Can you sniff it? Roll it around on your tongue? In these moments, I no longer want to try.

 Suddenly I'm free - not just from forests of clicking cellphones - but from the temptation to pull out my own. I can concentrate, not on things that might be worth recording, but on the things that aren't.

A person's face that isn't craggy or intriguing. A rattling sound that makes me think of music. A boring-looking bit of fencing that, for some reason, reminds me of home.

When I get this gift of seconds that are very happily pointless, I remember something that I typically forget. I remember what it was like in the days before devices, before everyone on Earth was "wired."

I make my mind up to turn over a fresh new leaf on my very next trip. Don't be encumbered, I remind myself. Skip the technology, take a pass on gear.

I have a plan, in fact. A plan to alert myself when it's time to pack. I'll use my iPad, type in the date. I'll set it up just so.

 I'll make sure that my device lays on an ear-splitting warning at exactly the moment when I'm filling my duffel.

"See more, snap less," it will say.

Don't be encumbered.

Don't be the Tweed Man. Don't be the Tall Man.

Just go.

            

 

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