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The Best Travel Photos You Don’t Take

Shortly after I returned from a rare true vacation several years back, a friend posted this graphic on It resonated with me immediately. Already my memory had filtered out many of the more photogenic “highlights” of the vacation, and what stuck with me were small, wholly unremarkable events that would not warrant retelling to anyone but the most boredom-resistant listener.

I had also become very aware during our travels of what passes for adventure on the average trip most days: where to eat, where to buy stuff, the weather. Part of the trip was spent in Seattle, and while our boy remembers the Space Needle and climbing around on the Fremont Troll very well, it is stuffing our faces every morning from a stand of wild blackberries we found behind our lodging that will stick with us all strongest and longest — even though we don’t have any photos of it.

Travel Forces You to Appreciate Simple Stuff

On a long trip through France and Spain several years ago, we visited countless famous destinations — a couple of days in Paris, then Biarritz, the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Basque region and more. But it was the simple daily quest for a good, cheap breakfast that has become the shorthand for recollections of the entire trip.

Each afternoon, we scanned the streets for a place to take the next morning’s petit dejeuner, settling on the best location, view and price. Without wandering around and wasting time, the next morning we went straight for our chosen spot, and would venture out for the day right from our table after an easy-going breakfast.

While I can get by in a couple of languages, my French was very much sub-par, and it became a small game to see how badly I could butcher the phrase petit dejeuner. After a few days of this, a member of the waitstaff at one of our chosen cafes finally overheard me mangling the language, and sat down to talk with us, laughing. Although we saw numerous highlights of French, Basque and Spanish culture, our simple game of finding a good “pittah dubiousnawz” breakfast turned out to be the thing we remember and cherish the most from the trip.

Nice story, but what’s the point? While we enjoyed the Guggenheim, that breakfast in St. Jean de Luz was the most memorable moment of the trip. But of course we have several photos of the Guggenheim, and none of us sitting at breakfast.

Kids Get It

On semi-regular day trips into New York City, particularly to the American Museum of Natural History, our 4-year-old boy insists on only two things. The first is buying ice cream from an ice cream truck, preferably the truck that parks on the northwest corner of 77th and Columbus. When another trip to AMNH is coming up, he’ll mention dinosaur bones and simulated space rides and ceiling-mounted giant squids, but once we emerge onto the street from the subway, there is one place he is headed — 77th and Columbus.

A game of chase through the streets is part of the routine, a game we play daily in some form or another — that is, an amazing event that happens every day. We have photos of him standing in front of dinosaur bones, but none playing chase on 77th — which it isn’t hard to see is precisely backwards. If we had no pictures of dinosaurs, and one picture of him in full sprint, that would be all we need.

His second tradition is a haircut at Astor Place Hair. We get into the city every few weeks — roughly how often a young boy might get a haircut. The barber shop visits actually grew out of one of my own travel traditions, which is to leave home with a somewhat shaggy mane so I am able (or forced) to go get a haircut at my destination (as I wrote some time ago in How to Blend In with the Locals: 20 Tips). I have had haircuts in Marathon, Greece while I was working at the Olympics; in La Libertad, El Salvador on a surfing trip; in Henley-on-Thames during regatta week; in Tangier, Copenhagen and many more — and most often of late alongside my boy at Astor Place.

What could be more mundane than getting a haircut? It won’t surprise you by now that these were extremely memorable moments; my haircut in an empty barber shop in Marathon competes very well for primacy in my memory bank against a walk around the Acropolis with several hundred tourists. And in the future, when my boy thinks back on his childhood trips to New York City, I suspect he might feel a similar fondness for those haircuts with some 70 barbers and his parents looking on.

What will your kid remember — another trip through the dinosaur, or playing chase on the way to the ice cream truck?

Sweat the Little Things

When I was in Beijing for the Olympics back in 2008, I decided to run off my jet lag on my first morning there. By all accounts, the host country was controlling very carefully what visitors saw of China; factories were closed down to reduce pollution, folks were allowed to drive only on alternate days to keep down congestion, visitors were directed to very specific hotels and neighborhoods, and the national media covered only what it deemed appropriate, and no more.

But there was nothing even a Communist regime with a serious agenda could do to hide the real China from someone who strapped on a pair of running shoes at first light in August in Beijing (which broke before 5 a.m.). On what quickly became a daily exercise for me, the Chinese people were out and living their lives in full, and each day, within minutes I was out of the “approved for media” zones and into the back streets and countryside, where I was immersed in Chinese morning life, and was even rammed by, well, a ram.

On subsequent runs I listened to government propaganda pouring from loudspeakers on every street pole, locals punctuating their morning walks with emphatic shouts, and kids laughing at the guy in sweat-drenched Western running clothes threading through the neighborhood. What I saw and heard those mornings will stay with me every bit as much as any gold medal effort I witnessed up close that week. I have no pictures — admittedly because I was running, which doesn’t typically allow you to carry a camera — though I have plenty of the Great Wall and a couple temples. They’re nice enough pictures … but they’re sure not Shunyi at dawn.

Even the Guidebooks Know

When you read a guidebook, what information do you find there? Of course there are lists of museums and attractions, but very quickly attention turns to Places to Stay and Places to Eat — the real meat of these books is dedicated to restaurants, bars and grocery/music/bread/etc. merchants that you need to know about to survive. In short, travel is quite a bit about where to lay your head and get your daily bread — where you can find and buy and do the unremarkable stuff of daily life.

And take a look at the pictures. For every photo of a castle, there are two more of cafe chairs, kids on bikes, flower-filled window sills, racks of cheese, brightly painted doorways, clothes on the line, a cat in a store window. The folks taking and choosing the photos understand that serious travel forces you out of your element, such that the mundane stuff of daily life becomes the adventure itself — it makes the everyday events stand out for what they are, amazing in their own right.

Pick Something You Ignore at Home, and Do It on the Road

If it isn’t breakfast, a haircut, a run at dawn, what is it that you can do every day — go buy the paper from a local newsstand? Stop in at a church? Go to the neighborhood music store and try out instruments? Find the town’s best pizza? It’s up to you. It won’t matter what it is; so long as you are paying attention, it will pay off. And don’t forget to take a few pictures.

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