Details that give life to a scene

southwestern Cambodia


In Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, he describes the journal entry made by a 19th-century visitor to an Egyptian temple. In the entry we read that an Arab man is taking measurements of the temple. We also read that while this is happening “a yellow cow, on the left, poked her head inside [the temple].” Theroux then adds the following commentary: “Without the yellow cow we see nothing; with it, the scene is vivid and complete.”

Often a detail will make such an imprint that we remember it clearly even when the larger event or place dulls in our recollection. In Cambodia once, while waiting for a ferry to take my vehicle across a river, I saw and photographed many things. In thinking back to that hour, however, I can’t remember what the ferry looked like (unless I look at the picture I took) or even my vehicle, but I remember well the splattering water and glistening wet skin of a baby as he reached to explore falling rain water from the safety of his mother’s arms. His face was alive with fascination at water while most everyone else’s was bored with the wait for the ferry.

Without yellow cows, curious children, and countless other small details that throw life into a scene, our travels wouldn’t be nearly so interesting.

Please share a life-giving and/or memory-making travel detail of your own in the comment section.

Posted by | Comments (4)  | March 29, 2011
Category: Images from the road

4 Responses to “Details that give life to a scene”

  1. Jacki Says:

    Thank you for this post. It is beautiful, and it is for those precious moments that I travel. To remind us life’s simplest things whether from Children, animals, local farmers.

    Here is my post “Angels in Burma” for a backpacking trip I took in 2008 to Inle Lake, Burma for a few relaxing days – Hope you Enjoy, and looking forward to many more of your blogs!

  2. GypsyGirl Says:

    Touching picture, Joel. Seem to always recall those small details myself–I take reference photos of other things. Speaking of transport. I was waiting for my number to appear on the board to purchase a ticket out of the Stockholm train station and there was a middle aged man-paper number grasped between his thumb and forefinger-bouncing up an down on one foot,hand held high above his head while intently mumbling to himself, watching the numbers flash. It’s considered ‘improper’ to draw attention to yourself in the country of Sweden, but clearly he was locked in anticipation and I could tell from his mannerisms that he was Autistic. Yet I couldn’t help smiling at how much fun he was having–so much so, that I missed my number and had to get a new one. The longer wait was worth it!

  3. Sanne Says:

    You paint quite a beautiful picture wit your words. It makes me think of the time I was in Guatemala at a disabled children’s home. I walked into that place a volunteer and came out a completely changed human being. My friends and I were traveling through Guatemala, taking on adventures and doing some volunteer work when one day we found this almost abandoned looking building. We heard from other travelers that it was a children’s home, so we decided to check it out. As we walked into the courtyard, we were immediately greeted by the volunteers that work there who were very grateful to see us there. The courtyard was full of disabled children, from ones the had no legs to ones that could not speak. As I looked around there was one in particular that caught my eye. She was being held by one of the workers so I walked toward her to meet the little girl. As I took the girl into my arms, she smiled at me. Then I was told she could not talk, walk or even eat by herself, the child was 7 years old but had the body of a 1 1/2 year old. She was so malnourished and completely disabled and it seemed unreal to me that a person like that would ever smile. Children like that really put happiness into an entirely different perspective. People like her remind us no matter how hard life is, it could be worse. We should be happy with everything that is given to us and truly take the time to try to help the ones who are in more need than we are.

  4. Ric Says:

    In his book, The Art of Travel, John de Botton quotes John Ruskin’s thoughts that people seldom notice details and “Drawing could teach us to see: to notice rather than to look.” I took his advice and participated in a drawing class at a local college. One of my exercises was to draw a photo that I took while on a cycling trip in Europe. A bicycle had been retrieved from a canal in the Netherlands, leaning against a fence and covered with mud.

    After studying the photo in preparation to sketch, I realized that I had totally forgot and missed thinking about the surrounding environment – the ripples of the canal water, the trees, the sky, the amount of mud stuck to the bicycle and what possible reason it made its way into the canal.

    I have committed myself on my future trips to stop and ‘smell the roses’ – to look at objects be it man-made or natural, to take in the beauty and symmetry of the scene. If time permits, I shall sketch the object; otherwise, I’ll take a picture with my camera and describe it in my daily journal. Upon arriving home, I shall review my notes and relive my trip all over again. I have already started practicing at home – I now ‘notice’ the detail of buildings, trees and even the roads in my neighbourhood.