Lost in the monochromatic mists of time
Twenty-two years ago, I walked into a post office in the Spanish port town of Algeciras with a package addressed to myself in Australia. Morocco lay a short ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar and I wanted to safeguard the contents as I travelled by train south from Tangier to Marrakesh.
In the package were six rolls of black-and-white film. They were a record of my travels in southern Spain and a reportage of the remote, whitewashed villages of Andalusia, their olive harvests, picnicking workers, sleepy cafes and pavement flamenco performers. There were images of Toledo, Granada and Ronda, the bullfighting town where young soldiers of the Spanish Legion crowded the bars at weekends and hand-holding couples took their paseo along streets that Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles once trod. But the package never arrived. Stolen? Misdirected (gone to Austria not Australia)?
Then, last week, while fossicking through jumbled drawers, my fingers pluck out a small plastic package. Inside are six rolls of unprocessed T-Max and AgfaPan film. The missing black-and-white rolls? Couldn’t be sure. My memory, like the packages, had gathered dust. So I drive to the camera shop across town and the films are dispatched for processing to Tokyo (I live in western Japan). A week later, I’m told they have arrived. I have a flashback of an old Andalusian farmer horse-ploughing his field outside a village named Pitres in the Alpujarra mountains near Granada. He had complained about the unseasonal lack of water. Would his weatherworn face be among the photos?
Twenty-two years of humid summers and freezing winters are generally not kind to the light-sensitive gels that coat 35mm plastic negatives, so I’m surprised at the robustness of the images when inverted on my screen. But there isn’t a paella or a farmer from Pitres among them. From mottled and blemished grey tones emerges Vietnam circa 1993, with images of Hanoi cyclo drivers, Halong Bay fishermen and scrap-metal scavengers from Khe Sanh. The next roll whisks me half a world away. I vaguely remember London’s Portobello Road, and here it is in full swing, a Christmas market with beer-drinking buskers and grim-faced Londoners rummaging through curio stalls. The next batch takes me to the pool halls of Makassar, Indonesia. Heck, I’ve covered some turf.
Yet, among the six rolls of film spanning three countries, I have trouble placing myself in any of them. So I turn to my notebooks for a lead, some evidence of a journey made, and from drawers filled with coffeeringed, curry-stained tomes I find this: “Make no mistake, the Reunification Express will test your mettle; the 45-hour journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, with army-style rail meals, cramped seating and boozy allnight card games of your fellow passengers, not to mention the spontaneous cat fights between elderly female vendors that sometimes erupt at each station, can turn even the toughest old Asia hand into a … basket case.”
Do travellers still keep notebooks? Maybe they don’t need to, since adventures are mostly recorded in bits and bytes and spirited to friends and family through glassfibre networks beneath the sea. Pity. Discovering my lost films has reminded me of the simple pleasures I once enjoyed, like picking up processed photos at a camera shop or the sense of triumph in dumping a bundle of hand-scrawled postcards in an exotic post office.
I clean scratches, dust and blemishes from my rescued photos, even post a few on Facebook and Instagram. And, yes, I do know that there are digital applications to save 23 years of waiting to achieve the same “antique” or “vignette” effect.