Uncomfortable in My Own Skin

A few weeks ago while in Kauai, I was reminded of events that happened during two previous visits, episodes that made me aware that I may be freer to walk in the world, because I’m white and middle-class.

During my first trip, I had an afternoon free before I had to return the rental car and fly home. I wanted to spend my last few hours in paradise at the beach. However, checkout was 11:00 a.m. I had to turn in my keys and couldn’t use the chaise lounges at the resort condos where I’d been staying.

A nearby resort routinely put out a slew of chaises on their lawn overlooking the beach. Guests didn’t have to check out chairs. I figured I could blend in with actual guests and hang out there for a few hours. I looked the part of a paying customer—I was wearing clean clothes and had a backpack, towel, and an iPad. Not the profile for a homeless person.

It was a small gamble. Who would wonder about a middle-class white lady? Turns out, no one.

Another time in Kauai, I went for a long walk to Shipwreck Beach. Along the way I enjoyed the red and yellow hibiscus, hot pink bougainvillea, and orange bird of paradise blooming in the resort gardens I passed.

On my way back, I was in full broiling sun and the walk began to seem more oppressive than fun. I could feel myself getting seriously overheated. So I decided to take a break in the air-conditioned lobby of a nearby hotel. Again, I hoped to blend in. The desk clerk smiled and nodded to me. She probably thought I was waiting for someone. After 15 minutes or so, I had cooled down enough to leave the hotel and continue on my trek.

In each case, I wasn’t bothering anyone, but I was trespassing. Perhaps that’s why I started to speculate—would I have been treated as nicely if I were a black or Latina woman? Would somebody have asked, “Can I help you?” with the imperious tone that really means, “What are you doing here?”

 

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Capturing the Moment

Since getting my iPhone, I’ve begun taking tons of photos, especially when I’m vacationing. During the nine days I was in Kauai I took 361 photos—mostly of scenery and quirky objects, occasionally of my companions.

Near Kilauea lighthouse

near Kilauea lighthouse

Tiny shrine under banyan tree at Hindu monastery

Tiny shrine under banyan tree at Hindu monastery

That’s about 40 per day. Why not? It’s fun. Taking pictures has become a way of heightening the experience. Documenting and remembering it. But sometimes I wonder: when I’m focusing and framing shots, am I more in the moment or less?

There’s something acquisitive about taking pictures.

Click. There. Now I’ve got it. This moment and this place are mine. I can revisit them whenever I want. I’m hoarding a treasure of memories. At some future point, seeing this vista, cool object, or time with friends may be just the tonic I need.

Of course I've got a beachy sunset photo -- it's Hawaii!

Of course I’ve got a beachy sunset photo — it’s Hawaii!

Initially, I might share a handful of photos on Facebook. Snap a funny scene and text it to a friend. After I return from a trip, I fuss with the photos in Photoshop, cropping them or adjusting the lighting. It’s a second way of enjoying the sights. Sometimes I create screensavers. Once in a while I make a printed calendar.

Surfboard fence in Hanalei

Surfboard fence in Hanalei

Having photos allows me to relive the good times. Except that after my first wave of enthusiasm, I rarely do.

Bird of paradise at Allerton McBryde Gardens

Bird of paradise at Allerton McBryde Gardens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At least my photos are easy to store.

I’m grateful that I don’t have to deal with storing my collection. I think of the albums and boxes of pictures my parents had. Some of them are precious—that’s our history. My three siblings and I lined up in front of the tulip garden at Easter. There we are sprawled in swimsuits on the dock at Lake James.

But the photos from when my parents were in Hawaii? I’m glad they had the experience, but the images mean very little to me. I wasn’t there. I don’t know the stories. Is there any reason to save those prints now that my parents are gone? Similarly, my Hawaii photos won’t mean anything to my kids either. They weren’t there.

Fortunately, my fascination with photography doesn’t require much effort or upkeep. As long as I have loads of gigabytes, digital photos are easy to keep.

There’s one picture I didn’t take in Kauai.

In Hanapepe, they have a Friday night art gallery crawl. At 6:30, it was dark except for a few streetlights and the lights from shops. The air was cooling but the breeze was still gentle. A dozen shops opened their doors and a handful of food trucks gathered. Several musicians performed here and there—folk music and traditional Hawaiian music.

An old black pickup truck was parked under a streetlight. The front of it was painted with orange and yellow flames. Hot pink bougainvillea bushes were planted in the truck bed and they bloomed lavishly. Alongside the truck, a woman in a lawn chair was making leis.

I really wanted to take that photo, but it seemed wrong. Did I have the right to the photo if I didn’t want to buy the lei? Probably didn’t matter. People must do it all the time. That truck is meant to attract attention. Specifically, tourists’ attention.

After a while, she got up and shook some flowers from the tree behind the truck. Had a cigarette. A friend of hers stopped by with a brown bag of food.

I let the moment pass. It was too dark for my phone’s camera. It wouldn’t have seen all the color and details my eyes registered during the 20 minutes that I sat on the curb across the street from her eating spicy chicken curry.

I appreciate both kinds of images—the photos because they can trigger a story and the remembered images that have become vivid because I found the words to turn them into stories.

Both bring wonderful experiences to mind.