The Experience of Experience

In 1995 I was living in Texas attempting to get my journalism career off the ground. I’d left the newspaper world and had returned to Texas to look for more work. I had A LOT of downtime. Newspapers were beginning to lay people off and I was not the demographic being hired. I also had no computer and was still typing my inquiry letters. I was doing a truly horrific assortment of freelance work, but was plodding along in my below poverty lifestyle. One of my brother’s friends had a house party, and seeing as partying was one of my special skills, I tagged along. While pounding more beer than thought humanly possible I met two more of my brother’s friends who had just retuned from a LONG stint in Guatemala. They had been traveling, mountain biking and taking Spanish lessons, all of which sounded dreamy to yours truly, and a lot more exotic than another long summer in the Texas heat. They gave me the name of a school in Antigua and the phone number of a contact they had in the city. That’s it. That was the grand total of my knowledge.

Yes, that is me. Unknown village, Guatemala 1995. They wanted to wear my Leica and meter for some reason. I have NO IDEA what is under my shirt.

A few weeks later I bought an extremely cheap ticket and found myself on the San Antonio, Houston, Guatemala City route, a backpack full of gear and an oversized duffle bag of clothes. I really didn’t know what I was getting into, and this was what made the trip so interesting. This was adventure. Where are you staying? Don’t know. How long are you going for? Don’t know. What are you going to do? Don’t know. Do you know anyone there? No. Have you been there before? No. Oh. Oh my.

I landed in Guatemala City really not even knowing where Antigua was, or how to get there, and my Spanish was…minimal. I found the bus station and found the bus to Antigua by looking at signs and asking strangers. It came time to board and the guy driving the bus took one look at my duffle bag and pointed at the sky which meant, “This baby is going on the roof.” Up went my bag, and I boarded clutching only my backpack of Canon and Leica gear. The bus wound out of the city and I got my first glimpse of this incredible place. It was amazing to me that only three hours south of Houston I could find somewhere so exotic.

The bus arrived at the outskirts of Antigua and I still had no idea where I was going. I began asking people on the bus, “Hey, you ever hear of this place…..?” Nobody knew anything. About twenty minutes later I thought, “I think I need to get off the bus.” So I did. Only problem was the driver drove off with my bag on the roof. So there I was, backpack in hand, contact name and no luggage. I thought, “Well, I can probably wear what I’m wearing for at least a week before I begin to look like a homeless drifter.” I started walking. Slowly but surely I began to find people who thought they knew my contact, and I was finally pointed down a street where I came to a language school and made one final inquiry. There was my guy, standing there with a smile on his face. As we were exchanging hellos up drove the bus, empty except for my bag. The driver asked about the “wandering gringo” and he figured out where I was headed.

I spent the next month and half making my way around Guatemala, exploring new areas and even attempting to compile a few long stories. I had one paper map and an out-of-date guidebook that I would pull from time to time, but mostly I just went with the flow. Sometimes an eight-hour bus ride would become eighteen-hours, and lodging was a real-time roll of the dice. Nothing was ever certain until I could touch it, feel it, punch it, run from it or embrace it. It felt like real travel. I was at the mercy of fate, circumstance, luck and perseverance.

When I look back on this trip I don’t think much about the images I made. What I think about, and laugh about, was the voyage. At one point I got off a bus in a very remote, highland section of Guatemala and the locals turned on the only other foreigners on my bus and promptly began throwing stones at them until they ran back down the road we had just driven up. For some reason I was spared and found a dollar a night hotel made from plywood. As I asked around for a place to stay people began saying “You better hurry, there is only one hotel.” The only other foreign folks in town were UN workers. As I went to sleep a firefight started on the edge of town and I opened the window to watch tracer fire arc back and forth.

When I got up in the morning the only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to get dressed and leave my room. What came next was always somewhat up in the air. Traveling this way was about engaging with every aspect of the physical world around me. Where I went, what I ate, where I made pictures, etc, was all up for discussion and based on mood, feel and conversation.

The future of travel has been described as being able to open your phone on a foreign street corner and the phone will recognize where you are and then suddenly it begins to ping in with local stops based on your interests the phone has already compiled based on all your personal information. “You like hamburgers, well walk two blocks north and you will find a hamburger restaurant.” There will be a real-time connection with other travelers who would be pinging in with all their experience and where they were and what they were doing. The technology will provide you either the experience other people thought you would like or an experience that is…in a lot of ways…just like home. I know we already have some of this, but the future has been described as being like this but yet far beyond. I am so puzzled by this.

First of all, who wants to walk about the world with a phone or iPad in front of their face? I’m sure plenty do, but I still have a hard time understanding this. I recently spoke with a city manager who worked in a city I knew well. I explained I was disappointed in a section of the city that had been homogenized beyond recognition, and I felt like an idiot for taking a friend from out of town to the area to experience the “real” city only to find a gentrified tourist trap. The city worker said “People in Kansas want to come here and eat the same exact food they eat at home.” Is this really true?

As I sit here thinking about this technology I am hard pressed to find a way to take more of the EXPERIENCE out of travel. Just as I was about to find another viewpoint an Apple ad shows up on the web browser and it shows people…..interfacing the world….through their iPad. Okay, I lose. Game over.

Seriously? Do you want to travel that way? Experience the world that way? Look, when you land in London for a business meeting and have no idea where you are or where you are going and you have 47 minutes to get from Heathrow to your meeting it’s damn nice having a phone with GPS. But there is a HUGE different between business travel and real travel. I’m talking about real travel here.

Doesn’t travel with a device in hand actually limit the experience you are having? How can you be looking at an iPad and the mountain at the same time? And also, what are you doing with the mountain on your iPad? Who needs to see that mountain at the same time you are seeing it? Are you reporting on the mountain or are you sending a continual stream about YOU? I’m just asking. I honestly have no idea.

Now, before we go any further, I will be honest and admit that I am a guy who daydreams about inventing a way to actually disappear. Yes, I do. How great would that be. So when I go somewhere and put my phone down for a few days, I have a built in gene that allows my brain to completely forget about said device, so much so I find myself hinging on the idea of never turning it back on. I know I’m in the minority here. I could leave it all. The images, the phone, the music, the email, the text, if I never did any of it ever again you would actually be able to HEAR me grinning.

I know people who have apps out the wazoo on their phone. Apps for apps. Apps for breathing, thinking, chewing. Apps that count how many steps they have taken in a given day. Competitive apps about walking, cycling, traveling, etc. What is this about? Again, not sure.

The secret is the power of just being. That’s it. In a nutshell, being present in the moment in the specific location is an experience so far beyond the electronic interface it isn’t even close. Look, there are plenty of people who spend less than ten minutes at the Grand Canyon and never actually leave their car. No, I’m not joking,, and these people are doing their own thing and rightly so. And hey, at least they went to the Grand Canyon.

When I think about travel, guidebooks, technology, etc, I think of books like Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia,” or “In a Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson. One person’s LONG TERM take on a place. Why? Because these books allow YOU to create your own mental photography. These books allow you to guess, to imagine and to formulate. You can read them, fly to these places and still have your own adventure without a screen of “user generated content” taking every once of chance from the equation. Plus, the authors spent ENOUGH TIME to actually being to understand a place.

I think there is something to be said about using technology to do your research, and I know not everyone is comfortable with not knowing their day to day routine. But I think there is something to gain from allowing yourself to let go of the electronic, even paper, umbilical. I’ve found that most of the people walking this Earth are pretty damn fine people, and they will bend over backwards to take care of a stranger. Ya, I got robbed at gunpoint once by some kid with an AK(Cambodia 1996), but he only asked for a dollar and I had no problem making his dreams come true. Getting robbed was a rare experience in my book, and my book has a few pages.

I just keep wondering where all this tech is leading us? Are we smarter? Better? More caring? Are we actually communication better or just more frequently?

All this technology is great, yep, for sure. But guess what? Kilimanjaro still lost its glacier. I don’t need an iPad to look up and see the bare stone. I don’t need to know that you saw it and told everyone you saw it, or even that you had a coffee on the way up. I think sometimes we miss the message because we are in love with the messenger.

Look, I’m writing this on a laptop and I just plugged in an iPhone and a Kindle. Guilty. I’m just asking questions here because I see our new path being painted as an improvement, a more profound experience, but I’m not sure it really is. This stuff is here, and here to stay, but what I’m wondering about is, as always, BALANCE.

27 responses to “The Experience of Experience”

  1. James says:

    I saw that Apple ad and few days ago and realized that it’s a losing battle. Marketing is designed to tip one’s balance. Lately, when I travel, I leave the laptop and iPad at home; the iPhone turned off but ready to serve, if needed, as a back-up camera. I take one small point-and-shoot film camera. Without having to deal with camera maintenance items (storage cards, batteries and chargers, etc), I’ve noticed my experience with “seeing,” is more enhanced…my mind is freer to think…I’m even more discerning in my photographic approach. In bringing that same experience home, I’m centralizing everything on one device, cutting the time and effort split between various devices. That means, I’m letting go of the iPad, even though the screen would be kinder on my eyes on the plane to Africa this fall. I may have to put a few issues of my growing PDF file collection of LensWork magazine on the iPhone because I cannot let these devices distract and then upset my balance, corrupt my regained experience.

    • Smogranch says:

      I did too, but here is the thing. I thought the iPad ad was very well done. I loved the Robin Williams voiceover, and of course it had wonderful content. It’s just that I can’t imagine having that barrier between myself and the real world. However, I GUESS you could say the camera is the same crutch….I do find myself far less fractured without the social and the phone, that is a fact. And when I’m on the plane I sleep the sleep of the dead. Then I read, then I watch HORRIBLE movies, tons of them, and then sleep some more. I once slept nine hours straight on the way to Asia.

  2. Chris Fuller says:

    As I read this latest post on my phone at the car repair shop, it articulates why we carry paper maps on our long term trips and not smart phones. The GPS on your smart phone can only tell you how to get fro A to B in the most efficient way (even showing you traffic flow if you want). Paper maps (and AAA guide books) provide a larger context that can inspire side trips.

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Chris,
      I’ve found people pull out that phone at the first hint of trouble. I prefer to try and solve the being lost or uncertain by looking around. Using landmarks, or even asking people for that matter, but I know I’m an oddball.

  3. lionelb says:

    To quote Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar ― “I sought trains; I found passengers.”

  4. Sean Breslin says:

    I miss those days!

    I spent the mid 1990s travelling around Asia and Australia. My friend and I once ran out of money in India and had to face the possibility of going back home so soon into our trip or taking a chance somewhere else. So we jumped on a flight to Hong Kong with no more than £5 in our pockets and found a job the day after arriving. We had absolutely no access to update information, just a battered copy of the classic travel bible Work Your Way Around the World and a hunch that being British, and Hong Kong still being British at the time, that we could get a job. That was all. Except for 3 years at university I’ve been in Asia ever since.

    But you know what – and I know this is silly – I regret not knowing more about photography and having the foresight to building a decent portfolio while I was young and travelling.

    But I do have the experiences and some photos that I love more than anything I’ve ever taken since becoming a ‘serious’ photographer.

    P.S. Your outfit in awful.

    • Smogranch says:

      Yes, that outfit was the worst. Those shoes had holes in the bottom but I loved them. I hadn’t showered in God knows how long. But I was so happy. What job did you get? Just curious.

    • Paul J says:

      A great post Daniel, I really do love reading your words and thoughts.

      I can associate with Sean and I too travelled quiet a bit in mid-90’s to a lot of long-haul places such as Bali, Thailand, Hong Kong, Australia, U.S.A, etc. and I too wished I had known more about photography then and had taken more photos rather than the snapshots I did. Then again, I had the experience that I probably would not of had if I had a camera in hand. The great memories alone means I have no regrets from that time.

      I totally agree with your comments about having to experience a country and live somewhere before working on a project. As an Englishman living in Munich, I’ve always thought my point-of-view of life here would make a good personal project but I’ve never got around to it. In August I will have lived here 21 years, I think now would be a good time to tell that story…

      Keep up the great work!

    • Sean Breslin says:

      Dan – I got a job in a bar and the manager allowed me to quit numerous times so that I could travel around India, Japan, the Philippines, Nepal, etc. I also managed to be there during the handover from the UK to China. It was quite a moment.

    • Smogranch says:

      Great timing. I would have loved to be there during the handover.

  5. Well, It’s nice to see that you’ve taken the recent book you’ve read “Finding The Buddaha Within” to heart. I really miss those days of xploring the world WITHOUT a cell phone. It really forced you to figure it out yourself, and actually interface with people you met along the way. I really cringe when I see all the sheeple that drank the apple coolaid who record their lives on ipads, knowing damn well they will NEVER look at this footage again EVER.
    Jesus just take in a grand vista without feeling compelled to make sure your getting it in 1080p. pathetic!
    Oh, BTW Dan, the ghost of Andre the Giant called and wants his tee shirt back.

  6. Brian Milo says:

    Dan, I love your writing. It really makes me think about this world. Remember having the nerve to write a girl a note in junior high or calling someone on a telephone with your voice? I wanted to share this photo with you that seems to fit well with this post. Are they texting each other, looking for directions, or checking facebook? Your guess. This is a pretty busy intersection.

    • Smogranch says:

      Yes, I remember those days. So awkward but so great. I can’t stop thinking about Napo Dynamite drawing his “Liger” for this girlfriend. Last night I photographed my nephew and there were four high school aged kids running around us all shooting selfies for 2 hours straight.

  7. Jimmy Reina says:

    I love this post!

    First, it brings up memories of when Jojo and I were traveling to the hash farm in Northern Morrocco-our car got stolen three times, and the two Spanish women we were traveling with got kidnapped by some, probably Turkish, truck drivers.

    I love being anonymous, and I love walking around cities.
    Sometimes, without telling anyone, I go into San Francisco, come up out of the transit station, and press both “WALK” buttons at once. Whichever one lights up is the crosswalk I take, and this random direction sets the path for the day. Nothing centers me quite like this- my brain gets defragmented, and once in awhile, I get some good pictures

    Some friends recently returned from Europe, and they told us of seeing the same event in every museum- visitors standing in front of a famous work of art, say, The Winged Victory. But they had their backs to her, taking a selfie, with her in the background.
    At worse, this is just part memory icon and part bragging, no different than a bumper sticker or a T shirt that says “I saw the Great Wall of China”, but it seems more narcissistic, kind of like the art is only significant because “I was there”.

    Coincidentally, there is a fitting cartoon in the current New Yorker-

    • Smogranch says:

      You hit the tag word on the head…..narcissism. Well, wait let me do it right. NARCISSISM. That’s really what we are talking about here. As the saying goes “everyone now wants to be famous” and these little distractions play right in to program.

  8. Rab says:


    I spent the entire 1990’s either in school or living out of my tent. I guided wildlife trips in Texas, Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Idaho, Manitoba, Ontario and Alaska. I jumped on planes, buses and trains and traveled much of Latin America and parts of Europe. The woman I did most of that traveling with is now my wife.

    I most of the time I carried, apart from basic gear, a journal, a pair of binoculars, a bird guide and a crappy point and shoot film camera. I would swap out paperback books with friends and at hostel book shelves. I had no computer and no phone. The computer I am typing this on cost more than everything I owned at that time. Same for all the camera gear I own.

    If I could go back in time I would do it all again and more. I am a happy father of two boys now without a single regret but I feel sad for young people today who are, as you say, “in love with the messenger but not the message.” The internet is a wonderful thing but you can learn a hell of a lot about yourself when you’re stormbound in your tent with nothing to do but stare at the ceiling or talk through your life with your travel partner. Trust me, I did it many times.

    I was taking a walk this morning and I reflected that privacy is the new luxury. When our family takes trips I never post images to Facebook as we chart the course of our journey. Most times I don’t even let anyone know we are leaving. We just kind of mysteriously pull out of the driveway with the canoes on the roof and a week’s worth of food. I love it.

    Ultimately our lives are our own and our experiences are what we make of them. I encourage everyone to leave the technology at home for a trip or two, and head out with the goal of nothing else but to get into the flow and just be present. It’s not a lifetime commitment but you might be surprised how much you like the luxurious private pleasure of secret time with yourself or the people you love. Social media will never be the wiser.

    • Smogranch says:

      Well said. Perfectly said. I’m sitting in a hotel lobby at the moment, and not a business hotel, a vacation style hotel, and every single person around me is on their phone. I just walked by and peered over the shoulders to see what was so critical to their morning….Instagram. I think it’s the entire culture I’m tiring of. The first world, luxury of technology for technology sake. The only thing keeping me sane is my job which puts me in contact with a truly stellar group of artist who make engaging work. I get to photograph them and forget about everything else. I think this feeling is in part due to my childhood in the country. I know the power of what you describe, and the power of the isolation. I crave it.

  9. mike a says:

    Now that’s traveling. It’s all about the memories man.

  10. It’s a ball. The same one those kids are looking for. Why you have stolen and concealed it is the mystery.

    I have my doubts about all the “real” travelling going on in the world, and the motivations behind most of it, though this may not be the best place to express them… I’ll just say there is a hierarchy of travel-related narcissism that has someone like Bruce Chatwin standing at the very top.

    Though I’m 100% with you on the strangeness of “device-mediated experience”, of whatever kind. Though, let’s be honest, the iPhone and iPad users have drawn flak from us camera users (“Why don’t you just BE here, instead of photographing it?”), for which we should be grateful…


    • Smogranch says:

      Well for me, I’d much rather hear from a Chatwin than a page of user generated content. And I don’d Bryson containing much narcissism, but that’s me. What I do find is humor. When I speak of real travel, it’s only to my definition, which may or may not have any relevance to anyone else. For me it’s about time. How much did you spend? I never read travel magazines unless I’m trapped because they are the same exact thing, over and over. The same visual formula of not enough time and too many bases to cover. If I want to know about Morocco, do I want to read T&L or Paul Bowles? I see the masses wandering with devices and don’t see a better understanding of the world. What I see is an endless need to be entertained.

  11. Agreed, I know exactly what you mean, but I do wonder whether travel is, for many, not so much a way of engaging with reality as avoiding or postponing it. I did my share of travelling in the 1970s, but I have spent the last 20 years photographing my home turf, and feel that — for me, anyway — that relentlessly narrow focus eventually paid off. After about 15 years, I’d say. Real engagement is that much harder to achieve when you’re just passing through…


    • Smogranch says:

      It’s great you are focusing on the home turf. I have one turf I love and the other not so much. Nothing better than scoring in your own backyard.

  12. Doctor Nick says:

    Go to the South of Spain, look at all the British people eating British food, drinking in their British pubs and ask this question again.

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