25 chapters, 100,000 words, 120 illustrations
 Table of Contents
On $25 a Day or Less
Art of Travel - European and World Backpacking

Chapter 12

Items of the Eye

Advice  Easy Travel Photography  Time and Clock-Time  Art  Binoculars  Tips

ONE DAY  I was resting a few hours in a beautiful Veronese castle. The upper walls inside the main courtyard were covered with colorful murals from hundreds of years ago. Perhaps they depicted various occupants, or a court from some particular period, but in the early evening light the scenes and colors were fantastic. I felt not that I was looking into the past, but that I was alive in history.

Into this magical moment strolls the Human Video Camera. He carefully videotapes every angle of the courtyard, his eye only briefly leaving the tiny viewfinder. Then he lowers his camera and rejoins his impatient wife, presumably to later re-live for friends and family his visit to this entrancing place.

The Human Video Camera, however, was never there. He was merely a camera operator--at best a poor observer--but certainly not a participant of the time and place. When he plays his tape those grainy, cartoonish images will be the best he ever saw of that courtyard, and that time in front of the television will be the greatest he ever experienced of that castle.1

My advice is if there is an image you want, take it. You will appreciate good photographs when you return home. But unless you are a professional or keen hobbyist, take your photo and be done with it. Do not pollute your mind with constant debate about whether this or that would make a good picture. Seeing the world in terms of images is fine for music videos, but it's not a good way to experience travel. Wherever you are, make sure you really are there, with your own eyes, ears, nose and mind.

Easy Travel Photography

1. Colors are best in morning and evening. The strong sun of midday washes out photos and creates harsh shadows.

2. Place people in your photos--landscape and monument shots become monumentally boring.

3. Move close to your subject and take shots from their eye-level. Bend your knees for children.

4. Place the subject off-center to create interest.

5. Hold the camera steady and gently squeeze the button--don't jerk it.

6. Try not to grow a broccoli from your subject's head!


Beautiful children


Cameras and Film

1. The standard backpacker camera is an automatic 35mm or APS weighing under ten ounces (280 grams) and fitting in a pocket. I've been so impressed with the photo quality and small size of APS that I'll probably make it my next camera.

2. Lithium camera batteries are hard to find in developing economies. Install a new one before you go. They usually last for dozens of rolls (check your camera spec sheet), but fail suddenly, not gradually.

3. Standard 35mm film is available almost everywhere, but is usually more expensive than in the U.S. (Inexpensive films sold under discount store labels are made by 3M, Konica, and AGFA, and are good for general use.) APS film may be expensive and hard to find in less-traveled areas.

4. 400 and 1000 speed films are useful in the low-light of jungles, dense forests, and in museums and cathedrals where flash photography is forbudt. These speeds are usually unavailable in developing countries.

5. While the danger of airport X-ray machines to film is mostly overblown, 400 and higher speeds are more sensitive. You can place film in a bag to be inspected by hand. You don't need lead.

6. While slide film is more sensitive than print film, it still works okay in automatics. 200 speed is recommended.Ultrapod miniature camera tripod

7. Thirty-six exposure rolls save weight and volume.

8. A good miniature tripod is the Ultrapod (2 oz. (57 g.), $8), which also has a Velcro strap for attaching to poles, limbs, or monkey foreheads. Available from Campmor and outdoor shops.

Time and Clock-Time

Time is our most precious commodity--only a fool has enough for boredom. Use your time wisely, but don't waste it racing around like a scared jackrabbit. There is a saying among travelers that if you spend half an hour at ten cathedrals, you have seen nothing; if you spend all day with one, you have seen something.

In the Western world nearly everyone wears a timepiece on their wrists, and every building has a clock in or on it. Successful members of our societies run in sync with these clocks, and the resulting efficiency has led to a level of economic success that allows few weeks of vacation each year (five weeks in ultra time-conscious Germany).

Clock towerBut many societies do not share our sense of time. Their people may not wear watches on their wrists, and they may not have clocks in or on every public building. They may look at shadows to estimate how much light remains in the day, and arrange a meeting with, "Yes, Juan, I'll see you after tomorrow."

These few or no-clock societies are less mechanized, more in tune with nature and the seasons, and may actually have more time than our many-clock culture. When a no-clock person hears us make an appointment, it might sound to him like, "I'll meet you five seconds after 11:19, and don't be late." Pointing to a clock towering over one of our cities, he might ask, "Who is running this place?"

My brother tells a story about a tour bus on the big island of Hawaii. It makes a quick stop for everyone to stretch their legs and admire the view. Two young men from the bus wander over to a roadside stand. In a loud Brooklyn accent one of them says, "Yeah, gimme a Coke, and, uh, (looking at the menu overhead) make that a large order of fries. And can you put some ketchup on 'em for me, buddy?" The attendant, a native Hawaiian, nods, gets up, and disappears into the kitchen.

A few minutes go by, the bus driver has restarted the engine, and the New Yorkers are nervously griping about the slow service. Finally, not able to take it anymore, one of them leaps over the counter and opens the door to the kitchen. He then turns and shouts in dismay, "He's peeling the freakin' potatoes!"

Edward T. Hall's book The Dance of Life considers the paramount importance of time in cultures. All cultures have their own unique concept of time which distinguishes a Frenchman from a German, a North American from a Latin American, and a Hopi from a Navajo. Hall contends, "that to function effectively abroad it is just as necessary to learn the language of time as it is to learn the spoken language."

Hall describes two broad categories of time culture-- monochronic and polychronic. Monochronic cultures divide time into sections, and allot specific activities for each. This schedule generally takes precedence over everything else. A person will drop what he is doing--whether finished or not--to meet another appointment on time. Monochronic people usually do one thing at a time with their time. They also tend not to mix business with pleasure. Northern Europeans, especially Germans and Swiss, and many Americans are mostly monochronic.

Polychronic cultures include southern Europeans and Latin Americans. These peoples often have friends and family around them most of the day. Schedules are not seen as holy writs, but as a general guideline how the day may go. It's not such a big deal if someone doesn't make an appointment as they probably have several other things going on at the same time, anyway.

Most tourists do not realize there are other ways of conceiving--and living--time. Out of sync with their environment, they waste energy and time fighting something they do not understand, and cannot change.

The only advice is to recognize the rhythms of life are not the same in all cultures. If you really want to get to know a people and culture it's best to get in sync with their concept of time, and go with the flow.

Art and Travel

Travel presents the greatest opportunities for viewing art. Cities and countries place tremendous effort and money into showing off cultural history through galleries, museums, and other displays. After several weeks of touring Hungary I distinctly remember exiting the Magyar National Museum in Budapest thinking, "So that's who these people are!"

Appreciation of art is similar to appreciation of travel. If you travel the world glancing at this and that and saying "I like it," or "I don't like it," you aren't going to get much from your travels. It takes time and effort to absorb what your senses bring in. If you go into travel or art with a cynical, judgmental, or preconceived attitude you are not likely to come away much affected. On the other hand if your mind is open you might learn something, and you will no doubt enjoy yourself more.

1. Relax your mind. Many of us have a tendency to immediately reject the unfamiliar in art, travel, food, etc. Have a glass of wine, concentrate on your breathing, or otherwise clear your thinking. If I look for a few minutes at something I find interesting, my mind and senses usually open up to where I can better see other things.

2. Art and travel are both, first and foremost, communication. This communication occurs on multiple levels--not just the one you are immediately aware of. Art from another culture or time may reveal an entirely different perceptual world.

3. Appreciate what you won't see anywhere else. Take your time. Don't be in a rush to see or do everything--you can't.

4. Art and travel are not necessarily about beauty. If you reject everything which isn't beautiful, you miss the majority of what there is. Art and travel are cerebral and emotional, beautiful and ugly.

Mycenaen fresco fragment Photo: Mycenaean fresco fragment, circa 14th century, B.C.


Binoculars are perhaps the most underused travel item. In my pack they are as important as a camera since they enhance my vision now, while the camera often has the opposite effect. Binoculars are great for studying distant castles, gargoyles on the Cathedral of Amiens, monkeys in trees. They're wonderful for looking into tigers' eyes at zoos, and while hitchhiking I've even saved myself considerable toil by reading distant road signs. I cannot imagine visiting any wildlife park without them.

I have loaned binoculars to dozens of backpackers over the years, and on reluctantly handing them back a great many have said they are going to get a pair when they return home. My current binocular is the Minolta Pocket 7x21, which weighs ten ounces (280 grams), easily fits in a shirt pocket, and costs just $65, including postage, from Focus Camera in New York. The following prices are from New York mail order camera shops, except the Tasco, which is found in discount stores. Seven or eight power is the maximum you can hold comfortably steady.

For comfortable viewing relax your eyes, hands, and arms. A practiced birder can effortlessly look through binoculars for minutes at a time. Adjust the width so you see one circle of vision--not two connected circles like in the movies. Make the one-time diopter adjustment according to instructions with the binoculars. Then remember to bring them along.

Photo: "Shhh...it's a blue-footed boobie!" Shhh...It's a blue-footed boobie!

Travelers' Tips

Anyone who likes to paint or draw should seize the opportunity for the inspirational visuals of travel. The necessary supplies require little pack room, and it's a good way to meet people. Barbara, Eisenach, Germany


Prepaid film mailers are a great way to lighten your load and have your pictures waiting when you finally darken the doorstep of your place of permanent residence (or storage, as the case may be). You won't have to worry about all your exposed film becoming lost, stolen, fogged, etc., and mailing from developed countries is trustworthy. Carl, Nashville

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1. Another story:  A big sport utility vehicle pulls up to a scenic spot in Yosemite. Dad jumps out and videos the view. Two children are in the back yelling, "Let us out! Let us see!" Mom: "Shut up, kids! You'll see when we get home!" back