Day 6: Gondar, Debre Birhan Selassie Church

With a lot of relaxing on the schedule for today, I naturally woke up early. I enjoyed breakfast downstairs in the hotel—it’s not included, but then again, the price for the room is really good, so it’s not a huge deal. I watched a few groups pile into minibuses for excursions to the Simien Mountains, a great bustle of bags and packs and cameras and travelers starting to get on each other’s nerves. I enjoyed my coffee all the more for it. Solo travel can get a little disconcerting, but then again, its got its perks.

After breakfast, I went upstairs to bang out some blog posts about my adventures thus far. I’ve been intending to do other writing this trip, but with these posts starting to head north of a thousand words and some honest to god tourism to do, it’s been limited. But I’m enjoying these as an outlet for now.

I worked until around 10:30, at which point I descended from my room on high, back to the lower patio out front on the street, and promptly sat in the sun reading and drinking a macchiato for about an hour. Life is tough. Afterwards I went back upstairs to do some more writing. I’m really embracing the capital-R Romantic aspects of this trip, vibing with that writer’s life: living out of a hotel room in the highlands, in an old foreign city built around the ruins of a magnificent castle and studded with churches and priests and pilgrims, all the while holed up banging away at the keys, trying to write something great and not get distracted by the hotel bar downstairs and it’s enticing whirl of cheap beer, good music and a revolving door of international travelers. Or maybe it just sounds cool when I write it that way.

Around 1, I grabbed a sandwich downstairs and then struck off with my camera, looking for Debre Birhan Selassie Church, located on the outskirts of Gondar. The walk was pleasant, heading away from the tourist part of town and through some older buildings and offices, up a double road with a small park in the median where small groups of friends sat in the shade. At the crest of a hill, the central, business part of town broke and became residential, with the road dipping down ahead of me, then rising again in the distance, even higher, to the area of the church.

I followed the road past vendors, past small shops and homes and kids playing, past men working on carpentry and herds of goats being tended by young boys. A train of mules loaded down with sacks of grain crossed ahead of me. It felt like being back in my village in Tanzania, another small highland town. The views were incredible, cutting back across a valley to the ridge of the city where the castles stood on the right, and headed out above some forest to patchwork hills on the left. My kind of country.

The road picked back up hill, then suddenly turned into a serious climb up the cobblestones. I leaned into it, taking my time as I trudged higher, greeting the various people headed the other way or sitting on the side of the road. At the top, the road curved away to the right, with an oxbow of a small square jutting out, a gorgeous tree growing up at the center, it’s wide low branches creating a canopy of shade. I sat on the retaining wall surrounding it for a few minutes, catching my breath and taking in the view back the way I came. To the left rose the walls of the church.

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I paid my fee across the street and declined a guide, heading into the lush compound as the sky bruised over with the threat of rain. A blind beggar sat under the arch of the gates asking for money and a few people prayed silently from their Bibles around the outside of the church—except for them, I was the only person there. The church itself was closed. I walked around the outside, feeling cheated—schedules here aren’t exactly firm, and churches are often closed, but they could’ve at least given me a heads up as I bought the ticket…

I sat for a minute on the church steps, figuring out my next move. I had really wanted to photograph the inside of the church, which had some murals, and most famously, an ornate ceiling, decorated with hundreds of angel faces. That wasn’t gonna happen. But there was no benefit in getting frustrated. As I sat, I realized how gorgeous the compound around the church was. It was originally built like a fortress to keep out the raiding Sudanese, ringed with a stone wall probably 5 meters high and featuring 12 lookout towers—one for each apostle. In the intervening 400 or so years, a veritable forest had grown up in the compound, the trees towering over the church in the center. Footpaths cut through the grass and shrubs, under stone arches and around walls and outbuildings. Everything was covered in moss. The afternoon light was deep and green. And it was totally still save the wind.

I spent the next hour moving slowly through the compound taking photographs. It was incredible to take such time and care, being able to observe so thoughtfully. I walked gently, pausing often, shuffling a bit here or there, crouching and stretching to frame things just right, but always taking time. Looking deeply. It was a pure flow state. Time melted away. It was just me, looking, moving, creating images that resonated with me. Birds flew, some people prayed, and thunder boomed in the distance, threatening rain. I don’t think I was even conscious of how much I was enjoying myself until I broke and looked up when some other tourists entered the compound.

Last month, I watched a short documentary made in the late 80s or early 90s about Joel Meyerowitz, a New York photographer, known originally for his street photography and later for large format photography both in the city and out on the cape. He speaks a mile a minute through the whole thing, but with great insight. One of the things that resonated with me was that when making art, you must be totally enraptured in the experience itself. This was one of the truest senses of that I’ve had in a very long time. I was enraptured.

IMG_1016While the interloping pair of Brits might have broken me from my reverie, they had exhibited the good sense to pay for a guide, and he was fetching the priest with the key. Good show, chaps. We respectfully took off our shoes and caps before entering the church, and though it was small inside, I tried to maintain a respectful distance of I know I’m not paying for your guide services so I’ll pretend like I’m not listening and look at other stuff but I can totally hear every word ‘cause it’s like 70 m2 in here. Real smooth, like. At first I was hesitant to unstrap the camera in a place of worship, touristy as it might be, but I made a silent gesture of with your permission to the priest, and his hand waving response fell on the scale somewhere between go with god, my son and the hell if I care. Sweet.

In the perfect bit of comeuppance for me being a little bent out of shape over the church being closed when I arrived, the interior honestly wasn’t that impressive. The murals were faded; Bahir Dar had much better preserved examples. But the roof was cool to see and I got a couple good shots of it. Around this time, a group of Italian tourists showed up and we made our way from the chapel, the Brits talking to each other about how the moment was ruined by the appearance of another group. I bit my tongue instead of calling them on interrupting my quiet time themselves. I went back to the courtyard and wandered, taking some more pictures, but then another group showed up, and another, and I decided it was time to leave.

I really wanted a picture of the gate as I was leaving, but was rather conflicted: that’s where the blind beggar was sitting. I have zero interest in taking pictures of poverty that don’t serve a greater purpose—and Facebook likes don’t exactly count as a greater purpose. But I really, really liked the gate… I took the picture of the structure, not focusing on the person in front of it, and felt like I had made an ok compromise. I pressed some money into his hand as I left just in case, though.

As I headed back down the steep hill into the city, I passed through a group of kids playing soccer with a half-deflated ball. Most of them scurried to the side as I approached, but one of them kicked the ball to me, looking expectant. Another immediately came forward and squared up on defense. This was gonna be a thing. Normally, I’m all for letting kids win at sports, but I tell you with no shame I broke that little fool’s ankles like it was nothing, head faking outside and rolling inside to blast a shot on the pile of bricks they were using as a goal. I might be on vacation, but school was definitely in session.

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In the early evening, I decided to grab a 5 o’clock beer at my spot, Sweet Bar. I sipped it slowly and watched people come and go. Mostly, I thought about the future—it might be vacation, but I’m going to get back to Tanzania and have 3 months before I come crashing back to the States and into reality. I’m admittedly checked out at work, disillusioned with the whole circus, but I’m not sure what comes next. I’ve got experience with development that I could pretty easily parlay into some entry-level work with the government or at an NGO, most likely in D.C. But that’s not what keeps me up at night. That’s not what has me blogging about clothes and music and pop culture, or taking vacations for the sole purpose of taking the best photographs I can. Bailing out of helping people for a living in favor of seeking some kind of artistic expression feels a bit selfish. But then again, who really cares, if that’s the truth of my life, of my desires? Then again, is it expression I’m really after, or recognition? Of course, what’s the point of doing anything if you’re not trying to do it to the utmost, to be the best at it? If I continued in development, maybe returning abroad, could I address those needs outside of my work? I definitely could see myself living overseas forever. But I don’t want to sleepwalk my way into the career path of least resistance and wake up 15 years from now wondering if I could’ve been a contender. I’ve often talked about being envious of those friends of mine who had the courage to take the plunge into the arts—maybe I need to get home and take the plunge as well, see what could’ve been…

These were the light questions I entertained myself with for the evening, but unfortunately my bartender only knew a few words of English and was younger than me, so I couldn’t really have one of those moments of counseling from an elder, wiser barkeep that seem to be some kind of life trope. Whatever, I tried.

On the way home, I picked up some delicious lentil samosas from a nice lady frying ‘em right there on the street, munching contentedly on the walk. Dinner was the same delicious tibs again, because how could I not? The vibe in the hotel bar as less wack than the night before: the music a little calmer, some news on the TV as I ate. Tired from a full day, I headed up to my room and blasted the incredibly upbeat new Chvrches album as I uploaded and edited my way through the photos I had taken. Today was a good day.

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