I have had to answer one of the toughest questions I’ve faced in a long time. I was asked this question by OkCupid.
The question was, “If you could take only one of the following on a road trip, which would it be?”
I used to be quite a regular road-tripper. Saturdays and Sundays, and if I could swing it, other days, were for riding out and finding a temple or town I could discover the history of. And later I had to road-trip for education, for work. So it wasn’t the question as much as the choices, that made it hard to answer. You see, the choices were, a map; a camera; a companion; a journal to write in.
Which one would I, should I, could I choose? What will my choice tell of me? Why are those, particularly just those, the choices? And then there were the unasked, but implied questions within the question. How long a road trip? Do I know where I begin and where I end? How am I travelling? Where, in terms of country or region, am I travelling?
But those apart, the choices gave me pause.
Let’s take the map.
What kind of maps? Road maps, with distances to, from marked, petrol pumps clearly signposted, hotels advertised? Simple hand drawn directions? Electronic, with GPS and big brother showing you your place in the world? Paper affairs that never fold back the way they were?
I love the idea of a map. I love that human beings have been able to transverse distances, compress and flatten the landscape on to a sheet of paper or cloth and make it be able to tell others what goes where. Maps are at once history and geography; historical and geographical. They are picture stories. Maps are instructions to follow or to discard, depending on how you want to look at them.
So I love maps. But what’s a road trip worth if you are merely following lines other people have drawn? My best road trips are ones where I thought I was going somewhere, but ended up going to a completely different place, and a completely different era, and the decision to do that was organic and not inspired by any map.
Maps are, for me, what you consult after a road trip, to see where you’ve been and how you’ve been to wherever you’ve just been to. So no. I wasn’t going to take a map with me on a road trip.
The next choice I contemplated was that of taking along a companion. Who will I take? Why did I choose that person? What do I want from that person, on that trip? And what will happen to our relationship – friendship – after the road trip? Will it be stronger? Weaker? Carry on as before? What purpose, then, the road trip?
I am also sufficiently comfortable with silence.
A road trip for me is about facing my internal dialogue. Confront my fears, insecurities, doubts, and face the silence. The sound of the engine, the white noise of the air rushing past, helps me quieten some of the aforesaid f., i., and doubts. Would someone near me help or hinder the silence? Will I be comfortable with their silence? Will they be okay with my speech?
So no. I wasn’t going to take along someone if I could avoid it.
The journal, then? Will this be a new journal, specific to that trip? Or a continuation of one I’ve been writing? Have I been writing a journal? If not, why start now? For a writer, a journal makes absolute sense, but what can I write that’s not already said, and said better by others? Will I publish what I’ve written? To what end, if not, did I write those things? How specific or narrative will be what I do write? Or will they merely be notes?
Ultimately, given that as a writer I am a bit narcissistic, a journal that I may not publish and may not be clever or insightful enough if I do publish, does not appeal to me. So no, I will not take a journal with me.
So that leaves the choice of a camera.
We live in a world that is overly visual. We are saturated by images – of the beautiful and pedantic, of the immediate and the lasting. We see images that shock us, jade us, move us, and push us into uncaring, indifferent empathy.
One reason I stopped taking photos, going on photowalks, or even meeting other photographers, is that there is now such a glut of the everyday photo it fills me with dread, fills me with fear of mediocrity and boredom.
And then there are those travellers who are image makers. They tell of such beautiful places with their camera, as do others of their tribe. So many photos, so many images, they become wall paper. They become just the absolute whitest of noise in the background of our civilisation.
Could I take a photo that stands out? Could I be the punctum in all this studium?
I don’t think I could, but at least I can try. If nothing, for the sheer imperfection of, inferiority of my images and my skill in making these images. And more importantly, I do not attach any deep significance or property to the images I make. I am okay about taking photos, and okay when I don’t.
So yes, I will carry a camera along. Nothing might come out of it, but I am comfortable with that eventuality.