When I travel, I spend a great deal of my time taking pictures, especially in places I’ve never been before. Sometimes, though, the camera isn’t handy or an image flashes by so unexpectedly that the shot is gone before I can get the camera out. On such occasions, the image may live on in my journal but sometimes it only lives in my mind’s eye.
Shock memory is a term used to describe how images get imprinted in our minds so completely that we never forget them. This often happens when we are confronted with danger – fight or flight, I suppose – but can also be triggered by something unexpected and positive. Shock memory is a necessary tool in my travel bag.
One of my first travel experiences collecting such mental snapshots was in 1967. At the World’s Fair in Montreal, I watched a Czech performance group called Laterna Magika combine live actors and pre-recorded film in a fascinating new type of theatre. The first vignette imprinted itself in my memory. A man was trying to outrun a trolley car on a city street without getting run over by the cars that were also on the street. There was only one actor on the stage; everything else was on the screen behind him. With his back to the movie screen, he faced the audience and we watched as he moved frantically and perfectly avoiding the trolley car that he could not see because it was behind him. After some hair-raising and even hilarious near-misses, he finally saved himself by leaping onto an empty traffic island as the trolley car zoomed toward us and off the screen. I had neither a camera nor a journal with me that weekend but the event was so clever and unique that it has become impossible to forget, even after more than 40 years.
On a train ride from Brussels to Luxembourg City, I saw Queen Anne’s lace with flower heads the size of dinner plates growing along the rail bed in one of the towns we passed through. The plants were obviously extremely happy even in their very industrial-looking location.
While riding in a car one night in Sofia, Bulgaria we passed a traffic island with a restaurant. The golden arches confirmed that this was indeed a McDonald’s but, this being Bulgaria, the name on the neon sign was spelled out in Cyrillic letters – the alphabet which Bulgaria still uses. (Макдоналдс, in case you’re interested).
Riding an antique train from Cairns, a large resort town along the Barrier Reef in Australia to Kuranda, an inland rainforest town, I was watching the scenery glide by and suddenly saw a single butterfly in the most brilliant, electrifying blue I’ve ever seen on an animal. Another surprise awaited me in Kuranda where I found large poinsettia bushes growing along the river bank. The bushes were more than 8 feet high and almost as wide. They looked more like hedges and bore no resemblance in size to the house plants we see here at Christmas.
Then there are times when a point-and-shoot digital camera is available but the picture needs more sophisticated equipment. This happened one night in winter when flying over Boston headed for JFK as I returned from London. With a north-facing window seat and a clear night, the light pollution of the entire Boston metro area filled the window. It was horrifying and magical at the same time. Horrifying when you think about all the plant and animal life in the area not being able to experience a true night in which to sleep or hunt or hide; magical if you see the ground below you as a gigantic display of holiday lights in spidery patterns of silver and gold. My digital camera was not fast enough to get the photo without it blurring from the motion of the plane.
There is so much of my travel experience to preserve for a future ‘armchair’ return trip that the camera will always be close at hand but there are also sights that won’t make it to the scrapbook; the best I can do in those cases is to at least put a scribble in my travel journal. I once bemoaned the fact that I had missed a great photo, even if it was impossible to capture. The more I travel, though, the more accepting I am that some of what I see won’t be captured by the camera and that if they had, they would look different from what is burned into my brain. Maybe that’s OK, though. Maybe these memories I have are more ‘true’, more vivid than the ones that live on the digital memory chip. In that sense, they are the best photos in my travel scrapbook. I just can’t show the photos to people when I get home. Stories like these will have to do.