Golden star-sparkle of a mushroom high...... buzzing hum .... a slow motion orchestra of tuk-tuks and neon tiles. Shining mirrors. The aqua sheen of a plastic cup. A sip of coffee, a folding table; sharp spires threatening heaven.
Sitting across from The Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Po) but not my usual self. My perceptions- my connection to the place- had been altered. Wat Po is one of Bangkokís biggest tourist attractions, but this was no normal tourist experience. A profound shift had occurred. I no longer felt like a ìtouristî. There was no dis-connect, no hankering after commodities, no alienation. At that moment I was connected. I was not an outsider- I belonged.
This transformation of perception required no drugs or meditative techniques. My only tools were a pencil and an open sketchbook. That day, I left my camera behind.. and it made all the difference. On that day, I realized that the grand travellers of old were on to something with their journals and sketchbooks. Sketching is not just a form of imaging taking.... it is a process that transforms the act of travel.
The camera can be a barrier to meaningful travel.. It trains us to scour for images... to collect them like cheap trinkets. When I carried a camera, the pictures took over. I was so focused on getting the shot that I failed to see anything. With a camera, touring became an exercise in cataloguing images rather than exploring cultures. ìHere I am at the Grand Palace î I told my friends and pointed to the photo. They politely uttered, ìAhh, thatís niceî. But had I actually been to the Grand Palace? Had I really seen or heard or felt it at all? I had a picture, but no feeling for the essence of the place.
Of all the tools of mass market tourism- the camera is the most common and thus the most insidious. The gadget, quite literally, can obscure the eyes and dull the senses. Encumbered by this thick barrier, I pointed, clicked, snapped..... and moved on. No connection. No taste for the flavor of the people. No encounter. No awareness.
A century and more ago, travellers relied on more sublime means of recording images-- sketching. At Wat Po I decided to revive this practice and it has completely transformed my travel experience since. Sketching is an activity truly in the spirit of the Grand Tour and has many advantages over photography. The first, and most important, is that sketching takes time. It slows you down, and that is the first step towards noticing.
For this first sketching expedition to Wat Po I arrrived early, about seven in the morning, and found a small streetside cafe directly across from the temple. I took a seat on the sidewalk, one with a wide view of the temple and the busy street in front of it. I ordered an ice coffee (ìgafe yenî), arranged my chair to face the temple- then took my journal, pencil and eraser and arranged them on the table. I took a deep breath. As I waited for the coffee, I did not touch the pencil... just sat back, relaxed, and took in the details of the scene-- the structures of the wall and rooftops beyond, the glittering sparkle of mirrored columns, the vibrant golds, greens, reds, and blues of roof tiles. My eyes caught the sharp spires, .......the faces of people on the street, the texture of their clothing, the swaying branches of the courtyard trees.
When the coffee arrived, I took a slow sip but continued in my reverie- shut my eyes for a time and listened to the hum of the traffic... caught bits of conversation from Thais and tourists passing by. I drew another deep breath to absorb the sharp aroma of the coffee and I shifted focus to tactile sensations-- the morning sun on my skin, the caress of a cool breeze, sweat sliding down my neck, ice cube on tongue.
I took a last swig of coffee and picked up the pencil. I chose a small doorway in the temple wall as my subject and traced its contours on the sketchpad... trying to capture the shapes exactly as I saw them. This took five minutes. I drew without hesitation, with no particular concern for accuracy. Once I had the shapes, I switched to a soft pencil and focused on the lights and shadows. This was much like painting in black and white..... using my finger tip, I smudged the graphite then used the eraser to ìpaintî highlights. The drawing took twenty minutes to complete.
And the end result was.... awful. From an artists perspective, it was terrible. The proportions were wrong. The lines looked hesitant and unsure. In fact, my sketch looked nothing like the doorway at all. I would never show it to friends. But the end product was not the goal. The true goal for sketching was an intense engagement with the immediate experience of the moment, and in this goal I succeeded. Sketching is a meditative process- a mental snapshot far more powerful than that of a camera.
I still remember the color and texture of the coffee cup (aqua blue plastic), I remember the woman who served it to me, I remember the three wheeled tuk-tuks buzzing by, I remember the glitter of sunlight on mirrored columns, I remember the exact hue of the mosaic tiles.
Simply put, the point of travel sketching is not the sketch. The actual drawing is a tool-- a means of slowing down and connecting deeply with an immediate experience. This technique does not necessarily require drawing. I have used word sketches for the same purpose... a free flowing stream of consciousness.... an unstopping flow of perceived details. For example, a coffee shop in Bangkok: oak chair with tangled back, crumpled pack crunched in a corner, black bag on top.... spike haired muscle boy snaps picture of pale skinned friend.... big smiles.... eating cheese croissant.... crystal blue chandelier.... mushroom blue..... globe lights sparkle. Latte drift in the air. Keyboard hard and warm and getting warmer. Feet tap, knees bop, heads shake-- James Brown grunts from intercom. Tile floor.... sheen polish..... liquid brown.
Obviously this is not great prose, nor was it meant to be. The key is to never stop moving the pen. The goal of a word sketch is the same as that of a drawing: slow down, expand awareness, connect. The process of connection can yield surprising results. As a photographer, I felt like an intruder. Many locals resent camera toting strangers, but react differently to a pen and paper.
Sitting quietly with a pencil and journal outside of Wat Po, I was frequently approached by curious locals. They asked to see what I was drawing and sat to chat for a few minutes. The locals treated me different despite my terrible skills. I was transformed, in their eyes, from a tourist into an artist. I suspect the reason for this is that they appreciated a visitor who took time to stop and see them. They understood, intuitively, that I was not viewing them as a commodity. They chatted a bit about their daily lives, about art or about politics and then moved on. These were short conversations, but more authentic than the tourist-speak normally encountered at popular attractions.
The inescapable truth is that I am a goddawful wretch of an artist. My sketches lack perspective, are out of proportion, and look nothing like the objects I am trying to draw. But I am after a deeper art- the art of travel. I aim to etch deep lines of perception and emotion. I want to capture the flavor... the essence.... the profound tenor of a travel experience. I judge my sketches by the breadth of my awareness while making them... not by the accuracy of the squiggles.
I recommend this practice for every would-be traveller. For a day, for a week, for an entire journey, consider giving up the camera. Travel in the spirit of the Grant Tours of old- you need only an unlined sketchbook, a pencil, an eraser, and an open mind.