I HAVE ONLY ONE SNAPSHOT from the hour or so we spent at the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza. All formal and technical considerations aside, I would like to offer it for your consideration as a classic of modern American travel photography.
It was 98 degrees with only 83% humidity, a fair day in the interior swelter of the Yucatán Peninsula. The air was thick with the smell of burning garbage, strange bird screechings from the trees, muffled conversations in a dozen different languages, and the persistent jaguar calls and other exhortations from the gauntlet of government-certified freelance vendors.
There before the grand stone staircase of the Temple of Kukulcan stands my little family: Beckett, age 3, in full meltdown; Jasper, nigh on 6, glowering at the camera like one of Marc Garanger’s Femmes Algériennes (take my soul motherfucker it’s hot and I want some ice cream).
Clearly I’d failed in the two and half hour drive away from the cool coastal breezes—more than 200 kilometers at a strictly law-abiding 110 km/hr in the whingeing cockpit of a rented 1.6-liter Chevrolet Chevy (I’d already talked my way out of one 800-peso infraction) on what is surely one of the loneliest, flattest, most featureless (and expensive) stretches of four-lane in the Western Hemisphere, the air conditioning cranked to 4 but inadequately servicing the young gentlemen strapped into the backseat, and every half hour or so some splendorous German sportscar or well-tinted sport utility vehicle flashing by at 200—to impart the sense of deep magic inherent in such places.
My wife stands stoic, resigned, smiling as if to say to me (the poor sod holding the camera, that fellow she married so long ago for reasons she cannot quite, at this particular moment, recall): You see? And here we could’ve stayed by the pool reading our novels and sipping margaritas.
“I want you to be happy,” she’d said in the car, making clear that every kilometer we traveled beyond the grounds of the hotel was an indulgence, that this impulse to risk privation and discomfort for the sake of—whatever it was, some quotient of adventure or discovery, or just the inability to sit still for too long in a lounge chair—it was mine alone. She’d make the best of it, of course, as she had so many times before, and would likely come home with yet another hilarious dinner party story at my expense. The kids would survive, and likely wouldn’t remember any of it.
Or else we’d all get shot in the fresh-mowed weeds along the roadside somewhere and that would be that.
Jasper had become obsessed with owning one of the dagger-like obsidian letter openers displayed on so many of the vendors’ tables. Pura obsidiana, they explained. Piedra volcánica. Trabajado a mano. Does anyone use letter openers anymore? I couldn’t imagine the ancient Mayans had much use for them. How long had these been part of the general inventory? I wondered if anyone had studied the slow evolution of trinketry in the 100 years or so this place has been a tourist attraction. When were refrigerator magnets first introduced? How about marble chess sets and doll-sized pink and yellow mariachi hats? Was there a wholesaler somewhere with a handle on all this?
“I want one,” Jasper insisted. “I want a knife.” I had a clear vision of his little brother stabbed in the stomach and bleeding out on the loft carpet back home, his little hand still clutching his ineffectual toy light saber. Beckett meanwhile began coveting a variety of little hand-carved stone turtles.
I promised them we would purchase one souvenir each to take back to the States. But not today. We would wait a few days. We would shop around, explore a greater range of what Mexico—that seemingly boundless landscape of possibility in curios—might have to offer us. We would try to find the most authentic handicrafts, produced locally and sustainably if possible, and at the best prices we could haggle for.
The boys swallowed this as they might have a teaspoon of tequila.
On the way back from the Temple of the Warriors Beckett tripped on the gravel and peeled the skin off his right knee. Then a fire ant dropped out of a tree and injected its stinging venom into the back of his neck. Then I made him stand for a family portrait before the great limestone staircase that the Mexican Federal Government had forbidden him to climb.
Every journey has its low point. Naturally, we prefer to let that moment slip away, to be done with it. Rarely do we try to capture it in fixed images. We’re on vacation, after all. We’re trying to enjoy ourselves, to have fun. We want our visual memories—and the tangible documents we share of our experiences—to be swashbuckling and proud.
And yet in storytelling these bottom-places are often the cruxes, the moments that hold it all: the brief and priceless glimpses of ourselves not at our best but at our rawest, with the greatest distance yet to travel. From here we are able to measure whatever heights we’ve come from or may yet go on to achieve.
This particular moment passed, of course, giving way to (and deeply enhancing the pleasure of) the aforementioned ice cream. Afterward it was a well-earned dip in a cool cenote, schools of freshwater fish brushing our naked legs, followed by an exquisite arrachera and shrimp-stuffed avocado in the afterglow of a tropical sunset in a 16th-century courtyard in Valladolid.
We were all of us glad to have been—past tense—to the pyramid. And yet were it not for this particular moment—the trajectories of suffering leading up to it and the pause required to save it in a photograph—would not the day, the week’s sojourn in Mexico, and all our ongoing wanderings as a family, have lost some significant texture?
“When Travel Goes WRONG” contest details
1. Deadline for the contest is Monday, May 9, at 12:00 PM. EST.
2. Please use the submission form below to send your photo. Each entrant can send up to 3 photos.
3. Photos will be judged by Matador editors and MatadorU travel photography program faculty.
4. Please feel free to interpret “travel going WRONG” in your own way. It doesn’t have to be related to family travel. It is, as David Page wrote above, about, “the brief and priceless glimpses of ourselves not at our best but at our rawest, with the greatest distance yet to travel.”
5. By submitting your photo / caption, you agree to allow Matador to publish them, unaltered, in future posts related to the contest. All other rights retained by the photographer.
6. The grand prize winner will be announced the week of May 9th.
This contest is now CLOSED.
See the Contest Winners here.