Just north of Malibu, there’s a quintessential Pacific Coast beach. El Matador State Beach. All the locals like to keep it a secret, but I have Friends who Know Things.
Around the golden hour right before sunset, I parked along the side of Highway One and made my way towards the cobalt ocean horizon. Stairs were cut into the bluffs cutting down to a rocky beach. Windswept waves crashed into steeples in the water as the golden edges of late afternoon sun cast long shadows. Pretty much everything a beach should be.
As I made my way down the bluff, it was apparent someone had let the cat out of the bag about this place. The beach was teeming with people. A myriad of tourists holding their selfie sticks and couples holding the hands of their lovers were joined by some students making an independent film, several fashion photo shoots, and two different newlywed couples, the brides in their wedding dresses playing in the surf. There was even a drone with a Go-Pro getting the bird’s eye view.
Yup, this was a well-documented beach.
Everyone was following the impulse to capture this photogenic beach. Alain de Botton, in his eloquent book The Art of Travel, articulates what often goes on at these destinations of recognized beauty.
“A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.’”
Registering their heart’s stirring at the view, they mistook the need to be captivated by the beauty and settled for capturing it with a picture. See, the thing about snapping a picture is it tricks us into thinking that we’ve got all there is to get from the place. We substitute actually noticing a landscape for the assurance that we can look back at it in our photo albums at any time.
I’ll admit, I was snapping pictures like the rest of them. And I was also writing this article in my head. Maybe in doing so, I too missed the opportunity to become immersed. I don’t know what the balance is here. Seems like the very thinking about wanting to be in the moment keeps me from doing just that. I second guess myself and start navel-gazing rather than Nature-gazing, if you catch my drift.
I don’t think I’m alone here. Why is it that we cringe when we are in tourist places, everyone snapping pictures like we’re trying out a career in paparazzi? Why did I laugh at the video I saw the other day of a guy running around and cutting people’s selfie-stick poles with hedge trimmers?
There’s something about tourists that rub us the wrong way, even when we are one. It’s because the tourist has the reputation of wanting the bragging rights of having visited a place, but without the inconvenience of really seeing. Hurried, uncurious, and therefore blind, they content themselves with the satisfaction of checking off items on an itinerary and pass through woefully unchanged.
So how do we break out of this default setting as we visit new places? How can we step out of the mindset of a tourist and immerse ourselves into the places our adventures take us? There are a few things I’ve read, heard, or discovered along the way that have helped me.
Our internal lives mirror our external circumstances. The times when I have a jam-packed schedule with an unrealistic itinerary, I struggle to remain fully present. I know this, but I still need to be reminded. In the midst of so many recommendations and places on the list, I subtly took on the mindset that I had to do it all. Accepting my human limits allows for a richer experience. Choosing Quality Time in a few places rather than taking on an Amazing Race pace on my trip has not been a choice I’ve ever regretted.
Look Like an Artist
How do you train your eyes to really see something? Bring a sketch book. This was the suggestion of John Ruskin, a 19th century English artist and writer insisted that “in the process of re-creating with our own hands what lies before our eyes, we seem naturally to evolve from observing beauty in a loose way to possessing a deep understanding.” (Alain de Botton)
And before you claim your lack of artistic talent, Ruskin would tell you that’s not the point. It’s not about the finished product, but the invitation to really see the contours of the land or the way the sunlight hits that particular palm tree. The capturing of moments, through the eyes of an artist, develop like a polaroid picture. Slowly, like magic, the composition you immerse yourself in takes shape and the vibrancy appears with patience and a keen eye.
Follow Your Curiosity
A tourist observes from a distance. A traveler merely passes through. An adventurer engages.
Beyond the slowing down and taking the perspective of an artist, we must let ourselves be changed by the places we visit. Our intentional noticing naturally leads to questions. And then we follow that curiosity! We ask the question. We say yes to the detours. We listen intently, and then we respond. We open ourselves up to encountering all sorts of newness, responding to what is called for in the moment.
Part of traveling like an adventurer is letting go of the need to “do it right.” To take pictures or not isn’t the point. But, for a moment, let your curiosity extend to your own motivations. Why is it that I’m wanting to take this picture right now? Is it about giving attention to where I am in this moment? Or is it about getting attention in some future moment when I share this?