Working as an NGO Photographer in Africa [and How to Not Contract Ebola]

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There are few things I love more than traveling, photographing remote areas of the world, helping others, and not contracting Ebola. Luckily I was able to fulfill all four of those dreams on my recent work trip as a travel photographer to Africa.

I was able to spend my time getting sunburned in a couple of African countries, but my work was all done in The Gambia. It’s a small sliver of a country that’s smaller than the state of Connecticut. The Gambia is sandwiched smack in the middle of Senegal and rhymes with Zambia, but has a pretentious official article in front.

I worked for Penny Appeal, a UK-based nonprofit operating in more than 30 countries around the world. They provide emergency relief, house and educate orphans, build wells, and more. They have dozens of locals working in their own villages. They’re awesome people. They also happen to be a British Muslim organization.

While many I know have issues with this religion and way of life, I felt fine 99% of the time. Seeing little kids memorize the Qur’an doesn’t really make sense to me, but then again, I’m no Muslim. Yes, I am a pretty devout Christian—or spiritual, as might be more appropriate—but I saw no reason not to work with these folks. While I find many of their practices odd and limiting—and oftentimes sexist—I’m quite sure they feel similarly confused about me. Given this particular group’s comments on my clothing (I wore proper attire while working in the field, of course, but shorts when at the “resort”—like the men and holiday-goers), they likely think that females wearing shorts are a sign of physical and moral indecency. But we talked about these issues quite a bit, and I did my best to learn as much as I could. Besides, I’m friends with Muslims in several different countries around the world, and know that just like Jews, Catholics, Christians, and virtually every other religion, interpretations of religion and practices vary widely.

But why does any of this matter? It doesn’t, unless you’re stuck in times of the past or choose to group everyone of a religion into one category. What matters is that these were the nicest, most delightful folks I’ve worked with, and if I can participate in helping orphans, villagers, and needy people, why shouldn’t I—whether I agree with the religion or not? The group does wonderful work, and they’re great people, so I was delighted to work with them for the first of what I hope is many times. I now consider many of them my good friends–they were that awesome.

While photographing the poverty, well projects, orphans, school systems, and more in West Africa, I heard about quite a few ways to not contract Ebola. Tips include:

– Don’t shake hands, as this spreads germs. || In certain villages—or when meeting entire orphanages, we’d shake hands with 40 different kids and adults in the span of just a few minutes.

– Don’t make out with the locals or foreigners while in West Africa. || Though many tried getting me to stay (I was married off over half a dozen times, but I don’t think any of the marriages stuck), I avoided official wedlock—and therefore did not kiss anyone while there.

– Resist making out with any water buffalo. || I already made this mistake somewhere in Asia*, hence why I came back sick years ago.   *This is not actually true.

– Don’t go to West Africa. || Whoops.

– Avoid contacts with bats and nonhuman primates, as well as their raw meat. || I really wish someone had told me this before I ate all that ape. But seriously, they eat rat in The Gambia (huge, HUGE rats), because it apparently helps lower blood pressure. No, that’s not really related.

– Don’t be a doctor treating patients in West Africa. || Shirley you can’t be serious.

Now that you know how to stay Ebola free, I’ve included some non-Ebola photos from my trip. Check back soon for another update, where I’ll be ranting about husbands in Gambia, Moroccan tea, and so much more.

 

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It’s Time for the Best Of 2012 Awards!

Welcome to the Best Of 2012 Awards! And congrats on surviving reading my posts for the past year!   

How do I sum up these crazy past months? If it were a Mastercard ad, it’d look something like this:

Three pieces of Maltese filigree jewelry: 27 Euros

Feeding Coop on a monthly basis: 14% of India’s national budget

Working and traveling through 9 countries, contracting at least 2 diseases, being on crutches for 50 days in a country already notorious for its non-sidewalks, standing where no foreigner has stood before, somersaulting down sand mountains, eating wild honeycomb, having Helen Mirren give your dress the once-over in the ladies’ room, and becoming a sought-after palm reader in northern India: priceless

That said, here are the best, the worst, and the why-did-you-feel-it-necessary-to-tell-us-that awards for 2012.

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Most awkward moment: I mean, everything. When none of the sarees at the wedding fit me? Picking apart the maggot-infested eggplants incorrectly? Having a stranger come up to you on the street and pull your Indian kurta down because you’re offending everyone? Being hit on by a married man–in front of all his relatives? Accidentally interrupting everyone at the temple who has come to get a blessing just because you’re a foreigner? Sinking into mud while rice farming because you weigh twice as much as the next man and woman combined? Explaining to your hosts that you can’t eat something because you’ll get massive diarrhea if you do? Saying no to a marriage proposal? I dunno, you tell me.

Most incredible view: Waking up with nomads to see snow-capped Himalayan peaks turn pink in the sunrise.

Best thing I ate: You expect me to list one thing? You gotta be kidding me. Here are a few of my favs: 

Malaysia: Roti Canai with beef and chicken curry dip, of course           

India: Sweet green onion-potato curry served with soft pouri; upma; peanuts from Ahmedabad, which were so good I had to give myself a daily ration. Until I noticed half of them had grubs inside (well, they tasted delicious at the time!); my coworker’s sister’s red pepper eggplant mash. Looked like poop, tasted awesome

Malta: Sfine?? bl-irkotta ??elwa (sweet ricotta-stuffed mini éclairs drenched in local honey). Ahhhh maaah gaaaawsh

The event people cannot stop talking about: Me in a dress at the red carpet 2012 European Film Awards. Compliments ranged from “not masculine” to “almost feminine.”

Best wildlife moment: Wild elephants that came out of the blue and stormed into a clearing below us–seen while hiking up a monolith in India. I mean, come on!

Only thought about my life: Wait, I have one?

Place to never visit again: Bangalore. Saw some pretty terrible stuff there, and plus, the city has little to offer in terms of being unique. Unless you want to try the McTikka “burger,” of course.

Moment I realized I was a cat lady: That did not happen in 2012.

When I came home from Malta, I was delighted to see… that my (much younger) little brother was loving college and not gaining too much more than the freshman fifty.

When I came home from Malta, I was saddened to see…that my mother was watching Gangnam Style.

Best comment from your boss: Me, to my boss while driving: “Have you noticed that there are a disproportionate number of, uh, little people on this island?” My boss: “You mean midgets? There must be a nest or something.”

Thing I’m still shocked about: How NYers are still the most interesting and simultaneously obnoxious people of the world. I need to get out of here.

Most uncomfortable sleep: That time in the Himalayas when I was sleeping in a hut with hay and no one who spoke a single word of English and then in the middle of the night a cow broke loose and wanted to snuggle and burst in and trampled our feet and because it was pitch black no one knew what was happening but because it was Asia no one particularly cared that some of us were now missing limbs and stuff. Yeah.

Best thing I never ate: The combo fried horse, quail, and rabbit platter. I think it was served with rice and cole slaw.

Most accurate word on what the Thai locals thought of me: Godzirra!

Best scuba diving experience: That was probably in Malta on the Um El Faroud, when we dove in and out of this underwater playground (as in the galley, an exploded part of the ship, a ladder escape, staircases) and then jumped off the bow of the boat, sinking down slowly to 35 meters in the most pure blue waters. Man, what a dive.

Best name: One of my students in India had the name Saddam Husen. I’m serious. We still chat online, and he’s such a lovely guy—and we have the same birthday. Adorable.

Best attempt at lowering my self-esteem: While a co-worker/friend (also from America) and I were visiting a student’s home, the guy’s uncle came out to meet us. He chatted for a few minutes, then looked down at us and back up. “You are fat,” he said. “What?” I asked, surprised at the sudden turn of events. “Fat. You’re fat. F…A…T.” he spelled out, assuming my “What?” had been me not understanding what he was saying. I tried to hold in my laughter, but it’s still a running joke there. If you get offended easily, do not come here. 

Worst thing I ate: Santol, a tree fruit with the texture of cotton balls and an aftertaste of acid. When mixed with fish sauce, shrimp paste, cilantro, red pepper, and other goodies, the result is, I mean, how could it possibly be anything but horrendous? I tried it two different times, two bites each. Trust me. Don’t do it.

Best statistic: In 2012 I slept in 65 different places.

Best comment on that statistic: “Well, that’s less than a HOBO.”

Best crisis averted: I almost didn’t get gelato in Italy. But then, just minutes before I had to catch my train to the Pisa airport, I found a place and got half cream biscuit/half amaretto cherry, as picked by the guy serving me. My look of ecstasy at eating ice cream around 11:30 in the morning must have shown on my face, for two bikers whizzing past saw my cone, shouted, and nearly crashed. Awesome.


Thanks for reading! Here’s to the unknown of 2013…let’s hope it’s good.

 

Life in Malta, Part 1: Problems and Solutions

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Welcome to my first post from the sunny country of Malta! Where’s that, you ask? Chances are that unless you’re European, have visited relatives in southern Italy, or happen to have worked on a cruise line around the Mediterranean, you probably aren’t 100% clear on where this country is. Well, it’s here. If you ask what I’m doing, the short is that I’m a scuba diving travel journalist. For the long, read two posts down, an entry titled “Exciting News!” which is conveniently…here.

I’m living on an island, and you know what they say about that! “When you’re on an island, you figure out how to solve all your problems because there’s nowhere to run to—you’re stuck.” Actually I have no idea what they say about islands except that a lot of people want to leave. Strangely enough, Malta will solve all of your problems! I picked common fears, phobias, addictions, and problems folks in the world face these days, and I have to say that this island country has truly provided answers—no, not just answers, but real-world solutions—to all the problems I could possibly imagine.

 

Problem: You’ve got a gambling addiction and can’t bear the thought of being away from gambling, or at least not having casinos nearby.

Solution: There are mini-casinos all over town. Seriously, if you walk down a street you’ll find a mini-mart, a butcher, a hair salon, a mini-casino, and a shoe shop. Called Fairplay or Bestplay, these tiny “stores” have about 5-7 slot machines and are nestled in high-class, frosted-glass storefronts. Open most of the day. Obviously for addicts. Come on! Also, there are three regular casinos, a horse track, and loads of online better companies that run betting all over the world. Then there are bingo and slot floors in small shopping malls, hotels, and more. I know it’s common in Europe, but it is definitely weird to me to plan a trip to buy a shirt, a rack of lamb, and some candlesticks, and then stop into these undercover-looking rooms to use slot machines.

Problem: Global warming? It’s a huge problem, yes it is! And what’s being done about it?

Solutions: Don’t worry; every time I jump in the water to go diving, the world’s water level rises 1.46 inches. Statistical fact. 

Problem: You’re sick of all the NYC sheep wearing their white headphones 24/7, completely oblivious and unable to hear you even when you try to be nice and tell them they dropped their pink iPhone cover.

Solution: Almost no one owns iPods, iTouches, iPhones, or even MP3 players in general here, so don’t think they’re not hearing you; they’re simply ignoring you. Oh no, wait, those are just French tourists being rude. Nevermind.

Problem: You don’t understand these solutions. There not helpful, you say!

Solution: Read something else. A grammar book, for starters.

Problem: You’re watching your figure and don’t want to have your flab showing while in your bikini.

Solution: No worries! Everyone here is on a strict diet of pasta and bread, so looking pregnant under the afternoon sun helps you fit in.

Problem: You’re superstitious and are worried about black cats, the number 13, and all that jazz.

Solution: In Malta there’s almost always construction going on, and almost never anyone on the ground directing traffic. Cranes are overhead holding heavy objects above your head, road crews are oblivious to the backhoe clawing a foot away from your car, etc. There’s so much construction, in fact, that whenever you walk the city streets, the likelihood that you’re walking under multiple ladders is about 103%. And I haven’t even told you about the…oh shoot, wha—

Problem: Your vote doesn’t count unless you leave in Ohio or Pennsyltucky. Whatever. You want to live in a free country where they listen to the people.

Solution: There’s a big election coming up in Malta, and the politicians are advertising heavily on the billboards. If you want to know how they vote, read it here: http://bit.ly/VJHc8S. What are their stances? Labour laws, the economy, no divorce, domestic v—wait, no to divorce? Where am I???

Problem: There’s a company here called Enemalta.

Solution: The solution is in the name! Actually it’s an energy company, but in a largely English-speaking country…research those words, people!

 

Well anyhow, I better get back to work. Around here you’ll see some photos of hikes, famous cliffs, the sea, a trained falcon, old Maltese cliff homes, and more. Next up will be a bit of photography from my lovely hikes around this island, the villages of Malta, and snaps of me riding on a Segway around cliffs. Seriously.

 

Cheers,

Coop

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There’s No Place Like Canadia

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Planning is for suckers, and that’s why I was delighted to hear my friends were going on a last-minute camping trip to Canada land. I could get all my freelance projects done before leaving, so I happily accepted the invite.

We drove from New York to Montreal, then west to Parc national d’Oka. After exploring Montreal for a few days, it was time for the beautiful Ile d’Orleans, an island east of Quebec City. After cooking and camping, we explored a rainy QC. A hotel with a waterslide was last event, and though I did it with just a friend watching, it was nonetheless quite fun.

Can’t wait to see you again, Canada! I really need to explore you more.