Before I was a travel writer, I was a full-time traveler. I spent nearly two years out on the road, backpacking around the world. And for many months of that journey, I conducted with an unusual experiment.
Every day at 3 o’clock on the dot, no matter where I was or what I was doing, I took a photograph. It didn’t matter if I was doing something mundane such as traveling on a bus or resting in my hostel dorm room: I would grab whatever I was doing as the clock struck three. Why should all my travel photos be exclusive to hyper-composed shots dominated by antiquities and assiduously smiling subjects?
With my 3 o’clock pictures, I would show travel as it really was, and it would be as true as any diary — truer, even, because it the collection wouldn’t be edited for the good bits. Therefore, I forbade myself the right to take time to compose shots well, because, I reasoned headily, that would be a betrayal of truth. The only compositional rule of the project dictated that I had to take a picture with my left wrist in the shot to indicate the time.
I kept the project up for months on end. I only stopped to break my own rule. When I stopped in Cape Town and rented an apartment, I found that too often, I was always doing the same thing at 3:00, and that was usually either hanging out in my flat or sitting in the Internet cafe. Suddenly, the 3:00 project was memorializing my shame. Besides, I was on a shoestring backpacker’s budget and I was using a film camera to take my pictures, and it was getting expensive. I decided that the potential of eighty consecutive images of my hand in my apartment or in front of a word processing program wasn’t the best use of my see-the-world funds, so I stopped taking my daily shot.
It was still a good idea, though.
I’ve gone through some of the pictures from my 3 o’clock project. Doing it brought me to the brink of tears. Just as I predicted, they paint a vivid portrait of the blend of excitement and mundane movement that full-time travelers experience, and they conjure up details of my experiences that I thought had gone away. They remind me of the boring hours and travelers’ tasks as well as the sublime pleasure of having no vocational demands. They also capture some surprises.
I did something I will never do again: I took the bus from London to Paris. I was trying to save my money, so I didn’t want to pay for Channel Tunnel. But in taking the eternal trip from London Victoria to the ferry to Paris, I lost a whole day of experiences. I got this picture, the first 3:00 shot I took.
A typical shot of a hostel room. This one is Barcelona. A backpacker develops an intense relationship with their backpack. It is companion, provider, and home-from-home all in one. It is also tormentor, burden, and perennially inadequate. Travelers spend a lot of their time as caretakers for their stuff. Given the symbiotic/parasitic connection travelers have with their baggage, it’s a shame we don’t take pictures of it. We record our trips by turning our momentary attentions to the sights we see, but that’s a lie because our stuff is as much a part of our journeys — if not more. We should all take more pictures of our luggage.
I called my backpack “The Boys,” because it split into a backpack and a daypack, and it warms my heart to see The Boys looking so fresh and shiny at the start of a two-year journey.
A typical bus ride. This one is between Beni Mellal, a town in central Morocco, and Fes, I do believe.
When I arrived in Florence, all the hostels were full. There was a waiting list in the lobby of one of them. I went over to one of the other backpackers and asked if he’d like to go somewhere else and split a cheap room. We went across town and found beds at a convent (true) and by the afternoon, we were out exploring. This is Peter Szollosi from Adelaide, Australia. The next year, I visited him in South Australia, and several years after that, Peter later stayed with me for a few weeks in New York City. And it was during that stay that he met an American girl, Julie Schuck, at a party.
They are now married, live in New York City, and Peter is one of my most treasured friends. When I was going through the photos from this project, it was a shock to see Peter just hours after we met. I didn’t remember taking this. He just happened to be in the day’s shot. But if we hadn’t met on this day, his life would be much different. And so would mine, which is why this one brought me to tears.
Peter is now an extremely talented and successful director of photography and editor, and I’ve had the great pleasure of working with him in my professional life, too. When I think about the accident of our meeting, and all that came to be because of it, this picture becomes incredibly poignant to me. It was a birth of more than either of us could have predicted.
So is every moment, if we allow it.
On my trip, I napped everywhere. Who wants to do all your sleeping in a hostel when there is a world of wonders to nap by? Besides, you’re always having to get up early when you travel. To this day, this is one of my most memorable naps: in Syntagma Square, the central square in Athens. I slept for a while right out there on the grass like the vagrant I suppose I was. I still recall this fondly, as we tend to recall our first transgressions.
Future naps would include in an ancient cliffside home in Petra, Jordan, and on grass in front of the Taj Mahal, because it was easier than braving the streets of Agra during the festival of Holi. I considered making up “Nap the World” tee-shirts. But I was too lazy.
The FedEx was from (believe it or not), The Jerry Springer Show. A friend worked for it, and she sent me a tee-shirt and Jerry’s jazz CD. True.
A typical street in Cairo. Backpackers spend a lot of their times wandering — or at least I do. This is how I will always think of Cairo: post-colonial, pleasingly ramshackle, a little brown with desert dust.
In Jordan, I hired a long-distance taxi to take me between Aqaba and Wadi Mousa. Carpeting on the dashboard: It’s the little details.
This is the kind of thing backpackers do: Buy deck-class tickets on ferries that take two days. I slept on the deck for the journey between Haifa, Israel, and Rodos, Greece, with a stop in Limassol, Cypress. On this trip, I learned that I what I thought was my usual seasickness was actually nausea from ships’ diesel fumes — an important discovery that opened up a lot of sea travel to me.
While an interloper from the fancy indoor class takes in the view, sitting with me are my temporary companions. She’s from Norway, and he’s from Holland. His name was Sander, I believe. Both lovely. You are never alone when you’re a backpacker. Your heart is always being lit up by strangers, and then broken again when you part ways on your separate paths after a few days.
Walking through Goreme, Turkey, in Cappadocia. Notice the “fairy chimney” rock formations. I stayed at a hostel burrowed into some of them. As you do there.
This is my birthday, I think. I’m in Sultanhamet, Istanbul.
In Edinburgh now, during Festival. I spent a whole lot of time reading and writing in my journal. I wrote whole books’ worth of observations. The book is Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, which is appropriate reading partly because I was traveling like its characters and partly because it’s one of the only Greene books that doesn’t make you want to slit your wrists because of endless exposition of his Catholic miseries. This was my favorite pub, which I think was called the Green Tree. It was replaced by a condo a few years later. And so it goes.
I spent several weeks living at the High Street Hostel off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. I made good friends with a very funny, very smart, very ambitious guy named Barry Ferns. As you can see as I captured our daily meal ritual in the hostel’s kitchens, he’s also very healthy. Barry Ferns, if you subscribe to Google Alerts, make yourself known to me again! I really liked you.
Captured on the London Underground. Seeing this, those grotty old wooden Tube carriages, the ones with the grooved wooden floors, flooded back into my memory. This must have been the Northern Line. Wasn’t that one of the last ones to be modernized? I thought I missed those old cars, but looking at this, I remember just how grim they actually were.
This is the last 3:00 picture I took, after it became clear that this project was exposing a failure in my activities during what was supposed to be my Isherwood-in-Berlin period. It was at a braai (barbecue) and pool party held at a house in Cape Town. Jayson Clark, who brought me to the party, was a friend I made when I arrived there. We’re still in touch, too, I love him to bits, and he is a wildly successful proprietor of a B&B empire, the Cape Dutch Quarters, in the winelands town of Tulbagh. Stay with him the next time you’re in Cape Town.
As for who that guy in the pool is, I have no recollection. I think he was puzzled about why I was taking his picture. I wasn’t, as you now know. That would simply be weird. No, I was taking a picture of my watch at 3:00 because I made a vow to do so. Not strange at all.
Preserve even the most mundane moments. Go out into your neighborhood tomorrow and take pictures of things you’d never ordinarily think to capture, because it will change — usually imperceptibly and unrecorded. Ten years from now, 20 years from now, you’ll find your casual, unstaged, desultory pictures are probably the most interesting because of the unappreciated and fluid things they capture.