Seeing what is really there

I ambled through back streets and narrow lanes, first in the old Jewish quarter, then the tetris alleys of the Arab quarter.  At first I was giddy, inhaling the heady brew of a millennium of history mixed with first-day-arrival freedom, savoring lengthening shadows over a racion de calamares en su tinta at a local tapas bar. 

I had this first afternoon to myself, arriving in Granada in time to drop off my bags and head into the old city well before the sweet light.  The rendezvous with family and friends who flew in previously was hours away.  My wife, bless her, had scheduled “open space” to help me shift gears after the trans-Atlantic flight, before connecting for the evening.  She knew a few hours in an ancient city with my camera, following the light, would revive me to the core - and no doubt make me a better husband!

So, of course, I had been anticipating this for weeks.  It was the right time of day on a timely trip to a city we planned to visit for decades.  I sensed the clock ticking as the first hour slipped away.  I felt around, looking for the warm glow of elation, that deep photographic satisfaction … and found instead rising frustration.

“What’s going on?  Get with it!” I admonished myself.  I turned a few corners and snapped a few pictures, trying to dial in, slow down, delight myself in the cobbled alleys and ancient doorways.  But it only got worse.  The pictures weren’t “happening".  More to the point, I found myself grinding gears, trying to climb some insurmountable slope I couldn’t really name.

One more time I surveyed the portals around me, eager to add to my Windows- and Doors of the World collections.  In vain I looked in every direction for just one clear, full frame of an ancient cobbled alley bathed in light and shadow.  One clear shot, so the trophy hunter could bag his prize, ready for mounting on some distant wall.  I tried cropping with the camera, attempting to block the annoying graffiti that seemed to plague me at every turn.

Why didn’t the city fathers do something about this?  Folks like me don’t come to town to look at alley art!

I finally stopped, breathed deeply, stilled the inner engines.  “Please help me to see.”  The prayer bubbled up, unforced, as I waited.  Amazing what desperation will do.

Begrudgingly, I began to take it in.  That bothersome graffiti.   The impertinent, slashing signatures of Granada’s prolific street artists, scarring those ancient walls, defying my quest to track down and capture the images I had come to this city to find ….  

Ouch!  I saw it, in a flash.  I had come to Andalucia with a mental map, a tourist’s checklist of what was supposed to be there. 

I was on the hunt for the Granada I wanted to find, the “typical” alleys and doors and arches I had come to see.  Instead, these garish flourishes hemmed me in on all sides.  The further I got from the city’s main commercial artery, looking for the "real" Granada, the more I saw of these fascinating, wildly creative odes to post-modernity — expressions of the living soul of 21st century Granada.

Sheepishly, I relented of my toxic insistence on what I had come for, and embraced, instead, what was actually there.  Explosions of color popped up around twisting corners, in tiny plazas, camouflaging doorways and windows. The drab came to life.  Simple walkways became complex enigmas.  Ascending cobblestone steps led from one mural to the next.  Come to think of it, I couldn’t recall running across a greater profusion of high-impact street art, anywhere in my previous travels. 

And most of it felt spontaneous but thoughtful, as if someone had sent out a decree: transform our everyday world into a dreamscape.  We want to hear what you have to say.  Make your statements, but do so carefully, intentionally.  The city is your canvas – particularly the section of the old quarter some forlorn photographer will someday wander on his quest for the soul of Granada ….  

My opinion of those city fathers (and likely -mothers, I thought wryly, as I took it all in) shifted.  No doubt they could have tracked these free-spirited street artisans, whitewashing their handiwork and sending their visual statements to oblivion.

 But I had a growing suspicion they actually decided not to.  To the contrary, I sensed a complicity, even an embrace of this contribution to what the city of Granada is becoming.  With more time I would have loved to have coffee with a local culture maven and hear about the journey that led to this remarkable convergence.  

I made my paradigm-shifting discovery too late in the day to do more than capture a few frames — this time through an eager, receptive lens.  I just began to sense the possibilities as I opened myself to what was actually there, no longer demanding that my expectations be met.  In retrospect, this was the moment my love affair with street art truly began, pursued since then in far corners of the globe.

Mmm.  Come to think of it, I wrote a book that foreshadowed this moment — way back in college. “The traveler sees what he sees,” reads the GK Chesterton quote I used on the very first page.  “The tourist sees what he has come to see.” 

Another quote I highlighted — from a guidebook created by none other than the Spanish Department of Tourism — drove the point home: “The person who is only a tourist passes through Spain, but Spain does not pass through him.”  The light clicked on as the sweet light faded; the irony was not lost on me.  Might as well have been written about my very own Granada photo expedition, years later.

Perhaps there is still hope for me to live life authentically as a traveler rather than as a tourist.  I know the cost:  travelers are changed by their experiences, impacted by those they meet, their worldview adjusted and updated during each stage of their journey. 

Living that way is hard work. 

But the alternative – as I wrote in my youthful zeal, lo so many decades past – is “… the shallowness and resignation, the intentional blindness, the slow and quiet death of the tourist.”  Ouch. 

(See more wall art and graffiti from around the world in the Street Art gallery at Worldview Photography.)