On Touching Stuff

I read this today on National Geographic's "Intelligent Travel Blog"regarding the top 10 archeological discoveries of 2010:

"The magazine also listed their threatened sites of the year, which include prehistoric Native American geoglyphs in southeast California, and the neolithic rock art in Egypt's Cave of the Swimmers. The rock art, which was popularized in the film The English Patient, is being "admired to death by tourists who feel compelled to touch the 10,000-year-old paintings," the magazine reports. But Egypt's council on antiquities is working on an outreach effort aiming to educate drivers who transport tourists to these sites. Their hope is that the drivers will encourage good behavior and teach tourists how to behave appropriately when viewing the art."

This touched on a pet peeve of mine and at this juncture of good will and holiday hope, I'd like to snark about it for a minute or two.  Isn't that what people keep blogs for anyway?

It's summer 2008.  Max and I are getting pretty good at the get-on-the-bus-get-off-the-bus migration that constitutes an inordinate amount of time on our Jordan study abroad program's detour in Egypt.  We have just uniformly shuffled off the bus in front of The Pyramids in the Giza Necropolis.  The Great Pyramid of Giza, or Pyramid of Cheops, specifically is the oldest of the 7 Ancient Wonders of the world.  It is enormous and mysterious and marvelous.

Along with a pack of students we wind our way through grimy teethed Egyptians trying to relieve us of as many Egyptian Pounds as they think we'll be tricked into giving away.

"I was in that picture you just took.  Bakshish (tips)" they say with hands extended and smiles which quickly turn into grimaces if you refuse.  It's tricky to get to the Great Pyramid's entrance without getting harassed or fleeced (and most endure a combination of both) but we do finally arrive at a dusty booth where a woman sells tickets through a small slit in a dirty window.

"No cameras inside.  No cameras" she says, "You can leave them here."  And she points to a woven basket full of expensive cameras.

Dutifully I drop my camera in the bucket and hope that I will see it again in 40 minutes when the tour is finished.  A group of us descend into the Pyramid and at first I'm groovin, Egypt style.  Its' amazing, really, I'm going to walk deep into the heart of an Ancient Pyramid!  But then the floor slopes into a sharp decline and I have to bend over at the waist to fit, the ancient stones scraping the sides of my shoulders.  I start to feel claustrophobic and the only thing I can think of to stop me from turning around and making everyone get out so I can breath again is singing church hymns.  A bit of an odd juxtaposition, Christian worship music in the heart of a burial temple for a polytheistic pharaoh, but if it works, it works.  And it does.  When we stand up straight at the end of a cramped tunnel and find ourselves in an actual burial chamber I am awestruck.  In April of 2008 I wrote in my journal

"Everything has been stripped in the burial room except for a giant stone box that the sarcophagus used to be in.  They had one small light backlighting the stone box and it was absolutely beautiful.  Despite the 120 + muggy temperature inside (and all of it 4000 year old air)  it was such a surreal experience.  Knowing that this was the final resting place for one of the pharaohs, but more than that, knowing the sacred processes that when on in this room and how important it was to the Ancient Egyptians.  It had the stillness of a regular cemetery, but the religious implications of a temple in some ways.  Amazing."

But my much enjoyed orientalist awe is interrupted by the click, click, clicking of little cameras and obnoxious flashes illuminating the chamber with garish light.  Several of the students had decided that their experiences were so much more important that the rest of ours, and CERTAINLY more than those yet to visit the pyramid, that they snuck their camera in and ran around from corner to corner touching things, trying to climb up the walls, and taking pictures.  I could have died.

So here's my beef.  When people say "Don't take pictures" "Don't Touch"  - they mean it.  These artifacts are remarkable and irreplaceable shrines to our history and our planet.  If you think that your experience is more important than anyone else's and you just have to touch something - it's not and you shouldn't.  Consider this a big fat digital tsk tsk.  

Anthony Bourdain, Food and Travel Writer, frequently edits the "The Best American Travel Writing" series.  In the 2008 edition he said something like "Travel writers ultimately destroy the things they love."  They write about an off the beaten path Mom and Pop restaurant and the next year it is swarming with customers - it's charm given way to sweaty tourist in Hawaiian shirts.  A tucked away meadow becomes trampled after being written about for its solitude and beauty.  It's a reality of travel.  But people, for Heaven's sake, if an official says "Don't Touch"  - don't touch it.  If they tell you not to take pictures of the Sistene Chapel - don't do if.  If someone says "Do not remove anything from this sight"- don't do it.  And even if they don't say that - don't do it.*  

If travel is about what you can  post on your facebook profile the next day or what you can say you've touched or have displayed on your mantle - you are missing the spirit of the thing entirely.  So please, for all of you touchers and takers out there - ease up.  I want my kids to be able to see the amazing things of the world decades from now, and it will be a shame if we gobble up all the treasures in our traveler's greed and carelessness.  

*As a photographer I am certainly not advocating that you put your camera on the shelf.  Just don't take pictures inside 10,000 year old caves when someone tells you not to.  Ok?  



  1. Bravo! I've seen the same & felt frustrated as well. Thanks for saying it out loud instead of, like me, just saying "tsk, tsk, tsk" behind their flapjacket-ed touristy backs.


  2. Excellent post. Bugs me when people think the rules somehow don't apply to them. Or that the people making the rules didn't know what they were doing when they made them.
    (And I assume that is your photo here. Gorgeous photo. You obviously could have taken some awesome pics down below but chose to respect the rules anyway.)
    I love your posts about bookmaking as well.

  3. I experienced the consequences when we visited Chichen Itza two years ago. Have you guys ever been there? It is beautiful! You used to be able to climb the steps and stand at the top of the big temple, but now so many people started taking pieces of the temple (and tripping and falling down the many steps and injuring themselves) that you can't climb the temple anymore. They stole pieces of the temple...Who are these people? Apparently it has great acoustics and you can hear everything in the courtyard all around (very King Benjamin style...very...the religious symbolism there is awesome) but because of those idiots, people like us will never get to experience that moment. Thanks for sharing:) Love you. Miss you. Merry Christmas.