There are many ways to measure time and keep track of the events that happen in between glances at the hands on a clock or the dates on a calendar.
I find that non-standard methods of keeping tally, methods that aren’t designed to get you to a meeting on time or remind you wake up in the morning, are the ones that I tend to return to again and again, and the ones that tell me the most about what was happening in a given moment.
Passport and visa photos are great for this kind of measurement, as they allow you to recall much about a point in your life that was likely very transitional, in geography and personality.
So much can be gleaned while traveling, and the act of moving from one place to another, even if just for a few weeks or an overnight stay, tends to serve as an excellent milestone. A time for habits to change, for relationships to be pushed to their limits, for expectations to be tested.
I’ve got a photo sitting with me here that was taken about a week ago, and looking at it, I can remember the little closet-sized shop where I had it taken. It was a holiday and a weekend, and most everything was closed for business, and I was certain that I wasn’t going to be able to find someone to shoot and print the photos before the owner of the apartment I’m now living in went back to Bangalore, leaving me holding incomplete paperwork, without a home. I was grungy and hairy and sweaty as hell, but I was victorious, even if just for a moment.
There’s another photo here that was from a batch I had taken in Malaysia, about a month after I moved to Thailand. I had to hop a bus to the border between Thailand and Malaysia, where I was unceremoniously dumped a few blocks from customs. After passing through on foot, I had to convince an old man on a scooter that I would pay him if he could first take me into town so that I could convert some money, and if he could then get me to a bus station so I could hop a ride to Penang.
The man took me into town, charged less than he could have, and then waited with me for a bus, to make sure I got on it safely and was headed in the right direction. In the photo I look ragged but thrilled to have made it, as the entire experience led me to take three other modes of transportation (including a boat and a train), and caused me to come into contact with two other incredibly friendly and helpful locals, without whom I may not have made it to the Thai Embassy to renew my visa.
Flipping through my now-full passport, I can’t help but smile when I look at the photo on the information page. It’s me, with a big mop of California surfer-hair and an enormous grin.
At that time in my life, I had just started dating a girl I was crazy about, and she was horrified to learn that I didn’t have my passport, insisting that I would need one if I was going to hang out with her. I was working a job that I intended to quit soon to start up my own studio, and the sky looked like the limit. I was terrified and had no idea where everything would go and where I would end up, but I remember deciding that I would keep my options open, and that meant making sure I could leave the country at a moment’s notice if I wanted too, rather than having to wait for my passport application to go through a multi-month process when I wanted to hop a flight.
I won’t hold on to any of these photos forever, at least not physically. I still have a few lying around by chance, but this being India, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of paperwork to submit before I leave, and with that paperwork plenty of passport-sized photos to attach, proving my identity by some strange logic.
I will snap photos of the photos, though, and keep them online somewhere, just as I would snap a photo of the Grand Canyon or some other site.
There’s so much history to be found in a beautiful building or a museum or a canyon, and though a tiny little portrait of yourself facing the camera straight-on might not have as much absolute history attached to it, the meaning that comes with such passport-sized time machines is worth a glance every now and again.
Update: February 14, 2017
I hadn’t realized until now how much my experience with my Exiles newsletter, in which this piece was originally published, influenced my current written and spoken voice. Far more stories suddenly worked their way into everything I produced after I started it, and that’s still the case today.