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As I suspect is true for many travelers, the most meaningful souvenirs I bring back from trips are the memories I make along the way.
Over the years, I have filled my internal album with recollections of places I've been, people I've met, food and drink I've enjoyed, sights I've seen along the way. There are also plenty of particular moments, circumstantial quirks of time and places I've experienced during the journey, all colored, of course, by how I happened to feel about them at the time.
Most of these memories are pleasant, but certainly not all of them.
What is equally interesting to me is how this album evolves and expands over time. Many of these remembrances are old favorites I keep close at hand.
It is also surprising how every now and then a memory from a distant place and time will suddenly appear in my mind's eye, seemingly from nowhere. When did I record that memory, and where has it been stored all these years?
Of course, throughout history, people have developed an impressive variety of aids to assist and augment their recollections. From keeping daily journals and filling sketchbooks to taking photos and recording videos, travelers have tried to make more permanent records, to capture the moment both to share the experience with others and to serve as personal memory aids. The development of smart phones, digital cameras and wireless technology now permits the well-equipped traveler to capture live images almost anywhere and transmit them instantly to recipients around the world and store on a hard drive.
How cool is that?
Yet each of these artificial means of making memories has its own limitations, and however technologically impressive they may be, somehow none are as vivid as a well-made memory.
Whether they're written on a reporter's pad, personal diary or hand-held computer, jotted notes are seldom any more than quick sketches and listing of details, and best done somewhat after the moment has passed. I'd guess most folks find it difficult to experience something and write about it at the same time. There's always a world of difference between being an active participant and a reporter. Schlepping cameras, computers and other gear is always an added burden. Similarly, whipping out a lens to capture a particular moment or scene certainly separates the viewer from what's happening.
Then, of course, there's the need to edit and organize all those notes and images at a later date, to store them somewhere they can be retrieved at a moment's notice, no matter how much time has passed or technology has changed. How many vacation photos languish in shoe boxes in the closet? How many unedited vacation tapes can no longer be viewed?
Another reality is that none of these techniques can begin to record anything like the full sensory experience of the moment.
The most striking photograph of a cerulean seaside sunset is only a pale representation of what it's like to actually be standing there and witness the vast and subtle shades of the sky and earth around you as they transition from day to night. A well-shot, well-edited video can capture and organize the sight and sound of a Morrocan spice market, but to appreciate the complex smells and tastes, you have to be there and experience it for yourself. A complex accumulation of all five senses, as well as the perceptions and feelings of the moment contributes the vivid portrait that makes human memories.
No, there's nothing like the memory.
Of course, making memories that last can be quite a challenge, and they do have a way of fading as time elapses and gray cells wither.
It always helps to have some sort of system to both capture and organize these mental images. It does require some focus and discipline. People who travel frequently find some area of personal interest on which to train their attention. Art lovers may seek out local galleries and remember the paintings they saw in vivid detail. Gourmands relish the gathering of gustatory experiences. Golfers can recall individual shots and, often, even the precise settings in which they occurred.
When I travel, I take notes and photos to help substantiate my impressions, but I find that it's often the repeated retelling of the experience to friends and family that helps me to develop both articles and memories that last.
Another memory aid I use is the practice of tai chi chuan, a martial art predicated on daily repetition of a slow, exercise routine that takes five to seven minutes to complete. Accomplishing this mission affords me the opportunity to find a quiet place to practice, ideally outside. It's a physical prescription I have followed for more than 30 years, not missing a single day in that time.
Traveling always challenges that mandate, and quiet places to practise are not always easy to find in the bustle of travel. Often I've wound up doing my rounds in hotel rooms and untrafficked corners of airport parking garages. But it has also landed me many truly splendid settings, ocean cliffs, mountain meadows, rooftop gardens, the dark, upper decks of cruise ships at night.
To do tai chi properly, practitioners attempt to simultaneously focus attention on minute movements while also being aware of the complete swirl of life around them at that moment. This is not easy. Although, I've seldom come close to accomplishing the ideal, I still take in a lot of information during those few minutes. Many of the images and impressions I've collected stick clearly in my memory, like some sort of slow exposure, time-lapse sense-ography.
For example, after 18 years I can still vividly recall sensory details of a practice session in a small park at the top of the peak tram overlooking Hong Kong, with the bustle of the busy harbor below contrasted by the smell of flowers and buzz of insects around me.
So many of the random access images I have of places were gathered while doing tai chi there. Perhaps it's the attention the exercise demands, or maybe the repetitiveness of the routine provides a strand, which helps organize my disparate memories.
Whatever the reason, I am grateful both for having had the experiences and being able to enjoy them again long after their time has passed. They warm my thoughts on a cold winter's night and, I hope, will last throughout my life.
In the final analysis, the gathering of this rich variety of personal memories may be the primary and most enduring reward of travel.
First published 1/19/03
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