I feel the most alive right before visiting a place I’ve never been in my life. I remember myself, sitting on a train heading south towards Lake Constance from Ravensburg (the town where I stayed with my host family), inhaling the familiar scent of leather upholstery mixed with black coffee, staring out at the emerald and sienna and earthy tones of the countryside, and the thing that occupies my mind the most, is imagining what the lake looks like in summertime.
Last time I was nearby, the trees were topped with snowy caps, everywhere, save for the asphalt autobahns and winding roads, was blanketed with a sea of white white white. What shade of blue would the lake be now that it’s summer? Would I still be able to see the mountains in Switzerland? Do the seagulls here squawk like their cousins in Brighton and the French Riviera?
The train slid into the station at Friedrichshafen Station, where I followed the flow of day trippers and bikers and everyone else to the other platform to catch a connecting train heading eastwards to the famed lakeside town of Lindau…
The air, wet and summery, was laden with the excitement of families with small kids armed with fancy cameras and toys on a day trip. The eastward train pulled out of the station right on time. This is not always the case, as you would be wont to believe. I leaned back on the plush seat, nodding in acknowledgement at the elderly backpacker couple sitting across the aisle from me. I spied some hiking sticks, the titanium sort, poking out of their trusty wellworn rucksacks. Smiling wistfully, I thought, they must be pretty avid hikers, seeking a little piece of heaven in the gorgeous Bavarian lakeside country this glorious Saturday morning. God, how I love train rides. Nothing beats how easy it is to get a window seat, and how beautiful the ever changing tableau outside the window is. Nothing that a travel documentary episode or a Pinterest photograph (all tweaked and doped up by Photoshop) can replicate, really.
A sliver of turquoise sliced across the tableau in front of my eyes. Glistening with sunlight, little white sails in the horizon, lush but not yet ready apple trees dotting the lakeside farms. Wispy cloud faeries enjoying a bird-eye’s view of the Alps across the Swiss-German border.
This vivid flashback in my mind sat alongside plenty others, each unique in its own way, yet shared the common denominator, the element of surprise coupled with that unimaginable beauty. Like how it looked like a painter unleashing tubes of mauve and lavender into the canals of Venice at dusk. Like how I discovered that there are the many changing shades of green in an Austrian forest as we moved from hot summer to crispy autumn.
I was recently introduced to Pinterest. I admit that it gave me great ideas about places to visit. Things I discovered that I never knew before, for example a Stone Mirror in Istanbul, how the Californian coast offers fun scenery of coastal potholes and that there is a castle in New York called Boldt Castle. I realize that I will never finish learning all the beautiful places on Earth; as hard as I try and no matter how much I make it a point to, but Pinterest has helped me see these places even if I won’t manage to get there in person.
Then I thought, there is something mighty unsettling about all this. These photographs. All displayed in hyper-technicolour, strange lighting and contrast, yellow skies against purple castles and rainbow-coloured reflections in an Amsterdam canal and all that crazy graphic-designer jazz. That’s NOT how the places look like. Not today, not a hundred years ago, not ever. Even on a good day, at that golden hour, with your top of the line camera, you would be pretty hard-pressed to bag that “money shot”.
For me, a big part about travelling is learning and anticipation. Imagining how some place looks and feels and smells, and THEN actually seeing it. That “whoa, finally so this is it” moment.
Having travelled to many places, one wisdom that I brought home is that more often than not, the commonplace-ness of something (like how a Mediterranean city’s main square often emanates a similar vibe — birds around a fountain, artists and musicians hovering about, tourists milling around and snapping photos etc) is part of what a place is about. It doesn’t always have to be jaw-dropping and sensational at the first glance. It is what it is and that’s what beautiful and interesting about it. (Meaning: no need to edit out that fat guy wearing socks and sandals in the foreground, or make the sky a little pinker than it is so that the white of the marble fountain stands out more)
Isn’t art about seeing beauty everywhere? And isn’t true photography a form of art?
I don’t understand the need to jazz up a photograph, giving a place the illusion that it is so wonderful and magnificent. What is there to convince about? The magic is underneath the surface waiting for us to go explore and find it. Personally I would be MORE upset if the actual place didn’t live up to Pinterest-fuelled expectations!
That morning, I laid my eyes upon the azure waters of Lake Constance, its beauty unrivalled in its purest state. Me witnessing the real thing. Closed my eyes, felt the sun shine on my face. Watched as seagulls poke curiously at the sand.
A nagging feeling snagged at my peace. A mysterious force made me pull out my camera. To appease the Devil of Photography, I made a few pictures. I was wildly frightened that if I don’t, my memory would fail me, the beauty would be lost.
I was wrong, of course.
The beauty of it all, it has never left me, after all this time. In fact, it never left its place, and it will always be there for me, for you and for anyone who wants to visit.