Pics or It Didn’t Happen?

Around 4 a.m., Jeff and I crept out of our open-air bungalow. Our little stray jungle cat with the crooked tail and orange fur—we called her Naranjica (small orange)—scuttled around our feet along the gravel path to our rented Montero. The phrase “It’s always darkest before the dawn” seemed so true  as we jounced over the most rugged dirt roads through Nosara, Costa Rica with high beams on, turning the lights low and slowing our roll anytime we passed homes made with little more than corrugated sheet metal, so as not to disturb the residents. Destination: Ostional Wildlife Refuge, to find nesting olive ridley sea turtles on the beach.

We came to a stop at a river crossing, and I felt a rush of fear—of damaging a rented vehicle in a foreign country and of getting stuck out there in the pitch-black darkness. I often confuse this kind of anxiety with intuition. (It can be really hard to tell the difference.) I swore my gut was urging me to turn back. Jeff dissuaded me and hypothesized that the river was narrow and shallow enough that we should be able to make it across. I just had to trust him! Vroom vroom, he turned on the four-wheel drive and zipped through almost effortlessly. Whew.

Once we got to the entrance of the refuge, where we heard we’d find guides, there was no one. We pulled into the driveway anyway, and I felt the creeps return to the pit of my stomach when I saw the beach was adjacent to an abandoned church and cemetery. I was also worried that we’d encounter hostile turtle-egg poachers or that we’d disturb or disorient any turtles with our flashlight—artificial lights discourage females from nesting, and hatchlings can mistake these lights for the moonlight reflecting on the water and get lost.

In the end, we made it to the beach, but instead of turtles, we found ourselves under a blanket of trillions of stars—a vision we’d never see anywhere near our home in Los Angeles. The brilliance of those stars speckling the black sky; the sound and smell of the early-morning waves in Costa Rica; the adrenaline of the unknown. These are all things you can never capture in a photograph. Breathtaking experiences that become embedded in your heart when you’re actually in the moment, with no cameras or social media apps to fiddle with.

There’s something freeing about living life without any practical way to document everything that happens. While surfing at Playa Guiones, I noticed the fish bobbing their heads on the surface of the water, and it was so amusing in real life—such a reminder that in the ocean, I was in a different world. On a night hike in the Green Paradise Ecological Preserve in Monteverde, we spotted a sleeping hummingbird. No photo could have done any justice to how ridiculously cute that was. We caught a glimpse of a little secret life, for our eyes only.

Right next to our cabin was a giant mound built by leafcutter ants. I thought of taking a snapshot, but it didn’t matter, because to the average friend or follower, what’s so cool about a pile of dirt? Well it’s hard to explain in a single image. Seeing these little guys march in single-file carrying leaf cuttings twice their size is a feat you just have to see for yourself.

Then there was the king snake we found traveling along the leafcutters’ path. As we tried to track it, this clever snake intentionally threw us off by going off course into the grass. Just when we thought we’d lost it, only at the last second did we catch it slithering into the leafcutters’ habitat right in front of us. Our host Dulce said that we’d witnessed the first-ever evidence of a king snake cohabitating with leafcutter ants—it was new even to her, a naturalist who’d spent so much time in those woods. Imagine if I had averted my eyes for one second just to reach for my phone; I would have missed everything.

Driving from Monteverde to La Fortuna, we stopped at the first vista overlooking the cerulean waters of Lake Arenal. Some girls asked me to take their photo with the lake in the background, and it was my pleasure to do it. But they completely missed out on the lovely guy from Tilaran at one of the souvenir carts in the foreground. He handmade a string of guanacaste seeds and turquoise beads to adorn Jeff’s hat, and an anklet of the same elements for me. Later, as we rounded the lake, along smooth winding roads lined with luscious palms, I felt my pulse in sync with this beautiful place. That sentiment lives inside me and it can’t be embodied in pictures.

After hiking the lush rainforest at the base of the Arenal Volcano, our eyes and ears wide open for any sign of wildlife, it wasn’t until the end when we spied a few people gazing up at a swaying tree branch. There was a mama sloth and baby sleeping in the breeze. To the naked eyes of the few who were there it was a special and tender sight, but as a photograph, just one of many in a Google image search.

“Pics or it didn’t happen” is the catchphrase for an era when our lives are edited with precision to seem as full and joyful as possible. But to me, the opposite is true. Spending every second creating the highlight reel, it’s so easy to miss out on what’s really happening. Sure, photos are beautiful memories that we’re so lucky to be able to hold onto and relive at a glance. But nothing compares to the feeling—whether that’s happiness, love, despair, or fear—of being caught up in a moment. No amount of likes or comments gets to dictate the truth about a personal experience.

There’s another reason why I think photographing every little thing on a trip isn’t always a good idea. A great friend of mine said it best, so I’ll just quote her: “The entire tourism market is based on exploration and exploitation set up by colonization. Now people’s cultures are party themes, culture is a costume, and their sacred tribal dances are used to entertain travelers. [They] are belittled and [their] self-worth is trivialized. What was private is now public for pay.” This perspective reinforces what I’ve learned through the years writing travel stories as well ruminating on the flawed Western way of life—it’s so important, when visiting foreign lands, to remember that everything in the world doesn’t belong to us to expose at our pleasure.

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a thousand words couldn’t possibly convey the real magic of a moment, or a person, or a feeling. In those cases, just put the camera down and enjoy.

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