There are places on a map — and which have parallels within oneself — that feel like a closed door, or a hard line. Lines before which you stop, perhaps for days on end, not knowing entirely what to do. You feel foreign, even to yourself. You look back, retracing how you got to this point. You look forward, wondering what is beyond the line, if there’s a future there, and what kind. Feeling remote and unsure, you wait.
I arrived this week in Jayapura, a city on the eastern edge of Indonesia and 55 km from the border of Papua New Guinea. I had come to apply for a visa at the PNG consulate and then, visa in hand, continue on to PNG. Hours before flying here from Jakarta, however, the PNG embassy in Jakarta told me I wouldn’t be granted a visa in Jayapura, and I’d arrive only to find I could not continue on to Papua New Guinea.
I came anyway, hoping they were wrong.
But I also came feeling tired, still a little dazed and confused by the past few months on the road, wanting more to hang out with people I know, in a place I know, than navigate alone a town flung onto the far side of one country while planning to cross the border into another country where I, carrying expensive gear and months worth of photos, wasn’t feeling entirely at ease with security.
This is, however, my work, and I’ve found myself in places before where there was some hard line before which one had to stop and wait. It’s not always clear how much this line is geographical/political (outward), and how much it is mental/emotional (inward). But the presence of some line, of feeling remote and foreign even to oneself while standing in a particular place and time, is deeply felt.
And so on my first day in Jayapura, feeling pressed up hard against the edge of Indonesia and uncertain if in the coming days I’d be able to cross the border to Papua New Guinea (I’d find that out later in the week), I did what one sometimes does in these situations: I turned around and looked back over the past few months. The laughter and tears. The smells and voices. The scenery, hospitality, and tragedies.
What follows is a pictorial display of a few of these memories.
Please note that the following contains one image of human remains, and another image of an artistic nude.
In early March, in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province, as several of us stood on a boat in Tanjung Puting National Park and caught our first site of proboscis monkeys leaping through vast amounts of air from one tree to another, I smiled as I heard the awe-filled voice of a young Polish woman exclaim: “Woooooow! Fuuuuuuck!” Truly these animals were incredible to witness. Indeed, the entire three-night trip on this boat, with a good group of people from Poland and Indonesia, and numerous orangutan sightings, was wonderful.
For the first half of April I was in Sri Lanka, and they were hard days. On April 9 I almost lost it, and by “it” I mean my right foot. After several hours hanging outside a train traveling from Nuwara Eliya to Ella and photographing things, like this Danish couple looking out the window, I was not paying attention to where I was standing as the train began to enter Ella station. The screams of observant locals standing near the track caught my attention about the same moment that the approaching platform did. Had another fraction of a second passed before I yanked my right foot up from the lower step, I’d not have taken this picture of the Ella station sign; I’d have been tending to a life-changing injury, probably a severed foot.
The Ras al-Jinz Turtle Reserve in Oman is the easternmost point of the Arabian Peninsula, and a popular nesting ground for sea turtles. I walked to the beach before dawn and watched the sun rise, and in rounding one bend I startled a fox digging down into a sea turtle nest. Walking further down the beach I saw one turtle on the sand — it looked beautiful at first — and then I caught that unwelcome scent: death. I don’t know what killed it, or exactly why I laid down a few feet from it for several minutes, but I can tell you that I was listening to a Beyonce song at the time, called “I Was Here”:
I wanna leave my footprint on the sands of time
Know there was something that, meant something that I left behind
When I leave this world, I’ll leave no regrets,
Leave something to remember, so they won’t forget
I was here
I lived, I loved
I was here
From Oman it was on to Dubai for two nights, and the city was an unexpected surprise: I loved it. I visited a couple old friends, enjoyed the international feel, and was kind of in awe that a hostel could be located on the 66th floor of a skyscraper and have a balcony where you could lean over the rail and look straight down (don’t drop your coffee mug in the morning as it could kill someone). An enjoyable mix of people stayed at the aptly named At The Top Hostel, including 19-year-old Emily from Cologne, on her way home to Germany after seven months in Australia.
From Dubai it was on to northern Iraq for a month, where I couchsurfed the first few days with an American English teacher named Noah and made several visits to Mart Shmoni, a Syriac Catholic church in Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil. Most of the congregation were IDPs who had fled their homes in the nearby city of Qaraqosh during the 2014 ISIS advance. The people I met at Mart Shmoni were kind, intelligent, and welcoming. Their community has suffered greatly, and it was an honor to be briefly with them.
While in Iraq I made two visits to Qaraqosh, which before the ISIS takeover in 2014 was a lively Christian town with a population of about 60,000 but is now mostly a ghost town, even though ISIS was pushed out in October 2016. On one visit I walked for hours without seeing anyone, walking into burnt out shops and homes, smelling the charred walls, looking at the ISIS graffiti and defaced pictures of Jesus and Mary. At the entrance to the city on my second visit I met Bashar Azoo Boutros Alkhashanna, a 50-year-old Syriac Catholic selling ice from the back of a truck. Before I walked into town, he bought me a tea, shared some bread, gave my two packs of gum. He said he didn’t know why Christians in America didn’t do more for Christians in Iraq. He said without the presence of the U.S. or British military here, he didn’t see how Christians would last in the region. There are too many Muslims, he said, who would like to empty Christians from the land.
For parts of three days I visited Mosul, and inside what locals call the “Titanic Church” I met Rahaf, a 10-year-old Muslim girl, who along with her family had fled the town of Rabiye and had been living inside this shell of a church for the past month. What hell so many people in this part of the world have experienced in the past few years; yet the beauty and dignity of so many, like Rahaf, is absolutely stunning. Given the fragile security situation in Mosul, my local guide Abdullah and I didn’t usually stay too long in one place, but at this church we did spend some time on the roof as well, where we could see the smoke in the distance coming from the part of the city where the battle against ISIS was still underway. The sounds of car bombs, air strikes, gunfire…this is some of what Rahaf would hear every day.
I have seen dead bodies before — accidents, conflict — but in seeing the headless remains of this long-dead ISIS fighter on the floor of a shot-up hospital in Mosul, it was the first time I didn’t feel a degree of grief for the passing of a human being. The site and smell was ugly, like the ISIS worldview. How fragile we are, in so many ways. I would later do well to reread this powerful piece in the Washington Post by Sebastian Meyer: “ISIS kidnapped my best friend. But when I met its fighters, I couldn’t hate them.”
The picture on the right was taken in an ISIS-built tunnel constructed under the destroyed Nabi Yunus shrine in Mosul. The tunnels here were built in an effort to find, loot, and sell antiquities. One thing ISIS discovered but didn’t remove was this Assyrian stone sculpture of a demi-goddess.
It’s not my nature to want to go to war and shoot someone. But being near ISIS and the people who have been affected and traumatized by ISIS, one can see how that desire develops. And the desire originates not from an abstract disagreement with the ISIS worldview, but from being in the presence of all that that embodied worldview has harmed and destroyed.
On the left is 7-year-old Sonia at Sharya IDP camp near Dohuk. While I ate lunch in the tent of a Yazidi family who had fled ISIS, she wanted to keep me cool and keep the flies at bay, and she did this towel waving for at least 15 minutes, with a smile. So many Yazidis her age and of all ages are still unaccounted for, having been taken by ISIS in 2014. Sonia probably thought she was just keeping me cool and fly-free. But she was also, on this my last day in Iraq, driving home the depth of my anger toward ISIS, because they have destroyed so much that was good and beautiful.
On the right, in the same tent, is Nahida, age 24, with her children Samra, age 7, Mahdi, age 5, and Sandi, age 2. They fled their homes in Tel Azer.
At the end of May I crossed from Iraq into southeastern Turkey and spent the first two nights at the monastery of Mor Gabriel, founded in A.D. 397 and located near the city of Midyat. Inspired by William Dalrymple’s book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East, I had first come to the region, called Tur Abdin, in 2004, and wrote an article about the local Syriac Christians. My article had been hopeful about the future of this community, but 13 years later the situation and mood felt markedly grim.
I stayed in the same room as I had in 2004, and, also as in that first visit, enjoyed conversation with Archdeacon Malfono Isa Garis (on the right). Here’s one of the messages he asked that I convey to non-Orthodox Christians in America: “If I cross myself, you shouldn’t get sick. If I kiss the cross, don’t get sick. I’m not worshipping that metal. I’m seeing Jesus in it. Nothing else. Jesus is my God. Not the cross. You see? When Protestant missionaries come to the Middle East, they should go to the established churches. Make friendships. Pray with them. Think with them. Eat with them. Okay? Don’t forget this. And you should spread it to all missionaries in America. When they come to us they should feel that we are the root.”
After some days in the Turkish cities of Mardin and Diyarbakir, I reached Istanbul, happy to see more old friends, and happy to take a few rides again on the ferry connecting the European and Asian sides of the city. On my last night in Istanbul, I asked a family if I could photograph them as they set up for their iftar meal outside the Blue Mosque. They invited me to eat with them, and come to find out the woman, Gözde, had worked briefly in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The world can feel small.
In the ten days after Istanbul I called Bangkok home. One area I photographed was the city’s red light districts. On the left is Wasana, who works as a waitress at a bar in Nana Entertainment Plaza. On the right is Nan, employed at a go-go bar in Soi Cowboy. Later this year a story I wrote about a previous visit to Bangkok’s red light areas, called “Red Lights and a Rose,” will be republished in the book The Soul of a Great Traveler.
From Bangkok I took the overnight bus and ferry to Ko Phangan, an island I’ve been to several times and where I wanted to rest. For the first few days I mostly put my camera aside and made a concerted effort to do almost nothing. I had a hammock. I ate seafood. I drank numerous mango smoothies.
Then in the final few days I rented a motorbike — that’s my bike on the right, enjoying the sunset from the pier in Chaloklum Bay — and puttered around the island. I also worked on one of the many themes I’ve been photographing the last few years in various countries and cultures: artistic nudes. Some of my photography takes me to situations where people focus on what separates us, where power is misused and violence tears away at life and beauty. This project is kind of the opposite. The idea is to show the human form, with all its vulnerability and strength, its hope and pain, its experience and potential. On the left is Jessa, originally from New Orleans, one of several people who graciously allowed me to photograph them on Ko Phangan.
In Jakarta for four nights, I wandered the streets, made a couple half-day trips to Starbucks, and in general felt the completing of a circle, having left Indonesia three-and-a-half months earlier and now finding myself back again. It was a strange feeling, one I’m still sorting through.
Two observations from Jakarta:
- Thailand is nicknamed “Land of Smiles,” but I think the smiles in Indonesia, not least Jakarta, are more numerous and freely offered. Indonesians are wonderful to photograph.
- Barack Obama lived for four years in Jakarta (1967-71) and so I made a trip to Menteng, the neighborhood where he lived and attended the SDN Menteng 1 government-run school. Standing on the grounds where he studied as a boy, next to this statue of him, I appreciated anew his own complicated formation as a person, what it must have been like in the 1960s and 70s to be a boy with a black father and a white mother. Here in Jakarta he lived with his mom and Indonesian stepfather. Back in the States he would struggle with who he was, and in what direction he should go. Politics aside, the story of how he became who he is today is worth the study.
Final thoughts from this week in Jayapura
One of the first things I noticed when I exited the airport in Jayapura was the red betel nut stains on the ground, something very familiar to me after years of living in Papua New Guinea as a teenager. But the unexpected thing was that this familiar sight also felt oddly foreign, and in looking at it I saw — in case I were to ever forget — that I’m not the same person I was as a teenager.
Like coming full circle back to Indonesia after 14 weeks, I would soon be coming full circle back to Papua New Guinea after, since my last visit, 15 years. The thing about making a circle is that you don’t really end up exactly where you once were, because time doesn’t stand still. So long as that clock is ticking, both people and places will change, at least a little, often a lot.
And so here on the edge of Indonesia, waiting for a visa that I would thankfully be granted at the end of the week, I would stare sometimes at betel nut splatter. Some heavily peppered sidewalks looked like how I would imagine blood stains after an artillery strike, and it reminded me of the sights and sounds which people like Rahaf in Mosul have seen and heard too much.
But always, the splatter reminded me that “familiar” and “foreign” are not necessarily opposites; they can be overlapping realities.
I wrote a bit more but have saved it for maybe another post. Instead, I’ll conclude with a somewhat connected passage from Wendell Berry’s short story “Making It Home,” about a WWII veteran just about to reach his hometown after being gone a long time, and far away:
Once it had seemed to him that he walked only on the place where he was. But now, having gone and returned from so far, he knew that he was walking on the whole round world. He felt the great, empty distance that the world was turning in, far away from the sun and the moon and the stars.