Saturday, March 29, 2014

Photographic Memory

I was travelling in Argentina about 5 years ago, through the town Bariloche. In summer, the tourist town is a hub for travellers looking to go hiking up the neighbouring mountains. On my second day I planned a trip which would take me up a mountain one day, stay overnight at an outpost, and come back down the next. I couldn’t wait.

I should note that as a backpacker, I was travelling solo. This meant that friendships were temporary and companions on such day trips came by chance. I was alone on this hike so I took the chance to pack my favourite necessity – the iPod. The best thing about travelling alone is listening to a couple Led Zeppelin albums in a row!

I also managed to pack some other essentials - water, food, sleeping gear, a couple pesos, and, of course, my camera.

The trek was long; longer than expected. But rather than offering a challenging gradient, it would zig-zag up the mountain like those roads in the Tour de France: up to the left, hook around a corner; up to the right. Feeling adventurous, I figured I could save some time by cutting straight up through the bush from one road to another, effectively halving the time taken. The best thing about travelling alone is that when you had a great idea, no-one is there to second guess you!

Using my keen sense of direction to find my way, I picked my path and headed up. It was OK at first, pushing through some weak trees and making good time. But as I went on the bush got more and more thick; the thicket grew thicker and thicker; so thick that eventually that I couldn’t actually move.
I took a moment to appreciate the silliness of my situation.

Pushing on further was impossible, and increasingly irresponsible. Headlines began flashing in my mind’s eye:

“Tourist found after 30 days in wilderness”

I decided to turn back.

But it wasn’t so easy trying to free myself from the entanglement. And as I pushed free I lost my footing and took a good old tumble down the hill. You see the best thing about travelling alone is there is no one around to laugh when you fall flat on your face. I appreciated my failed adventure and made my way back to escape onto the road more travelled.

It was a long, grinding journey to the top of that mountain with no more short cuts presenting themselves, but the payoff was worth it.

At the top, just before reaching the outpost, there was a magnificent view from the mountain. A panoramic vista of this long, green valley that channelled between the mountains and up to a beautiful waterfall off in the distance.

Suddenly the struggle was worth it. I whipped my bag around and reached in the side pocket for my camera.

Huh…Not there.

I checked my pockets. Nope…Inside the bag? Nope…umm pockets? No, tried that. I definitely brought it. I remember packing my bag must have fallen out of my bag when I tripped over…

I looked back at the waterfall…I stared at it for a while…I stared at it a little bit longer…

Then a thought came to me: there are still a couple hours of sunlight; what if I just sat here stared at the waterfall until it was committed to memory? Wouldn’t that be more memorable than the photo?!

And so I sat and absorbed the view. I watched the perpetual flow of water shooting off the cliff edge; I tried to trace individual drops as they cascaded down, intercepting each other and ricocheting off the rock wall before crashing into the stream below. Above, I noticed there were huge hawks circling the clouds. Occasionally they would fly so low and I could hear the beat of their wings. As I stared at the valley I took out my journal. Instead of writing an entry I decided to turn the page to landscape and sketch out the landscape. And I just sat there with the waterfall for nearly 2 hours…

Now I should admit that I’m no artist. That sketch would make molehills out of mountains. And after 5 years my memory is not quite so vivid; vague now and blurred at the edges like a scene conjured up from a well written novel. It is more subjective and less detailed than the photo I never took. And yet it remains unforgettable.

And I don’t think it would be so if I still had the camera? If I had whipped out the camera, taken a few snaps and moved along. I have over a thousand photos from that holiday which I rarely look at. I saw plenty more waterfalls in South America – bigger, louder and from closer range – but this is the one I remain most fond of. I took bigger risks with bigger falls, but this is the story I choose to tell.

I could go on about the lessons I learned. I could try expand this into a piece about patience or appreciating nature or how to avoid box ticking travel habits. But I feel like that is overthinking it – after all it was all just an accident. I prefer to simply tell the story as it is.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I guess sometimes you don’t even need to take the picture.

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