Most people can’t help buy souvenirs and take photographs while on vacation. These two activities provide the simplest way remember the journey taken and take a piece of it home. Yet do they really enhance our experience?
In an earlier post, I wrote how the impulse to document our lives with photos increases when we travel to beautiful places. The connection between buying souvenirs and taking photographs became clear to me as I sailed to the Manchones Reef on a small dive boat in Isla Mujeres, Mexico off the coast of Cancun. Not long ago, it was a tiny fisherman’s island. As Cancun turned into the decaying resort-town it is today, the island’s sand streets also gave way to paved roads and shabby hotels.
Nevertheless, Isla Mujeres still remains a haven of calm in comparison to the degenerated concrete that is Cancun. So I jumped on the ferry and sailed straight to the island as soon as my flight landed. The plan was to get over my jetlag while relaxing on the beach. The only thing I wanted to “do” while over my three days on the island was to dive the underwater museum: MUSA – Museo Subacuatico de Arte.
When we arrived, we saw that a sea-full of boats had beaten us to the dive site: snorkeling tours from Cancun. Hundreds of people wearing life jackets floated on the surface. The place looked like a scene from the sinking of the Titanic – only a tropical sun shone over turquoise waters.
As we put on our wetsuits, our dive master had to yell to get her voice across all the kicking and splashing surrounding the boat.
“You shall never touch the seabed or any part of the reef. We take great care to preserve sea life. And you must not take any souvenirs with you – no seashells, no stones or any other marine life,” she said. If we failed to comply with her two cardinal rules, she would immediately whisk us out of the water and offer no refund.
Diving in Isla Mujeres, photography provided the only venue through which I could possess a piece of the island’s underwater wonders. And for the first time, I could take as many photos of fish as I liked.
Possessing Beauty through Photography
Most travelers I encounter say that they carry around their cameras in order to be able to remember their trip. In other words, to make their travels permanent through photos. Indeed, taking photographs is one of the only ways to take ownership of the places we visit. After all, we can neither put that view of the sunset in our pocket nor forever stay by the shore.
In his best-selling Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes that the impulse to take photographs resemble the act of buying souvenirs or leaving marks in the places we visit – like carving initials on a tree trunk:
A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is the desire to hold on to it: to possess it and give it weight in our lives. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this, and it mattered to me.’
He cites John Ruskin, who thought that photographs and souvenirs presented low forms of possessing beauty—like a child who jumps at the sight of every new color, only to forget its initial beauty when the next shiny toy comes around.
If taking photos and buying souvenirs are superficial ways to experience and possess beauty, what is a better alternative?
Create while Traveling
Inspired by John Ruskin, Alain de Botton suggest a more profound and perhaps the only proper manner of capturing beauty:
There is only one way to possess beauty properly… through understanding it, through making ourselves conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) that are responsible for it. And lastly, the most effective way of pursuing this conscious understanding is by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, through writing or drawing them, irrespective of whether we happen to have any talent for doing so.
Ruskin believed that everyone could learn how to draw. He wrote The Elements of Drawing which give step by step instructions and exercises to the novice.
Even though my drawing skills are even worse than my photography skills, I took Ruskin’s advice. My first drawing was of the sunset in Isla Mujeres, which I drew on the last page of Alain de Botton’s book with a pencil. The product resembled nothing of the scene before me. But as I drew, I noticed the rhythm of the waves, how their color changed with every gush. I saw the shadow the clouds left on the blue waters, the wet seaweed scattered across the sand.
Two days later, I left the island to explore the Mayan ruins and cenotes of the Yucatan State. In Chichen Itza, as my friends bargained for necklaces and key chains from the merchants crowding the ruins, I sat on a wooden bench under a tree, and started drawing:Through 20 minutes of sketching, I noticed many aspects of the pyramids that I had failed to notice in the previous hour of strolling and taking pictures. I noticed the angle in which the stairs that lead to the top are constructed, how different stones were used for different parts of the pyramid, which edges were smooth, which ones sharp… My appreciation for the grandeur before me increased with every stroke of the pen.
And I noticed that even after three drawings, I was getting better at this!
Before I log off, you probably expect me to post some photos of the Isla Mujeres underwater museum and all the cool stuff I saw on my dive but once again, I have no pictures to share. As usual, when the time came to jump in the water, I failed to remember to take my camera. On both dives!
So instead, I painted this:
P.S. Before photographers attack me for dissing their form of expression, my words towards photography do not refer to those who practice it as an art. Nor do I suggest we stop taking photos—I certainly won’t!—but rather be aware of the purposes it serves.
For anyone who wants to take a stab at drawing, all you need is a paper and pen. For those who want to get more serious, check out Ruskin’s Elements of Drawing: