A monkey yelled at me in Jaipur. Another snatched a banana from my hand in Cambodia. A gang of them exploded in all directions, thumping on cars, flying onto rooftops, screeching and scaring the holy bejesus out of me in Delhi. Monkeys: the devil’s minions.
I adore animals and I’ve met many on my journeys, mostly skinny street dogs, but also water buffalos, cows, painted elephants, a mammoth tattooed pig, Egyptian camels, those accursed simians and more skinny street dogs. Because I haven’t been to sub-Saharan Africa or deep into tropical jungles, I haven’t encountered anything wildly exotic, say, a panther or platypus. (I did meet a king cobra in Hanoi. And then I ate it. Eleven courses, including its beating heart in rice wine. I am still recovering.)
Never, ever do I visit zoos on my travels. The mere idea is a great depressant. The sad, ramshackle Shinagawa Aquarium in Tokyo helped snuff my appetite for captive-animal displays.
Of course I meet milling mutts wherever I go. Dogs are the best, even if they can break your heart. In Kathmandu a young punk randomly kicked a stray dog in the ribs. It let out a terrible yowl. I grabbed the kid and chewed him out and promptly befriended the dog, which seemed alright. We still email.
In Tokyo I hung out with a guy and his shambling black Lab. In Paris I played with a pooch wearing one of those medical cone-collars. I took his picture, but didn’t include it here. For now, I offer these creature features:
I’m starting this with a longish quote from journalist Janet Malcolm. Don’t let its length deter you. It’s quick and breezy and devilishly smart — and, for seasoned travelers, likely very apropos.
“Without knowing exactly why, I have always found travel writing a little boring, and now the reason seemed clear: travel itself is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison with ordinary life. … (Our homes) are where the action is; they are where the riches of experience are distributed. On our travels, we stand before paintings and look at scenery, and sometimes we are moved, but rarely are we as engaged with life as we are in the course of any ordinary day in our usual surroundings. Only when faced with one of the inevitable hardships of travel do we break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”
Despite the faint bite of the discontent, Malcolm doesn’t sound like a traveling grump to me. She crystallizes, I think, the realities of moving about, strenuously seeking the kind of transcendence concomitant with the very best travel.
But it’s only part of the picture, which is, of course, far richer than the one she paints. She’s right: travel is largely a “pallid affair” compared with actual daily living, which thrums with family, friends, work, pets, a house — all that fluid, unpredictable, tangible, huggable life stuff. And true, staring at paintings and cathedrals can sometimes be a static, numbing, “low-key emotional experience.”
Yet for this hardened solo traveler, it can be a challenge to keep the noise of real life on mute. Alone, I have to seek human contact, that great distraction from oneself, though mostly on my journeys I will go hours, even a day, without speaking so much as two or three words. I live largely in the bustling mental metropolis of my mind, Pop. 1. It is very noisy. Reality isn’t easily shaken.
Naturally, I see all the sights, monuments, museums, theater, ruins, vistas, cemeteries, etc. of a place. The beaten path does have detours: I’ll observe the riverside cremations of human bodies in India and Nepal or witness the ritual slaughter of sheep at a mosque in Istanbul. These extracurricular excursions pry open the head to strange wonderments and infuse a journey with reality-excusing exoticism.
Yet it’s never so perfect. Life’s banalities and hassles don’t just vaporize once you’re negotiating the lunatic streets of Tokyo or chilling in your stunning cave hotel in Cappadocia. Workaday concerns, from money and transportation, to waiting in lines and surmounting language barriers (that’s always entertaining, even fun, I find) barge in, upending the illusion of Being Far Away.
I hate to admit to boredom while traveling, and I combat it fiercely. I get restless and disappointed when I linger for more than 20 minutes in a cafe reading the paper or simply decompressing. I like to move, sustain a momentum. But then you risk rushing and, the upshot of that, running out of things to see and do. You max out the city, at least for a time. Even when this happens I invariably rally, recharge, suck in a second wind and begin to discover all over again.
I’ve blogged that taking photos of locals profoundly enriches the cultural experience. You meet people that way. Or vice-versa. I have met dozens of terrific humans around the world by pure serendipity — at a bar or bazaar, in a museum or on a train. Meeting people is easy.
But some effort is required. In India, during Diwali, the Festival of Lights, I bought a wad of fireworks for a gaggle of kids who were gathered in front of a convenience store. They lit them off and had a ball. So did I.
It was one of those transporting, non-static moments of travel that happens when you crawl out of your head, search, stretch and explore, and, as Malcolm says, “break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”
But in this case the real is peerlessly human and rapturous, the very definition of surpassing lackluster reality for something almost impossible to attain in everyday life — the transcendent.
One of the most tremendous places I’ve been is Istanbul — I’ve said it before — and one of the most divine places I’ve been in Istanbul is the grand Byzantine cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum, the Hagia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom. Defining it is a bit complicated. Built in the 6th century, in what was then Constantinople, by Byzantine emperor Justinian I, it was turned into a mosque after the Turkish conquest in the 1400s, minarets and all. Its knotty history is tidily shrink-wrapped here.
All of these photos I took about eight years ago, my last of three trips to the European-Asian metropolis. Expect new photos when I return. (Soon.)
Each day after visiting Sophia, I’d make the infinitesimal stroll over to the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet Camii, pop my shoes off and watch the devoted pray while ogling the at once ravishingly ornate, calligraphically tasteful 17th-century architecture. A preview:
When I travel abroad, once or twice a year, I keep my digital point-and-shoot camera in my outer coat pocket or untangled in my messenger bag, always at the ready, grabbable, right there for the right shot.
I’m something of a shutterbug, a total amateur driven by the blameless enthusiasm of a self-taught neophyte, toting a picture-taking toy. But I learn fast, and one of the early lessons in my journeys was how dull so many of my photos were. They were dry, clichéd, postcardy, filled with stolid buildings and objects and places you’re supposed to photograph just because you’re there and you want indelible proof that you did indeed behold the Mount of Olives, Ghiberti’s bronze doors or the Hanoi Hilton.
They weren’t awful, but they were lifeless, generic. What they missed were people and faces — humanity. I almost always travel solo, and, anyway, I’m not a big fan of pictures of friends and family standing robotically in front of oceanfronts and monuments.
So I started seeking locals for my shots. The approach not only improved my photographs but also improved my travels. Suddenly I was paying more attention to the daily activities of people, their work, play, drudgery and joys. Observing residents in action literally put a face on a place and deepened the cultural experience.
Sometimes I “sneak” photos of people engaged in everyday life — men bathing in the Ganges in Varanasi, India; a man selling prayer beads to a customer in Istanbul; a student bicycling in Beijing — yet as a general rule I approach subjects who have a striking face or are wearing an arresting outfit or are doing something vaguely exotic and ask permission to take their picture.
This requires a spot of nerve, especially for an introvert like me. But I’ve found that in many places, if you’re courteous, low-key and smiling, people are receptive, even eager.
I’ve had great success in Asian nations, where residents display a friendly excitement and curiosity toward the dopey American who wants their photo. Children in developing countries are especially agreeable to having their picture taken, mugging, posing, snatching at the camera to see their image. (Though, with both young and old, you should be prepared to drop a couple of coins into outstretched hands when you’re through.)
This is a selection of portraits I’ve taken around the world. They are the simplest of snapshots done with basic consumer digital cameras, not phones. They are carefully framed, yet quickly shot. I take only one picture of my subjects as a matter of speed and courtesy. There are no re-dos.
I’ve recently done some traveling to Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal and London, art-encrusted metropolises boasting drop-dead, world-class museums, from D.C.’s National Gallery to London’s twin Tates and the mighty Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was spun around (picture Mary Tyler Moore giddy and agape in the big city) by the sheer voluminous quality around almost every corner, be it the say-what size of the magnificent Turner collections in London or the rare “Chagall: Colour and Music” show in Montreal.
Yet, for all that sublime perambulation, meandering among masterpieces, the best art show I’ve seen in a spell, hands-down, is the Irving Penn photography exhibit at The Met in New York. “Irving Penn: Centennial” features over 200 photos — glamorous portraits of writers, artists, actors, dancers and other outsize personalities; insane food still lifes; leonine fashion divas; and worlds more. It’s an exhilarating joy.
Avers the show catalog: It’s the “most comprehensive retrospective to date of the work of the great American photographer,” who, after a sensational stint at Vogue, died in 2009. “Penn mastered a pared-down aesthetic of studio photography that is distinguished for its meticulous attention to composition, nuance, and detail.”
Yes, but there’s so much more than that clinical description suggests, and you can see it in the work itself. (Time is of the essence: the exhibit closes July 30. The Met has posted a nice video preview of the show here.) A smoky elegance and playful naturalism imbue the hugely influential pictures — hello, Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz — whose complexity and sophistication are on full display, if rarely peacocky.
Below are a few of Penn’s famous black and white celebrity portraits — some of my favorites — lucid, lush, deceptively simple images that pierce into the personalities to become indelibly iconic. (Try and identify the subjects.)