I met a man on a flight to Frankfurt, and I think it may change my life.
We were crammed in seats so far back you couldn’t see the moist towelettes and eye pillows of first class, browsing through movie selections and trying not to make awkward elbow advances across the center rest, when a man from India asked me what I was planning to do in Germany.
“I’m actually flying on to Budapest,” I told him, struggling to open the package of pretzels that international flights still give for free. “And then I’m driving from Hungary to Slovakia.”
“That will be a nice weekend trip,” he said as if he boarded planes to Europe every day. “What will you do there?”
“I’m doing a photojournalism internship.”
The phrase felt foreign; I kept pinching my arm fat to make sure it was really happening. I’d stopped telling friends and acquaintances about the position, afraid it would turn out to be a joke.
I asked the man where he was going, and he told me he was flying to India to visit his family. He lived in D.C. and hadn’t been home in over two years. After studying for a semester in Costa Rica and getting homesick after three months, I couldn’t imagine what he felt like. It’s strange heading home, like you’re the same puzzle piece you always were, but your edges don’t quite line up right anymore.
The man named Andy asked me about my internship and about the photographs I would take.
“I’m working with the Roma people. I’m going to try to tell their story through photographs and writing, mostly blogs.”
I told him I wasn’t really qualified for the position. I didn’t know anything about eastern Europe, very little about the struggles of the Roma, and I had just purchased my first D-SLR a month ago.
“That’s all right, you need to start somewhere,” he assured me.
“I was in Berlin a few weeks ago, and I saw the monument about the Roma genocide during WWII,” he said, peering out the little window. “It was a terrible thing, but many people still look down on the Roma.”
“I know. ” I had heard the horror stories. “That’s why I want to tell a different story. I want to show the beauty of these people.”
This is where my thoughts and morals get jumbled. Traveling to another continent to take pictures of people like they’re sideshow attractions wasn’t my intention. I wanted to document history and tradition, not marginalize anyone. Who was I to come in with my Canon and snap away at others’ problems or triumphs? I was living my dream, but I was uneasy. I wanted to do a good job. I wanted to form relationships, but the selfish part of me wanted to be the next Dorothea Lange. I wanted fame and philanthropic titles. I wanted to save the world or at least have a decent profile picture.
“I would be interested to hear about your work. Do you have a business card?”
Andy from India is a transport engineer, but he also has a well-loved blog called TransportGooru (you should check it out) He was invited to Berlin to cover communications for a conference: blogging and writing about his experiences.
“If you’d like I could put in a good word for you and send along your information for next year’s conference. It’s on travel and tourism,” Andy said.
I didn’t have a business card or even a decent Twitter account so I wrote my school email on a piece of paper torn out of my journal and handed it to him.
“Do you have a website so people can get in touch with your stuff?” He took my paper and entered the information in his phone.
“You should start getting it together while you’re young. I wish I had known about this two years ago.” He drew a little diorama in my journal of how the website could work, linking my social media accounts and articles.
Although I had a portfolio, I knew he was right about getting a better website with everything in one place. I needed a better blogging platform than Facebook notes. It was time to break down and get my WordPress together.
And so I made it to Košice, the second largest city in Slovakia and started Travel Bugg. It’s the first blog of my own. I want to cover things I really care about: immigrants’ and refugees’ rights, international affairs, adventure travel, good places to get Chinese food in Vienna.
One conversation launched a new avenue to explore my writing. It might not always be the brightest or loudest voice in the void, but it’s mine and that’s enough.
After some talk about his wife graduating UT Austin with a masters in film (my sister is going to study film there ) and returning home for Indian weddings, we got off the plane, and I headed for my adjoining flight to Hungary.
I may never see Andy again. In all probability, I really shouldn’t have met him, but I’m excited to see what becomes of it. I hope I can do well in this internship. I want to tell true stories without doing any harm.
Who knows what happens next? Maybe one day, I’ll be able to cover events in Berlin for free, too. 🙂