I woke up and took a piping hot shower, had a fresh shave and hit the streets feeling like a million bucks—not always the easiest feeling while traveling in the developing world. I had a macchiato at the Central Gondar Hotel, sitting out on their patio, facing the central piazza and watching people come and go, the tuk tuks and minibuses spinning endlessly around the traffic circle.
I made my way up to the Gondar castle, Fasil Ghebbi, and bought a ticket for the day before arranging a guide. He was a young, softspoken guy with a neck tattoo that read “Only God Can Judge Me”—a powerful personal sentiment, to be sure, but I’ll admit, I was doing some judging as well. That being said, he was a great guide! We walked around amid tour groups of Italians, Brits, and some French, plus a bunch of nuns and a general mass of Ethiopian people visiting the site. It seems to me Ethiopians do much more tourism with their own country than Tanzanians, but my observations are a bit limited.
We walked all around the multitude of palaces built by generations of Ethiopian rulers, plus their attendant libraries, music halls, steam baths, lion cages and the like. It was exceedingly cool and I learned a great deal. I decided not to take pictures this time and was instead content to follow my guide around and soak up his knowledge. I snapped a few iPhone pics as we went to keep the Instagram and WordPress game strong, but I much preferred the idea of coming back with the camera later and taking pictures at my own pace.
After we walked the considerable compound from one end to the other, we hopped in a tuk tuk and sped down the main road, descending from the city center to the royal baths situated down off the hill. While currently empty of water—they’re filled for the Timkat celebration each year—they were seriously beautiful and imposing. We walked around looking at the baths, the beautiful trees growing around them, and the emperor’s horse’s tomb (apparently it was a helluva steed) in the warm afternoon. The light was rather nice and I decided to take some pictures here. I warned my guide that I’d be a while, moving slowly, but he and the tuk tuk driver decided to stick it out for the promise of a return fare/tips. Fine by me.
While they played on their phones, I walked the compound and the baths, taking copious pictures. It was nice, but not quite as rapturous as the previous day’s outing, perhaps knowing that people were waiting on me. It was still pretty awesome, all things considered. I spent about an hour walking around before I returned to the gates, where my guide remarked, “You really like taking pictures.” I dabble, bro.
We headed back up to my hotel and I tipped the driver and my guide generously—it had been a really solid tour. I downloaded my pictures, grabbed a fresh SD card and had a late lunch, knowing I could get back to the castle in the late afternoon to take some shots while the light was good. Side note: I ordered the “Special Burger” and a Coke for lunch… the burger was a double-bun monstrosity in the style of a Big Mac, with egg, cheese, seizing [sic] beef and all the fixings, cut into quarters, with a double handful of fries dumped over everything. It was like 2+ meals worth of food. Plus, I haven’t had a soda in almost a month and I think I’m round the bend—it tasted impossibly sweet. All this for $4. I was glad to be headed up to the castle again, as lunch was going to take some serious walking off.
There were still quite a few people at the castle, so large scale pictures without a lot of folks in them were difficult, but once I got over it, the constraint actually opened up some creativity. I focused in smaller for a while, looking at patterns and doorways and decorations, looking for themes. It was nice. I still yearned for the big, uninterrupted shots of the palaces, however, and learned to have a hunter’s patience: framing up the shot just so and waiting, breathing evenly, watching carefully, marking the edges of the frame with care and patience as other tourists and photographers took their time, wandered, paused, doubled back and then… finally… stepped clear—snap! Often it was just a hair’s breadth before someone else walked into the shot, and the feeling of nailing it in that tiny interval was immensely rewarding.
It was also good for me to slow down: capitalizing on the “free” shots afforded by digital, I have a terrible tendency to double-tap the shutter, taking two pictures (or more) each time I frame up something I like. It’s a sort of stick-and-move system I’ve developed, and while it works for action, part of me is afraid it’s breeding laziness—stop, frame, snap snap, we’ll see if it’s a good picture later. That isn’t always the case, though, and I do spend a lot of time with the camera down, pacing around and taking the awkward side-steps of a place kicker, trying to get the angle right before I raise the camera to my eye. Plenty of times, even after all that, I look through the viewfinder and balk, not believing in what I see.
As I wandered the royal enclosure thinking about this, I started to have a conversation in my head that was unconsciously employing many of the artistic buzzwords I absolutely hate—chief among them, authenticity. I made a resolution to only let fly with the shutter if I believed absolutely in the authenticity of what I saw through the viewfinder as an artistic image. Then I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes at myself. It gets a little weird in your head when you’re wandering around for hours a time without speaking, focusing only on your camera and not stepping off the edge of a ruin while you’re framing something. But I think it was a decent bit of self-realization and I’m exciting to see how it affects my process—provided I can get myself to implement it.
As the afternoon wore on, the sky grew darker, thunderclaps grew closer, and the drizzles of rain became more and more threatening. I love this weather, swear to god. Around 5 the sky finally opened up in earnest and I packed it in the camera, fitting the rain cover around my backpack and pulling my hat low on my head as I joined the throng moving to the exit, resolving to come back the next day. I waved off the tuk tuk drivers, reveling in the rainfall as I walked. I eventually pulled up at a café on the piazza, crowded with people avoiding the weather. Luckily, two Ethiopian gentlemen let me share their table. When our round of macchiatos arrived, piled high with the most generous mountains of foam I’ve seen yet in country, the more gregarious of the two served up the sugar for everyone, dumping a heaping spoonful onto mine while insisting “must, must!” Gotta give it to the guy—while the coffee snob in me rebelled a little, it was mad delicious.
The balance of my evening was spent writing a bit in the room and editing photos—one of the downsides of being overeager on the trigger is having to go through and get rid of pictures. It’s a slow process, but my heart is hardening to mediocre photos the way it has to borderline writing: when in doubt, kill it. It’ll make the good stuff shine through all the more.