This Costa Rican boy was on a Pacific beach, not the Mississippi River, but still he reminded me of Huckleberry Finn. And so he also reminded me of one of my dreams: to float down the world’s major rivers—the Nile, Amazon, Mekong, and Yangtze in particular—and invite one or two members of the local broken humanity onto my raft. We’d fish and chat and cuss, and I’d jot down notes as we rounded a thousand bends (and bypass several dams).
Mark Twain, at the beginning of his book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, warns, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Well, since I’ve always thought some things are worth suffering and dying for, back in 2003 I sat on the Great Wall of China and wrote the following:
Few stories illustrate the wall-breaching value of travel as well as Mark Twain’s account of Huckleberry Finn and Jim’s journey down the Mississippi. Through adventure and conversation, a white boy and a runaway slave came to develop a sort of friendship, something that wouldn’t have been possible had they stayed put in their normal situations in life. Like Huckleberry Finn and Jim’s nineteenth-century drifting down the Mississippi, backpacking through distant lands in the twenty-first century is to journey into a complicated world of divisions and prejudices. Both journeys hold the possibility of getting lost and being found. Both are ways of living on the edge of society, of escaping it as a means to discover what it is missing and what it could be—or maybe even what it has possessed all along that for some reason you couldn’t see before. Both are movements beyond black and white and into a shared humanity. Both take you not only to scenic viewpoints; they carry you beyond the horizon itself, where transformation awaits and where you may even discover why you left home.
If interested in reading the full chapter from which this excerpt is drawn, click on A Journey Begins.
On Christmas Day 2008, about three minutes before two stern-faced policemen approached to inform me that I would be robbed if I didn’t leave the park for a safer part of town, I took this picture of a man reading about Lance Armstrong. As the man held up his paper (“Miracle” is the headline), and as a man on an adjacent bench made sure I knew Lance had only one testicle, I appreciated how even in a place like Panama City, Panama, people are interested in Armstrong’s phenomenal story.
This week, as Armstrong and others are zigzagging their way through the Tour de France, I suspect the guys I met in December are keeping tabs on their miracle rider. There was a time, however, when instead of Panama reading about France everyone in France would have been reading about Panama. And the subject, instead of bicycling, would have been about an undertaking much more expensive, deadly, and even grand—the construction of the Panama Canal.
Armstrong’s coverage tends to be positive thanks to the sheer feat of his victories. In the late 1800s, however, coverage of the canal's construction, which was a French undertaking, was positive because the construction company had bought off all the French papers. “No less than 2,575 different French newspapers and periodicals had shared in the company’s beneficence,” writes David McCullough in The Path Between the Seas. “Some little fly-by-night publications had even been founded for the sole purpose of getting in on the take. In addition to such giants as Le Temps and Le Petit Journal (which received the largest sums), the full list included such publications as Wines and Alcohols Bulletin, Bee-keeper’s Journal and the Choral Societies Echo.”
France would spend more than ten years sweating and dying on the canal, during which time the French public—many of whom had invested their life savings in canal stocks—was left completely uninformed about the tremendous setbacks plaguing the endeavor. When construction finally had to be abandoned in 1889 (the U.S. would pick it up again several years later) and after an estimated 20,000 workers had lost their lives, French newspapers, embarrassed and no longer in dubious partnership with the canal company, continued to print many a bold headline as newspapers tend to do. “Miracle,” however, surely wouldn't have been one.
So here's to the independence of the press. And, I suppose, to not being robbed in public parks, to retired men sitting on park benches, and to a 21st-century news culture which allows a Panamanian to enthusiastically expound on the testicular status of an American bound for France.
In Barack Obama’s landmark speech in Cairo today, after rightly chastising those in the Muslim world who deny the Holocaust and peddle harmful stereotypes about Jews, he went on to say this:
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.
This speech was a breath of fresh air. It marks not only the first time I heard a President describe the situation for Palestinians as “intolerable”; it also is the first time I saw a President who really seemed to mean it. Obama’s words will have ruffled the feathers of hundreds of thousands of hard-line Israelis (and not a few U.S. Congressmen). But these Israelis—and this is important to understand—are not the only Jews in Israel. There are other Jews who have been yearning for an American President to say just such a thing (and to mean it). There are others who have refused, as Obama says the U.S. has refused, “to turn their backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”
One such person is Olga Ginzbourg, who you see in this photograph pleading with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank village of Bil’in. The village is an example of why Israel’s ongoing occupation is intolerable: half of Bil'in's agricultural land has been stripped from it in order for Israel to build an illegal settlement and a separation barrier; it has lost the ability to sleep soundly because of frequent midnight raids meant to harass its residents; and just a few weeks ago it lost a son, who was protesting nonviolently, when a solider slammed a teargas canister directly into his chest.
To read an article I wrote about Olga, recently published in Tikkun magazine, click on "An Israeli in Bil'in". Voices like hers are brave, essential, and in urgent need of buttressing by balanced U.S. policy. They also illustrate the power of travel—even journeys of only a few miles, especially when they take you from places like Tel Aviv to a tiny Palestinian village.
For a four-minute YouTube video narrated by an Israeli woman who also yearns for a more balanced U.S. policy and which shows scenes of occupation, click on "Letter to Obama"
In my book Thirty Reasons to Travel, one of the reasons I offer is "graveyards." Here you meet people, some of them absolutely fascinating, you’ll never get to know in hotels and cafes because they are dead. In addition to introducing us to individuals from the past, cemeteries also assist us in putting our own present lives—their brevity, fragility, and perhaps meaning—into perspective.
Not all my visits to cemeteries have been easy experiences. Hearing strangers weep beside a headstone is troubling, as is carrying the coffin of a cherished college friend who, only weeks before a car accident and on the afternoon you went together to hear James Baker speak, taught you how to tie a tie. Nor is it serene when, swept up in a funeral procession on the streets of the Palestinian town of Jenin (this was in 2003), you peer into the ashen face of a 14-year-old boy killed by an Israeli tank. Five minutes later, as you stand beside a hole in the earth and watch men lower him into the ground, the man beside you thrusts his M-16 into the heavens and blasts several rounds into an innocent blue sky. The sound of each shot punches you—angers you. Something is boiling in your veins at this moment; it is the hatred of violent death, whether from smashed cars, gargantuan tanks, or tiny bullets. It is that thousands of mangled people fill the earth each day, including this boy.
The above photograph was taken last week in Mompós, Colombia. Though it shows a grave being readied for a person who I suspect died a natural death, it was still unsettling to peer into the hole (but also comforting to see two good-spirited, sweaty men chatting inside). Later that evening I was reading Stephen Crane’s classic The Red Badge of Courage and came upon the following passage, appreciating how it captured both the horror of violence and the emotions elicited by it. In the scene a mortally wounded soldier has been walking for several minutes to the rear of the battlefield and now enters the final throes of death:
His tall figure stretched itself to its full height. There was a slight rending sound. Then it began to swing forward, slow and straight, in the manner of a falling tree. A swift muscular contortion made the left shoulder strike the ground first.
The body seemed to bounce a little way from the earth. “God!” said the tattered soldier.
The youth had watched, spellbound, this ceremony at the place of meeting. His face had been twisted into an expression of every agony he had imagined for his friend.
He now sprang to his feet and, going closer, gazed upon the pastelike face. The mouth was open and the teeth showed in a laugh.
As the flap of the blue jacket fell away from the body, he could see that the side looked as if it had been chewed by wolves.
The youth turned, with sudden livid rage, toward the battlefield. He shook his fist. He seemed about to deliver a philippic.
In November, on the steps of a church, I came across a man who reminded me more of Forrest Gump than a beggar. When I asked if I could take his picture he was gracious in his reply and never once expressed interest in me giving him money. Picture complete, we sat together a while.Our sitting was mostly done in silence since within seconds I had run through the limits of my Spanish, but every so often he would sincerely say something I didn't understand. He was gentle in both speech and movement, a simple man in the best sense of the word, the sort who reminds you that you wish to be a tender person. I've always liked the line in As Good as it Gets where a gravelly Jack Nicholson says to Helen Hunt, "You make me want to be a better man," but it is a sentiment not confined to romantic relationships.One can experience it in the most unexpected settings, even with a down-and-out stranger on the steps of a cathedral in Leon, Nicaragua.
It was while sitting with this man that I thought, as I sometimes do, of Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran bishop who regularly irritated Right and Left alike. Gunned down in 1980, his homilies still circulate in books such as the Violence of Love, reminding the reader of that terrible period in El Salvador’s history as well as challenging us with timeless, sometimes deceptively simple, themes. It was 30 years ago this week, on Easter Sunday in a country wracked by poverty and oppression, that he spoke the following:
You that have so much social sensitivity, you that cannot stand this unjust situation in our land: fine – God has given you that sensitivity, and if you have a call to political activism, God be blessed. Develop it.
But look: don’t waste that call; don’t waste that political and social sensitivity on earthly hatred, vengeance, and violence.
Lift up your hearts. Look at the things above.
(If interested in more images from Leon, Nicaragua, I've posted a few black and white shots HERE.)
When on the road with my camera, sometimes for months at a time, I often go to bed with the distinct feeling that I receive more than I give. I am a travel photographer, which means I spend my days asking things of people. I ask for their permission, their time, their image. I ask them to overcome their shyness, or to act like I’m not there. I ask to be let into their lives for a moment, even though I will soon be gone.
Not everyone says yes to my requests, but very many do. I’m most touched by those for whom “yes” is a stretch, who prefer not to be the subject of a camera’s attention but who, even more, wish to grant a photographer’s request. They very clearly are giving to me. They also are among the reasons why, when I’m in a place for several days, I try to stop by a photo store and develop a few prints just before I leave. I then retrace my steps from previous days, stopping at shops and stalls and homes where I know I can find the people who allowed me to photograph them—people such as the woman above, who works at an optometrist shop in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
“The act of giving initiates relationships and even friendships,” writes Anthony Gittins in his book Bread for the Journey. “Not to give is not to be in relationship.”
In Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, there is the following description of Rose of Sharon, the Joad’s pregnant daughter:
Her round soft face, which had been voluptuous and inviting a few months ago, had already put on the barrier of pregnancy, the self-sufficient smile, the knowing perfection-look; and her plump body – full soft breasts and stomach, hard hips and buttocks that had swung so freely and provocatively as to invite slapping and stroking – her whole body had become demure and serious. Her whole thought and action were directed inward on the baby. She balanced on her toes now, for the baby’s sake. And the world was pregnant to her; she thought only in terms of reproduction and of motherhood.
Since at least kindergarten, when I would sometimes see one of the second grade teachers, Mrs. Remillard, leading her class down the hall toward the lunchroom, herself being led by a protruding belly, I’ve been captivated by pregnant women. It was—and is—the curves and expectation, the bodily transformation and the mystery of new life. While I never thought of slapping and stroking Mrs. Remillard (at any point in her life), I do remember keenly wishing I could touch her belly, to trace its curve and see if I could feel the baby kick, as some of her students had been invited to do.
Angela, a 26-year-old Nicaraguan, is the woman in this photograph. She works at a pharmacy in the town of Granada and was seven months pregnant with her second child when I took the photo in November. Recently I received an email from her coworker saying she had delivered a healthy baby (the email didn’t say if it was a boy or girl). One day, if I return to Nicaragua, I will take Angela up on her invitation to visit her home for a fish lunch, and to photograph her entire family. If interested in more pictures from the pharmacy, including Angela’s face, as well as a brief story of how we met, click on “A Pregnant Plea in Nicaragua.”
On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States.
Also on that day, and in the same city (Washington DC), the man in this photograph was selling newspapers on 14th Street, just outside the Columbia Heights metro station. It was bitterly cold, but neither he nor the rest of the city really cared about that. People were outdoors, flowing enthusiastically and en masse toward the center of town to watch a man who, had he been born at a different period in American history, could have been bought and sold like a piece of property. But on this day, on this day, he was instead being sworn-in as president—President of an ever-evolving nation.
Whether one was heading to the national Mall for the history or the hope (i.e., the first black president or a change in U.S. policy), one thing was certain: we were a lot of imperfect people who, in this moment, felt on the cusp of something significant, something that made us feel better about our corporate selves. There were many parts of Obama's inaugural speech that drew a nod of approval (or a downright roar) from the crowd. Here was one:
To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.
And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.
Inaugurations are the high point of many presidencies, lush with hopes that time and circumstance will soon enough level. But whatever the future holds, the inauguration itself will remain a day to remember and celebrate. For on that day history was made.
I received an email this morning from a Venezuelan friend who had been celebrating New Year’s Eve at a nice hotel in Panama City, Panama. She wrote, “The dinner was great, a lot lot lot lot of food it was, but at the moment I ate my food I just can´t stop thinking about the 400 people killed in Palestina, and how it was the new year for that families. The party was awful…I just can´t imagine that the rest of the world were celebrating yesterday while a lot of moms, dads, and sons were crying about their lost in Palestina.”
She writes about a tension with which many of us are familiar. How does one celebrate while knowing that at the same moment someone else is mourning, or living in absolute fear?
There is no space here to delve into that question. But like her, the events in Gaza and Israel have been on my mind in recent days. Of all the places I’ve traveled, none were as difficult as Gaza. I thought it an often claustrophobic strip of land (at least in the cities and refugee camps) that had taken not only the lives of Gazans but also amazing (and controversial) people like Rachel Corrie—and where one afternoon, in my desire for a photograph, I had feared it might take mine as well. I had never been to a place where even for a mere 72 hours it was so hard to stay sane. Unless you’ve been there, you simply have no idea what it means to live in Gaza, to live in a cage.
The photograph above was taken in the West Bank town of Ramallah in late 2006. The Palestinian boy was part of a protest against Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence, which the day before had left three Palestinian children dead in Gaza City. Some eyes on this Earth take in an incredible amount of suffering. They take it in, even while many of us celebrate.
In my previous post, I left out the final two paragraphs of the Wendell Berry excerpt. Here they are:
But you have a life too that you remember. It stays with you. You have lived a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present, and your memories of it, remembered now, are of a different life in a different world and time. When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.
Your life, as you lived it, is way back yonder in time. But you are still living, and your living life, expectations subtracted, has a shape, and the shape of it includes the past. The absent and the dead are in it. And the living are in it.
The woman in this photograph is Hmong, and she can be found wandering around the streets of Sapa, Vietnam (I say the latter because another traveler, upon seeing this photo months afterwards, said he had seen the same woman; she keeps active!). Her face hints at a thousand stories to be told, and her eyes somehow sparkle with an unexplainable youthfulness. I simultaneously found her beautiful while also imaging a defensive lineman who has plowed into time and taken some hard hits. And I could only imagine how she saw herself, and the world.