It’s a beautiful day at 35,000 feet, as my flight leaves Mexico City behind and heads southeast, following the vast sweep of Central America.
There isn’t a cloud above or below us, and everything glows with fierce heat (even though the back of my mind quietly reminds me it’s minus 51 Celsius outside the window right now).
Far below, the mountainous patchwork of Guatemala gives way to El Salvador and Honduras, and in the distance, a glitter of blue announces the approach of Lake Nicaragua.
A view of Lake Nicaragua
I stare and stare, my jaw agape.
It’s only when the plane is descending to San Jose’s Juan Santamaria Airport that I realise I haven’t taken a single photo in the last three hours. Not one. I curse my stupidity. My first glimpse of Central America, and nothing to show for it but memories.
Now I think it’s the best thing I could have done.
We’re all obsessed with digitally capturing experiences for repeat viewing – and it’s getting in the way. More specifically, our cameras are getting in the way. Or our phones. Or our camcorders. Or whatever else is going to create a vast digital archive of our trip.
If you’re like me, you take at least a couple of hundred photos a day while you’re on the move – and sometimes, they’re a big disappointment.
Things look too small, too flat, nowhere near impressive enough. Sometimes you apologise to others: “I know if doesn’t look like much but trust me, it was INCREDIBLE.”
Easter Island in Mid-Pacific Ocean
But more often, the photo is all we have. There’s no memory to recall, because we were too busy taking photos at the time.
Just ask National Geographic’s former “digital nomad”, Andrew Evans.
After taking an incredible overland trip from Washington D.C. to the southern tip of South America and catching a ride to Antarctica, he found himself in front of a waddle of penguins (yes, that’s the collective noun).
He took out his very expensive camera and fixed a special lens to the front of it, which would allow him to take extreme close-up shots.
Then he sat down on the gravel beach and peered through his viewfinder – and completely missed the penguin that snuck up behind him, craning forward to take a playful nip at his anorak.
He got the photo – but missed the personal encounter, and the serendipitous memory that would stay with him forever.
As a metaphor, this could be all of us.
What’s the answer? Does that mean technology is bad and we should throw away our gadgets?
‘No, YOU waddle’
Absolutely not. Meet any professional travel writer at work and you’ll find them lugging a formidable array of modern tech. But – watch them at work. What do they do first?
Here is the key to fighting “gadget block”, and making better memories, and it all starts with the 30 Second Rule.
When you arrive in a new place, when something spectacular appears in front of you, or when happy chance puts you in exactly the right place at the right time for an experience nobody could ever predict – make sure you do nothing.
Just watch. Just listen. Take it all in, for at least 30 magical seconds.
Forget posterity. Forget legacy. Allow yourself to enjoy the moment – a half-minute of pure, delicious selfishness.
In doing so, you’re using the most powerful piece of technology ever created for humans, the 3-pound supercomputer that sits right behind your eyes – and it’s capable of capturing experiences in ways that photography or video will never achieve.
In my previous life, I was an archaeologist. On my first day on a Norse (Viking) site in Orkney, north of Scotland, I was asked to pick up a sheet of permatrace, a sharpened pencil and a planning frame, and go draw a corner of the site.
An Orkney seal taking a break
That very morning, I’d been helping a photographer take endless photos of every inch of that corner. It was recorded, surely? Done and dusted. What more could my drawing add?
The area supervisor took me aside and showed me other drawings compared with photos of the archaeology they depicted. They matched, but only in the way cartoons match reality.
Cameras take a big gulp of information, capturing everything in one unsorted mess. An artist’s eye is different. It selects, it highlights – and it argues. “Here’s what really matters here, and forget all this other stuff!”
In our first 30 seconds of seeing something new, we need our artist’s eye to go to work for us – and the rest of our senses too. We need the feeling of gooseflesh rising on our skin through sheer awe, the breath whooshing out of us, our eyes going wide. We need the aliens smells of a place, the unfamiliar sounds.
We need to reach out and touch things. This is how we form memories – not by catching photons in a box, but by using all our senses to understand what’s in front of us, and then interpreting it in our own special way.
So, thirty seconds. Try it.
A view of the Alps in Austria
But if you’re feeling brave, there’s another level you can take this too. Be warned: it takes a stout heart and it’s certainly not for everyone, or every situation. You simply leave your phone or camera in your pocket, pretending you’ve forgotten it’s there.
To the modern traveller’s eye, it’s easy to see why this is an appalling idea. No reminders, no aids, nothing to show the folks at Christmas when everyone’s too full of food to escape your slideshows. But this is the oldest way to capture experiences, tried and tested for thousands of years.
Congratulations! You’re about to become an oral historian, following in Homer’s footsteps (the Greek one) – and you’ll keep your adventures alive by reciting them to others, using all your growing skills as a storyteller to bring them alive in their imaginations, while lodging your adventures deep into your own.
See it first, remember it first, perform it to others – and keep your experiences alive in the telling of them. No camera could ever do better.