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Polaroid Moments Help Bridge Divides Between People

When traveling, connect with locals by taking (and giving them) their pictures

By Candyce H. Stapen | May 2, 2012

I can still picture the faces of the solemn Egyptian soldiers as they stood guarding the Suez Canal that day in 1991. When my 9-year-old daughter, Alissa, pointed her little camera at them, they threw down their submachine guns and started hugging one another and mugging for the camera like the teenagers they were. Although tensions were running high in the Middle East, the Polaroids that we handed them dissolved any illusion of barrier.

Giving photos to people we met in poor or developing countries is a tradition I started 25 years ago and shared with my family when we started traveling together. This practice is one way I’ve found to add a more meaningful and personal level of connection to a trip as well as to teach my children the value – and joy – of being gracious, giving back and engaging with local residents when traveling. Even in today’s digital age when people in rural areas know how to point and click, many of them have never seen, let along owned, photos of themselves.

Worth More Than a Thousand Words

For many of us as we age, travel needs to be more than a big wow or just provide bragging rights to be satisfying. We seek unusual and authentic experiences. There are many ways to accomplish this – we can take trips that revolve around our hobbies and interests or that teach us something. But by adding a small gesture, such as photo giving, we can imbue the vacation with rewarding moments that create lifelong memories.

Accomplishing this is easy, inexpensive and possible in many places. While you’ll derive endless pleasure from these interactions, their real value derives not from what you get, but from what you give.

Alissa went on to study photography in college and included the anecdote about the Egyptian soldiers in her application essay. It meant a lot to her, too. Among my fondest travel memories are several that involve this picture-taking tradition.

On a trip to Ecuador in 1994, Alissa and I admired the distinctive black felt hats with red-and-white braided bands worn by many Otavalo residents. Although the hat is traditionally sported by men, its lines and splash of color appealed to us. When we discovered that Iluman, a small village in the Andes that produced high-quality versions, was not far from our hacienda, we excitedly arranged for the local guide to drive us there.

When we arrived, however, all the shop and house doors were closed, and only a few people were milling about the streets. Alissa walked up to a girl about her age and asked in Spanish if she could take her picture. She nodded her consent. When we showed the teenager the Polaroid image, she broke into a broad smile. All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, her older brother and cousin came striding toward us. Wasting no time, Alissa shot a photo of them as well.

In the few minutes it took for that Polaroid to dry, the girl’s mother, who must have been watching through her curtains, appeared. One of the boys ran back to his house to get his sister. Slowly, more and more families appeared for photos.

When we explained that we had come to Iluman for hats, shopkeepers flung open their doors. Before we realized what was happening, we were being fitted for fedoras. Afterward, patriarchs invited us into their living rooms to meet and photograph grandmothers and babies. We felt privileged to be part of such important moments (and grateful to have packed extra film).

A few years ago in Guatemala, I stood in the town square, staring up at the historic but rundown church. It was school recess, and all the kids were running around – except one little girl with a crippled leg. She sat alone, solemnly watching as the others played. I approached her, and with a combination of broken Spanish and hand gestures, asked and received her permission to take a photo. When I handed her the image, she broke into the hugest grin. The others flocked around her, and she smiled even more broadly, a loner recast as prom queen.

For those trips, and many others over the years, we packed our circa-1980 Polaroid camera. Although purchasing film for the old camera was sometimes challenging, it was possible. Now that Polaroid sells several instant imaging digital cameras, giving people photos is even easier.

There are plenty of other simple ways to connect while traveling: bring postcards of U.S. cities and landmarks, sports team T-shirts or caps, makeup or pretty hair clips or barrettes. These small items never fail to elicit big smiles.

I still think of the woman in Ecuador whose children we photographed. She stood in the road, waving, smiling and blowing us kisses until our van disappeared from view. We know that we brought her a little joy that day, but she will never know how much happiness she’s still bringing us.

On your travels, what small gestures have enriched your encounters with locals?

Candyce H. Stapen is an award-winning travel journalist, author of 30 travel books and creator of FamilyiTrips.com apps for families.