Things I wish I had photographed

Tunisian Edition

  • all the people who are friendly to the core, minus the cab drivers at the louage station and airport who (try to) rip you off
  • the people on the tram pulling me in, telling me vigila my bags
  • the tenderness of the man holding on to the woman’s arm on the light rail
  • the guy next to me on the louage who offered me gum
  • the man at the cafe who unlocked the women’s toilet for me 
  • the man in el jem selling carrots, piled high in his car (i wish i had more heart in approaching people and being open and asking for their story)
  • the shepherds you see on the roadside
  • the workers harvesting olives in those luscious groves
  • the man selling tea and snacks before the checking point, all bundled up, his left hand grasping sprigs of fresh mint
  • the men selling lizards? hedgehogs? hanging from a stick by the side of the road 
  • the young girls with braids climbing into the back of the pickup truck
  • the roadways from the plague has got me thinking about how the roads of the world are different, but make me feel the same way still.
  • i love being back on the continent. the disorder of it. things may not work, but no one pretends that they do.   
  • got the same louage driver back to tunis. he asked me if i knew french again, hopefully, as if i had picked it up that day in kairouan 

Chance Connections

In an age when the internet is involved in the majority of our relationships, the ones devoid of technology sometimes leave a longer lasting impression.

I was trying to find the bus to the airport in Kerala, south India. If you’ve ever been to a place where people give you a response to anything, even questions they don’t know the answer to, you will understand this was no simple task. Particularly when the situation is time-sensitive. I noticed a tall boy, loaded up with osprey hiking packs, who was also surveying the jumble of vehicles. He said he was heading to the airport too. We both got on a blue bus, a green bus, an extra-janky bus, all of which were wrong. Eventually we found the right one and started snaking our way through intense Kochi traffic. 

We started to chat– he told me he’s from Malmö, Sweden, and that he was working in real-estate until he quit his job recently. He spent the last three months teaching yoga on the beach in Varkala and regretted nothing. His body had that leanness about it. Our faces drip with sweat from the intense heat. In Kerala, the atmosphere is somehow both stultified by the sun yet relentlessly bursting with human activity. He explained that he is flying to China to teach English. When I learned that he spoke Mandarin at a reasonable fluency, we spoke only in Chinese for the rest of the hour and a half ride. In our rambling conversation, we chatted about how delicious and affordable the food is in India, marveled at the humidity and its astounding presence, and looked up the word for ‘macadamia nut’ in Chinese (澳大利亞見過). We spoke about what we wanted to do with our lives, what we hoped we wouldn’t become. It wasn’t until afterwards that I realized how easily our conversation flowed.

We got off the bus together at the airport. But as a security guard checked our passports, I realized I was at the wrong terminal– international instead of domestic. I was flying back to Bombay to meet a friend. He looked me in the eye and told me how much he appreciated the chat. Likewise. A parting hug. One last glance and that was it– I didn’t look back. We hadn’t exchanged contact info or even names. I like to think both of us had been intentional about that– some momentary friendships are better off remaining perfect in memories.

My semi-itinerant lifestyle as a photojournalist has taught me not to get too attached to people I meet abroad– you learn to enjoy what time you share together and let it go when it’s over. As I walked toward the domestic terminal, I was surprised to feel a real pang– of what exactly, I wasn’t sure. Nostalgia for the present moment which had already slipped by? Whatever it was, it felt like this connection mattered.

Our daily lives are oriented around technological communication and notifications. I’ve been working remotely for a company for nearly two years and have yet to meet my bosses in person. When I’m away from home on assignment or for a trip, calling my friends and family brings familiarity and comfort into even the most foreign and remote of places. In the media, there are entire columns devoted to dissecting the art of modern communication: why texting styles matter, how much time to wait before responding, whether or not a voice-call is too imposing. Thinking back to this chance encounter nearly three years later, I’m amazed at what ends up being remembered. That Swedish boy and I were just two people trying to find a bus– we ended up opening to each other, two strangers, as if we knew it was bound to happen. We shared a moment together as we were trying to figure out what matters to us in a world where everything is a blur of roadside thali, headachey pollution, and warm bottled water. Nothing less, not much more.

Quarantine Cultures

Always hard to understand how things unfold the way they do. The five stages of grief have been referenced throughout the global COVID-19 outbreak. Some temporal distance since my own arrival at the “acceptance” stage has allowed me space to reflect on how different countries develop their own quarantine cultures. 

In mid-March, I was wrapping up travels in Tunisia as the coronavirus hit Europe and North America. President Trump’s misleading announcement of America’s travel ban spurred the rest of the world to respond rapidly in handling their own outbreaks. On March 14th, the Tunisian government had ordered non-essential activities to halt by 4 p.m., sealed all maritime borders, and was in the process of stopping flights. It had seemed like I would be able to fly home until it didn’t—my flight back to the states missed the cutoff by a few hours. Feeling stressed out was beyond the point, I just had to find a way to not be stuck alone in north Africa.

I’d lived in Nairobi, Kenya back in 2018, working as a freelance photojournalist covering ways in which technology is changing our relationship to the natural world. As my options for leaving Tunisia dwindled down to flights across the African continent, the comforting thought of returning to a somewhat familiar place, where I still have a community, made the most sense. It felt like the forces of the universe were on my side. Within 24 hours I’d booked and boarded a flight to Nairobi. Everything went without a hitch as I miraculously obtained a visa on arrival just as Kenya sealed its own borders. I reunited with my friend in a startlingly empty airport. The last time I met her in Nairobi, I had unknowingly picked up an amoeba infection enroute, and she slept through her alarm to pick me up from my red-eye flight. But the chaos this time was happening at a global level. It felt surreal to be back under such circumstances.

We went to my friend’s place in Karen, the admittedly bougie part of town, where I would self-quarantine for two weeks until I figured out what to do next. Karen is where expats and wealthy Kenyans tend to reside due to its greenery and seclusion from the noisy clutter of downtown. Of all the places to quarantine in Nairobi, this is definitely one of the nicer areas. The early days were the hardest, as my brain slowly, reluctantly processed the extent of COVID-19 repercussions. As a lockdown came into place on April 6th and it became clear no one was going anywhere in the near future, I used this opportunity to practice not having desires. I actually started meditating after years of intending to in order to wrestle with this new innate restlessness in response to unprecedented restrictions on movement. As someone who is used to a fairly itinerant life, I usually don’t feel homesick. That’s not even necessarily what I feel right now, but I still feel the urge return home and make sure everything is fine, even though I know they aren’t. 

I tried to keep up with developments in New Hampshire, where my parents live, as streets quieted down, shops closed, and the non-stop cycle of bad developments sustained a low hum of menace. My mother wrote a family email saying, “It’s a different world here now. Before we went to every store, it was always full of customers and goods on all the shelves.” My brother quickly responded- “Please stay calm… stores will be back in stock within a few weeks. This is the United States, not a third world developing country. Everyone is panic buying, of course the shelves will be temporarily empty.” 

A significant portion of Kenya’s population work in the gig economy, with financial limitations that make hoarding impossible. Pre-pandemic, working class Kenyans would buy what they need day-to-day: 3 eggs instead of a dozen, a couple of cigarettes instead of a pack, and so on. Many do not face the sort of abundance that Americans take for granted. The capacity to hoard toilet paper simply doesn’t exist. 

On April 6th, President Kenyatta announced restricted movement for 21 days in and out of Nairobi Metropolitan Area and other virus hotspots, including Kilifi and Mombasa counties. This lockdown has been renewed three times for a total of nine weeks so far. Face masks and social-distancing are required in public places, along with a curfew from 7pm - 5am. These directives, which have since been gazetted, were accepted by the people. The orderliness of sanitization procedures when entering shops does lend some psychological trust to the process. At some establishments, you wash your hands, then use hand sanitizer, and have your temperature taken before you are allowed entrance. Failure to abide results in a fine and/or time in prison, and possibly corporeal punishment by the police. Kenyans may grumble and be forced into compliance, but the government’s authoritarianism has in a way reaffirmed the way in which orders are not questioned. My friends here joke, “beatings are the African way.” As of May 10th, there were 632 COVID-19 cases and 32 deaths. In practice, the strict restrictions may be a shame, but an effective one. 

But there’s been backlash from those who see the Kenyan government’s tunnel-vision handling of coronavirus as a distraction from everything else that needs fixing. On May 7th, at least 194 Kenyans were killed from flash floods. Floods that happen every year. Kenyans have much bigger things to worry about than whether or not the government has overstepped its boundaries by requiring citizens to wear masks.

Meanwhile, Americans collectively realized in horror that the US had not simply botched the handling of COVID-19, but utterly failed to protect its citizens. But that funny thing that comes with America’s particular abstract concept of freedom and individuality– how our opinions should always be respected– that is alive and well. In various parts of the US, protests over mask-wearing emerged as select citizens view issues of public health as hindrances to personal freedom. Of all the things to pick a bone about, this seemed like an inane one considering the initial logarithmic rise of COVID-19 cases in the US. Even in the middle of a pandemic. For some, flaunting recommended stay-at-home orders became an act of bravery and reflection of the right to exercise individual freedom. It’s hard not to feel disconnected from the situation on the ground back at home when hearing such news.

Nevertheless, the US’s systemic failures have never been made more clear. African Americans are disproportionately affected by coronavirus, millions of Americans who were already struggling to pay rent face even more obstacles, and racially-motivated shootings continue to occur. COVID-19 has magnified the looming deficiencies in our system, realities we can no longer afford to ignore. These uncomfortable realizations only add to the general sense of pandemic fear.

When I first started thinking about quarantine cultures, I saw COVID-19 as a democratizing force. The whole world is rarely put on pause at the same time for the same reason. Theoretically, everyone faces the same situation of sheltering in place, self-isolating, and experiencing degrees of loneliness from restricted mobility and nostalgia for the past and joys we took for granted. One’s wealth is no guarantee of safe passage from the virus. But COVID-19 has highlighted key socio-economic inequities, which are going nowhere. In Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa and a neighbourhood division in Nairobi, at least 12% of the population is HIV positive and therefore immuno-compromised. Access to reliable sources of clean water has always been an issue– this is one of the few realities that hasn’t changed. 

News of Americans raring to go to the beach– individuals bored of their Netflix, longing for a return to a former sense of normalcy– is distinctly unsettling. It’s one thing to defy lockdowns when one lacks the means to self-quarantine, but the desire to go on holiday as soon as possible shows how selfish and short-sighted we are as a nation. As long as outbreaks continue– and they will for quite some time– our old activities will not truly feel normal or bring the sort of gratification they once did. In Kenya, everyone knows that the lockdown can’t last for much longer– people need to eat. The majority of civilians live hand-to-mouth; keeping food in the house each day has become even more of a Sisyphean task ever since business jolted to a halt. Yet, the wealthy in Kenya live relatively unperturbed, just as those in the US do, going on daily walks to escape the emptiness of their big houses. With masks on and carefully social distancing, of course.


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