Lost in the monochro­matic mists of time

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - SI­MON ROWE

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.

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