Introspect and Retrospect in the Deserts of Peru
Jamie was dead and the desert was hot. Sweat nipped at my eyes as I squatted over my backpack outside Paita’s bus terminal. The sun pressed heavy on my back. I had no phone. No clue if I was even at the same station where I’d agreed to meet Nicola—the only person I could communicate with outside of hand gestures this far north of Lima—but right now that didn’t seem to matter. All I could focus on was the following: Jamie was dead. And the desert was hot.
Four weeks ago, I had no clue I’d spend the next month stumbling, essentially mute, through the coastal deserts of Northern Peru. Go back another year and a half and I didn’t even know who Jamie was. I guess I still hardly did. Or would. Both events were the rapid-fire alchemy of coincidence and the internet. Peru was a last minute trip, funded by a travel grant a friend suggested I apply for in its closing hours. The idea of shooting portraits ‘Humans of New York’-style around a series of small fishing villages wasn't entirely new to me, but the logistics of this particular project were rattled off quickly as I raced to beat the application deadline. I'd once met a Peruvian girl in Nepal who invited me to visit her while she worked on her Anthropology thesis in the villages North of Piura. One year later, here I was in the north of the Sechura with a head full of ghosts.
Jamie, I’d met the previous February. I'd been in Bangkok 12 hours—the result of an exit-point requirement for my Indonesian visa—and had received a Couchsurfing invitation to road-trip with a bunch of English teachers to a ‘Cowboy City’ near the rim of Khao Yai National Park. Jamie was waiting there when I arrived. He was an optimistic American who’d just returned to his teaching gig after a not-so-optimistic biopsy detected a pair of tumors growing inside his skull. Grasping at a happy ending, I showed him the scar that ran up the nape of my neck through which I’d had a similar growth plucked from my cerebellum 21 years earlier.
Jamie responded with a simple smile, the same subtle grin that would remain on his face throughout the remainder of the weekend as we played big brother to a handful of grade-school students. 15-months later—while I was in transit between Lima and Piura—that same smile would burnout somewhere in Bangkok. I received the news from his agent and a mutual friend; the message was attached to a photo I’d taken that weekend in Khao Yai. Jamie taunted the camera, bug-eyed and tongue out with two blue shark's fins painted on his cheeks. The shot seems candid, but it took me two or three exposures to get. I hadn’t spoken to Jamie much since but the news of his passing felt like I’d swallowed a fist-full of bread with no water. For the next week or so it would rest uncomfortably in my throat.
Up until this last few year the main reason I travelled was for nature. My childhood obsession with 'The Lion King' still resides strongly amidst my fascination with big game. I can’t pass through a bio-diverse region without at least one safari. But more and more often my memories are occupied by the people I've met.
I’m not sure when exactly this evolution took place. Likely, it was the same shift that caused me to ease up on my chemistry studies to dabble in journalism (perhaps foolishly) drawn to the idea of interviewing new people every day of the week. Slowly, I began to return home from my trips with more phone-numbers than beaded bracelets. I gauged the success of each journey by who I’d stay in touch with after rather than what I saw. Finally, some time last year, I picked up the semi-professional camera that until recently had only accompanied me on writing assignments and learned as much as I could about portrait photography. I’d missed out on too many connections in previous trips. I wanted to immortalize the faces I might never see again.
There's something incredibly intimate about analyzing another human's face. Running one's gaze carefully and intentionally over another man's skin—the shadows that skim his cheek, the light that dances in his eyes—forms an impression that doesn't easily fade. What begun as a mere exercise in empathy has had an irreversible effect on my life. I hardly stay in hotels. I play host more than I’d ever imagine. When I'm stuck in the midst of a location dependent project a drop-in from Germany or a Snapchat from Sweden can be a quick-fix remedy for itchy feet.
Perhaps most incredible is how this ethos has resonated across my personal network. I’ve been humbled by the audience my works receives on an international scale. In order to solidify funding for my Peru portrait project, four applications were put up to a vote. I was sure I’d be smoked by one LA-based candidate who, aside from penning fantastic application, had a celebrity photographer partner who boasted a local following with which I doubted I had the ability to compete. I asked a few friends to help me out. Things snowballed. The day before I received confirmation that I was heading to Peru, I was floored by the lead I’d amassed—almost double that of the other equally-if-not-more-impressive candidates. I flicked back through my own network to try to sniff out where I’d hit the tipping point. My work had been shared in over 20 countries—the ultimate honour for a travel writer. On the road, your number one enemy is cultural ignorance. There is no worse fate than penning a story that falls apart when read in a country other than your own.
When you prop open your windows to let in the sunshine, you're bound to catch the occasional drop of rain. Force yourself into enough people's stories and you'll eventually get tangled up in a tragedy. Last November, I watched a Typhoon chew its way through the Philippines. Over 5,000 were reported dead, in all likelihood that included hands that had fed me only four years earlier during a month volunteering in Cebu. Amidst the chaotic beauty of Mt. Sinabung’s eruption two months later was the ash-grey reality that a family I stayed with in Beristagi would go without home for weeks post evacuation. The world is a wabi-sabi system of birth and decay: in order to celebrate the former you must welcome the latter with open arms. The morning's headlines are written in blood but click-through to page two and a 15-year old creates a flashlight the runs off of body-heat alone. Anyone who spends their time around a newspaper—especially someone who writes for them from time to time—knows the importance of counter-medicating the good with the bad. But, of course, when the bad brings to mind images of a face you've photographed, that’s easier said than done.
My Cebuano friends survived Yolanda. Smiley and Cecelia and their three children have settled back in since last February’s eruption. Yet amidst all these tiny victories I'm still brought back to a single American teacher who, while out there chasing life, had his own snuffed out by a fluke genetic mutation. Like light upon a camera's sensor, that's been immortalized in my mind.
Jamie was dead. The desert was hot.
The desert is unlike anywhere else on earth. Its endlessness is tangible. There’s a reason most of the world religion’s profits received their messages in the midst of some sun-bleached nowhere: once your eyes become exhausted from the emptiness around you, you have no choice but to turn your gaze inward upon yourself.
Gaunt Bangladeshi street-kids, moon-faced monks, and Turkish fishermen all danced across my mind.
A hallowed out old Subaru shuddered into the bus-stop. I looked up: one more pair of familiar eyes.
Less than a year ago, I’d met Nicola in the foothills of the highest mountain range on earth. The result of chance as a per usual, the mere fact that she’d found a napkin labeled ‘Kathmandu, Nepal.'
To share an adventure with someone once is a blessing. To have the opportunity to do it all again—another continent, another mountain—surreal. I wrapped my arms around her the moment she hit the dust-cracked pavement. How many people can one hold onto in this life? I wasn't sure but I might as well grab onto what I could, even if that meant I'd eventually be forced to let go.