How many photos do you have of you and your partner? In today’s digital age, you probably have hundreds, if not thousands. I lived with Ryan McAlpine for almost 3 years. You know how many photos I have of us? Maybe 50. And that’s because of film.
Do you remember how special film was? When you only had 26 frames, you didn’t waste them. You didn’t click away mindlessly, you chose your moments. You waited for the right shot and then you waited again. You had to use up the whole roll and then bring them somewhere and wait some more! It was torturous, not knowing what turned out. I resisted the digital age for so long. I loved film. I loved the lesson in patience, I loved the way my hands smelled after hours in the darkroom, I loved the way the camera shutter clicked, that satisfying clunk. There’s a reason we love photos from that time so much, why their vintage quality almost makes them look more real. It’s because we take too damn many photos now. Today’s kids will never get to experience that feeling of walking into the photo shop to pick up a double set of your newly developed photos, all of which turned out. Of tearing open that package in the parking lot and passing them around in the car with your friends, laughing at the moments you’re all simultaneously reliving, together. It was euphoric. Film taught us to be hopeful, that things would turn out alright.
When Ryan died almost 12 years ago, I thought I might never be alright again. I don’t know if I’ve ever told anyone that before, but that’s the exact thought I had the night I went home from that emergency room without him. It was the only I could think actually. I stared at the ceiling, chain smoking and picturing his dead face in my mind, thinking over and over: I may never be alright again.
I recently dug out my old film camera, the one my grandfather placed in my hands when I was a teenager and said ‘a camera is a gift that teaches you to see the world without a camera.’ I put it together and ordered several obscure batteries and cleaned out my old camera bag and found 2 rolls of never developed film rolling around in the bottom of it. It took a few tries to find a place that developed true black and white film but a week later I was sitting in my car, ripping open packages with anticipation just like I used to. One roll was dead, a single hazy image came out. The other was the last roll I shot on the camera. There were some of a camping trip, a few of the house and then there he was. Three frames, never before seen. His eyes, eyes I haven’t looked into in over a decade, staring back up at me, cradling our old dog.
What a gift.
And a reminder that everything turns out alright.
This is a photo of me getting my infected middle finger sliced open by a Balinese doctor in a strange clinic, sans freezing. They didn’t have much on hand and didn’t want to waste it on my silly finger so he took a scalpel to it while I made these faces and tried to breathe through it. It was super gross and painful and required a FUN re-slicing 3 days later. It was also a little scary- the type of infection I had can spread to into your hand or eventually, into your blood. It was the first time I’ve ever had to consider the possibility of flying home to get treatment and discuss a contingency plan if it got worse. It’s easy to share beautiful vacation memories but we rarely talk about all the shit that comes along with travel. It’s rare to hear people talk about or post about getting sick or the inconveniences and struggles that come along with it. Travel is a lot like life- good and bad, punctuated by moments of extreme highs and extreme lows. When we left on this trip, we made a pact to take a photo whenever something bad happened.
Here’s a few things you didn’t see:
-The 3 sinus infections I got because I was essentially allergic to southwest England, most of Morocco and all of northern Vietnam
-The water parasites we got on the north african coast, nasty little buggers than caused me to be temporarily lactose intolerant for 6 goddamn months (yea you think travel is exotic? Google giardia-induced lactose intolerance and try not eating cheese for SIX MONTHS. I still want a trophy for this)
two kids who are thrilled that they paid $$ to come to a moroccan surf camp, only to spend the whole week in bed with water parasites
-The VISA fiasco at the Thailand/Vietnam border that stranded us for the night and cost $400 to fix
-The hours and hours and hours spent waiting in airport lines and visa lines and bathroom lines and immigration lines
-The bank machine in Tanzania that stole a bunch of my money that I’m still waiting to get back. Which was immediately followed by a banking glitch that caused me to think that 6k had been stolen from my accounts and sob in frustration for 6 hours until someone figured it out.
-That last one happened just one week after discovering my credit card had been cancelled by my bank due to some suspicious activity. They had to overnight me a new one and getting it delivered to an actual address in a place that has no actual addresses beyond ‘go down the dirt road and turn left at the chicken coop with the yellow roof’ was a special kind of hell.
-The yelling match I got in with a bus company in Ho Chi Min after they gave us the wrong address for pickup, causing us to miss our bus (not my finest moment)
-The asthma attacks I had/almost had every few days lugging this green monster all around the world
debating which puffer to get out of my bag so I didn’t die in a Paris subway station
-All the tears I cried after hanging up the phone with my grandmother or goddaughter or best friend
-The spotty internet connections all over the world that left me so frustrated trying to book something or communicate with my family
-The hell of a time I had eating in Vietnam and Cambodia with shellfish allergies; I spent several nights in bed with my epi-pen in my hand as I dozed off into a stoned sleep from high doses of Benadryl after finding a handful of tiny shrimp at the bottom of my soup. Allergies aren’t taken as seriously in certain places and I basically ate plain rice and veggies for a couple weeks to minimize my risk of exposure to fish sauce and other shellfish while Andrew delighted in all the amazing food in that region.
-A flight so turbulent that baggage compartments opened and people started praying
-The massive wave that took me out in Canggu and threw enough sand in my eye to scratch my cornea
6 hours into a 12 hour journey through Cambodia, the AC broke on a 45 degree day. 3 hours later that tin can was so pungent it made our eyes water.
another sinus infection in Morocco, drinking some weird antiseptic given to us by the owner of the airbnb
Hell is an immigration hall in Cambodia
Doing laundry often meant drying my underwear with a hotel handdryer
The massive goose egg on my leg after falling on a Game of Thrones tour in Northern Ireland in front of 50 people
The beginning of the finger infection
I’ve finally finished editing the 7k photos that I took during my year of travel and I think this is my favorite one of them all. It’s not very good, I took it on my phone, hastily. I was out walking along the beach in Nungwi and looked up to see this group of Muslim school girls walking home after class. They were squealing with laughter, trying to make it across a little patch of beach that got washed out when the tide came in. They would go a few at a time when the waves rolled out, holding hands and screaming as they ran and sometimes they wouldn’t make it so they would jump up and grab the ledge so their dresses wouldn’t get wet and then start running again when the water receded. They shrieked and laughed the whole time and they caught me watching them and we all laughed together. When the last group of 3 ran across, I snapped this single pic.
Here’s the truth about travel- all the things you’ve pictured, all the places you’ve thought of over and over and cut pictures out of magazines to put on your ‘vision board’- they’re never as good as you think they’re going to be. You’ve already built them up, you have an idea of how they’re supposed to go and they will never live up to it. It’s been a rare occasion that I’ve went somewhere I’ve fantasized about and had it be what I wanted. The real things that take your breath away and make you think and make you be thankful that you left it all behind are the moments you never saw coming: the stranger you meet in the desert, the homeless man you watch feed stray animals with his earnings, the kid you talk to at the bus stop. Real travel isn’t about climbing a mountain and posing in front of the temple or taking the exact same photo of Ha Long Bay we’ve all seen a million times. It’s about the people – tiny serendipitous moments with people that you can’t plan or romanticize in any way. That is what you will remember.