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The best job in the world

September 10, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    This is my traveling pharmacy. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

I have the best job in the world. How many people can say they get paid to travel around the world and make photographs? How many people can say they get to do what they love? I am one of the few. I am a photographer for non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Being a photographer has brought me to dozens of countries over the last eleven years. I have been to Bosnia in the immediate aftermath of the war. I have lived with the Roma in Bulgaria. I have experienced the front lines of the conflict between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. I get to say phrases such as: “I’m going BACK to Mongolia”.

When I first started working as an NGO photographer Mercy Corps sent me to Azerbaijan to document their programs benefiting the internally displaced in a region called Winterground. I remember sitting by the window seat of the airplane and shortly after we took off, I watched the little houses and ant cars glowing in the dark evening. I felt lonely. As if I were leaving behind a comfy home. The woman sitting in the seat next me asked where I was going. I told her I was traveling to make photographs for an international humanitarian organization. When I said these words, I laughed. I couldn’t believe that I was actually being sent on assignment. The woman thought I was crazy and didn’t take me seriously.

My profession is not with out its difficulties. It is hard to leave behind friends and family. Relationships are tough. My partner is also a photographer and we often talk about having to spend time apart. I think she said it best, “I understand why you need to go away, but I also need to be able to miss you.”

Travel is a combination of “pinch me I can’t believe this is happening to me” and “how will I ever survive this?”. Right now I am in survival mode. Six weeks ago I started my journey by addressing a conference in Australia. I went home to Maine for three days and then flew to Darjeeling, India. It was a month ago that I started to feel feverish. The fever left and a cough started. On a layover in Delhi I fell and tore up my right knee. The fall happened on my way back from the dentist where I had to address what I initially thought was a minor dental emergency but was actually much more severe.

That night, with my torn knee my throbbing mouth and my persistent cough and new sore throat, I boarded a plane for Uganda. My colleague, writer Roger Burks and I did a marvelous training with Mercy Corps staff in Kitgum. And with each new symptom and ailment, I bought a new remedy. Cipro. Cough medicine. Fever reducer. Pain killers. Antibacterial disinfectants and sleeping aids. I was a limping mess. The workshop was wonderful and if not for the kind spirit of the students, I am certain my morale would have declined to an abysmal pit.

From Uganda I traveled to Ethiopia. On our first morning in Addis Ababa, we went to a pharmacy to stock up on five bottles of cough medicine and aloe for my peeling sunburned face. We left the capital the next day with high spirits and plenty of drugs.

Three days ago, Roger and I interviewed Mercy Corps Community Health workers in Arguba (Southern Ethiopia). We sat in the shade of a tree and discussed how the local traditional healer was trained to treat tonsillitis differently than the previous method of cutting the tonsils out of children.

That night, as I laid in my hut, I did my nightly mental inventory of my health. My knee was now a minor discomfort. My dental work was manageable — just a single spot of irritation. My sore throat was still there and so was my cough. I remembered a time in Kyrgyzstan when I had a major dental emergency just after head surgery and a severely sliced finger. I felt confident that I would get better. I also thought about the traditional healer and tonsil surgery and how I dodged a bullet of never having tonsillitis.

The next day my sore throat became unbearable and I went to the hospital in Arbaminch. The diagnosis: tonsillitis. I was given a prescription of amoxicillin by a great doctor in a rough hospital. I am feeling better. Even after a single dose. Many things still to heal.