HARI SREENIVASAN: If you’re planning to travel to Iceland or some other destination, you might want to take a tip from novelist and poet Russell Banks. In the age of social media, selfies and even selfie sticks, he considers the differences between a traveler and a tourist.
RUSSELL BANKS, Author: One way to distinguish a tourist from a traveler is that a tourist carries a camera or a phone and takes pictures with one or both. A traveler carries no camera and uses his or her phone mainly to make occasional phone calls home or when lost for the GPS.
I used to carry a camera when I traveled, but almost never took any pictures with it, and apologized when I returned home, until I realized that my reluctance to point and click was really a reluctance to line up and edit and frame whatever I was seeing or hearing or smelling.
The fall of the morning sunlight against the glittering sea. The crinkled face of an old woman selling spices in the market. It was, I believe, an instinctive reluctance to remove myself from my experience, an experience that could only occur far from home and habit, where the rules as much as the landscape were unfamiliar.
To photograph it was somehow to reduce and domesticate my experience and ultimately to kill it. I knew this, but still felt somehow apologetic for not having brought back a photographic record of the death of my experience.
Then, some time in the early 1980s, I was invited by a few magazines and journals to take a trip anywhere you like, the Seychelles in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Alaska, the Andes, and write about it and get paid for it, travel writing. The photography will be taken care of by a professional. I could leave my camera at home, and did.
Instead, I brought a notebook. And every night before sleeping, I spent a half-hour and sometimes more remembering and recapitulating my day, even when nothing happened, when I met no one of interest or went nowhere beyond the veranda outside my bedroom, and merely read the local newspaper and chatted briefly with the housekeeper, because there was always something happening in my head.
When we are dislocated, not relocated, we think new thoughts, deal with unbidden strange emotions, reflect on our past in a freshened way, from a new perspective.
We remember and are surprisingly saddened by a brief liaison or flirtation we have not thought about in decades. We decide to reread that 1,000-page novel our smartest friends insist is a work of genius, but somehow we didn’t get it the first time around and gave up 50 pages in.
It’s now more than 30 years that I have traveled without a camera and snapped no pictures with my iPhone, and I never apologize for it. Instead, when I travel, every night in a hotel room or a cabin or a tent, I sit down and write, sometimes by candlelight, an account of my day, whether I’m writing for hire or just traveling on my own.
My notes have the effect of organizing my attention for the next day, making me a sharper observer, a more careful listener, a more thoughtful guest.
I don’t do it to show to anyone else or so I can reread my notes months or years later and remember the joys and pains of that particular journey. No need. The simple act of writing it down in the first place imprints the journey in my conscious memory, stores it there, like a buried treasure. It’s my private treasure, and only I possess the map.
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