Greetings from Tanzania!
In the week since I returned from the U.S., I have not taken a single photograph.
In that time, we have spent five days camping on the deserted Tiwi Beach south of Mombasa, two days exploring Mombasa—one of them very soggy–and one day on a very long bus ride to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
At low tide in Tiwi, a treacherous trail through sea urchin mines and slippery pathways of rock led to two wide, deep tidal pools, called Africa Pool and Australia Pool respectively. Africa Pool had a shape remarkably reminiscent of the African continent… Australia Pool less so.
The pools receded into the overhanging cliffs, and in these dimly lit recesses I could float on my back staring up at a small patch of blue sky revealed by a hole in the stone ceiling. Roots and vines and glimpses of the greenery overhead trailed from the opening, and bright sun, too, at the right time of day.
One of these caves echoed with the calls of kingfishers and the steady sound of water dripping from pockets collected at high tide. Magic. With goggles, I could explore the meter-high seaweed at the edges of the pools and try to follow the paths of schools of fish—yellow and black striped, iridescent gray with a black line along the top—and observe the forbidding stillness of sea urchins.
The journey, though only 10 or 15 minutes from camp, felt like an enormous expedition due to the various perils along the way. The sandy beach by our tents (we had joined two friends already there) felt like home when I returned.
As I floated in the tidal pools watching the clouds pass and the water ripple, I couldn’t help but wish I had brought my camera with me—though how I would have managed it in the pools (water well above my head in places) is beyond me. What lovely pictures I could have taken and shared with all of you.
Mombasa, gray and narrow upon our rain-soaked arrival, looked far more appealing the following day in the sun. Old Town proffered windows into other eras: curio shops, mosques, cafes and old architecture nestled into every alleyway, a sea view always just minutes away by foot.
Again, I left my camera at the guest house—and perhaps even had I brought it could not have taken pictures for fear of theft or unwanted attention—and found myself observing picturesque doors and street-fronts longingly. If only I could capture this fascinating swirl of urban culture and take it home with me.
Finally, the 12-hour bus ride to Tanzania… I was probably awake for half of it. I alternately dozed and gazed out the window, watching the landscape change. As I daydreamt, the earth grew redder; the trees thicker, and the sea more distant and, finally, out of sight altogether. The women I watched on the side of the road when we stopped wore different styles of clothing—some shoulders bare, more and brighter colored fabrics, and somehow more “African” to my eyes.
Snacks available at rest stops—offered in baskets held up to the high bus windows—shifted too. Plantain chips appeared, mishkaki (skewers of barbecued meat) became more seasoned, and exchange rates grew by a factor of 20.
As we rocked and bounced and sped along the road to Dar Es Salaam, I felt the old, familiar feeling of excitement return to my gut.
New country. New city. New adventure.
I would have loved to document this leg of our journey. The doorway to a new chapter. The doorway to Dar Es Salaam, House of Peace.
I did not, however, photograph any of it.
Typically, I take pictures on designated days during a long trip, opting to leave my camera at home the rest of the time. This choice results in some odd collections of photos—a hundred pictures of Angkor Wat, and none of Phnom Penh; fifty photos of Kilifi Beach, and none of Tiwi—but I prefer it to constantly watching the world through a viewfinder, which I find hugely alters my experience.
Sometimes, I don’t take pictures.
Sometimes, I just travel. For a travel writer, that’s a hard choice to make. It limits how I can record and share my experiences with others. It limits how I can record my travels for myself, restricting me to journal writing, or worse, the incomplete caprice of memory.
Still, I think most who travel reach a certain point—once or twice, or on a regular basis—where a camera becomes an unwelcome companion.
We then can choose to bring it along anyways and bear the burden, or we can leave it behind for a day, a week or a month. We might regret the choice later on, when left with no means for capturing the most amazing view, most engaging face, most extraordinary sunset, or we might thank ourselves for creating this space to simply enjoy, imbibe, and, quite possibly, forget.
Sometimes we don’t take pictures, and we have “nothing” to show for our journey. No evidence. No documentation. No justification.
And you know what? It’s okay.
It’s okay if we forget the view from an epic bus ride, the sunset on a remote island, or the face of the old woman we bought vegetables from every day for a week. It’s okay, and it’s even natural, I’d argue. We don’t have to remember every detail, carefully wrapped and preserved in slideshow form.
I think experiences are most valuable not for the memories they bestow us, but for the subtle changes they initiate within our minds. These we cannot photograph, anyways.
And so sometimes I don’t take pictures, and all I have to offer are these words.