Tasted a memory?
Heard a song that transported you back in time?
But somehow I am the worst culprit of NOT following the advice I’m about to give; like most people, my camera is second in importance only to my passport when traveling.
I’ve somehow convinced myself that the best way to make memories on a trip is to take hundreds of pictures. And whether it’s a 10-day journey to a destination one can only reach by boat or a 2-hour hike, I feel justified in taking dozens of pictures at every turn, as if by NOT taking pictures I’m somehow not going to appreciate the sights.
Fate has been trying to clue me in on the fact that being shutter-happy is not the way to travel: I’ve had a camera stolen in Argentina, cracked a memory card in Kenya, and destroyed my iPhone right after posing for a picture crossing the first state on the Appalachian Trail.
Tears and a feeling of HUGE regret have followed all of these instances.
Mostly I blame Facebook and other social media. If it weren’t for the insatiable desire to share every moment electronically with my virtual friends, I think I would feel more confident letting go of my camera addiction.
And to be brutally honest, Facebook only serves as the vehicle to my own gloating: perhaps I’m wanting to prove that I actually had these experiences instead of enjoying them with my real life friends in the first place…
Even in places where the Internet was difficult to access or electronics hard to charge, I’ve still spent hours searching for a signal or groping for an outlet instead of enjoying the company of new friends, savoring unfamiliar foods, or simply appreciating the feel of weather I’m not accustomed to.
I learned (quite by accident), that pictures serve as practically the worst memory recall. Sure, I love posting albums on facebook and forcing relatives to sit through a slide show once I return from a foreign land or a perilous outdoor adventure, but the more times I flick through the pictures, the less vibrant they become. Years pass, and the pictures seem stagnant. Soon I feel like I can barely recall anything about the trip outside of the still photos that fill up my hard drive.
Put your other senses to work.
Science has long maintained that smell in the strongest link to memory; I was skeptical until a shopping trip to IKEA about a year ago where I experienced it firsthand.
After meandering around the Swedish furniture and walking through the “living in 272 square feet” exhibit (upon exiting I called my husband and proclaimed that I wanted to live in 272 square feet), I ended up in the candle and picture frame section. I grabbed a pack of tea candles that were crimson, ruby, and rose colored, pressed it to my face, inhaled, and experienced the most abrupt sensation of déjà vu. Instantly I felt like I was transported back in time. To where or when, I had no idea. But the smell made me feel happy and content. After snorting the candles for 10 minutes (and subsequently drawing hesitant looks from passersby), I determined the smell was definitely something from my childhood, but apart from narrowing down the memory to a 10-year span, I could not put my finger on it.
I refused to buy the candles because I was convinced that if I smelled this scent too regularly, I would lose any hope of ever figuring out what memory I was so drawn to. So for about six months, every time I set foot in IKEA, I would march over to the candles, grab a pack take a deep breath—eyes closed, 100% concentrated. I even took my sister with me once. One time, the answer was on the tip of my tongue and I just couldn’t spit it out.
Alas, my patience paid off. On my 7th or 8th attempt at the candles, I took my usual deep draw of scented wax and instantly bellowed “CHEWABLE DIMETAPP!!” at the top of my lungs, frightening several small children.
Up until that exact moment, I had forgotten that the grape-flavored chalk tablets were my mother’s drug of choice for every cough and sniffle of her children. My mom was probably the best homemaker on the planet, and if my sister or I ever came down with a cold, her motherly instinct went into overdrive. Within 3 minutes of the thermometer beeping with a reading over 99.9, we would be ushered onto the couch with the special quilt made by my favorite aunt (for some reason it was only used when we were sick), propped up on half a dozen pillows, and the TV would be flipped on showing our cartoons of choice while the hot water for the Jell-O boiled and whistled on the stove.
So being sick as a child was a strangely enjoyable experience for me.
Now I’m not suggesting you drug your children with artificially flavored antihistamines so they will develop positive memory experiences, but what I am saying is that smell, touch, sounds, and written words can conjure up memories that are so deep in detail and rich in substance that, in comparison, 2 dimensional photos will seem overwhelming lifeless.
My first experience with using other media as a way to capture memory also happened by accident. I had just downloaded Breaking Benjamin’s new album before leaving for a 10-day trip to Costa Rica, and every day on the bus that took us around the country to quaint towns and roadside restaurants, I ended up listening to my favorite song on the playlist, “Rain.”
Subconsciously, maybe I liked the song because (being in the rainforest) it did rain everyday, and the calm tones of the song seemed to mimic my mood as our tour bus navigated the slick roads of the jungle.
A few weeks later I was back in the States, going to work and school in a sickening monotony and missing my new friends and wishing I was back in the mountains. “Rain” started to play on my computer that night as I was writing a paper, and after closing my eyes, I felt that I might as well have been sitting on the bus with my face pressed against the glass looking at a wall of endless green.
Songs, of course, can take anyone back to a specific time or remind one of a special someone. But I’ve tried to become intentional about it, and I’m surprised with the results. The past two trips I’ve taken I created specific playlists (mostly of new music) and listened to that same playlist over and over—on the plane, while riding through town, or just relaxing in bed. They’re usually short: 10 or 12 songs max. And no matter how many times I hear it now, The Lone Bellow’s “Bleeding Out” makes me think of the ombre colored streets in Nairobi. And even though I still took 377 pictures, none of the photos make me remember Kenya like that song.
But I think the best way to remember the finer details of a trip—the ones that seem to be forgotten as the years go by—is to keep a daily journal. The first time I kept a journal on a trip, I was eleven, and I was NOT happy about it.
My Aunt Rhonda and Uncle Jonathan took me to colonial Williamsburg, and their only request (err, that is to say, demand) was for me to write in the journal every night about what we did and saw that day.
With much grumbling, I sat down every night and filled the pages with my untidy scrawl (which unfortunately hasn’t improved much since) about the glass blowers, candle makers, dress sewers, iron shapers and basket makers that fascinated my young imagination.
I can truly say that if I didn’t keep that journal, I would probably barely remember that I even WENT to Virginia as a child, much less recall what I experienced there. But other than proving that I do indeed have a terrible memory, that trip created what I hope will be a lifelong habit for me. I think my aunt wanted me to appreciate the trip, and keeping the journal certainly made me appreciate it more than I would have had I not reflected on my observations.
So next time you’re going to hit the road, try letting your camera take a backseat to the rest of your senses: look at that canyon with your own two eyes and not through a viewfinder; eat that meal without mentally preparing a post, use your hands and feet to feel the ground, trees, or buildings around you, and your nose to smell the unique flavors of that city or forest. Use your fingers to write (or type!) the details you wish to remember about that place and that exact moment.
And okay, use your camera to take at least one picture ; )