Road Trip Photo Essay | #22

The first weekend of J&L’s Lebanon adventure was spent in a rental car, logging approximately 322km to explore an array of Lebanon locals.  I’d been to a few of our stops (the Qadisha Valley, the Chouf Cedar Reserve, and Deir Al Qamar) but the rest of the trip was new to me as well. Jamie opted to share driving duties with me, an endeavor with jet lag further compounded by the ridiculousness of driving in Lebanon.  A lot of laughs, a few disagreements, hitchhikers, getting our fill of Roman ruins, eating a lot, and drinking even more coffee, a few wrong turns, memories made: all the things of a good road trip.


Hey, Smalls, you wanna s’more?”

Some more of what?”

No, do you wanna s’more?”

I haven’t had anything yet, so how can I have some more of nothing?”

You’re killing me Smalls! These are s’more’s stuff! Ok, pay attention. First you take the graham, you stick the chocolate on the graham. Then you roast the ‘mallow. When the ‘mallows flaming… you stick it on the chocolate. Then cover with the other end. Then you scarf. Kind of messy, but good! Try some!” (Sandlot)

This past weekend found me in the mountains with several dozen students on a retreat.  Much team building and a lot of “firsts”. First time, for the majority, setting up a tent, being at the school’s outdoor site, going on a zipline, balancing on a slack line, and making s’mores.  The anecdote leading up to that last item…

I couldn’t bring myself to buy colored marshmallows. The idea of making a s’more with a pink mallow produced an interesting mental block and I’m sure it looked quite funny to other patrons- the ajnabi over-pondering bags of jet-puffed sugar in the candy aisle of Idriss. To not purchase the inferior mallows would mean a walk to Solidere which didn’t promise any certain result either.  Twenty minutes later though that was just what I was doing.  Efforts paid off and I snagged the last two “Special Barbeque” brand, white marshmallows as well as Hershey’s chocolate bars. Digestive cookies are about as close as I’ve found to graham crackers in Lebanon.  All this to share a favorite campfire past time of mine - s’mores - with a group of my students.  Yes, I laughed at myself thoroughly.  Fast forward 24 hours though and the effort was paying off as twenty-some students sorted how to make a s’more, eyes aglow with extra sugar, and many even venturing to try to the addition of peanut butter (thanks Jamie!).  ”Have you ever had a s’more before?” “No” - the common interchange.  Easter egg-hued mallows just wouldn’t have made the cut…

1 For 100 Photo Project, Thoughts on...

Disposable cameras, haphazard, curiosity driven shots, every now and then finding a gem amongst the ground shots, skewed framing, blurred and otherwise poorly taken photos post-development: these are my earliest memories of photography.  At about eight I began pestering my mom for something, anything, to take photos with; her pocket-size Olympus, cheap no-frills disposables- it didn’t matter.  I loved the idea of photography, even if my skill was non-existent.  The day a newly developed role of film (this was before digital was prevalent) was ready, I could only manage to hold in my anticipation for so long before I started devising excuses as to why retrieval couldn’t be put off until a later date- I wanted to see what I had created, and then go out and do it all again.  I think in many ways that is how craft, passions, develops - playing with the medium, experimenting, sorting out what it means to the individual, what it is that draws someone back again and again.

In the years that would follow, I would take many awful photos, ones I now look through and laugh over. But I would also be drawn to the challenge of trying to capture a moment in accuracy and detail, my eye especially seeking the unique, story-filled shots, and cursing every time I was without a camera when such glimmers occurred.

While states-based, photography beyond snapshots at events always seemed to fall to the back when design projects beckoned or my schedule felt too full.  But in the year plus of life international, it has risen to the surface, meeting a very real need for creativity and creation as the reality is that much of what I did in Oregon is impractical in the immediate context of Beirut, and the larger picture of a life lived impermanently.

The “1 For 100” project came from recognizing that I’m healthier when I’m creating, and because of the allure of the challenge (as well as inspiration from a few friends).  To consciously take photos each day is not as easy as it sounds in terms of practicality (having a camera handy) or seeing past the perceived mundane to find hidden intricacy, form, and beauty.  Truth be told, if someone isn’t careful, this kind of project can very easily digress into photographing random objects around the house (which, yes, I did do at some points).  I was surprised by how much I learned about my photographic and design preferences, and ruts, over the past three-plus months, and how easy it is to go through a given day without seeing details, the nuance that makes a photo come alive.  To complete this project meant being aware, meant seeing the daily and mundane with different eyes; the concrete of my neighborhood became a lesson in lines, texture, and layers and a glass of wine, a reminder of the interplay of color, light, and viscosity.

The following are some of my favorite shots from the project, and thoughts on why.  I wasn’t snobbish about what form of camera I used; some of my best shots have been taken with my iPhone.  Nor was I against using apps to experiment with color and filters.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York City: bold lines and geometry, which came to life all the more through a black&white filter.

Manzanita Fireworks: thankfully there was just enough light left to provide a good silhouette of the mountains while the beach bonfire illuminated the smoke. The couple added another story-laden element.

Beech Creek Shadows: this is hands down one of my favorite shots in a long time.  The interplay of light and shadow was perfect.  Sometimes a good shot is more luck than anything else…

Science Experiment: the colors were dynamic, but more so this is a simple shot loaded with memory.  An afternoon of Grace’s insatiable curiosity and constant clamoring to do “science experiments”, in this case using food coloring to dye Queen Anne’s Lace.

Graffiti: I think perhaps one of the more unappreciated art forms but when well done it can be breathtaking.  I smile every time I pass this particular piece, and love the detail of the guy’s spray can color and the girl’s hair bow.

Barn Sunset: between the diffused light, content, and silhouettes, perfection.

Roots: This shot came alive with the black&white filter.

The cabin: the patina of the filter captured something of the spirit of this place which means so much to me, and is indescribably layered with memory.

Anaa ba3rif shway 3rabi

“I know a little Arabic”; a little as in barely enough to legitimize such a statement.

My PNW, small town upbringing meant Spanish was the main secondary language a school might offer. Larger school districts branched out into American Sign Language, German, Japanese, and French but even ten years post-graduation, I’m yet to hear of a high school making Arabic a language offering.  I’m pretty sure most major universities offer it though I couldn’t say conclusively if UO did while I was there for undergrad.  Yet I took a job in a Middle Eastern country where the primary languages are Arabic and French (and English though any distance from Beirut makes it less and less useful).  Hands down one of the more popular questions asked after I accepted the job, that is after folks made sure they’d heard me correctly and muttered something about safety, was if I would make it a point to learn Arabic.  “Yes,” was the answer, “at the very least enough to be polite.”

My mother has always valued language.  From a young age I was learning basic Spanish and friends would gawk when, in high school, my mom and I would have rudimentary conversations or give each other a hard time in Spanish.  Two years of language in both high school and undergrad were graduation requirements, and so I studied Spanish formally for a total of about five years.  Perhaps due to my mom’s influence, I’ve enjoyed the idea of learning other languages even if I haven’t always actively done so.  I took a year of German in undergrad, while also taking my final required year of Spanish (my exasperated German 101 professor very patiently dealt with Spanish-German translation errors and default Spanish responses to her German questions for the first few weeks of class) and studied ASL for a few terms so I could communicate more effectively with a housemate who was deaf.  I don’t claim fluency in any of those three languages, and none come close to the realities of Arabic.

Right to left orientation for reading and writing, a completely different formation pattern for letters, and sounds that I’m not even sure my throat and mouth can make, yet I want to learn it, as much as I can anyway.

I started with the “enough to be polite” concept.  It’s something I strongly believe in; if someone is going to travel, she needs to at least take the time to learn common greetings and pleasantries.  I can appreciate those who would say this isn’t enough, and I would agree, but it’s at least a start, and better than nothing.  Some of my more irate travel moments have been when other Americans pompously assume that those in other countries should know English so as not to inconvenience them, the traveler.  (I think those tend to be the same individuals who bitch and moan about immigrants and travelers to the US not knowing much English… Evidently they don’t look in mirrors too often…)  But enough to be polite, to say “please” and “thank you”, “good morning” and “good evening”, inquire about someone’s well being is, I think, a must.

In the pell mell busyness of last year, a once a week, somewhat informal, class offered by a Lebanese colleague laid enough groundwork to reach this goal, more or less (she seemed a little taken aback when I asked to be taught swear words but one too many times of students popping off with something inappropriate in Arabic thinking that made it okay or because they figured the ajnabii (foreigner) wouldn’t get it seemed to legitimize this request).  I still freeze up a bit when responding to the “how are you” question and have to really think about if I’m using the correct masculine/feminine notation but I’m finding I can pick up words in conversations, comprehending a bit more than I can actually speak myself.  My students, and a few colleagues, seem to find it amusing when I use phrases like “yalla” (hurry up) and “shuu” (what?) and when I answer with “la” and “aye” instead of “no” and “yea”, but then again I find it amusing too so at least we’re all laughing together.  As one colleague pointed out, working in the environment of English instruction, it is easy to not learn Arabic and get away with it, and at the same time, as observed by my brother-in-law, to live in Lebanon for several years and not learn it would be ridiculous.

I’ve been very appreciative of Lebanese friends and colleagues who are patient with my lack of understanding, and hope to eventually get to the point where maybe I can hold my own and the concessions won’t have to be made.  So with a sort of basic foundation in place, here’s to an added layer to this year - learning Arabic, removing the “shway”, getting to “anaa ba3rif 3rabi”.