Ranked # 1 on Tripadvisor

I got my tourist guide license four years ago and I was really confused about how I was going to work. My elder brother works for an Italian tour company, my cousin is also an Italian speaking tourist guide and I have grown up in a city where tourism is very important part of economy. Everyone was giving me different suggestions but most of them recommended me to visit some travel agencies with my CV and ask for work because this is the traditional way of getting work in tourism industry for tour guides. I was already blogging and I had developed a sense of finding right customers online so I was not really if I needed to contact travel agencies and in any case I was upset with usual travel agency’s practices like forced shopping and considering the guest only as a person whom you don’t think about meeting again in future.

I had already met with so many western people way before I got my license so I already had a sense about what western tourists want. And in any case my work as a translator or research assistant gave me the best practical knowledge possible, which a lot of guides miss, about western culture. So I decided to work in the same way I was already doing by promoting my business online. My friend Lane from Seattle helped a lot by putting up a website for my tour business. In the beginning it was not working at all and I realized that only having a website was not enough and I needed some kind of advertisement. In the beginning I used platforms like google business or craigslist but it was not really working well, I was still not getting enough work.

During the tour guide training program, we were taught that as per a survey organized by some International travel agency if a tourist is happy with the services of the travel agent then he is likely to tell about his experience to around 5 people but if he is upset then he is likely to share his experience with around 13 people which means there is no margin for error in this tourism business. I started working keeping this idea in my mind that I don’t have any rights to do anything which my guest doesn’t feel comfortable with. I was meeting with a lot of people through different online travel forums and just tried to perform my best. During this time so many people wrote about my services on online travel forums like Lonely Planet Thorn Tree and Indiamike.

Indiamike got me a lot of business and I was really happy with it. A few months ago Tripadvisor contacted me and they provided me a space on their website. Most probably some of my guests had asked Tripadvisor to list me on their website. I had heard about Tripadvisor so many times and everyone said that it was very big and so many people use it. I was really excited to be listed on Tripadvisor. Tripadvisor asked me to ask my guests to share their reviews about my services. It took me only four months and now I am ranked 1 on Varanasi page. I don’t know how it will change my business but I have noticed one thing that so many people contact me. It is a very big responsibility for me to carry on the same quality but I try my best.

I am also considering training other people so that we can work together with more than one group a day. In fact I tried it during last tourist season and it worked very well. I know that this coming tourist season will be much more busier than the last one and I need to be more prepared to handle the traffic. And keeping this idea in my mind I have already made contacts with other government approved tourist guides, have given them a sense about my style of work and they all have agreed on working with me. The biggest worry for me about hiring other guides was if they would ask my guests to go shopping with them as they usually do with their guests. I told them that I don’t do it in my business : I ask for more rather than stealing or cheating my guests.

All of the guides whom I met they also believed in me and said that if they get good salary then why they would take their guests for shopping. I have promised them extra money and just by getting this extra money they were all happy to take my guests without shopping. Everything is working very well so far and I am really excited for next tourist season. My tripadvisor page is here.

Tourist guide license renewal

My tourist guide license was issued in January 2010 and it was valid up to 29th of January, 2013. My license said that I needed to surrender my license 45 days before the date of expiry in order to get it renewed. I started contacting Ministry of Tourism office in New Delhi and it seemed like they did not have any information. Every time I contacted them they said that I should contact my local tourist guide association. It was a very big problem for me because I never took any membership of any guide association in Varanasi. Finally I got some information from one of my friends in Delhi. He had the proforma of the form I need to fill up.

He also told me that I needed to go to Delhi personally to deposit my license with tourism office. My friend suggested me to talk with the Delhi office before leaving for Delhi. I contacted the Delhi office and they told me a really strange rule that they would accept renewal application only on Wednesday, Thursday and Fridays in the second and third week of January. I was already booked for the second week hence I had to cancel a couple of bookings from the first week and flew to Delhi. I reached at the tourism office in Delhi around 11 AM and they asked me come after 4 PM. I thought that they asked me to come later because maybe the concerned office was not present there.

I was just wandering around here and there for 5 hours and finally when I reached there again by 4, the same officer whom I met in the morning took my application, made me sign on a few papers and issued me a temporary license which said that my license was under renewal process hence I am allowed to work as a regional level tourist guide till 31st of April. I have no idea why they called me to Delhi if they only wanted me to sign a few papers or made me wait for 5 hours if the same person from the morning was responsible for issuing my license. If it was all about signing a few papers then they should have better organized it by post or online. I don’t know when we will start using our IT knowledge for ourselves. Anyways, everything went well but I didn’t like going to Delhi.

Hospitality industry in India

I work in hospitality industry and I have been trying to learn about it ever since I started working. I had already heard about India having so many problems for tourists but never realized how serious the problem was. Every once in a while I heard about something but it was not possible for me to realize how big the problem was and how easily we could solve it and make more money and send our guests back with a positive impression about India. The biggest problem I was hearing all the time was the issue of forced shopping and I was seriously upset with it. For whatever reasons I was never ever interested in it but I was still happy with the money I was given for my services.

Now when I am back after my first trip out of India, my industry seem shockingly in terrible condition and I feel very sad about it. I traveled in Europe for 14 days and to be honest I was traveling ever hour of the day, except when I slept. I was just not at home at all. I went to all almost all kinds of tourist places possible in Europe and I was really surprised how easy everything was and how the government and people were so nice and welcoming for tourists. The only difference was the cost but its not an issue because life was very expensive in Europe and they definitely need to charge more.

And the good thing was that at least you get what you want after paying for it. Its just not possible at all to buy good services in India. I am not saying that its impossible to get good service but its very hard. I have no idea why such things are going on and why not government and the people of my country are serious about it. We need to understand that Tourism in India is relatively undeveloped, but a high growth sector. It contributes 6.23% to the national GDP and 8.78% of the total employment. A World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) report says that by 2020, tourism in India could contribute Rs. 8,50,000 crores to the GDP. In other words, every man, woman and child could become richer by Rs.7,000. India has yet to realize its full potential from tourism.

The Travel and Tourism industry holds tremendous potential for India’s economy. It can provide impetus to other industries and create millions of new jobs. But we won’t be able to make this dream come true if we don’t organize our tourism industry. The major problems tourists face in India is the lack of basic infrastructure, behavior of people working in tourism industry (tourists guides, drivers, hotel staff, restaurants etc), unorganized services, people on the street targeting tourists etc. To be honest I don’t really think that we need to make huge changes, we can organize tourism only by making little efforts.

A few things happened with me in recent times which made me write this article. At first my Europe trip which was like an enlightenment for me other than that the first attraction with a foreign tourist after returning back to India. Actually it was going to be my first work after returning back to India. I was going to work with a Dutch family. I was going to take them on the boat ride. This assignment was given to me by a travel agency, the only agency I work with in whole India. Usually I talk with my guests the evening before the working day. I called the hotel several times but no one responded.

In fact they were staying at a very nice hotel in Varanasi and I was just not expecting such behavior at all but it happened. I wanted to talk with the guest just to reconfirm the timing and other details. I went to the hotel and met with the guest. The guest seemed seriously upset when I met with him at first. He told me- Thank you so much for coming otherwise I was not hoping to see anyone. I was really surprised why he told me such thing. I started talking with him and he said that he was traveling with his wife and daughter and he had requested his travel agent to provide them either a triple bed room or two different rooms but today he was provided only one double bed room.

And when he asked the hotel where would he sleep, the hotel said that they could give him a blanket and he needed to sleep on the floor. He was so upset with it and told me that his dog sleeps on the floor and he always sleep in his bed. He called his agent in India and they said that this is Indian way. Finally he decided to booked another room and paid from his pocket. He had already paid for everything but here he had to pay for the mistake he was not responsible for. The guest was so upset that he said he was very well aware the hotel guy and the travel agency guy sleeping in the bed but they did not care at all about him. I was really sorry for him but…

Anyways, I needed to discuss about my work with him next morning so we just sat together and discussed about the next morning. He said that he did not want to go on any boat ride as he was already super exhausted by traveling for 14 hours on a train and then having all the crazy experience at the hotel. He asked me if I could arrange his boat ride for the evening. As a tourist guide working for someone else it was not under my power to change his boat ride. As per the rules of the travel agency I was working with he needed to pay again because he was the one who wanted to cancel the tour. And in any case we would have to pay the boat guy doesn’t matter whether use him or not after making a booking.

He also seemed fine with this and asked me the price but when I told him the price he was again upset. He said that it was a rip off. I could easily see that he was prepared to tell this way before I told him the price because he was seriously upset with everything. He had no idea what I was asking for but he had developed this mentality that I was going to cheat him. I had asked him for Rs. 1200 per person and this is the rate travel agency in Varanasi charge. He had paid almost three times more to his agent for the morning boat he canceled but still Rs. 1200 seemed like a rip off to him.

I could easily see how upset and angry he was and I was the one who was dealing with him alone. I was seriously scared but I knew how to make Dutch people happy:) I have worked with many Dutch people already but the most important thing is that I have worked with a very popular TV channel called VPRO from The Netherlands. All the Dutch people I ever met know about this TV channel and they all way that they like this channel a lot and follow their programs as they are very progressive channel. And when I tell them that I have already done so many assignments and research for VPRO they become very interested in me and seem so comfortable and happy with me around them.

I knew it would make him happy and comfortable if I tell him about my relations with Dutchland so I shot my arrow and it worked. He was kind of shocked at first and later so happy and comfortable. He invited me to have a beer with him. We went on the roof top restaurant of the same hotel and ordered beer. We were just talking and talking about my work with Dutch people and what he could do the next day in Varanasi and already passed more than 20 minutes but no beer. Neither I nor the guest had any idea why the service was so later as beer is a packaged drink, the hotel did not need to produce it.

I asked the waitstaff again about our order and he said, it will come soon. I asked how soon and he said ten minutes. I asked why and he did not answer me. At this moment I thought maybe they went out to buy the beer and we started talking again. After ten minutes I again asked the waitstaff about our order and he just open the refrigerator right next to our table and gave the beer to us. The refrigerator was literally right next to our table, so close that I could easily opened and taken the beer out without leaving my chair. I just did not understand why he made us wait for 30 minutes???

Impossible to imagine but this is what happened. I can’t even imagine why they did not serve our order on time. Were they worried about me? Were they personally upset with the guest? Or do they just don’t care about their guests at all? Didn’t they care about the money we were going to give them by buying their goods? In any case if they did not want to entertain us then they should have just told us about it. Even after doing it no one said sorry or anything. No one explained why they were so late even when we asked them. Why such things happen?

Such kind of thing is just an example which happened recently with me otherwise I encounter something crazy every time I am working and I know it very well that most of the tourists must be facing similar problems, or maybe bigger, when they are in India. I spent fifteen days traveling in Hungary, Austria and Slovakia and I hardly noticed such things two three times but the problems I noticed in Europe was different and was not as extreme as here. It happened only once in Budapest when someone approached me trying to sell an iphone but it was very easy to avoid him. I noticed a problem second and time in Bratislava, Slovakia where a waitstaff at a restaurant did not speak any English and was dealing with customers.

We ordered something else and got something different. Other than this I just can’t think of any problem I noticed during those fifteen days. Now I wonder why can’t we also have similar kind of services here in India? I know that Indian government is crazy and I just don’t have any hope at all but what about services offered by people? Our attitude for tourists? At one hand we are so proud of saying that as per Indian culture the guest is like God (अतिथि देवो भव्) and on the other hand I am very well aware of such incidents where foreign guests were not treated even like a human? And it happened only because they were our foreign guests.

I have a strong feeling that the people not working in tourism industry are very friendly and nice and all the tourists like them a lot but unfortunately a lot of people who are working in tourism industry are really strange. They just don’t have any sense of tourism or hospitality at all. Another unfortunate thing is that the tourists don’t really get to meet many local people and mostly they interact with their agents or other people working in tourism where they develop strange ideas about India and I am not surprised at all. I would also develop the same mentality if such thing happened with me.

I still don’t forget the way my driver in Himanchal Pradesh had cheated me for only Rs. 100. The amount was nothing for me but that experience of being cheated changed my whole idea about him and I started to hate him and was not feeling secured at all. If we just look at any online travel forum about India then the forums are full of negative stories about India. In fact there are warnings. I know that a few people might be offended with my thinking about tourism industry in India but to be honest I experienced the difference and whatever I am writing is a bitter truth.

We really need to realize that there are problems. If we don’t admit that there are problems then we just won’t be able to solve them. Internet is changing the world. Now we can easily learn a lot about the any place in the world without visiting. We can talk with people without meeting them, we can share ideas and if India is getting negative impression online then we are going to be in huge problem. People read about India before coming here. We need to change otherwise one thing is very sure that we are not right track and things are not going work this way for very long.

I know that everyone is not the same and there are so many people who have real passion for tourism and they do really nice work but it is very likely to get a bad experience in India. I hope we change such things soon.

work with OHM, The Netherlands

OHM is a TV channel from The Netherlands. They actually make radio and TV shows about Hinduism targeting the Hindus living in Netherlands. They wanted to make a documentary TV show about a young Dutch Hindu boy who was born and raised in The Netherlands in a Hindu family experiencing Hinduism in India. The character they had chosen was named Bramha and they wanted Bramha to live with a traditional Hindu family in India for a few days, experience their daily life, religion, culture and then make a presentation about it. Bramha was a 26 years old young energetic boy who did not have much interest in any religion.

To put a contrast in the story they wanted Bramha to stay with a Hindu family which is follower of Aghor. They had contacted several people across India to organize their work but none of them were able to do it. And I understand it very well because India and Indians have changed a lot after terrorist attack in Mumbai and now they do not want to take any risk by hosting any stranger. Finally they contacted me through my blog. At first I thought it would be easy but later I also felt the same issue. People did not want to host any stranger.

They wanted to film inside the Kina Ram Ashram which I knew wont be possible as I had already tried it several times but every time I got same response that they do not allow media inside the Ashram premises. They have done it because a few years ago some TV channel from India did some filming inside the Ashram and later played with the footage and story and presented Aghor and Aghoris as the people who eat human body flesh, use alcohol in the rituals and do other strange things. Anyways, I still went there but they did not allow me.

But they suggested me about a family who was devotee of Aghor. I knew the family personally but I did not know that they were devotee of Aghor. Another condition put by the TV channel was that the family needed to be a joint family and luckily this family had seven brothers living in the same house and sharing the same kitchen. It was perfect for the show but they were also not comfortable with hosting a stranger in the home. In any case this was the best option I could find. I was talking about an option of TV people meeting the family in person and asking about the option of hosting Bramha for a few days and luckily it also worked when Bramha arrived.

They permitted Bramha to stay with them. So Bramha stayed with the family for four nights and the other crew members stayed at hotel and did the filming. Other than filming with the family they also filmed some regular footage of Varanasi like the evening ceremony, sun rise, rituals, temples, river… They liked Lali Baba a lot and filmed with him also. I have no idea what was the impression of Bramha and what he will talk about the family or Hindus in India but I have a feeling that they were happy with my work and went back with a positive impression about the family they worked with.

Nirvana Travels lead character

Nirvana Travels is travel show done by NDTV Good Times TV channel in India.The show looks at the spiritual face of different cities in India. The idea behind the show is to meet people in different cities and see the city through their eyes. They contacted me regarding their upcoming show about Varanasi. Actually in this show they have one lead character and a few other regular but interesting people as well. They wanted to choose me as the lead character for this show because of my tour guiding work, research and social activism. I was kind of surprised when I heard about it first, actually I had no idea why they wanted to choose me only if there are so many other tourist guides, researchers and social activists.

Anyways, I asked them about why me only and they said that there are definitely other tourist guides in the city but no one is as popular as me online because of good references. There are other researchers but they usually study only one topic and never share it whereas I have been studying many different subjects and I write about it online. And finally they said that they did not want to work with any social worker who was a very big name, they wanted to work with new people in the industry. And overall I was doing all these things alone. I had never heard anyone talking all these things about me:)

Anyways, they came to Varanasi with the host of the show named Kaisha Hastu. She had already done other episodes of this show and some other show for NDTV Good Times. We agreed on filming and places and other details. Basically they wanted to film me in my environment, where I usually meet with my friends, the shop where I usually have my tea and such things. The first day they asked me to take them to my favorite chai shop. I was feeling kind of nervous being surrounded by cameras in my own neighborhood but it was fun.

They introduced me as a very popular tourist guide and researcher from Varanasi. At first they asked me general questions about Varanasi, its culture, people, tourism… They already knew that I was very much interested in cultural and religious diversity of Varanasi so they asked me a few questions about it also. Other than this there were questions about my personal life, research, activism… To be honest I don’t really remember how many questions they asked but they asked me questions about almost everything. Other than me they need some help with interviewing other people as well.

They were very much interested in the idea of Nirvana hence wanted to interview someone who had some real knowledge about the subject. I suggested them to meet with the manager of Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan. Mr. Shukla, the manager, is a very knowledgeable person about the subject of Moskha or Nirvana. I had already interviewed him several times. After interviewing him they showed interest in interviewing some young artist from Varanasi, preferably a tabla player because Varanasi is very famous for its Tabla players as well. I organized this with a very famous and young tabla player from Varanasi named Prashant Mishra. Finally the show was completed with a big interview with me and four-five smaller interviews with other people. I look forward for the show on air.

work with e3 Foundation, Texas

I got to work with a non profit organization called e3 Foundation from Texas. Their project was very interesting. They were making a documentary about religion and what it means to people. It was a series of documentaries which was based in three different countries. They wanted to make one episode about Hindu religion and this episode was based only in Varanasi. I was was responsible to do research, find different people who were interested in talking about what religion and God mean to them, schedule appointment for interview and do interpretation. But they did not want just anyone, they wanted each person to be different from other so that there is diversity in the show.

It didn’t really take me much time to organize it as I already knew many interesting people. I think my interest in people helped me a lot here. There is a public call booth at Assi crossing which is owned by my friend’s uncle. I always found him different from others because whenever we were sitting next to his shop, he would usually come and stay close to us so he could hear what we were talking. Sometimes he also became part of our discussion. Only a few days before e3 contacted me, the show owner, friend’s uncle, had shown me his diary. His diary was full of poetries written by him.

These poetries were basically about his life, his religious practices, the way regular people practice religion, the world and questions about religion and God. It was really impressive. He had told me once that people who are not curious and do not question things are just like animals. Because the God has given us mind and we need to use it. His another writing which impressed was – Are we really worth getting blessings of God? I was really impressed with his writings. And when I was thinking about right people for the show, he immediately clicked in my mind.

And when I asked him if he would like to be interviewed, he was so happy and agreed on getting interviewed. I took e3 to Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan also where we interviewed the manager about the idea of death in Hinduism. We also filmed a family who had brought their mother to die a Varanasi. We filmed evening and morning rituals as well at Mukti Bhawan. It was again very intense experience translating the manager, because he loves talking and talks too much and the atmosphere at Mukti Bhawan. Anyways, it went very well.

I introduced the director to a boat rower also who is known for his singing skills. He writes his own songs and most of them are religious. He loves singing his songs when he is rowing the boat and his voice is really beautiful. This interview was also very good and interesting. Other than this we interviewed a lady professor of Hindu religion and definitely her interview was very nice. Overall we did 10 interviews with different kind of people and did some regular touristic things like evening ceremony, morning boat, temples, rituals etc. It was nice working on this project because it was mostly about interviewing people and I got to listen a lot which is always a nice experience for me.

Another project with VPRO

VPRO hired me again for their documentary project called From Bihar to Bangalore. This documentary project was bigger than the last one I worked with them in 2011. The host of the show Mr. Jelle Brandt Corstius wanted to show how India changes from one city to other. I was responsible for organizing their work in Varanasi. Mr. Jelle spent 4 months studying Hindi and exploring India to prepare for the documentary. I met him about 3 months before the crew arrived in Varanasi. Mr. Jelle told me that the whole world knows Varanasi but they only one classical picture of Varanasi but he wanted to show something different.

We went to a few places which is shown in all of the documentaries about Varanasi. Apart from those regular places we went to Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan where they allow only 15 days of stay for the people to die, we met with Mr. G. D. Agarwal and the king of Doam society. They wanted to interview one of the members of National River Ganga Basin Authority also. I suggested them to interview Mr. Rajendra Singh because I was very well aware of his honest activism for environment, especially Ganga but we could not schedule an appointment with him as he was going to be busy somewhere else during the filming time.

We decided to work with Mr. B. D. Tripathi, professor at BHU, instead of Mr. Rajendra Singh. Mr. Jelle was very much interested in the king of Doam society, the people who work at the cremation ghat. Arranging an appointment with him was kind of a pain because this person was seriously commercial. The only thing he cared about was money. VPRO wanted to film Shivratri festival in Varanasi and I arranged the filming at a temple called Tilbhandeshwar with consent of the temple management committee and Shivratri organizing committee.

Everything seemed very well organized. I knew what we were going to do and when. Everything went smoothly except filming at the Tilbhandeshwar temple and interview the king of Doam society. When we arrived at the temple to start filming, it was too crowded. We got in the temple and by the time we were going to go on the rooftop to film the preparation, a policeman stopped us. He said that filming inside the temple was not allowed. I told him that I had permission but this guy just did not want to hear anything.  One of the persons from the management committee also said that it was not problem for them but he still did not allow us.

VPRO understood that it was not my fault but it was crazy to see how this policeman behaved us. The king of the Doam society was also a crazy guy. He did not want to speak anything, his answers were too short and finally we decided not to work with him. We filmed a Sadhu also at the biggest Ashram in Varanasi which was very nice. The Sadhu was very cooperative and he invited us to join him at his personal Ganga ritual. VPRO just loved this footage. Everything went very well and finally we completed the filming in Varanasi and VPRO told me that it was one of the best episodes they had ever produced.

Work with Gilles Delmas

Gilles Delmas is a documentary maker and an artist from France. I was introduced to him by a friend of mine from Varanasi. Actually Gilles was looking for an assistant to help him photographing in Varanasi. The theme of the photography was relationship between chair and death. He approached to my friend first but my friend had to no idea what Mr. Gilles was talking about so he brought him to me. Mr. Gilles explained me his project and since I had already worked with so many photographers and documentary makers, I just thought that this project would also be like any other project I had worked on.

I immediately agreed on working with Mr. Gilles but I had no idea how different this project was going to be:) A few really interesting things happened only in the first meeting. Actually Mr. Gilles was staying at Hotel Haifa and it is prohibited for me to enter in this hotel. Mr. Gilles asked me to meet him the next day in the hotel lobby and I told him that I cold not enter in the hotel. He asked me the reason behind it and I told him that hotel owner had told me once that it was their policy that they do not allow locals to enter in the hotel. Mr. Gilles did not tell me anything at that moment but later I got a call that he had already changed his hotel.

Mr. Gilles told me that he doesn’t like racism hence changed the hotel. I had never thought that somebody would even care about my personal problems this much. Anyways, it was really nice of him that he cared a lot about me and I really appreciate it. We met the next day and Mr. Gilles asked me to take him to the places where Sadhus or regular people live to die. I took him to several places and he chose one of them to work. Now he needed chairs which I did not understand. I asked him the reason behind this theme of relationship between chair and death.

He told me that he had always wanted to come to Varanasi to photograph death and once he was laying down with his closed eyes in Haridwar along the Ganga thinking about his project in Varanasi. When he opened his eyes, he saw a big chair in the sky with yellow and orange color and it gave him this idea that there was some kind of relationship between chair and death. He thought a lot about it and realized that it was true. He was trying to tell me things that I did not understand at all. He told me that even the people who come to die in Varanasi have to use a chair in their journey, maybe just by sitting on it waiting for a train.

I did not understand anything but at the same time things were becoming more and more interesting. I took him to several shops where they sell chairs but Mr. Gilles did not like them. At some places he did not like the way they were making the chair, at one place he did not like the children of the carpenter and at the same time he was asking me to take him to a right place. I did not know what was going on, it was kind of upsetting for me. I had no idea what was the right place for him. I kind of gave up at this moment and called the friend who had introduced him to me.

I asked him to take care of him as I felt like leaving the project. This friend came and we went to his place along the river side. I introduced my friends father to Mr. Gilles and told him that father also works as a carpenter but he usually makes boats. Mr. Gilles finally said that the father was the best person to make his chairs, big relief. We went to buy the wood and day was over today. I thought a lot of about working with Mr. Gilles and started talking about him with my western friends. They all told me that Mr. Gilles was not different at all, all the artists are same. They do things differently, they are very creative people and we should respect them.

When I met with Mr. Gilles the next day, I saw him with hair shaved. I asked him why he shaved his hair and he said that it was because he was going to start his project. He was wearing orange color jacket and it was also intentional. Actually most of the holy men and other people who come to die in Varanasi wear orange color dresses and since he was going to work with them, he also wanted to wear the same color dress. His devotion for the project made me feel like really artists are different. I realized that it was first time in my whole life when I was working with an artist. His devotion made me respect him and his project more than ever before.

Mr. Gilles had drawn pictures of several different kinds of chairs with different sizes. He needed a chair with really long legs, as long as four feet. Another chair with regular size, one chair one and half feet tall, one broken chair and three chairs as small as a match box. I was thrilled to see the idea of the chairs. The most interesting thing about the chairs were how they were going to look like. They needed to be in two colors- orange in front and yellow in the back. The space of the seat and back needed to be empty, wow. I was thinking that if someone sits on such kind of chair and get photographed then those empty spaces won’t be even visible but it was still very important for Mr. Gilles.

I told about this strange structure of the chair to my friends and they told me that the things which was not visible but still exist means a lot to artists. I was like, wow. I had never thought about such thing. Anyways, finally the chairs were prepared. They looked beautiful and different than any chair I had ever seen, even in my dreams. The chair with the long leg was so big that it would not fit in any taxi or auto so we had to hire a boat to carry them and then lift them to the photography place. Mr. Gilles had chosen one particular ashram called Machli Bandar Math which was situated near to the river and he wanted to photograph one particular Baba.

We arrived at the Ashram the next day with all of our chairs and started photographing. The tall chair was so big that the person could not even sit on it. We had to lift him up and help him getting on the chair, it was so funny. Mr. Gilles sometimes wanted the Baba to sit on the chair, some times just stand next to the chair, sometimes just look at the chair, sometimes walk towards the chair… many different poses. Mr. Gilles was super devoted for his work. Once he started photographing, it felt like he had lost connection from the world. Sometimes he would talk with himself and with the camera. His camera was also very different.

He had three cameras and all of them were roll cameras. One of them was very big in size. I asked him why he was not using a digital camera and he said that since his pictures are poster size, he could not print digital photographs in that big size. I did not know this before. We worked with the wooden chairs for three days and the fourth day something new arrived. Mr. Gilles brought chairs made of cloth. He had two chairs- one regular size and other one as big as a house. He wanted to stick the regular size one on the wall the spread the bigger one on the ground and just have the character look at it.

The big chair was so big that we had to go in a ground. He spread the chair and went on a roof top next to the ground and photographed it. The project was completed successfully but the last day was not happy day. Actually Mr. Gilles wanted to compensate the Baba for his time and we had agreed on a price but on the last day he started asking for ten times more money. I somehow handled the situation by paying the Baba from my own pocket. I did not pay him ten times more but a little bit more than we had agreed.

I think a lot about Mr. Gilles and his project and feel like I really learnt a lot. He was a gentleman and super professional person and I really look forward to work with him in future. Mr. Gilles want to come to Varanasi again for the documentary filming project and again I would love working with him.

tourist guides work for free?

Something really strange happened with me today that made me realize the condition of the tourist guides in India. My brother who is an Italian tour escort called me a few days ago saying that one of his friends from Varanasi wanted to start a travel agency and needed my advise. He had already visited my websites and was impressed with it. Finally I got a call from this gentleman interested in starting a travel agency in Varanasi. He basically needed suggestions tours that could really attract foreign tourists.

I told him about the unique things I knew about Varanasi that I show to my guests like road side dental clinic, bull shop, facebook baba, walking tours. I told him a little bit about the concept of LGBT tourism also. Everything was fine, we had a nice conversation but suddenly he told me that he had a group of foreign tourists traveling to Varanasi and he needed a tourist to show them around. I was going to tell him about Incredible India office in Varanasi but he said something that just shocked me seriously.

He said that he had heard that tourist guides in Varanasi charge a fee for their work and I was what??? I asked where there is a place where they do not charge a fee? And he said that tourist guides in cities like Agra and Delhi do not charge any fee and they work for free. I asked him why somebody would like to work for free and he did not know why such thing could happen but he was so confident as he had already used service of such guides who work for free.

I knew why guides sometimes work for free. It is because they are more interested in bringing their guests to shops rather than showing them around. I told this to him and he asked me if there was no such scene in Varanasi. I told him that I was not aware of such guides for sure. I told him that there is a set rate decided by the government of India and in fact Varanasi is the most expensive place to hire a tourist guide because tourism starts before sunrise and ends after sunset in Varanasi hence guides are paid for 3 half days (4 hours each).

But he really needed a free tourist guide even after knowing that these free guides take the guests to shops and not to the tourist sites. I called my brother asking if such things happen in Delhi and Agra and my brother also said that yes there are such guides who work for free. But once you are with them they start telling you so many crazy stories and bring you to the shop that finally you buy something and they get a commission. I really could not imagine how someone could even think that tourist guides are free?

His guests will be staying at the Radission Hotel in Varanasi and I know that not everyone can stay there. The people who stay at hotels like Radission are rich tourists and I was wondering about them that even after paying so much money and spending so much time they would meet a guide who works for free and brings their guests to the shops instead of touristic sites. My brother and a lot of other tourist guides tell me the same story that they are still treated as a guy who entertain tourists by telling funny them stories.

There is no standard of tourist guides in India and I also notice the same. I feel really proud that I am tourist guide because it is really nice profession. I meet people from all over the world, I teach them and they teach me and finally I make money which is good on India standard. India is known for being delayed all the time and we are only people who are always on time (when working :) We represent our country which is a huge and very important responsibility. Ministry of Tourism calls us tourist guides cultural ambassador of India.

I think government of India should take some steps to make tourist guides respected in India. During my tour guide training I was told that Ministry of Tourism was planning to start an annual award for best tourist guides from different regions to encourage tourists guides to provide best services and people to take interest in it. Whatever was told to us about government planning seemed very nice but today when I see what government has done in favor of tourism then everything seems the same. I recently visited Incredible India website and I was shocked to see when it was updated last time.

Incredible India is the most famous brand of tourism in India. One can see the importance of this word just by googling India, India tourism, tourism in India. I think people google these words way before they buy their flight tickets and the first link that appears on Google is Incredible India website which has all these information that comes from world war II time. They are still saluting the medal winners of commonwealth games which took place last year.

They request tourists to use only authorized tourist guides but do not have any list of them. There are awards mentioned on the website but there is no category for best tourist guide, I don’t know when the government will take tourism seriously. Tourism already contributes 5.90% to our GDP and this percentage can increase a lot only by making small changes but… I don’t know when government will start thinking about such issues but they really need to.

work with Richard Dawkins

Mr. Richard Dawkins in Varanasi

It was something that I had never expected but I got to work personally with Richard Dawkins. Actually BBC world and Channel 4 were making a documentary together and Mr. Dawkins was the host of this show. The name of this documentary was The meaning of Life. I got a call from the director of the show 10 days before the shooting was going to be done in Varanasi and they wanted me to organize their work. They contacted me only 10 days in advance because they had already hired some production house company in Delhi which had promised them to organize their work in Varanasi also but they finally they seemed unable to do it. So they found my blog and contacted me to manage their work in Varanasi.

Mr. Dawkins and I

They were looking for the people who have been discriminated against in the society for the reasons they are not responsible for. They had chosen two kinds of people to work with i.e. a Dalit and Hijras. They wanted a Dalit boy who was discriminated against because of his caste, had to suffer a lot but he struggled and finally he had a stable life. They wanted Hijras because Hijras society has always faced discrimination because of their sexuality and they wanted to hear their stories. They wanted me to do the research to find the right people and schedule interviews.

Mr. Dawkins and Babu

I had already done such kind of research several times and knew exactly where to go so it didn’t really take me a lot of work. I just had to make a few phone calls and everything was organized on my end. One of the guys from that Delhi production house company came to Varanasi two days before the crew was supposed to arrive to check if everything was all right and in any case they needed to show that they were working really hard. Anyways, this guy wanted to meet with the people whom I had chosen for the documentary.

Mahendra

He was a nice person just trying to prove how experienced and knowledgeable he was but I was not really impressed with him because first of all he had taken the responsibility that he could not fulfill and secondly he was just trying to impose his ideas on me and the people whom I had chosen whereas I knew very well what I was supposed to do because I was talking personally with the director of the show and I knew what I needed to do. Anyways, finally the crew arrived and I was more than super excited to see Mr. Dawkins. It was really funny that I had not even heard about Mr. Dawkins before but when I asked my western friends they were all like he was one of the most famous scientists present in the world, a celebrity, a star…

Mahendra with Mr. Dawkins

I read a wiki article about him and I also realized that I was going to meet with someone really important. I was super excited to see him but at the same time I was super nervous also. It happened for the first time in my life that I was nervous about working with a westerner. I don’t really have good experience of working under an Indian because I worked with Indians for a really little time so I am a little bit nervous whenever I have to work under an Indian boss. I do kind of good work as a boss for Indians but I am not really comfortable working under some local guy.

Mahendra with Alison, the director of the show

I have always worked with Westerners and I also very comfortable with them but it was first time in my whole professional career when I was seriously nervous. When I saw Mr. Dawkins first time I could not dare even to shake hands with him. He was very reserved and a serious person even with the crew members. The director and other crew members would plan the shot and then just ask him to act like that. Mr. Dawkins would either come on camera to interview people or sit alone and watch the surroundings. He was like a super star for sure.

The crew

Finally I made myself strong enough to go and say hello to him. Maybe it was second or third time in my lifetime when I called someone Sir. I had already planned what I was going to tell to him but was so nervous that I forgot everything and ended up saying that- Sir, I read a Wikipedia article about you a few days ago and I really impressed with your work and think that you have done really good work. I was thinking like, “Hell, how could a person like me evaluate work of such a scientist like Mr. Dawkins. hahahaha.” Mr. Dawkins response was very polite and he said, “Yes, I also think so.”

I did not know what to tell him so I just started talking about how my western friends are big fan of him and what did they tell me when I first told them I was going to work with him. Anyways, I had chosen a Dalit boy named Mahendra from a village called Mehdiganj which is situated around 20 Kms from the Varanasi city. Mahendra works with an NGO called Lok Samiti as a teacher and is expert on RTI. Everything was set to start the filming and they needed a translator. They asked the Delhi guy to translate the interview and he immediately surrendered, I am 100% sure that he did it only because he was also too nervous.

He grew up in Delhi, went to an English medium school where they speak English as their first language and his Indian English was way better than mine but still he did not want to translate. He wanted me to translate for Mr. Dawkins. Again it was first time in my life when I said that I did not want to translate because I was also so nervous. The crew was stuck in between me and the guy from Delhi. He was smoking like a chimney and my heart was making sound like an Indian train. The crew requested me to translate and finally I had to agree.

I did not know what was going to happen but I started. I was listening to every word very carefully and tried my best to translate and finally everything was good. The interview was really nice and I was appreciated for my research of finding a right person for the interview and translation work. I was really happy and kind of proud. This happiness and proud feeling gave me enough strength to ask Mr. Dawkins to have a picture together with him but fortunately Mr. Dawkins came to me asked to have a picture of Varanasi crew with him. I was so happy to have a picture with Mr. Dawkins.

The second interview was with a group of Hijras. We arrived there the next day. Everything was all set and we completed the interview. We had organized a dance performance of Hijras because this is what they do when they go for work- perform certain kind of traditional dance, sing traditional songs and bless the baby. Hijras have this really strange reputation that they go naughty with their clients, tickle them, sometimes jump over their clients and maybe even go nude in front of just anyone. During this performance Mr. Dawkins was sitting on a chair, watching the performance and everything was being filmed.

Hijras asked me if they wanted me to play with Mr. Dawkins (playing means tickle him, kiss him or maybe ask him to dance with themselves) and I asked the director about it and she said that it doesn’t sound bad. I indicated the Hijras to go for it and two of them went to Mr. Dawkins and started doing all the naughty things. I could easily see the angry face of Mr. Dawkins, he was face was just red. As soon as the first performance was over, he asked the crew to send him to the taxi. I was a little bit concerned about him being angry but the crew said that it was fine. In the second performance the whole crew danced with the Hijras and had fun.

Finally the work was over in Varanasi where I spent hours watching and listening to a person like Mr. Dawkins who is very controversial for ideas of being atheist, anti-religion and having no existence of Gods and Goddesses. I have grown up in a country which is birth place of three major religions of the world. I have grown up as a Hindu and Hindus believe that there are 33 million Gods and Goddesses. I grew up in a city which is known as cultural and religious hub of Hinduism so I grew up hearing about religion, Gods and Goddesses and have seen religion being a serious part of one’s life.

I always believe that religion is like a government, a serious belief, a Windows operating system for the computer and if it is corrupt then we need to change it or replace it with the virus-free version. I believe in Vedas which gives the real idea about Hinduism and I like to be a Hindu. The best thing I like about Hinduism is the openness, flexibility and respect for everyone and this is how I like to be (note- these ideas exist in real Hinduism, not the present one that we practice nowadays) but Mr. Dawkins was really extremist about his ideas. I really respect his ideas of Gene-centered view of evolution, concept of the meme,  advocacy of atheism and science but I really wondered blaming a religion only by looking at wrong parts of it is good?

His questions with the Dalit boy was like- Do you think that you were discriminated in the society? Do you think that you were discriminated because of your caste? Do you think that this idea of castism comes from Hindu religion and finally do you admit that religion is bad? Only by asking these four questions within five minutes how come someone can declare a religion bad? I wondered why he did not ask about how the idea of castism changed over time? I wonder even if Mr. Dawkins was aware of it. Maybe he was just told that there is huge discrimination against people based on their caste and and made a few questions for them.

I believe that the world is about change, things have changed, things are changing and they will keep changing in the future as well. I won’t go against Mr. Dawkins if he start a new religion which has his own ideas but saying really extremely that faith of over 95% people of the world is bad is not something I really respect. I respect Mr. Dawkins, his ideas and he is still like a super hero for me but I would have respected him more if he was more like looking for the reason of change in the Hindu society and then say that look these are reasons behind discrimination against this Dalit boy and if this is what happens then why not become an athiest.

There is no way for me to question Mr. Dawkins and his style of working but I personally believe that he should become a little bit open for other ideas also which has been making the society for endless times. Anyways, it was just an awesome experience to work with a super star Mr. Dawkins who has brought change in the world in positive way and I really wish if I could work with him again.