Photo Essay: The picture I didn’t take…

…just might have changed my entire life, had I actually had the gall to take it. I can just see it now. The editors at National Geographic would be falling all over themselves right about now, racing to see who could be first to get his or her paws on this picture from my camera. It would have been an utter masterpiece. (This is, of course, pretty much the same thing I say about my literary masterpiece of a travel memoir that still lies unpublished collecting dust under my bed.)

Imagine you’re in Antigua, Guatemala, founded in 1543, arguably the crown jewel of colonial Central America. The streets are free of litter, the locals are friendly and helpful, they are proud of their beautiful city, there is so much history, they know they have a good thing going over there. The 58,000 people love directing the tourists’ view to the three volcanoes creating the city’s beautiful view– Volcanes Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango, all nearly 4,000 meters. They will encourage you to climb active Mt. Pacaya, and you will. (more about that another day)

You grab some travel buddies and check out Antigua’s churches and ruins. Naturally, your favorite church is “iglesia y convento de nuestra senora de la merced.” Anyone will give you directions if you ask for “el amarillo,” the yellow one. You take a few pictures out front–

Then you grab Elyse and Melanie for a picture with the church’s side gate in the background. Notice the perfect cobblestones–

Then you go inside to explore the ruins–

Elyse’s outfit matched the ruins perfectly, so I’ll post the pictures of her rather than pictures of myself. As usual I was dressed in hiking clothes, and if you ever go to Antigua, bring a dress!

This church (Iglesia de San Francisco) was cool, too. For a minute I had to ask myself if I was in Europe, rather than in Central America.

Now after touring all these classy churches and summiting Volcan Pacaya (I’ll write about that one for you next time), you’re pretty hungry. So our friend Melanie naturally runs into some local guy on the street she just so happens to know. I casually mention to him that we are looking for lunch, and we are tired of eating with the rest of the tourists. (By the way, in Antigua, the tourists are eating at the fanciest McDonald’s on planet Earth. It also has the best view of any McDonald’s on the planet.)

Isn’t that crazy? See the ruins in the back?

Anyway, this guy takes us to Tienda La Canche, where all the locals eat every day at lunch, right across from the yellow church.

But wait a minute, we said, it’s just a regular tienda. We looked in and could see all the sodas and snacks. How are we going to eat lunch in there?

This is when it really pays off to be with a local. Naturally we duck behind the counter, traipse our way through a completely dark hallway, and emerge into the secret back kitchen, where there are already a bunch of local Guatemalans on their lunch break, enjoying some pepian (awesome soup). 15Q per person (about $2) gets you a huge bowl of soup, rice, carrots, beans, potatoes, and a fat stack of tortillas, and avocado, and lime all to yourself. Also included is the horchata, sort of like a rice milk, one of my favorite drinks in Central America (that, and tamarindo— tamarind juice; the fruit drink is a suspicious baby-poop color, similar to a prune).

And then there it is. Out of nowhere. The picture I didn’t take. Abuela must be about 200 years old. She’s perched on a wooden stool, the red paint is flaking off the stool’s legs. If she were to stand, maybe she’s 4 foot 5. Her grey hair is in two Heidi of the mountain braids with royal blue ribbons on the ends. The wrinkles on her face are deep canyons, and she has those old lady eyes– they used to be brown, but now there is a navy-bluish haze over them. She hunches over the preparation table; picks at and cleans through every tomato, every bunch of cabbage, inspects all the lettuce. Every few minutes she pops a morsel of the reject pieces into her mouth. She measures albahaca (basil) on a little scale. Hija cooks behind her, Nieta serves the food to the two tables. The background to the picture I didn’t take of Abuela is everything a travel photographer could ever ask for– dozens of cartons of eggs stacked high on shelves behind Abuela, 4 liter (seriously!) bottles of orange Fanta. A box of cornflakes the size of a flat screen TV. The dirty floor is checkered yellow and red diamond-shaped tiles, and the only light in the secret restaurant comes from a single square pane of the frosted glass window above the sink. We were treated like locals. We didn’t really order– we were having whatever was for lunch, what everybody else was having. When we walked in, everyone greeted us with Buenas, without blinking an eye, friendly, but hardly looking up away from the glorious food on their plates.

Despite the wonder of the scene around me, evil thoughts raced through my little brain. Snap a few stealthy photos, email my contact at National Geographic. 300-500 words accompanying the shot of Abuela, the eggs, the perfect dim lighting, the albahaca on the scale. Finally, my big break. That manuscript under the bed won’t be collecting dust much longer.

And now I understand why it takes so long to become a published travel writer. As my greedy sneaky fingers started worming their way through my bag under the table, slinking around in search of my camera, I felt like a scoundrel. The thought of raising my camera between my face and abuela’s was perverse. The sacrilege of documenting the perfect scrap of daily life stopped me. Is this how all journalists feel out in the field at the beginning of a career? Making a living off of voyeurism? There is a fine line between encroaching on Abuela’s privacy versus providing for the general public an educational snapshot into Guatemalan daily life.

At the end of Inception, Leo’s character says to his memory of his wife that she is “only a shade,” that she doesn’t even come close to what his real wife is really like, in all the dimensions of her personality, with all her idiosyncracies and facets that can’t be reproduced. A photo of Abuela in the secret back room restaurant of La Canche would be the same way. Yep, you could see it. But the picture of the place wouldn’t even have come close to being in the place. A missed journalistic opportunity? Perhaps. By the same token, it’s better to embrace your travel experience by allowing yourself to marinate in that moment, rather than experiencing your entire trip through a camera lens.

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One Comment on “Photo Essay: The picture I didn’t take…”

  1. June 10, 2011 at 19:10 #

    You must learn to flirt. No not like that. You learn to flirt because you need help, directions, a phone, etc., not a man. And when in doubt, you flirt and ask permission. You sit for a moment and tell Abuela that she is beautiful and how it is her kitchen. Compliment the precision with which works and let her know how much you loved her food. Engage her in conversation and speak her language if you can. Then let her know exactly how you feel. That you love this moment with your friends and her family in this kitchen and that you always want to remember her wonderful eyes. Ask her if when you leave, you can take her picture right there where she belongs working at the table in her kitchen. She will say yes. And then you will have the picture as well as the wonderfully visual story that you have presented. Your adventure inspires me every day. WOW. Keep it up. Eric

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