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Sunday, December 15, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Essay

Traveler learns that it's humbling to be on other end of the camera

Special to The Seattle Times

Editor's note: The Travel Essay is written by our readers about a travel adventure or insight.

I've always turned to overseas travel for new lenses through which to see my life, but it was an encounter with foreigners close to my home that provided my clearest self-viewing.

On a balmy winter morning in Los Angeles, my friend and I tossed our cross-country skis and clothes into the back of my car, opened its top and drove to Palm Springs. We wore T-shirts and shorts. We sped by downtown skyscrapers, but within two hours had to roll shut our windows and put up the roof to keep out blowing sand.

We headed for the aerial tram that ascends Mount San Jacinto at Palm Springs. Parking, we changed into ski clothes.

I wore skin-tight leggings with an eye-popping black and white Op-Art design. To this I added a purple turtleneck under a hot-pink vest. There was no chance I'd be lost in the woods; even someone poolside at a desert spa would be able to spot me 6,000 feet above them on the mountainside.

Entering the tram we began a dramatic ascent over jagged brown and gray rock that eventually became a terrain of glistening white snow dotted with green pines. We stepped out of the tram, strapped on our skis and headed off on a freshly groomed trail. Several hours later we returned to the area for lunch.

As I took off my skis, three people wearing jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers approached me; their slender frames, shiny black hair and burnished mahogany-colored skin bespoke their Indonesian nationality. I'd visited Bali and Java previously and returned home with many photographs of myself with local people wearing a colorful array of casual and ceremonial dress.

"Would you — picture?" one of the visiting Indonesians asked as he held his camera towards us.

"Of course," I replied, and reached for the camera.

Instead, the man indicated he'd like my friend to take the photo, as he and his friends gathered around me. Oh, I was to be in the shot.

"First time — snow!" the man said with a big grin.

"How exciting for you!" I said, smiling back.

This would be a novelty for them, and I tried to imagine seeing nature's frozen white wonder through his eyes.

That's when I saw it — how he saw me. My dress, half disco dancer and half space traveler, coupled with the foreign element of snow, had rendered me the Colorful Native! I burst into laughter as my friend took our photo.

Soon these Indonesians would return to their tropical homes and show their friends photos of themselves with their arms around me in my vibrant garb. I felt a shift, a loss, of power from being the camera's operator to being its subject. It humbled me, being explored instead of doing the exploring.

The visitors departed, camera in hand. We returned to skiing and descended the mountain at the end of the day. Getting back into my shorts, I knew that more than my clothes had changed. The Indonesians' view of me as exotic had taught me that my habits and culture are as odd, or as normal, as any other on Earth.

(Toni Weingarten lives in San Francisco.)

The Travel Essay runs each Sunday in The Seattle Times and also online at seattletimes.com. Essays, which are unpaid, must be typed and no longer than 700 words and may be edited for content and length. E-mail to travel@seattletimes.com or send to Travel, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Because of the volume of submissions, individual replies are not always possible.

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