The value of noticing

Noticing – taking the time to observe things – when you travel, is a way of enriching your travel experience. I have often told people that a camera has taught me to see. By that, I mean, I have learnt to observe more, to notice the light and the play of shadows, and from that, I have learned to notice small details that others often overlook. This, in many ways, is the essence of mindful travel.

More recently, I have taken to using a sketchbook, though I can’t really draw for nuts. But the drawing is not the point. When I sketch, I spend time really looking at my subject, whether a building, or an unusual machine, or an interesting flower. When you sit in front of an object for an hour, trying to capture its form with a pencil, you end up noticing details that you never realised were there. It can help to make sense of how the object functions as it does, or did.

Studies have shown that visitors to art museums and galleries spend on average just a few seconds – rarely 30 seconds to a minute – in front of any given artwork. This is a process that Worts (2003) has described as grazing. We seem to be in a world of ‘swipe left’ as we travel to exotic locations to grab a quick selfie, before moving on.

crowd in the Louvre

On a recent visit to the Louvre in Paris, I was amazed at the crowds who surged into the room to grab a phone or tablet photo of the backs of the heads of everyone else who had come to see Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. What was remarkable, wasn’t the popularity of THAT painting, but the fact that they surged unseeing past FIVE other Leonardo paintings to get to be part of the crowd, such as the Virgin on the Rocks – which has a companion painting of this subject by Leonardo at the National Gallery of London.

Leonardo-Virgin on the rocks [Louvre]

But don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against people taking selfies, or against people taking reference photos for later viewing, perhaps as a reminder when they are trying to contextualise what was special about that particular artwork. But it is curious when the lens is used as a substitute for actually looking, and in that context I wonder what they are getting out of the experience, other than bragging rights with social proof that you have ‘been there’. But have you actually been there?

I ask that because I have been wondering lately about the link between being and observing. About 100 years after Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa, a Frenchman by the name of Renée Descartes came up with the idea that “I think therefore I am”.  And that seemed to settle the matter for a while. But around 1980, another Frenchman by the name of Jacques Lacan re-phrased it, suggesting “I think of what I am where I do not think to think.” In this case, he is suggesting that being and thinking are not necessarily the same thing. We can be in a place, but our mind is elsewhere. How often do we see a group of people having coffee together, each on their phone deep in textual conversation with someone not present at the table? To outsiders, it can seem disconcerting, but despite the mediation of the phone, at least they are being sociable with someone, even if not their present company.

Underground train London

A recent article in an e-journal called Aeon, titled “I attend, therefore I am” suggests that we are what we pay attention to. The article, by Carolyn Dicey Jennings, describes attention as “what you use to drown out distracting sights and sounds, to focus on whatever it is you need to focus on.” This power of attention, she argues: “…is what helps you in moments of conflict more generally – moments when you are caught between two (or more) options, both of which appeal to you, and you are torn on which option to choose.” Jennings goes on to observe that the philosopher Robert Kane describes these life-defining moments as ‘self-forming actions’. That is, actions that form and inform who you are as a person. The movie ‘Sliding Doors’ is a good example of how these life defining moments can turn on whether or not you catch that train, or take that trip.

A Canadian friend whom I met on the Camino, Kristine MacMillan has written a poignant blog post about this. In it, she talks about the value of following your dreams. She observes that you can’t predict when you’ll meet Mr Right, but you can control whether you learn a language, or take a trip

“…as a nurse I often see people who have saved or worked hard their entire lives with plans to start living when they retire, or to take that dream trip in 5 years time. Then they or their partner’s health fails and they don’t get that chance. ”

Some might describe this as a philosophy of Carpe Diem – Seize the day. Kristine puts it this way:

“it’s good to have dreams, but for me living a full life is essentially a way of living your dreams as best you can in the now. I don’t really have much control over when I meet Mr Right. But I can control whether I want to learn a second language, bicycle in the vineyards in France, or go on an African safari. I can choose these things by choosing not to pay for cable TV, or have a collection of purses, or put off buying a new iPhone. I tend to view things in terms of well that such and such thing is a plane ticket, and I’m way less inclined to spend my money on it.”

It all comes down to a question of focus. A camera and sketchbook have taught me to see, to focus on what is in front of me, to look around and notice my surroundings, and to observe the context – what makes it work, how did it get to be like this? how did it come to be there and not somewhere else? And by noticing, I am informing myself, and becoming who I will be, informed by what I have paid attention to in the past. We are, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault suggests, the sedimentation of our experiences that form the bedrock on which I base my future actions.

So how do I apply this? Last year, on the Camino de Santiago, I was taking a difficult path down towards the town of Portomarin. Mostly, I was focussed on trying not to twist my ankle on the uneven narrow path, but I also took moments to look around to see where I was and how far I had come. On one of these pauses I looked around and saw an opening in the rock like a small cave, and there was water running from it into a channel beside the path. I looked closer and took out my camera. It appeared to have been worked and shaped by human hands using hand tools, perhaps in ancient times. And I wondered if perhaps it might have been a spring used by the Romans to supply water to the town. I asked several people – fellow pilgrims – about it, and not one of them had noticed it was there. It might well have been a sacred water supply in pre-Christian times, or it might have supplied water to Roman industry nearby. Noticing that, and knowing that there were Roman copper mines nearby, enriched my experience of that place, and has made me want to learn more of the Roman and pre-Roman occupation of this area.


In another time, another place, others have sketched in the Roman forum in Rome, or  at the Colosseum, and in the process have observed how the place functioned, perhaps imagining the entertainments performed there, but coming away richer for having noticed how it was put together, and how the seats related to the Emperor’s box, and how the building was there in that place to help wipe out the memory of a tyrant. For others, it was perhaps a selfie moment, or a graze past from a tourist bus, but how much richer is the experience when you focus and notice and observe!



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Pamplona rest day and a moment with Heidegger

Exploring Pamplona

They certainly know how to party in Pamplona, though it felt a bit desperate. We heard that Pamplona has festivals just about every week – but I wasn’t sure if it was there for the locals or in an effort to bring in the tourists. We were up early to explore and found a band wandering the streets like a kind of hangover/wake-up call 😀

We found a new pension – Pension Azuara – much nicer  for the same price, so we dropped our bags off to check-in later.

Visiting the cathedral, we were struck by the spectacular altar and side chapels. We met up with Dennis and Kim a couple of fellow Aussies we had first met in Orrisson – they stayed for the latin mass, while we went to check out the near-empty Navarre Museum.

Pamplona cathedral

There were wonderful Roman mosaics, and palaeolithic to neolithic artefacts, as well as many items from the Bronze Age. The Roman material included incredible glassware and domestic items. There was also a great collection of medieval frescoes. Then there were Baroque paintings, as well as a famous painting by Goya.

Roman mosaic

On a more prosaic note, we had passed a German pilgrim who wore a really practical waist bag (bum bag) – and sure enough, we found the same bag in Pamplona. A quick check showed that the camera would fit, along with two bottles of water, so we could walk and drink without having to remove the packs or do an awkward reach.

A theological discussion

Over lunch, we had an amazing theological discussion with two other pilgrims in a local cafe – a German and an American. It was one of those moments when it seemed appropriate to join a discussion with a couple of complete strangers. But, of course, on the Camino, there are no strangers… One pilgrim suggested that we humans are imperfect beings, but that we are to strive towards living in the manner exemplified by the perfect Christ.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger observed a similar proposition, noting the gap between the human condition and the ideals towards which we reach. Perhaps that was what was meant by the material world versus the spiritual world. I remarked that this striving describes Heidegger’s distinction between Being and being, in which the former is an ideal version of ourselves, the latter, being-in-the-world. For Heidegger, the human condition is about working towards what he called absolute geist or absolute spirit. The object is not to reach this goal, for that would show a failure of imagination, but the important thing is to keep that goal in mind, no matter how imperfect we are. It was a very enjoyable and good natured discussion and a wonderful sharing of ideas.

It is interesting how quickly pilgrims on the Camino get past the trivia and into real ideas. It also demonstrates how irrelevant are the usual conversation openings of place, career or material possessions as markers for identity. Instead, an exchange of first names, country, and state of well-being suffices before entering much deeper territory normally reserved only for close friends.

Back to reality

We finished our coffee, and soon it was time to check-in to the Pension for a shower, change, and then out to find a laundromat.


I had some angst about Zariquiegue – only 10 beds and it would be too far to the next place if it was full. I consulted with the Australian Pilgrims on the Camino Facebook group and quickly received reassurance that we would be okay. So I phoned ahead and booked two beds, and planned to send our bags ahead.

And so to sleep.


INDEX – If you wish to follow our journey from the beginning, or jump in to any of the Camino posts,
here is a link to the index page – which can also be found in the navigation bar at the top of this blog