At dawn, we entered Machu Picchu through Intipunku, the Sun Gate. I was exhilarated at having finished a four-day trek on Peru’s Inca Trail. I was awed by the spectacle of the “lost city of the Incas.” And I was overcome with the urge to take a silly photograph.
We were on high ground, above steep terraces that lead down to the complex of ruins. I found a stone ledge that looked suitably like a cliff edge but had ground below on which I could stand, and I clung to the rock while my husband snapped a picture of me (badly) faking a terrified expression.
This urge to trivialize a serious place with the silliest possible photo op dates back to the family vacations of my childhood, when my older brother and I would compete to star in the funniest picture. (Or maybe I was the only one who considered it a competition, but that’s a whole other issue.) My favorite family photos are from trips to Alabama’s DeSoto State Park, a couple hours’ drive from my hometown of Birmingham. There, near the rim of Little River Canyon, my brother invented the fake-clinging-to-a-cliff-edge genre of silly vacation photo.
As an adult I’ve had opportunities to take some serious trips to far-away places. But I haven’t grown into a serious traveler. And when I can, I drag whoever’s with me into the fun.
Eight years ago, on a post-college trip to Italy, my college roommate and I spent a day walking among the ancient Etruscan ruins in Fiesole. When we encountered a human-sized stone altar, I just couldn’t help myself. I whipped out my camera and we took turns draping ourselves across the stone slab, as if we were the next sacrifices.
Last year, I visited Israel with my husband’s family. Our guide was eager to show us one of the treasures of Jerusalem’s Israel Museum: a scale model of the city in 66 CE, when the Ark of the Covenant was housed in the temple. When my turn came to pose in front of it, I bared my teeth and curled my hands into claws as if I was Godzilla about to rampage through the ancient streets. Irreverent? Probably. But these photos are among my favorite souvenirs.
Many great writers have expounded on the importance of travel, how it challenges our preconceptions of others and forces us to think about the world beyond ourselves. Mark Twain called travel “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
According to Miriam Beard, “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” I’ve collected quotes such as this one that treat travel as a somber, important thing. And I agree that it betters us as individuals and improves the world we live in.
But travel is also about a pure joy of exploration and discovery. For all that my globe trotting has broadened my horizons, it hasn’t changed my love of silly photos. For me, one of the greatest joys of travel is not taking it too seriously. ■