Postcard from Co-Op

The date of departure draws near, and my passport, for which I applied three months in advance, fails to arrive. Calling the Department of State only lands me in voicejail. I pester my local congressman, whose kindly-sounding office ladies assure me that they’re writing stern words on my behalf. Listening to them, I imagine a flurry of limp, kindly-sounding emails. I do not count on them.

The government has decided that travelers to Mexico and Canada must have passports, and underestimated the surge in demand. Across the country, people are getting their passports one, two days before their trips, or not at all. Lines at the passport office in DC begin at 4:30 in the morning. Meanwhile, public transportation—my only kind—starts at 7 AM. So three days before my plane leaves, I pack my sleeping bag and head into town to bed down in front of the office.

“It’s my first full day in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and my first day of my first co-op”

I have an interesting conversation with a gay, interracial, and slightly crazy homeless couple. One of them is dopy and drug-addled with a crooked nose ring that droops out of one nostril like a booger. His soulful eyes wobble. He wants to engage me in a conversation about brotherhood among men. Sober and unsentimental, his partner keeps drags him away from me and chastises him. “Shame on you and your nonsense, that nice girl needs to sleep!” Meanwhile, he grows ever more strident in complaining about the plunge their relationship has taken lately. If his partner loved him, would he really treat him like this? Would he? Would he?

I suggest that I am totally unqualified to arbitrate the burgeoning dispute. I fall asleep to the sound of the one partner’s piercing accusations and the other’s cool replies.

The morning of the second day before I am scheduled to fly, I am the first person in line. Still, I wait for seven hours in line and the office tells me to come back tomorrow. One day before I am scheduled to fly, the passport office mints me a new passport on-site; the one delivered to me is still in transit in Pennsylvania (it will later arrive three days after I have left the country). The passport photos that I have taken that day are haggard. I look precisely like I’ve just spent a night sleeping on a DC sidewalk.

Fast-forward a month of travelling through Southeast Asia, and I step off a plane in Johannesburg, South Africa. I stow my stuff, meet some women at the hostel, and arrange to go out to dinner with them. Half a block from the restaurant and five hours off the plane, I get mugged.

Most of my money is safely hidden. But Mom advised me to keep my passport on me at all times, and so it is lost–the only thing of value taken from me. The next day I go to the consulate, make some more passport photos, and acquire a new passport in four hours. My photos looked exactly as though I’ve just been mugged at gunpoint on a Johannesburg street.

Fast-forward another month, and it’s my first full day in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and my first day of my first co-op job.

Hanif, the owner of the company, asks me if I knew anything about lighting. “Nothing,” I say, but he is already handing me the camera. “On, off, shoot, show,” he explains, pointing here and here and here. We are in the studio and the model is on site, looking even more bewildered than I. He is a young man in rumpled dress shirt, with doe eyes and an overnice command of English that lead him to say things like “Hanif is going to rectify the computer”. Hanif abandons us alone together in the studio.

I slink uneasily through the forest of boom lights and reflectors and illuminated umbrellas on stilts, pausing sometimes to adjust them as if I know what I’m doing. I work hard to put the model at ease while I hunt for the ‘shoot’ button. I asked him to tell me a joke and he obliges. The punchline doesn’t make any sense to me, but I laugh anyways, mostly in relief. I’ve found the button.

The photo shoot is for a series of billboards that the company is producing encouraging Tanzanians to take advantage of free HIV testing at a local clinic. It features prominent members of the community looking happily into the camera, as if they’ve just received good news, or else have an impressively devil-may-care disdain for the bad. It is hard to get my model to smile. All too often, his pictures look as though he’s just been delivered a death sentence.

“My photos look exactly as though I’ve just been mugged at gunpoint on a Johannesburg street”

But something that I ask sets him off. He has a story; an honest, epic, tragicomic, NPR-worthy story. He went to Britain, he says. He was bored one day and he wandered into a recruiter’s office. He was entranced by the feeling of the gun they put in his arms. He signed up; they sent him to Iraq. There was therapy afterwards, and a coming-to-terms, but his brothers-in-arms are still his brothers. Then the story’s sequence devolves: he had his first kiss, and breathed a rarefied air for a week afterwards. He grew up sheltered, and become disenchanted at twenty when he realized that life was not a fairy tale and he very likely wasn’t going to meet the perfect woman and live the perfect life.

Mostly I forget to take pictures during this time. When I am done, I judge the photos passable. I am wrong.

As soon as Hanif takes look at them, he calls me into the studio to hold a reflector panel while he shoot, one after the next after the next, ignoring the model’s discomfort, the camera sputtering through its reel like a gatling gun.