He lifted his arms in a V, stretching as high as his legs and arms and body would go. Click.
“Photo me!” he shouted as he stood atop a small hill. Behind him, the volcano gurgled boulders that tumbled down its slopes, but we couldn’t see them. We only heard the tumbling sound as if acorns were falling from a tree, hitting branches on their way down. When we squinted our eyes toward the very top, determined to see what we knew was there, we glimpsed pebbles the way you sometime see dust when a stream of sunshine hits it just right.
I squatted, leaned over, trying for a unique angle. “Photo me,” Luc called again with his sometimes peculiar combination of English words and Spanish grammar, one of the characteristics that first attracted me to him six months before. He lifted his arms in a V, stretching as high as his legs and arms and body would go. Click. Although it’s a digital camera, I heard that satisfying opening and closing of the lens. 1/125 of a second, a perfect exposure for this warm day.
“Now your turn,” he waved me up.
“Mmmm…” I hesitated. I liked to be behind the camera, not in front of it. Luc didn’t know this about me yet. This vacation to Costa Rica was our first trip together.
“Come on. How many times will you be here?” He jutted his head toward the mountain with its summit blown off, lava still bubbling inside. It was the first active volcano I’ve ever seen. And it was impressive. When we were closer, stupidly hiking past the sign that glared Danger: Falling Rocks, DO NOT PASS, we felt the earth rumbling and air vibrating. Then we heard the roar: low, threatening, and dangerous. No wonder earlier peoples thought the gods were connected to such places. There we know instinctively just how vulnerable we are.
“Ok,” I somewhat reluctantly headed toward him for the exchange of the camera.
I’m not thrilled to have my photo taken in general, but one of my biggest pet peeves is having my photo taken in front of art, monuments, architectural masterpieces, and tourist attractions. For one thing, the point of going to see it, whatever it is, is to experience it. I’m there to appreciate it in all of its splendor, not ruin its spectral beauty by superimposing my image on it, even for a split second. I want to explore, look at all of the angles, and take in its magnificence from as many directions as possible. Of course, it always helps if there are not a million people around, but that’s why we try to go as early in the morning as possible. The light is better then, too, for photography — real photography — not touristy snapshots.
And posing? I refuse. “Smile this time,” Luc still says to me after he’s handed our cheap point and shoot off to some other camera-toting tourist. I tend to have a vaguely annoyed look on my face when he cajoles me into these photos. He thinks having a crappy photo of the two of us sitting on a rock with the Pantheon looming behind us is going to spark memories of our honeymoon. The real memorable moments aren’t the ones captured in photos, but the unexpected ones, like Luc’s two broken toes acquired when he smashed them into a rocky crevice while vying for a better view of the sunset.
I want to explore, look at all of the angles, and take in its magnificence from as many directions as possible.
This is my artistic side. I protect it like a child, and I hate for it to be compromised.
But I see photography differently. I want to create a beautiful image, and what usually draws me in are the details. This explains why one friend asked, “These are your vacation photos?” as she looked at a macro shot of the intricate metalwork on a wide-planked wooden door from a Spanish Colonial building and an atmospheric image of an interior wall of Canterbury Cathedral splashed by crimson, violet and gold light. “They look like stock images.” By which she meant, “Where are all the people?”
Until fairly recently, none of my photos had people in them if I could help it. “How did you even get this shot?” another friend asked about an image of a dragonfly touching down on a leaf. “Oh, I just waited for the right moment.” After all, that’s what photography is all about: waiting for the right light, getting the perspective just right, the cloud to cover the sun, the subject to turn just so, the bird to take off. This is my artistic side. I protect it like a child, and I hate for it to be compromised. I don’t want to be a part of bad photography, either by taking it myself or submitting to being its subject.
During one trip though, I decided that Luc was right: some times having my photo taken is as important as taking the artistic shot. We were trekking the Inca Trail, a two-day hike instead of the four-day trail because of time and health limitations. Doctors discovered a melanoma in my eye nine months before. Feeling too mortal and too sheltered, we decided to go on an adventure of a lifetime, not wait until we had enough money or time.
Before cancer, I had never contemplated my death, and especially not as something immediately pending. At thirty-four, I thought that I’d live at least until eighty-four, and that seemed like a whole other lifetime away. After much prodding for something tangible, some number that I could write down, my oncologist laid out the statistics for me, “Patients with the same size tumor, statistically have about a seventy-percent survivorship over five years. If the cancer metastasizes, there isn’t much that we can do. Then, survival times are counted in months.” What I heard was: you have a thirty-percent chance of dying before you hit forty.
I vowed to do something new, something beyond my comfort zone every week, all in the name of living life to its fullest. So when Luc, a fellow in infectious disease, first mentioned a six-week long research program in Lima, Peru, an opportunity to pursue his interest in sub-specializing in tropical medicine, I encouraged him to apply. What drew him was the idea of combining his two passions, infectious disease and travel: seeing diseases like Malaria and Typhoid Fever as close to where they originated as possible. What drew me was experiencing life in a completely different way than I had in New York City.
In Lima, Luc saw illnesses he rarely had a chance to see stateside, snake bites, anthrax, and a plethora of parasites, while I practiced my verb conjugations and memorized Spanish words. I learned quickly what I needed to know to survive, how to order coffee and grilled chicken and rice lunches, but could only use my limited vocabulary in the present tense. Our last week in Peru, our gift to ourselves, was in Cusco and on the Inca Trail. We had contracted with a guide to lead us along the trail; Miguel led our group of six people, an older couple from Australia, two athletic types from Montana, and Luc and me.
I was still adjusting to my new normal, a world that looked and felt one-dimensional. First the tumor, then the radiation had irreversibly damaged my retina in my left eye. Unlike near-sightedness, far-sightedness, or an astigmatism which are problems with the eye’s focus, and can be cured with corrective glasses, retinal disease is a problem of translation. There is no fix. The retina is like the film onto which the image from the lens of a camera is projected. It is made of millions of photoreceptor cells called cones and rods. Cones enable us to see acuity and color in bright light, while rods sense only contrasts in dim light. These cells transmit information to the brain which stitches the information together so we cognitively understand what we see. Because my retina was damaged, my vision from my left eye was in shadow — color had been muted so all hues looked closer to black or white than red or blue — and objects, people, and background were flattened, their edges melding into each other onto a single plane of shifting grays. Close my left eye, look with my right, and color and clarity return. Close my right eye again and a haze of light and dark reappears. Because I could travel between both views by opening or closing each eye, the loss was quantifiable.
If the cancer metastasizes, there isn’t much that we can do.
Poking and prodding the path before me with two hiking sticks helped me determine almost every step.
What wasn’t as perceptible was the disappearance of depth perception and peripheral vision. I didn’t realize it at first, thinking that I just wasn’t paying attention when I spilled milk onto the counter or bumped into doorways and people. Stairs were treacherous — I tripped both up and down them before I learned to depend on my muscle memory, not my vision to navigate them. The yellow stripes that mark the edge of each subway stair made them the easiest to navigate, even with plows of people going up and down. Still, I held onto the rail because it’s hard not to trust what you see or what you think you see.
The trail was strewn with everything from rivers of pebbles, to rocks and obstructionist boulders. It required climbing up and down vertical pathways made of mud and stone of varying heights. The two guys from Montana raced to each resting point, while I kept pace with the older couple for the first hour before slipping further and further behind. Poking and prodding the path before me with two hiking sticks helped me determine almost every step. Most of what I saw of the trail was dirt punctured by rock, except in the moments when I looked ahead and gazed at the emerald screen of leaves. Luc hiked a few feet ahead, offering encouragement and his hand to assist me whenever I needed it. At resting points, the group waited for me, but then left as soon as Luc and I sat down to rest ourselves. I slowed down everyone.
Just a few months after surgeries, radiation treatment, and three months of experimental vaccine therapies that restricted my physical activity, my muscles felt mushy. I wasn’t athletic before, but I had been taking walks in our Queens neighbourhood to try to prepare myself for the journey. Half-hour walks on flat concrete were no match for the vertical two-hour climb that started our full day hike.
For hours, we followed a dirt path that turned to stone as we neared the ancient city. My head throbbed due to the altitude and my focus remained on the uneven ground, scouting the terrain before each next step. Twice, a flash of color caught my eye. Tiny jewels, violet and white flowers, grew seemingly out of rock, beauty amongst the monotonous earth tones. I took a quick photo to remember the gems what was sure to be overwhelmed when we reached our destination.
Ahead an alpaca meandered along the path, snacking leaves from the trees that lined the walkway. “Oh…wow…” someone murmured. Beyond them — what everyone else had seen minutes ago, but that I was just seeing — rose a stone stairway toward a vast open view. ‘Welcome to the Sun Gate,” Miguel announced.
I lagged up the stairs. Between the jagged mountain peaks, amongst the unruly green cascades surrounding every side, were unmistakably straight lines. To the left appeared a sheer drop, to the right were terraced slopes, and in the middle, a maze of buildings, grass plazas and pathways. Although clouds hung so low we could touch them, a few rays of light pointed in, turning the stone walls into golden outlines amidst green. Everything I had read about Machu Picchu lamented the hordes of tourists at the site, but at that moment, only alpacas roamed. We could have been explorers rediscovering it for the first time.
I raised my water bottle to coax the last drops out while trying to take in the landscape surrounding us. All of Machu Picchu disappeared, the parallels of the terraces, the gold rectangular houses, the green grass. Gone. In its place was a vast panorama of hazy grey with dark streaks and a brighter areas here and there. Nothing had definite edges, as if we were somehow in the clouds looking down. I had almost forgotten why I was here. But in the instant that my water bottle covered my good eye, the fact that my eyesight had changed forever seemed insignificant compared to the experience of losing it. That changed how I perceive what I see more than the ailment itself.
We could have been explorers rediscovering it for the first time.
Looking down from a perch above this unlikely city in the middle of a mountain range in a country I never imagined I’d visit, I wondered what else I might have missed.
“You made it!” our guide Miguel gushed as he maneuvered several cameras to take photos of our group. I grinned as wide as I could, a smile of accomplishment. This snapshot meant something. It reminds me what I physically endured on the grueling hike, but it stands for much more. In Machu Picchu, it my was my blind-man’s pace that slowed us down and gave us this glorious moment, an ancient city graced by the last rays of light on the Winter’s Solstice. Looking down from a perch above this unlikely city in the middle of a mountain range in a country I never imagined I’d visit, I wondered what else I might have missed. I grabbed my camera to capture some small aspect of this unique perspective.