Travel: Experience vs. Documentation

Many of you who know me personally know that I am a freelance photographer and I’ve had some pretty nice jobs in the last couple of years. I also like photography as a hobby, and like to document the places I go and working on new things.

On our trip to Dubai and India, of course I took my camera and took a LOT of photos. But I have to say, I did not take as many photos as I could have. I knew before the trip that I needed to pack lightly and sensibly so I didn’t take my whole kit. I took only my camera body and the standard kit lens. I packed it in my carry-on bag so I knew it would always be with me and prepared myself for the idea that there would be some photo opportunities I would miss out on. The trade-off for me in this situation was that if something were to happen to me or my small bag, all I would lose would be the one camera body and lens instead of my whole kit. Some peace of mind was worth more to me than having the absolute best photos. I knew that my one lens would be able to capture the memories just fine.

When we were in Dubai, I took more photos than I did in India. I realized this as the trip was coming to an end and for a bit I felt a little guilty. I wasn’t sure why I had documented more of Dubai, but I soon realized why. I was not pushed out of my comfort zone in Dubai much compared to India. In Dubai, things were a lot like home here in the US. There were the obvious differences, of course (those will be in a later post…), but in general, things were not that different. Especially when I realized that I was comfortable staying with my sister-in-law and her family, I felt pretty much normal.

So I was able to just carry my camera around (or pawn it off on my husband when I didn’t feel like carrying it, thanks B…) and simply document the scenery, buildings, desert, family, etc. to my heart’s content. But unexpectedly for me, things were a little different when we were in B’s hometown near Kolkata. For the first few days, I really had some culture shock. Everything was so different from home. Some things were different in a good way, some in a bad way. It was just very different.

I chose to experience India more than document it. It was more important for me to experience the place where my husband grew up, see the people in the area, eat his mom’s mouth-watering food, absorb the beautiful colors and patterns of the saris the women wore, breathe in the smells of the local market, get pooped on by a bird while getting groceries, spend time actually talking with his (and my new) family members, etc. than to photograph it all constantly. Don’t get me wrong, I did document a lot of things and experiences in India.

When we (finally) made it back to the US, I felt a lot of different things when I looked back through all of my photos. I did wish that I had taken more photos while we were in India and with his parents and sister, but I now understand the importance of experiencing a place more than simply documenting it. It’s very easy to use your camera as a barrier between yourself and others or between yourself and a situation. I think in some situations it is better to remove that metal, plastic, and glass barrier and BE somewhere. I don’t feel guilty anymore for taking fewer photos in India than in Dubai. I placed more emphasis on experiencing than documenting, and I am not ashamed of that.

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Instant Family

B (my husband) and I recently made it back to the States from our first big trip together. It was a very big trip, full of a lot of “firsts” for me. It was my first time on an airplane, my first time out of the States, and my first time really travelling with my husband, and my first time meeting my in-laws in person. I think all of those things make this trip a pretty big deal.

Our trip went like this:

  1. Charlotte, NC
  2. New York City, NY
  3. Moscow, Russia
  4. Dubai, UAE
  5. Stayed in Dubai for over a week
  6. Delhi, India
  7. Kolkata, India
  8. Stayed in Kolkata for around two weeks
  9. Accidental stay in Delhi for four days
  10. London, England
  11. Newark, NJ
  12. New York City, NY
  13. Charlotte, NC
  14. Home Finally!

It was a whirlwind! We stayed with B’s sister and her family while we were in Dubai and at his parents’ house while we were in India. Before the trip, I was a little anxious to see what it would be like to stay with two families I had never spent time with before. I also felt a little pressure to make a good impression because B and I got married in the US without me meeting his family in person. Also, knowing we would be staying with these people for a week or more, not just a few days, made things even more interesting. There were a million things going through my mind while we were planning the trip and as the journey began.

Luckily for me, Skype exists! If it wasn’t for Skype, I think our first few days at each destination would have been very awkward and strained. I am very thankful for this service, and it’s free (if you don’t use it to call phones)! While B and I were only dating, I “met” all of his family members via Skype. Sometimes the language barrier made conversations a little difficult, but we were able to interact with each other to a certain extent. When we told his family we were going to get married, they were happy for us (and happy to have there 30+ year old son finally married…) and things were as good as they could be, given the half-a-world-away distance. Since we have been married, we’ve tried to Skype with his parents at least weekend or every other one. Obviously, there are limitations to this type of communication, but sometimes you just have to take what you can get. So, we waited for our trip where we could meet instead of “meet”.

When we came out of the airport in Dubai, B’s sister, her husband, and a family friend were waiting for us. I was so excited to physically be in their presence. It felt like I had been waiting forever to meet this tiny lady who had influenced B so much. We all hugged and B began talking with them (in Bengali, of course) and we loaded up in her car. As the next couple of days came, the thing that surprised me the most was that I instantly felt like I was with family. I think I unknowingly expected to feel like an outsider, at least to some extent. But I didn’t. I felt like I was a part of a family and that I belonged with them. The hospitality, late night beers and conversations, and time spent together talking about real things felt like family. We didn’t have to spend the first few days awkwardly asking the typical “get-to-know-you” questions. The same thing happened when we made it to India and met B’s dad, mom, and other sister. We immediately were able to spend time together as a family, not as a family with an extra white girl hanging out. It was such a relief, I can’t even explain it all.

The whole experience didn’t feel like a “Oh, it’s nice to meet you” thing, but a “Oh, it’s nice to see you again” thing. It was so refreshing to feel like I was actually with family while I was in brand new countries. I could not have asked for it to have been better.

Coming Soon: Travel Musings from Dubai and India

Those of you who know me personally know that my husband and I just returned from a trip around the world! Ok, not completely around the world, but to a country girl from the Southern US, it was a pretty big deal. We left the US mid December and came back mid January. We visited the fancy city of Dubai in the UAE and my husband’s hometown near Kolkata, India. It was my first trip out of the US, first time on an airplane, and first time meeting my husband’s family in person. So I have a lot of stories to tell… Keep checking back, because they are coming!