In the photograph above, a young Vietnamese woman prays in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Saigon, built by the French in the late 1800s. In her face we glimpse something about prayer. And in the lines below, excerpted from a poem entitled "Six Recognitions of the Lord" by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, we also glimpse something of prayer:
I know a lot of fancy words.
I tear them from my heart and my tongue.
Then I pray.
Indonesia’s Krakatoa may have had its most historic explosion in August 1883, but thanks to years of civil conflict in Sri Lanka it managed to find its way back into the news this week. “About 260 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers detained in Indonesia have threatened to blow up their wooden boat if the navy forces them to disembark,” reported the AFP. Their vessel, which had been en route to Australia, was stopped in Indonesian waters near Krakatoa.
Reading this story—and any number of other stories about people undertaking dangerous journeys out of desperation—may remind one that many of the world’s travelers aren’t backpackers, explorers, or jet-setting businessmen; they are refugees. Other writers have pointed out the etymological connection between the words “travel” and “travail”, but surely few understand the link better than refugees. Travail, according to one dictionary, is
1. painfully difficult or burdensome work; toil
2. pain, anguish or suffering resulting from mental or physical hardship
3. the pain of childbirth
The UNCHR annual report released earlier this year put the worldwide refugee population at 42 million. Most are internally displaced, meaning they’ve not left their country of origin but have had to move within the country. For example, there has been mass displacement in Pakistan this year because of internal conflict.
The photo above wasn’t taken at a refugee camp, on an overcrowded ship, or in a war zone, but it does represent the pain of displacement, the pain of travel when it is not entirely a voluntary undertaking. The girl is Tibetan, protesting outside the Chinese embassy in Washington DC on a spring day in 2008. I don’t know the story of her own experiences, but she was protesting with other Tibetans who would have known that travel isn’t always cruise ships, beaches, and the occasional stomach bug. For some more than others—for at least 42 million people this year—travel is firmly rooted in the word travail.
It is a fact of human nature that we derive pleasure from watching others engage in pleasurable acts. This explains the popularity of two enterprises: pornography and cafés. Americans excel at the former, but Europeans do a better job at the latter. The food and the coffee are almost beside the point.
Like many of you—and like the Korean grad student in this photograph, taken in Bangkok—I spend time in cafés. For me it’s because I need the stimulus of caffeine as well as the stimulus of people and sound (there’s nothing so unstimulating as being isolated in a library and seeing, in a blank Word document on a computer screen, your silent reflection bouncing back at you). In the café, you can eavesdrop on conversations, ask attractive women to watch your computer while you venture to the bathroom, and, if you wish to be obnoxious, try to snort the aroma of coffee (or other things, I suppose, depending on where you’re at and what you want in your body).
The café, then, is about more than coffee. It is about people, connection, and inspiration. It is about not feeling alone even when you’re working alone. And on the road it is sometimes even about refuge. In Kathmandu, for instance, the soft chairs and rich smells were a refuge from weeks of grueling travel through northern Yunnan and Tibet (July 2004). In Istanbul the café was a refuge from hours of walking in numbing winter wind (Dec 2004). In Bangkok cafés have frequently been a refuge from midday heat (2000, 2004, 2005, and 2007). Once in Bogotá, while photographing with an expensive camera, a café served as refuge from the threat of being robbed on the street. And in Jerusalem a café even offered the opportunity to sit beside a large plate glass window (two days after a suicide bombing two blocks away) and suspiciously watch passersby on the sidewalk, imagining glass and screws ripping through your flesh and scattering it against the back counter (Jan 2002). If this last example doesn’t seem to fit the refuge category so well, ask me in person one day and I’ll explain.
Some modern travelers bemoan the current lack of blank spaces on the map, since everything is now pretty much mapped and charted and has left us with nothing “unknown” to explore (or so they say). But at least we have cafés.
No American novel makes me think of Israel/Palestine like John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The smoldering anger of the Joads as they are displaced from their land and forced into exile captures the emotions of many Palestinians I've met. Ma Joad, for example, struggling to keep the family together always makes me think of a woman named Om Rajah in Jenin Refugee Camp, and her son Tom reminds me of so many young Palestinian men, not least when he says things like, "Why, Jesus Christ, Ma, they comes a time when the on'y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin' a sock at a cop. They're workin' on our decency."
But much of the book, like much of life in Israel/Palestine and every other place, is full of family wisdom and brokenness and love that isn't necessarily all that connected to the politics and history of one's setting. Some things are just universally shared among us. And so when the mother and daughter in this photograph passed me in Jerusalem's Old City and stopped for a moment to reply to my sabah il-xher (good morning) and to ask where I was from, I then listened as they continued on up the steps and talked with each other about the ordinary things in life. They -- through their physical movement, their voices, their relating to each other -- gave life to these aging alley walls. It was they, not the stones and arches and steps, which comprised the heart of this city.
I don't know what kind of wisdom Jerusalem's mothers pass on to daughters, but I bet that sometimes it isn't too unlike the following passage, in which Ma Joad is talking to her daughter Rose of Sharon:
When you’re young, Rosasharn, ever’thing that happens is a thing all by itself. It’s a lonely thing. I know, I ‘member, Rosasharn.” … And Ma went on, “They’s a time of change, an’ when that comes, dyin is a piece of all dyin’, and bearin’ is a piece of all bearin’, an’ bearin’ and dyin’ is two pieces of the same thing. An’ then things ain’t lonely any more. An’ then a hurt don’t hurt so bad, ‘cause it ain’t a lonely hurt no more, Rosasharn. I wisht I could tell you so you’d know, but I can’t.” And her voice was so soft, so full of love, that tears crowded into Rose of Sharon’s eyes, and flowed over her eyes and blinded her.
If interested in another short vignette from Jerusalem, this one about two Palestinian men dancing to a Whitney Houston song hours after a suicide bombing, click on "A Dance in Jerusalem."
Here’s a definition of travel that I like (and just made up): “to move in such a way that your life intersects with other lives and is shaped by the encounter.” For me, a vital component of relationships formed on the road is the goodbye, nicely demonstrated in this photograph from Vietnam. Chau and her friend have just spent part of the day with me in Hoi An. As the river ferry that will take them home pulls away from the dock, they wave goodbye. It’s a small and ordinary thing, yes, but imagine a world in which nobody ever said goodbye.
Recently, while chatting online with a friend in Shanghai named Michelle, I was reminded of something I’d nearly forgotten. I had first met Michelle in Kathmandu, and two months later we met again in India. Michelle recalled the morning in Rishikesh when she and her traveling partner checked out of the hotel to catch a bus to Delhi. The night before, knowing they would be leaving in the morning, I had asked that they wake me before setting off so that we could say goodbye. But because for two days I had had a blazing fever and sore throat, Michelle decided they’d slip away quietly from their adjacent room so that I could rest. When I awoke and discovered their vacant room, however, I rushed to the receptionist -- he said they had left 10 minutes earlier -- and then, mostly clothed and in flip-flops, tore off down the small street paralleling the Ganges. Michelle remembered the surprise and happiness she felt when she saw me wheezing and disheveled, having finally caught up with them to say goodbye.
(Incidentally, I remembered something else I'd almost forgotten: two days later, while on a night bus to Pushkar and enveloped by cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes, I was so weak that when I tried to ask someone to tell the driver I needed to go immediately to the hospital, I couldn’t lift my head to speak, nor move my mouth to say the words. In all my travels, this was the only night in which I thought I might be dead by morning, and it's partly attributable, I think, to that sprint along the Ganges.)
Perhaps “goodbye” isn’t worth dying for, but a life void of the custom would be missing something. And I’m not the only one who thinks this; so does the young character Pi Patel in Yann Martel’s backpacker favorite Life of Pi. Along with a tiger named Richard Parker, Pi is lost at sea for several months, and when finally he and the tiger come ashore the tiger ups and walks away, never to return. And Pi says:
I was weeping because Richard Parker had left me so unceremoniously. What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell.
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"
I’ll always be grateful to a hotel receptionist named Chau, who one day offered to get me out of Hoi An and into the homes of people in the surrounding countryside. From the back of her motorbike I watched the landscape whiz by as she drove us several miles to the west. We passed rice and corn fields, a kid on the back of a water buffalo, trucks that threatened to flatten us. We passed a phalanx of teenage girls who, in their conical hats and white ao dais, sat atop their bicycles with such perfect poise that one wondered if bicycling were a form of ballet.
Among the places Chau took me was the home of a friend, where we had lunch and then rested through the worst of the midday heat. As I lay with my eyes closed on a mat in one corner, digesting my meal and listening to the sounds of Vietnamese bouncing off the concrete floor, I appreciated the unintelligibleness of it all. Because I couldn’t understand the words, I could focus exclusively on what was beyond them: friendship. Here were people relaxed and enlivened by one another. There was nothing formal about the interaction, no sign of pretense, no austerity in how they laughed or even reclined. They were completely comfortable together.
The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing 167 years before two of Chau's friends rested on a bed, one with her feet propped up on the other's legs, had this to say about friendship:
A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thoughts, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness with which one chemical atom meets another.
The urban landscape, particularly early in the morning when you’re still wiping sleep from your eyes, can feel heavy. It is a world of moving metal, belching exhaust, impersonal towers of concrete and steel—a world which five days a week slurps half-dead people toward its crowded center. Whether on the Metro in Washington DC or on a bus in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (above), I sometimes imagine what a perfectly awful world it would be if everyone maintained their sluggish, standoffish, rush hour demeanor beyond the morning. I’d rather have anthrax sprinkled on my cereal.
The photo above shows a young woman who would rather be in bed, but it also reminds me of how "waiting" is an integral part of life. I come from a country where waiting is neither particularly valued nor well practiced. In some cultures, however, people are adept at it. In Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s Three Cups of Tea—a book offering more insight into Pakistan than most newscasts ever will—there is a good example from the Balti, a people group who live in the rugged Karakoram Mountains. Mortenson is trying to build a school for the village of Korphe and has invested considerable time in raising the necessary funds, only to discover he won’t be able to build the school until he can first build a bridge. The village has never had a school and their desire for one is real, so when Mortenson breaks the news that he'll have to return to the States to raise more money for the bridge, he expects the people of Korphe to feel as awful as he does. But they don't:
[W]aiting was as much a part of their makeup as breathing the thin air at ten thousand feet. They waited half of each year, in rooms choked with smoke from yak dung fires, for the weather to become hospitable enough for them to return outdoors. A Balti hunter would stalk a single ibex for days, maneuvering hour by hour to get close enough to risk a shot with a single expensive bullet he could afford to spend. A Balti groom might wait years for his marriage, until the twelve-year-old girl his parents had selected for him grew old enough to leave her family. The people of the Braldu had been promised schools by the distant Pakistani government for decades, and they were waiting still. Patience was their greatest skill.
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.”