A Good Guide Is Heaven Sent

A Good Guide Is Heaven Sent

One thing we don’t often discuss in travel writing and photojournalism circles is the art of guiding. Few things can make or break a long sought after vacation or travel adventure than a guide.

I was reminded of this on my just-ended trip to Israel, where I was blessed to have a professional guide by the name of Jacky Sivak every day of my 10-day tour. I’m really not the tour type, but I have to say that Jacky made every moment enjoyable. I’d take a tour with her any day.

As a registered tour guide, Jacky obviously had to meet the minimum standards of her industry. But what differentiated Jacky, and all good guides, from the merely mediocre, is her passion for what she does and her incredible grasp of historical fact and current facts-on-the-ground in Israel. This woman truly loves what she does and it shines.

I’ll link this to photography by saying that a good guide is nearly a must when you visit an area that you’d like to extensively photograph for the first time. A guide will impart to you knowledge gained from years of experience.

The absolutely best, most ideal situation is when your guide is also willing to help you porter your equipment. Ah, the relief, the joy, the luxury of that! Sharing the load allows you to concentrate on your photography. In most developing countries fees for such people are reasonable and provide critical revenue for your guide.

I had just such an experience most recently in Sri Lanka, where several regional guides helped me to carry my 30 pounds of equipment (I shoot Hasselblad and Nikon). My best situation was my driver, guide and porter rolled into one in a quiet, generous and industrious man named Susil Ranjith. Although his English was a bit rough (my Sri Lankan is totally nonexistent!), we still managed to communicate. After one day, Susil began anticipating my moves and would have my tripod legs extended, or my backpack held out in his hands ready for me to unzip and remove my gear. By the third day he was suggesting excellent photo targets to me, even driving me to out of the way places that he thought would work.  

A half-dozen tips for guides

  1. Ask around. Ask for recommendations from friends who have been to a locale you wish to visit
  2. Check references. It is perfectly appropriate to ask a guide for recent references. Make up a list of characteristics that would be important to you. Call the guide(s) and ask questions to determine if there is compatibility.
  3. Agree on fees in advance. This works both ways. You certainly don’t want to be charged for items that you thought were included. On the other hand, it is unfair to ask a guide to include sites that were never agreed to, or to show up with six extra cousins for the same fee. Be clear about what you expect him/her to do.
  4. Discuss physical limitations. Many sites are difficult to traverse due to uneven paving. Other sites require fairly long walks to access. Bazaars and markets can be a challenge,too.
  5. Agree to your itinerary. Be specific, but allow for those “I’ve got to stop for that image” opportunities.
  6. Be astute. The first few days will be a mutual learning experience as you adapt to each other’s pace and modus operandi. Dole out responsibilities reasonably. I met a senior woman in Sri Lanka on my recent trip there who had hired a guide in India to porter her gear. He commented on how much nice equipment she had. When they got to a temple in India, he suggested she go in, take her time and photograph, while he watched her pack. She left her good gear and took a simple point-and-shoot with her. When she came back out, he was nowhere to be found!One solution to this, of course, is to check references or hire your guide through a reputable agency (usually at twice the going rate). Another option is to ask the guide for his driver’s license or government identification card and get a photocopy of these items.