It's the Fall of 1996 and I'm 10-years-old. I'm sitting in my Grandmother's living room as she finishes loading up her projector with slides from her latest excursion. For most grandparents, the word "slideshow" carries a dreadful promise of Grand Canyon photos and out of focus images of hotel swimming pools.
Betty Rosen is not like most grandparents.
My grandmother has spent the better part of 32 years as a professional photographer. She and my grandfather have traveled to cities I've never heard of in countries that probably don't exist anymore. They've dined with princes, been thrown out of bars, and never miss their favorite drag show when they visit Thailand.
We're in her house, which is honestly more like a museum. I'm sitting on my hands because I'm literally not allowed to touch anything. It's frustrating because my kid body is filled with energy, but before it gets too unbearable, the lights dim and Grandma starts the show. Everyone in the room is watching quietly as she wistfully clicks through slides of exotic faces and untouched territories, peppering in a few anecdotes along the way. She casually speaks about these incredible and unusual experiences like she's reviewing tax documents. Her calm demeanor is drowned out by the powerful images flashing in front of our eyes. There are people in elegant headdresses, women with rings stretching their necks, and men with blacked-out teeth and hunting sticks.
I've never seen anything like this in my life.
When the show is over and the lights flicker back on, my family applauds loudly. After a quick Q&A session, Grandma turns to me and my sister and says that she'll take us to these faraway places when we're older, provided we eat all of her cooking.
Me: Out of all of your trips, is there an experience that really stands out the most?
Grandma: One of the most interesting experiences of my life was the Papau New Guinea trip in 1971. At the time, people in New Guinea didn't have their independence. We were crossing the Owen Stanley Mountains in a Jeep and were drove into a village populated by men without clothing. They're known as the mud men of the Asaro River and they're one of several cannibalistic tribes in the area. When they came towards me, I thought they were friendly [laughs] I didn't know. They had never seen blonde hair before and were absolutely mesmerized by me. It was my fault because I should've had a hat on. The chief wanted to cut my hair off with a knife, and since it was two against 200, I said yes. We spent a few hours with them. I took some photos and they wrapped my hair around their testicles, I think it was for good luck. That was a wild trip.
Me: Do you remember that story about when you were in Afganistan -—
Grandma: Oh, the man at the restaurant? Yes. We were in Kabul, Afghanistan, shortly after the Russians left the country. I think it was around 1990. Our hotel manager said it wasn’t safe to walk the street after dark, but we ignored him and went out for dinner to a local restaurant several blocks away. While we were dining, two Afghans got into an argument at another table. The shouting escalated and one of the men pulled a dagger out of his pocket and stabbed the other man. He killed him right there in front of a whole room of people! The remarkable thing was that nobody at the restaurant did anything. The staff removed the body, we finished dinner, and got the hell out of there. I guess it wasn’t safe to go out after dark after all [laughs].
Grandma: Back in 2011, we traveled through Timbuktu. The drive was pretty rough, I mean, they didn't have any paved streets, everything was dirt. All of the sudden, I turn around and there was this 16-year-old kid in the back of the truck. I was totally shocked. I asked him what he was doing and luckily he spoke English. He asked if I would come to his store and buy something. I said sure. So we go out into the desert and his store was honestly just a blanket with some knickknacks laid across it. The area was populated by nomads who were all there with their camels, dancing with swords, and playing music.
We found out that when someone is 15 or 16 and wants to find a bride, they have to travel across the Sahara on a camel and sell their goods. It's like a 6-month ordeal to prove they're worthy of a bride. He sold me a bracelet.
Me: Because you believe in true love?
Grandma: Sure! It was also a really nice bracelet [laughs].
Me: The last thing I'd love for you to share is the story about the young girl with the bananas.
Grandma: Oh, the girl in Bangkok.
Grandma: I was on the Klongs River in Bangkok during the late '70s and saw this beautiful little girl selling bananas (pictured above). She was just at the edge of the river and I had to get a photograph. It turned out that the bananas she was selling was just a front. She was actually selling herself for prostitution. I was stunned. It's absolutely horrible, but this is the reality. They start some of the girls very young and even kept women in cages like dogs.