World Survival Tip #2: Forget Not the Photos!

I’ll bet you thought I was going to extol the wisdom of taking a backup camera along with you in case your cell phone camera went dead in Mongolia. Nope. I don’t want to talk about taking photos of your trip, but taking photos to your trip. Hundreds of times my trips turned from “minus” or “mundane” to “marvelous” because I had remembered to take photos with me. Updated photos of my family were never outside my reach during my forty years of international travel. People in Montenegro, Morocco and Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan and Palestine all know my family.

In December 1997, I had just finished lecturing at the University of Kiev in Ukraine. I needed to travel to the Pirogov Medical University in the city of Vinnitsa, Ukraine. An Eastern European snow storm had blasted the region and many of the roads were closed. Riding the old Soviet train was my best option for making the four hour trip.

The train had been traveling all night before arriving in Kiev. When I got on the train the compartment was still made up into a sleeping car arrangement. Other people were already occupying my compartment. A middle aged couple had staked their claim on the upper berths; their clothes and food leftovers were strewn on the compartment table and around on the floor. Another fellow in the compartment was a shriveled- up old man with thick glasses and white hair. He wore a gray, hard wool suit with the entire left front of his suit jacket covered with Soviet military medals and badges of accomplishment. I had just put my two bags on the bench by the door. The old retired military man immediately began rearranging everything.

I smiled warmly at the old “czar” and he mumbled something in Russian. I replied with a mumble in English. When he realized I did not speak Russian, he simply snapped his head around to the opposite direction and stared at the compartment wall. The train was very hot and stuffy. The absence of any fresh ventilation exaggerated the foul smells of rancid food and the peasant peoples’ belongings.

Old, frumpy Ukrainian women with knurled faces and hands gathered in gaggles around the stopped passenger trains. Their ragged cloth bags contained homemade food being offered to the hungry passengers. Before we pulled away from Kiev Station the middle aged couple from our compartment jumped down from their beds and purchased some of the food. I scooted over on my cot and made room for them to spread their newly acquired goodies out on the already messy table. From the wrappers of old newspapers, they pulled a plastic bag of greasy potato chunks, slimy, cooked cabbage and chunks of strange looking meat. Small loaves of unwrapped bread, along with a smaller plastic bag of pickles, rounded out their breakfast meal.

I quickly used up as many Russian words as I knew. I smiled a lot and politely deferred the offer to share the greasy potato chunks and cold cabbage. The diplomatic ice was broken; then came the magic. I reached into my thin leather attaché and pulled out the photos of my family. Their eyes brightened and their whole bodies responded. They reached for the photos and handled them with their greasy hands and laid them on the table. Everyone began talking in chorus, waving their hands and smiling. Even the grumpy old “czar” smiled and pulled from his wallet two crumpled black and white photos from the past. He told me all about the women in the pictures, and I told them all about my wife, sons and grandchildren. He knew what I had said and I knew what he had said even though we didn’t catch the words. We had all become good friends.

I have shown photos of my family to kings, presidents, rogues, prisoners, dictators, refugees, priests, holy men of Tibet and hostile border guards. They almost always reciprocate by sharing a photo with me. Photos are full of “super glue.” They bond hearts together instantly and speak a language that surpasses words. They have opened doors that were solidly shut, shut doors that would have led to my demise, and skipped over years of relationship.

Photos have also been one of my best moral defenses while traveling. Cultures and folkways differ considerably throughout the world, but respect shouts its message from the mountain tops. If I find myself in a situation of uninvited familiarity or unwanted pursuit, I simply reach for my family photos and proudly display a picture of my beautiful wife, explain how much I love and respect her, and then show photos of my important sons and gorgeous grandchildren. Without being rude or judgmental, the conversation gets back on track or tapers to a respectable close.

The only travel documents I own that are more worn and used than my bulging passports are my travel photos. I never want to leave home without them!