They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. They do not, however, say anything about the accuracy of the stories said words tell.
As I prepare to upload 6 photo sets from my time thus far in India to the FACEBOOKs, it seems a good time to address what I hope many people who use any sort of social networking site or follow any sort of media source already know: That a picture painted by a series of photos can, frequently, be a less than accurate portrayal of how events actually transpired.
First, a quick catch up from where we left off: Departing Rishikesh with our newly serviced bikes and heading towards Vrindavan for Holi.
Holi is a Spring festival in which Indians celebrate the coming of Spring, the miraculous escape of Prahlada, the burning of Holika and the general awesomeness of Krishna and his female counterpart Radha. They celebrate this by hurling ‘gulal’, a colored powder, at each other. They also hurl colored water called ‘rang’ and, my new disdain, colored foam (which wouldn’t be so damn evil except that it’s scented, and its scent seems to be ‘rank’).
The drive there was long and hard and contained another 3 repairs: Sheila took a tumble during a railroad crossing and busted her mirror from the hand brake. Hrithik snapped a piece off his exhaust that required an. . .interesting welding job. Another tumble down a dirt road knocked another screw from the exhaust mount (In case you’re wondering, no, bikes are not supposed to fall over this often. But then, that’s when you’re driving them on roads, as opposed to collapsing mounds of dust). We’ve been fortunate, at least, in being rather close to a mechanic each time we’ve busted up the bikes. Though that may have less to do with luck and more to do with the sheer number of bikes and prevalence of shitty roads in this country.
After a fairly nerve-racking night drive on dusty roads with aggressive truckers we found a hotel in Bulandshahr, a town you won’t find an entry for in Lonely Planet. We arrived at the rather inopportune time of some election or another, which led to our sudden arrival (foreigners on bike=odd. Foreign white chick on bike=unheard of) raising questions with the local police. After showing our passports, visas, and a rather complete emptying of my backpack (thanks, copper), we were allowed to stay the evening.
We made Vrindavan the next day and were much more fortunate in our hotel hunt this time around: We stopped at a Hare Krishna restaurant to fill our bellies and found a hotel directly off it, offering a very decent room for a very decent price. Sold.
After a stint of interwebs research on Holi, Vrindavan and Krishna (Convoluted: Hindu mythology is it), we made plans for the next day, including setting up a point to meet up with other Couchsurfers in the area. Then we decided to hit the streets to see if anything was going on, and to check out the large Hare Krishna temple Iskcon.
We made about 5 minutes before getting slammed with color. And this was the day before Holi.
I’d seen photos of Holi and the wannabe photographer in me drooled over the photo opportunities. The kid in me lusted for the playfulness of a color fight. The socialite in me looked forward to a party.
And it was all of these things. However, the honest part of me feels forced to admit this: It was also insanely frustrating and, at one point, downright violent.
Traveling as a woman can be hard. It can. Particularly in less developed areas. You can be tough as nails but some things are going to be trying. It’s less scary, more tiring. And if you’re a fair-skinned, tattooed female with dual-tone hair that sticks out like a sore thumb even when doing your very best to ninja your way through a crowd, you can be sure a lot of that unwanted attention is going to be concentrated on you, making it increasingly trying.
On the day of Holi proper, I left the hotel with Pete and Danny, a German couchsurfer that we had met up with the night before. This time we didn’t even make 5 minutes; the instant we stepped out from the hotel gates we were swarmed by a group of males, one of whom pulled the buff I had folded to cover my mouth down to smear my face, thus rendering my brilliant hijab/face-mask strategy immediately futile. Fucker.
That was alright. A couple of the guys sneaked a boob grab in here or there but, for the most part, they were pretty mild. The group we got hit by about 15 minutes later on the main road were not.
I had been trying to take a picture of an auto-rickshaw that had braved the heart of the gulal wars. It had been slammed by color on all fronts and was parked on the side of the road, abandoned, looking for all the world like some child’s art project gone wrong. We saw the group approaching, some fists already filed with gulal piles, others armed with foam spray cans or plastic guns filled with rang. We made universal ‘no no no’ motions and I held up my camera to show them, ‘Look, wait, I have electronics, please don’t ruin them.’
They didn’t care.
As the first cloud of color shot towards us I turned fast enough to protect my poor little point-and-click, handing it to Pete, who the crowd was at least slightly less intent on swarming than I. Unfortunately, with my face turned towards him, I managed to catch the second cloud of gulal direct in my eyes, blinding me.
And then there were just hands, everywhere.
I don’t know if you have ever been mobbed, or found yourself in a potently violent situation that escalated so rapidly all thought clicked off to be replaced by sheer reflex. But standing against that wall, pressed from all sides and completely unable to open my eyes to even be able to figure out where the hands grabbing all parts of me without inhibition were coming from, I experienced that feeling for the first time in a long time.
I just started pushing, yelling out in protest, trying to clear some space, trying to make clear that lines had been crossed and no part of me was laughing about it. Unfortunately, because I still couldn’t see, most of those hits, I later found out, landed on poor Pete (once again: sorry about that, dude).
Eventually Pete and Danny, with the help of the less-testosterone fueled patrons of the street, were able to clear the crowd away from me. Water was handed to me to clear out my eyes (and mouth and ears) and, a couple minutes later, I was able to finally see the concerned faces around me. One gentlemen removed his own handkerchief from his face to replace my already color-coated buff. It was easy to see they were upset about the actions of their peers. Hell, some of them might have been the same people that had swarmed me a moment before. Having been blinded at the beginning, I’d no idea.
Which brings me back to the initial sentiment of this blog post: you will not find photos of that moment. No photos were taken (at least not by us) because we were too damn busy trying to diffuse the situation.
You will find photos of Holi. All smiling faces and brilliant colors and laughter. Which, again, is not actually how some of it went down. Viewing only one aspect of those festivities is to miss out on a rather significant chunk of information – that it can be quite dangerous for women (which isn’t to say it can’t be dangerous for men), particularly for any traveling solo.
This latest incident certainly isn’t the first negative travel experience I’ve had you won’t find captured on film. Also lacking are photos of the taxi scam from Crimea, the wild dogs I almost got attacked by near Balaclava, the Bedouin tour guide who didn’t know how to take ‘no’ for an answer in the deserts of Morocco and the 6 exhausting hours I spent on night buses trying to get from one side of London to the other after a tattoo convention.
Beyond the photos that aren’t taken, there’s the matter of the stories behind the ones that are. I would contest that, particularly among non-professional photographers, many of the most beautiful pictures we take have very little of a story behind them. I’m really happy with many of the photos from the Delhi ‘sights’ – Qu’tub Minar, Lodi Gardens, Humayun’s tomb and Jama Masjid. . . .but these tourist sites, in the end, hold no real significance to me. I rarely feel moved walking through them. With a few exceptions (The Temple of Karnak and the Western Wall spring to mind), the ‘sights’ account for very few of my memorable travel moments. They’re just something I do to meet people, to give background to conversation or to occupy the spaces in-between; filler for when life isn’t already pulling you in some direction of its own.
Now, for some, those sights can be significant in and of themselves. Just the other day I met a historian for whom seeing these locations was deeply moving. He had spent so many years reading about the history behind them and being able to now pair a real-time visual with those words was extremely meaningful to him. For myself, however, the experiences that have most strongly moved me during my travels have typically fallen into one of three categories: The awe of nature (the silence of a mountain summit, the rhythmic weaving of an eel through ocean coral), the thrill of a new experience (the distinctive flavour of a spice previously foreign to my tongue, the rush of adrenaline as I leap from a cliff face) or the perspective gleaned from an engrossing conversation (or debate, or exchange).
Of those, only nature really captures well on film. And it’s a poor facsimile of the real, sensory feedback of actually experiencing it.
Which I suppose it how it all balances out. To say that there are a lot of shitty moments that don’t show in photos, and a general lack of substance to the photos that are taken all sounds very negative. It paints a poor picture of life in general and travel in particular. If it’s so rubbish, why bother then, yeah?
Well, just as the shittiest moments rarely get captured because you’re so busy cursing at them, the best moments also rarely get captured, because you’re so damn busy enjoying them. I’ve yet to take my camera up rock climbing with me, or down below on a scuba dive. My camera can’t replicate the guttural laugh I’ll let out after hearing a great joke, nor get anywhere near sharing with you the relief of finding a warm bed when, just moments ago, you thought you might be fucked and have to spend the evening on a cold, park bench. It can’t capture the way my skin sings with delight as I stand under my first hot shower in weeks, and it sure as shit can’t share with you how it feels to unconsciously arch your back in pleasure before collapsing back into the mattress, holding the warm body beside you tightly against your own.
For me, personally, photography (travel photography in particular) serves three main purposes:
1 – Art. I like making pretty pictures. I like capturing a certain contrast of colors or particular facial expression or moment of perfect lighting. And I then like sharing those pretty pictures with others.
2 – To add visual to a story. If I’m describing how I wiped out on a dusty hill, that story tends to be more vivid if you have some frame of reference which which to build a mental image. What does my bike look like? How steep were the cliffs should I fall?
3 – To initiate conversation, or introduce others to a place or experience they may not previously have heard about.
What I don’t want to do is pretend those pictures tell a complete story in and of themselves. That’s what this blog is for, and even it will have many holes. My photos can be tricky little liars; I at least strive not to be.
I say this in particular because throughout the years I’ve gotten many comments along the lines of, ‘I LOVE looking at your photos. You seem to be having such an AMAZING time.’
And I am. Most of the time. I’m delighted when I’m not furious, and ecstatic when I’m not beaten down as all hell.
But I don’t think that up and down, that mix of terror and glee and of ecstasy and frustration is the picture most people have in their heads. I worry they might be imagining some uninterrupted spree of utter glee; bouncing from one country to the next; Now I’m on a camel! Now I’m in the Mediterranean! A constant vacation filled with unremitting smiles and ceaseless adventure that makes their own life seem dull by comparison.
You see it in the faces of other people you meet while traveling, particularly those just starting off; this hunger for what they perceived travel would be, a far-off, doubtful look in their eyes that says, quietly, “I don’t think I’m doing this right.”
And there’s a lot to blame for that, which would be another post in and off itself. For now, though, I’ll wind this up by saying I don’t want my photos to be one more cause of that. Because it’s not a fair portrayal. It misses the simple truth that there’s a lot of beauty and benefit to be found in a static life, just as there’s a lot of strife, doubt and, yes, even boredom to be found in a life on the road. A lot of recent long waits at mechanic shops spring to mind.
I hope you enjoy checking out my photos. I hope something in them moves you, or inspires you or brings you happiness. That’s what they’re there for.
But if you want to know the stories behind them, or hear about how it felt to experience the place in which the photo was taken, that’s what this blog is here for. Clarity. And you’ve my word I’ll strive to be as honest here, with words, as I can be. To narrate both the ups and, yes, the downs of a mobile life.
I unfortunately can’t make the same promise for my lens.
The Photo sets from Holi can be viewed over Flickr, here, or on the Facebooks, where you’ll find me as Krys C Wanders.