There will be no photos on this post. Just words, crawling across your screen. The words come to me as I type; they come from somewhere in my mind. I cannot see them, but they just are.
Likewise, when I remember the places I have been I can visualize a scene. I do not have to close my eyes. I can picture it. I can feel it. Standing by the White Nile at Bujagali Falls, the water thundering past my rattan seat, a Nile Special beer in my hand; the cook and his assistant clattering in the back; a small party of European backpackers stretched out on some lounges; the air is muggy but the sky is clear; I wonder what the day will bring.
It is all there. Because I saw it and I lived it. And the key to seeing is to experience what is around you. And you cannot do that with your face stuck to a camera.
I realized quite early that the more photos a tourist took the less they were actually seeing and experiencing. It is the quest for the perfect photo that they can proudly display to their friends, whether in real life or on Instagram or Facebook. ‘Look at me,’ the photo says. ‘Look at where I have been and the good times I’ve had.’ ‘I am important and special and lucky and you should be envious of me.’
Of course, if everyone who travels does the same thing, who can be envious of whom?
Often the time that a tourist spent in my raft, drifting down the byways of the world’s longest river, was the first moment that they had not been able to take a photo. Class V rafting isn’t a good spot to take an expensive camera. Between mammoth rapids we would drift across long pools, the raft spinning lazily in the current. I would direct the group’s attention to a dark tree on an island and then I would tell them to hush and wait. As we drifted closer at a certain point the tree erupted and hundreds of bats took to the sky, wheeling and screeching over our raft. The tourists could not take a photo. Instead, they looked and they saw. And perhaps when they returned home they would describe this moment to somebody and it would be more real than any photo could communicate.
I do have photos of my travels. Other people took them for me. ‘Could I have a copy of that?’ I would ask, and they would be only too happy to provide one for me. The photos remind me of moments, but when I want to really make someone understand what it was like then I talk or I write the words.
Now we stand in crowds comprised of people holding their phone to the sky as if engaged in some Fascist salute, as they snap away the unforgettable moment. Lost in a thousand such moments that will be forgotten and meaningless. Travel without a camera is the most freeing thing a traveler today can do.