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.

Interview with Mr. Rajendra Singh

I interviewed Mr. Rajendra Singh, one of the members of the National River Ganga Basin Authority, also known as Waterman of Rajasthan when I was visiting his NGO to get a training about ecology of Ganga. I made two interviews- one about his thoughts on why Ganga Action Plan was a complete failure and other one was about the current National River Ganga Basin Authority. I was really happy to have it done.

Rajendra Singh talking about the complete failure of Ganga Action Plan-

 

2nd interview of Mr. Singh where he talks about the National River Ganga Basin Authority-

work with VPRO

I worked with VPRO which is a broadcasting corporation from the Netherlands. They were making a travel show for children between eight to fourteen years of age group and my responsibility was to arrange everything for them including hotel, transportation, local assistants and choosing the right characters for the show. They just gave me an idea about the characters they were looking for and my responsibility was to do research, find the right characters and schedule appointments for interviews.  An employee of VPRO named Barbara Smith visited me a month before they wanted to start the filming. Since this show was a children show, they were looking for special children from Varanasi.

I asked them why they wanted to work in Varanasi only and they said they were really impressed by the cultural diversity of Varanasi and they could easily film the whole India only in Varanasi itself which was true. I also love the cultural diversity of Varanasi. Finding the characters they were looking for was a kind of challenge. At first I thought it would be easy but when I went talking with the kids and their families they all seemed suspicious about the work and because of this it was not easy at all to find the characters.

The characters of the show were really interesting. They were looking for a kid who practices Malkhamb, a bollywood kind of girl who comes from a rich family and has a dream to become either an actress or a model, a smart girl who comes from a poor family and was going to an NGO by some NGO’s support and a young couple. These four were the most demanded characters for the show and apart from it I was also responsible to find some other interesting characters. Once we were walking on the ghats and I saw a young snake charmer. I asked them if they would like to film him and they immediately agreed to work with him so a young snake charmer also became part of the show.

They already knew about an NGO called Saraswati Education Center which was basically a yoga school and an NGO running education program for poor kids. Barabara asked me to take her there so that she could arrange an appointment for filming when the crew arrives. I had not heard of this place before but when I reached I was surprised to see their work and meet with the owner named Sumit. He seemed like a nice guy and the NGO also seemed okay. We talked with Sumit and agreed to work with his school. But Barbara was not sure about them hence she did a random visit of the NGO and everything appeared to be fake. Sumit was saying that so many kids come to the school and they provide good education to the kids but in reality when Barbara arrived there she saw hardly 4-5 kids who were playing with a few hippies in the classroom.

Barabara said that nothing looked honest to her hence we decided to cancel the work with Saraswati Education Center. I had already introduced Dora and Attila to Barabara and she knew that they were also running an education program in Varanasi. She asked me if I could find a child from Chance India’s program which was not hard at all as I was also working with the same program and I knew all of the kids. We chose a girl and Barabara immediately decided to work with her. The biggest challenge was to find a Bollywood dancer girl because no family wanted their girl to appear dancing on a foreign TV show but fortunately I found a really nice girl in Varanasi whose parents were very nice and they allowed me to work with their daughter.

The film crew arrived after a month of Barabara did the research and we started filming the show. At the last moment they decided that they did not want to work with Malkhamb boy as it was not a very traditional practice. They asked me to find a kid who goes to Akhada, There was an Akhada nearby Assi so it was no problem to arrange filming there. I gave them a few walking tours of Varanasi and introduced them to a few cool characters of Varanasi. They filmed Varanasi city, cows, cow-dung on the street, Sadhus… We worked together for five days and completed the project successfully. The crew seemed happy and said that they came to Varanasi to produce one show but they had got enough material to produce two TV shows which was a compliment for me and I was so happy with it.

After completing the show we had a party at the Radission hotel in Varanasi. It was the evening before the crew was going to leave India and they got a call that the producer of a commercial, which they had filmed in Rajasthan on their own, did not like the work hence they needed to film it again. They asked me to arrange filming to a girl from rural area urgently. Fortunately I was able to arrange it for them on the way to the airport next morning. Everything was done happily and show would be on TV in February 2012 and I am so excited to watch it.

Crew members and I at the party after finishing the project

work with DePauw university

I worked with DePauw University from Indiana, USA. Mr. Rajai Bimbo who is Assistant Director of Civic, Global and Professional Opportunities department at DePauw contacted me to assist him and his students during their one week trip to Varanasi. He basically contacted me because of my work with LGBT community in India. He was also interested in NGOs of Varanasi. BHU was already there host university but they were not happy with the way BHU professors and someone named Mr. Ramuji were not replying them on time. There was a time came when they asked what could I offer to their students for one week.

It clearly meant that once they thought about giving me the whole program but of course BHU and Ramuji are big names so I could not get the whole business. Mr. Bimbo told me once that he had contacted BHU professors and Ramuji asking them to collaborate with me so that we could work together but they did not want me to get involved in the program hence they said that I was good but not good enough to work with them. Finally Mr. Bimbo told me that I could not work together with them but he still wanted me to spend some time with their students to talk about LGBT rights in India and activism going on in Varanasi.

I was given a few hours to organize something for them and I thought a visit to Lok Samiti, interview with Mr. Nandlal Master, a visit to an real Indian village and Coca-Cola affected site would be great visit for the students so I took them to Mehdiganj. I organized a meeting with Mr. Nandlal Master where students asked questions about work of Lok Samiti and its struggle against Coca-Cola. After the interview I gave a tour of the village and then took the students to a site where a canal was being dug under MNREGA scheme. Students talked with the farmers and people working at the site which was really interesting to them. I have always given priority to work with students and it is my dream project to organize such university programs in my city but unfortunately BHU professors and Mr. Ramuji did want me get involved with DePauw.

The things that I was offering to DePauw was a lot better than what was offered by BHU and Mr. Ramuji but only because of politics and monopoly in the industry I could not get this business and students could not get most out of their money and time. Mr. Bimbo’s asking to BHU and Mr. Ramuji to collaborate with me was clear indication of they liking my work and offer. Anyways, I was happy to work with them and have done my best. Students and Mr. Bimbo both seemed happy with me which was the biggest achievement for me.

 

Trip to Nepal for Kathmandu Gay Pride 2010

beautiful nature

beautiful nature

I traveled to Nepal with my friend Babu to attend Kathmandu gay pride and it was a really unforgettable experience. I took a bus from Varanasi to Sonauli. There are several buses from Varanasi bus station and we took the last one at 8.30 pm. It was an overnight journey from Varanasi to Sonauli and the bus ride was really uncomfortable. The road was terribly bad and I just could not sleep for the whole night. Finally we arrived Sonauli border at 7 am and took a paddle rickshaw to cross the border. I was carrying a few electronics like video camera, photo camera and voice recorder etc.  and wanted to declare them at the Indian custom office.

Babu

Babu at Pashupati nath temple

When I told Babu to about declaring the electronics at Indian custom office, he laughed at me and said that there was no need to do such thing but I had already experienced the problem before when I went to Nepal first time in 1996. Actually I was traveling to Nepal with my family those days. We had a camera and we informed the custom office at Sonauli border about this camera and got a receipt but we lost it somewhere in Nepal and returning time they checked our baggage and found that camera and said that it was not allowed to bring any electronics from Nepal to India.

very colorful country

very colorful country

We were shocked and we told them that it was our camera which we had brought from India and we had a receipt but we lost it but those crazy custom officers said that it was not allowed. Actually they wanted a bribe so finally we gave them some money and only then we could move. I still had that story in my mind hence I did not want to take any risk. So I went to the custom office at Sounali border and told them that I had a few electronic goods and I wanted to declare them but as I told this, all those officers laughed and said: you are very smart.

carving on Nepali houses

carving on Nepali houses

Anyways, I declared my stuffs and got a receipt for it but they again asked for a bribe only for giving me this receipt. I was like why bribe now? He said that this is system and I have to give them some money otherwise they would not give me my receipt. I gave him Rs. 20 but he said that he wanted at least Rs. 50. Finally I gave him Rs. 40 and took my receipt. I wast thinking that I declared my electronics in advance to avoid any kind of problem and corruption but there was actually no way to avoid it. After taking the receipt, we crossed the border and arrived Nepal.

carvings on temples

carvings on temples

Although Nepal also used to be a Hindu country only until a few years a go and I was hoping for Nepal culture to be close to Indian culture but Nepal was different starting from right at the border. Different looking people, different clothing, more working woman, different vehicles… there was a huge difference between India and Nepal. I really felt like being in another country. But there was something very similar to India- touts fucking tourists all the time. It was really overwhelming. Several people approached us right at the border to sell bus tickets to Kathmandu. They all wanted to sell bus tickets to Kathmandu and hotel rooms.

forest

forest

Babu said that they were all touts and tell  lies all the time. All of the touts were saying there was a bus going to leave within one hour but Babu said that these buses never leave before 4 pm. I did not believe Babu but my rickshaw driver also told me the same thing. Actually there are direct buses from Sonauli border to Kathmandu but only in early morning and late afternoon time like around 6-7 am or 4-5 pm. I was lucky that Babu was with me and I did not go with them. We took a bus from Sonauli border to a place called Bhairava which was hardly 30 minutes bus ride.

green and wet

green and wet

Bhairava is the biggest bus station near Sonauli border and they have regular buses to Kathmandu. We arrived there by 9 o’clock and came to know that there was a bus a 9.30. I realized something really strange that Nepal has no government bus service; all the buses are private hence there is no fix fare or anything. I did not know that I was supposed to bargain even for bus fare but Babu managed it. There was a counter at the bus station and they asked us for Rs. 450 NR but ended up paying Rs. 350 NR.

pashupati nath temple

pashupati nath temple

The bus started at 9.30 but was stopped again right after 15 minutes by The army. I thought that he would check everyone but he just came in, looked around and started checking the bags of a few people. The strange thing about this check up was that they were not looking for arms only but they were looking for potatoes and sugar also. I started laughing when Babu told me that he was looking for potatoes and sugar but it was true. Actually the rate of sugar and potatoes and and other vegetables are different between India and Nepal hence they do not want people to smuggle cheap stuffs from India and sell them in Nepal. It was interesting.

family voilence

family voilence

Nepali buses were really crap. They were too small and had no space for my legs. It was raining continuously all the way from Sonauli border until Kathmandu and believe me the water was coming through the window even after closing it. I was wet all the time continuously for more than 12 hours in the bus. The nature was just awesome; clean river, fresh air, greenery… I noticed something really different in Nepal. I saw that there were more working women in Nepal than India. I notice that most of the shops were run by women and Nepali women seemed to be in better condition than Indian women.

Nepali girl

Nepali girl

Nepal seemed to be more progressive in terms of women rights when compered with India. The women were traveling alone, going to office, running shops, women auto rickshaw drivers and the women seemed more friendly with men… it looked really cool to me. I was happy to see it. I saw so many alcohol shops run by alone women. I had never ever seen anything like that anywhere in whole India. Once I saw an alcohol shop with a woman owner and I decided to talk with her. I went there and started asking about alcohol first and when we became friendly I asked her about her life.

liberal Nepali girl

liberal Nepali girl

I asked her if she feels safe sitting alone at alcohol shops and dealing with male customers who are drunk sometimes and she told me that she managing the business is just like any other male member of her family managing the business; no difference so problem to her. I asked her if people in the society mind women working at the alcohol shops and again she said that Nepali society is very progressive when it comes to equal rights for women. I asked her if she had ever been to India and she said that she had never been to India before but had seen India on TV. In reality she did not seem excited about visiting India.

the most beautiful alcohol bottle I had ever seen

the most beautiful alcohol bottle I had ever seen

I told her that it is just not possible to see any women selling alcohol in India and that there are less percentage of working women in India and she said that she was very well aware of the situation of women in India. She said that there are so many Indian families living in Nepal and they also do not allow their women to go out and work. I asked her what Nepali people think of this situation and she said that to be honest, we think that Indians are crazy and backward people. I was surprised to hear this but in reality yes, we are much backward than Nepal in terms of women rights and equal rights for women.

the most luxry way to travel in Nepal

the most luxry way to travel in Nepal

The nature was just awesome all over Nepal. One could easily see that their nature is still untouched. Beautiful thick jungle, beautiful rivers, less industries, less people, less traffic and lots of mountains… it was just awesome. I really enjoyed nature a lot in Nepal. I also noticed that I saw only five big factories in my whole bus ride all the way from Sonauli till Kathmandu. In fact, two of them were Indian factories which sounds nice because there is less pollution because of less factories but there is another truth that there are less jobs because of less industries which means more poverty.

beautiful windows

beautiful windows

Poverty in Nepal really hurt me. There were so many family houses right along the Sonauli-Kathmandu highways so I got to see so many people doing things. But the really interesting thing for me was that nobody was doing anything, just sitting or talking with people, that’s all. It seemed like they just don’t have any work. I had never seen that many young people just sitting here and there and passing time. There were so many kids selling water bottles and snacks on the road. Nepal has been suffering a lot from its political instability for the past few years which seems to be the biggest reason of poverty of Nepal. I dont know, maybe some other reason but Nepalis were just not happy at all from their political system.

cremation at Pashupatinath temple

cremation at Pashupatinath temple

Finally we arrived Kathmandu by 8 PM and it was still raining. I had read about a neighborhood called Thamel which was full of hotel. I wanted to stay there. I asked Babu to ask some locals about where was this neighborhood and he told me that Nepali people are crazy and never tell you the right direction. He suggested me to go to any shop run by any Indian and ask them about the direction of Thamel. We went to a paan shop, bought a few things and asked him the direction to Thamel and fortunately he was a nice guy who told us the right direction to Thamel. It took us about 10 minutes of walk and we had to ask a few other people also the direction to Thamel but we arrived there.

life and death at same place

life and death at same place

We arrived Thamel which was full of hotels, in fact it was the most popular neighborhood in Nepal for backpackers. We went to several hotels but their price seemed too steep to us. Babu was telling me that we could easily find a hotel room worth 500 NR but none of them wanted to charge us less than 1000 NR. Finally we reached a hotel Annpurna hotel. They wanted to charge us 800 NR per night. I told him that I was a government approved tour guide in India and all the hotels give me discount in India then he agreed to give me a room for 500 NR.

Nepali food that I didn't like at all

Nepali food that I didn't like at all

The hotel seemed nice at first but later we realized that pillow covers and bed sheets were used, cable connection was not working properly, telephone was there but dead. We complained about it and were promised to get everything on work by next morning but in fact this next morning never came before we left. In any case, I was not there to enjoy luxury, watch TV or make phone calls from my room hence I also did not mind it. We went out to take our dinner at some restaurant but most of the shops were closed by 8.30 PM. We found a restaurant opened and had our dinner there.

Nepali highways

Nepali highways

I had read several articles about nightlife in Nepal including dance bars and massage centers. A lot of the articles said that Nepal nightlife was safe but most of them said that it was really crazy and dangerous. I had several articles talking about how people went to a night club, spent a few hours, had a few beers and dinner and paid Rs. 40-50,000 and were misbehaved. Several articles talked about how 14-15 years old kids are involved in sex industry and work as pimps. I was curious about what was going on and we had decided to visit at least one night club while being in Kathmandu.

I was just walking here and there in Thamel and saw so many massage parlors. Once we were just passing by a shop which had a sign board saying massage parlor and I was showing this to Babu. Suddenly a hardly 15 years old guy came to me and asked what I was looking at. I told him that I was just watching the advertisements and he said that no, I was looking for something else, something special. I was like no I was just looking here and there. He again asked me if I needed some special service and I told him that I did not need any special service.

We walked away from there but this guy was keep following us and was asking if we needed a girl. He offered us young beautiful girls for really cheap price. He was not alone, there were so many pimps here and there watching tourists. Anyways, I was able to get back to my hotel safely. The next day we worked for a while, walked around, did some shopping… and it was a nice experience. I really missed veg Indian food as it was meat everywhere. But I liked something that they had drinks very easily available so I was enjoying all different kinds of alcohol.

I wanted to use an ATM in Kathmandu but was concerned about paying international transaction fee but Babu told me that a few Indian banks also have their own ATMs in Kathmandu like State Bank of India and Punjab National Bank. There was one State Bank of India ATM near Darbar Square. I used this bank and did not pay any transaction fee. So I would suggest anyone holding Indian bank card should just look for Indian bank ATMs in Kathmandu. Telephones were also so cheap in Nepal. I paid only Rs. 1 per minute for a phone call to India.

Since we were so interested in visiting a night club in Kathmandu. we were gathering information about it through online sources. But fortunately I met a guy at the NGO, where I was supposed to work, who was a male prostitute. I thought who could provide better information than him about night life in Kathmandu. I asked him about it and he suggested me not to visit any night clubs in Kathmandu as they are not safe at all, especially for tourists. He also told me the same thing what I had read online so finally we decided that we would not visit any night club in Kathmandu.

We visited a few temples, markets and participated in Kathmandu Gay Pride. Finally my time was over in Kathmandu and now we needed to head back to home. Babu told me that they had overnight buses from Kathmandu to Sonauli until 10 PM. We arrived at the bus station around 8 PM but all the buses were already gone by then. They said that the last bus was at 7 PM. So we took our dinner, stayed at a hotel near bus station and took an early morning bus to Sounauli and then another bus from Sonauli to Varanasi. It was a successful journey full of learning. I really plan to go back again to Kathmandu sometime for longer period of time.

Please click here to see more pictures:

Tour package of Varanasi

I recently worked with a travel agency as a mute guide with an Italian group. Actually the group already had an escort who knew Benares very well but he did not have a tourist guide license so I was hired just to be with the group as their mute guide. I had already worked with so many tourists as a tour guide in Varanasi and all of them were my direct clients but had no experience of working with a group which was traveling through a travel agency so I was so excited for working with a travel agency for the first time.

I was asked to meet the group at Sarnath where they were going to arrive directly from the airport. I met them at Sarnath and the escort asked me just to be with him at all the entrance points of the monuments. The group went first to the Sarnath ruins and I saw the escort explaining something in Italian for like 10-15 minutes  and then he gave free time to the clients and came to me. Now the clients were alone wandering here and there in the ruins which seemed like a nice idea to me.

After the ruins we headed to the museum where the escort explained only four statues and then again gave free time to the clients and came to me and clients were alone again. I asked him if he had asked his clients about whether they want his company or they want to be free and he said that he never asks, he just tells them in a very professional way to go explore the place on their own. This sounded a little weird to me. I also give free time to my clients but I ask them first about it. Anyways, I don’t know if my style is better or his style. It seemed like the clients never complained about it so it was fine.

After the visit to the museum we headed straight to the hotel which was really surprising to me because the clients did not get to the visit the Buddha temple and the Bodhi tree which is really an important place for all the Buddhists and Hindus. In fact these are the only places where you see something alive going on and where people do rituals which seems more interesting than visiting a museum or a ruins. Anyways, clients did not complain about it and I think the reason behind it was that they did not know about these places.

After checking in the hotel, the clients were given an hour to be ready to visit the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Finally I met them again at the Dashashwamedh Ghat where there was a boat already waiting for us. We took the boat and headed to Manikarnika Ghat to see the cremation ground. We hardly spent ten minutes at the cremation ground and headed back again to the Dashashwamedh Ghat to see the evening time ceremony.  After the ceremony the clients went back to the hotel and I went back home.

I met them again next morning for a boat ride at 5 o’clock and we did a boat ride for about an hour and then just walked inside the narrow BCE time alleys and went to Vishwanath Temple (The Golden Temple). The clients went inside the temple with the escort and I was just waiting for them outside. After the visit to the temple their tour finished. It was a really different experience for me but I was always thinking about those poor clients who spent only 20 hours in Varanasi, wherein they spent at least 12 hours in the hotel, 3 hours in the bus and hardly 5 hours exploring the city where one can easily spend three to four days and even this much will not be enough.

After completing the tour, one of the clients asked the escort to take him to the old city because he wanted to photograph the people and their daily lives and the escort asked me to take him to the Dashashwamedh Ghat area. The escort had asked me not to take the client further away than the Dashashwamedh Ghat area and just give him some free time. We took an autorickshaw and went to this place but as soon as I got off the vehicle and asked the client if he would like to go alone or wanted me also to come with him, I could easily see how confused he was.

He asked me to come with him and I took him to the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the vegetable market and then walked again inside the alleys where there was real life of Varanasi. And the client was just surprised, shocked and happy also.  He told me that they never get to see a such place as where I took him. He took a lot of pics and was asking so many innocent questions and by hearing his questions one could easily say that he did not know anything about India. I took him to a vegetable market and he asked me if it was a vegetable market for people living in the slums. But when I told him that this is how our vegetable markets are everywhere he told me that he did not get to see anything like this before in his entire trip.

Once I asked the escort about how much the travel agency charged them and I was shocked to hear that the clients had paid about Rs. 20,000 ($500) per day/ per person. There were six people in this group so that means Rs. 1,20,000 ($3000)  for those 5 hours of travel and accommodation in Taj hotel and they did not even see that Buddha temple, Bodhi tree and people doing their business on the road and along the river which I have noticed as being the most interesting thing for a foreign visitor to Varanasi. I feel sorry for such kind of tourists but maybe they want this, who knows? Anyways, it was a good experience for me to work with them.

Widows in Vrindavan

I worked again with Irene who was doing her M.A. from Ca’Foscari University of Venice and her research topic was Hindu widows. I had already worked with her in October 2009 in Benares but this time she wanted to visit Vrindavan because she had heard a lot about Bengali widows living in Vrindavan and how important this city is for Hindu widows. I contacted my friend Yashu who lives in Vrindavan and asked him to help as I also did not know much about Vrindavan. He promised to help me and in fact he arranged everything- hotel, food and many interviews also.

Irene had already heard about Bhajan Ashrams (ashrams where chantings are organized) working in Vrindavan and she wanted to visit them and see if it was possible to interview women there. I had also heard about widows working at Bhajan Ashrams before but I had no about idea of how big and how many Bhajan Ashrams were there in Vrindavan. I think there was at least one ashram in each alley and few of them were really huge, having three-four thousand widows under the same roof.

These bhajan ashrams are run by rich religious people. They give Rs. 2 and a little bit of rice and a little bit of lentils to each widow chanting for three hours. They have two to three shifts of work. The first shift start around 8 o’clock in the morning whereas the last shift of work ends around 6 o’clock in the evening. Not just any widow can enter in any bhajan ashram and start chanting and then get some money. They have to get registered with the ashram first and then their timing is decided and only then they can work.

There are thousands of widows living in Vrindavan and most of them, over 90% come from Bengal and do not speak any Hindi. Some of them live in a government widow ashram, some of them stay at private ashrams, some of them have rented a room and  some just sleep somewhere on the road or along the river Yamuna. Over 95% of the widows living in Vrindavan make their living from working at bhajan ashrams and begging. All of these women go to bhajan ashrams in the day time and then beg in evening and morning time when there are more pilgrims going to the temples.

Vrindavan is also called city of temples, there are around 5,000 temples in Vrindavan and this city is considered as a holy place amongst Hindus so hundreds of thousands of people visit the city every year. And since people visit the city for religious purpose, people donate a lot of things which makes Vrindavan a good place for begging. It was very sad to see the number of beggers in Vrindavan. I think most of the widows living in Vrindavan are involved in begging.

We asked them why did they chose Vrindavan only and why not some other place like Varanasi or Haridwar as they are also sacred cities for Hindus. Most of them said that since Vrindavan is very popular amongst Bengalis, most of the Bengali widows come to Vrindavan. We asked them why Vrindavan is popular and most of them did not know the reason behind it but one lady who was not a widow told us a very interesting story about why Vrindavan is popular amongst Bengali people.

She told us a story of two brothers who used to work as a cashier at some king’s palace. Once they were working at the king’s palace and while working they ordered a glass of water with sugar but by mistake the servant mixed salt instead of sugar and gave the drink to those two brothers. They drank it and did not realize that there was salt instead of sugar because they were too busy with their work. But later when the servant realized that he had made this mistake by giving salty drink instead of sugar, he went to those two brothers to say sorry.

He told those two brothers that they he had mixed salt instead of sugar in their water but those two brothers did not believe it. The servant told them again the same thing and then these brothers asked the servant that if he had mixed salt instead of sugar then how come they did not feel it while drinking it. And the servant answered that since they were too much busy in their work, they did not realize whether there was sugar or salt in the water. Both brothers were shocked to hear this and this feeling changed their whole lives.

They thought if they would have worked with the same honesty to find the God, the way they had been working for the king, they could have found God. This was the moment when they decided to leave the materialistic life and devote themselves completely to the God. They left their job and came to Vrindavan, which used to be a jungle those days, to meditate and devote themselves completely to the God. They became so popular amongst people that the king of India decided to meet them. When the king came to see these brothers, they were sitting on a ghat along Yamuna river and meditating.

The king told to one of the brothers that he was so happy with their devotion to the God that he wanted to do something for them. He offered any kind of help or money they wanted. These brothers asked the king to get the broken stones repaired at the ghat. The king started laughing and went to see the ghat. But when he arrived there he found that this whole ghat was made of precious stones. These stones were so expensive that they were not available even in the palace of the king. At that moment he realized the supernatural powers of those brothers and immediately went back to them and said that he had realized his mistake of offering just anything.

He said that he was unable to give them what they already had but he still wanted to give something to them. He said to those brothers to that he would donate them all the land he could see from his eyes at once. One of the brothers stood up and looked around and finally all the land they could see from eyes by standing at one place was donated to them and this land is what we call Vrindavan now. So the people meant to say that the city Vrindavan was established by Bengalis and this is why it is so popular amongst Bengalis, very interesting story.

We could interview only ten women in a city where there were thousands of widows because most of these widows did not know any Hindi and I did not know their language. Anyways, we visited a government widow ashram also. There were two government run widow ashrams- one run by the central government and other one was run by the state government of UP. The ashram run by the central government seemed more organized than the state government one. It was new building with at least 500-600 rooms. There were about 2700 widows living in the same building.

We met a government employee there who was working as a helper. We asked for permission to take interviews and he seemed fine with it. He said that all the widows staying in the building come to him everyday in the morning time to get free grains which are provided to them by the government. He said that we could interview them when they come. We were just sitting there and I noticed a lady watching us from another building. She called me and started asking me why we were there and when I told her about Irene’s research she said that it was not allowed.  She asked us to go to the district magistrate and get permission from him.

It seemed really strange but we could not do anything. We did not understand why she was stopping us. Then we went to the biggest Bhajan ashram of Vrindavan but the same thing happened there as well; they did not allow us to talk with the widows there. Finally we reached to the state government run widow ashram and met the security guard of that building and explained the project to him. He was a really nice guy. He said that the officers were not at the ashram now and told us to complete the interview before she comes back.

I asked him why he was telling us to complete the interview before the officer arrives and he said that officers do not allow anyone to talk with widows living there. I asked why they don’t allow and he answered that since both of the officers working at the ashram were completely corrupt and eat the pension money which comes for the widows, they do not want others to know about it. I was really sad to hear this. He said that the government provides a monthly pension to the widows but these officers keep half of it for their enrichment and give only half to the widows.

He said that first of all they ask for Rs. 300 to all the widows just to get them their pension registration card and then they say that it takes about a year for pension to start when in fact registration is free and the pension is started within only a few days. He meant to say that the officers keep all of the first year pension money for themselves and then start pension from the second year and they give only half of it. We asked him how many widows were living at that ashram and he said about 300 which means these government officers steal Rs. 90,000 per month.

He said that they give a small percentage to other government officers also like the district magistrate and other people but most of the money goes to them. I was seriously shocked to hear all of these stories. I just could not believe how someone could take money of those poor women who work for only Rs. 2 and a little bit of grains everyday? Anyways, now I knew the reason why that other government officer at central government run widow ashram did not want us to interview women living there. It was very sad but this was the truth.

We realized that it was very difficult to interview the women living at ashrams so we decided to interview the women who live independently. We started visiting widows at their homes and started talking with women on the road or living in small ashrams. All of them had seriously sad stories. Most of them were married at a very early age and their husbands also died soon after the marriage. They were not allowed to study and finally they decided to leave  home and come to Vrindavan. Some of them left home because their children did not care about them.

We interview to a few Bengali women who said that they stay for about 11 months in Vrindavan, save some money and grains and then go back to visit their family and give all of their savings to their children. We noticed something really interesting- that idea of the reason of their widowhood is sin in their past life was not so popular amongst Bengalis whereas widows from North India had this strong belief that the reason of their widowhood in the present life is because of the sin they had done in their past lives.

Most of the North Indian people believe that the biggest discrimination with widows happens in the Bengal region but the Bengali woman whom we talked with said that they never felt discriminated. It was really strange to hear them saying this. I think that they do not see the discrimination; as a discrimination, they think that this is the way it should be. Anyways, we all know that widows are discriminated all over India, but the biggest discrimination is there in Bengal region.

We got to interview a few Hindi speaking non-Bengali women also. We asked them why did they choose Vrindavan and they said that since Vrindavan has a lot of Bhajan ashrams where at least Rs.2 with some grains is provided, it was a good option for them come to Vrindavan instead of dying at their place. It was a very interesting answer but I do not know to what extent it was true. We interviewed a few widow women who said that it is much better to stay at home and find a job rather than going to an ashram and living like a beggar. I liked this idea better.

We asked all the widows about the remarriage of widows and we noticed something really interesting that most of the widows who were close to 70 years old said that remarriages should happen but all the widows who were close to 40 or 50 said that remarriage of a widow a big sin. They believe that the God has given them punishment in the form of their widowhood life and they should respect it because if they do not respect it then they will go to hell and will become a widow again in their next life so it is much better to live like a widow in one life rather going to hell and becoming a widow again in the next life.

I think the reason behind older women believing in the idea of remarriages was they had already seen their whole lives and now they were alone and helpless so they they think that it is much better to remarry and have a family whereas young widows can take care of themselves hence they believe in living alone. Anyways, it is only my idea; I still do not understand what could be the reason behind it. After coming back from Vrindavan we decided to contact some religious person to ask him questions about what is there in Hindu sacred texts for widows.

We met a woman who had done her Ph.D. in Sanskrit and works as a katha speaker at several temples and ashrams in and out of Varanasi. We asked what could be the reason behind a woman becoming widow and she told us several interesting things about what is written about widows in Hindu sacred texts. She said according to Hindu texts if you try to disturb a couple or make them marry with someone else forcibly, this could also cause you lose your life partner in your next life. I asked her what if a man does it and she said that the rules are the same for men and women both so men can also be punished in the same way.

The second reason could be if you are married but you have relations with other people. There are two kinds of punishment for this sin- one is that when you go to the hell, you have to make relations with a burning iron body and the other is you could lose your life partner in your next life. She said that making relations while in the menstrual cycle could also be a reason of widowhood in next life. All of these reasons seemed genuine to me and made one thing clear that love marriages were accepted in Hinduism and there is a very hard punishment for not accepting it. I think the parents who do not want their children to marry with their girlfriend or boyfriend should think about it now, otherwise they could become a widow in their next life:)

After studying Hindu widows in Vrindavan and Varanasi, I have developed this impression that the widows who decided to stay with their family and find a job, even small, are much more happier than those widows who decide to stay at Ashrams or go begging. I do understand where did this idea of staying at ashrams and discriminating against widows came from, but the situation is very sad and corrupt government officers make the situation more sad. Again I see only one solution of this problem- education, education to women. I believe that if women are educated and have working skills, they can at least try to find a good job and live a better and happy life. But lets see when the government of India will become serious about education for women.

Dying in Benares

I worked with a photographer named Jane Becker from Canada. She wanted to photograph widows and hospices in Varanasi. Since I had already worked with a researcher from the University of Venice who did research about widows in Varanasi, I already knew where to take them. About two years ago I worked with a researcher from the University of Berlin who was interested in people who come Benares to die so I had some idea about this subject also. We decided to start working with hospices and ashrams first. I took her to an ashram near Assi ghat and we interviewed a few people and she did some photography also.

Next day I took her to another ashram where more than 2,000 people stay to live their last part of life. This ashram has a section for Sanyasis and a separate section for family people. The ashram was huge with so many people in there and there was a school also for Sanskrit studies. We visited this ashram but did not photograph. The next day we went to a place called Kashi Mukti Bhawan which really different than other places in Benares. Benares has so many places and ashrams where people stay to die but this place was entirely different.

Kashi Mukti Bhawan is owned by the Dalmia family. The idea behind founding of this hospice is that once Mr. Dalmia was visiting Varanasi and he visited so many ashrams where people stay to die. His grandmother also wanted to live her last part of the life in Varanasi so he decided to built a free temporary stay for the people who want to die in Varanasi. Kashi Mukti Bhawan has a rule which could sound strange but they offer only 14 days of stay. So most of the people come to stay at Kashi Mukti Bhawan are the people who are just going to die at any moment.

They do not allow anyone who is below 60 years old or looks like they are not dying. The building has ten rooms and when I went there only one room had people and the rest of the rooms were vacant. They have a temple also inside the building where they have puja going on most of the time. The manager said that until four years ago they did puja 24 hours a day but they decreased by a few hours because not many people come anymore. In the past all the rooms used to be full all the time but now sometimes they have only one visitor, sometimes two or three and sometimes just no one.

And if there is a person dying there, then the priest of the temple goes to the this person and reads Ram Charit Manas for him at least for five minutes at four different times in a day. The idea behind it is that if a dying person hears the chantings of Ram Charit Manas, then he gets salvation. We interviewed a woman staying at Kashi Mukti Bhawan who had brought her father all the way from Sasaram, Bihar to Kashi Mukti Bhawan so that her father could die in Varanasi and get salvation. We asked her why she chose only Kashi Mukti Bhawan in Varanasi, why not some other ashram and she said that all of her family members come to Kashi Mukti Bhawan to die, very interesting.

She also talked about the importance of dying in Varanasi but at the same time she gave some importance to Kashi Mukti Bhawan also. She said that Kashi Mukti Bhawan has an ideal atmosphere for dying. She said that Kashi Mukti Bhawan has chanting all day long and the priests read Ram Charit Manas for the dying person which makes it a special place for dying. We asked the manager why they allow only 14 days of stay and he said that 14 days are enough to die. In case the person is still sick and feels like they are going to die even after 14 days, they allow them to stay for a week or two more but usually people die within a week.

The manager said that in some cases people came and returned home by recovering from their sickness. So they came to Kashi Mukti Bhawan with serious sickness and felt like dying but they recovered and did not die. Well, in any case Kashi Mukti Bhawan seemed different than most of the other ashrams in Varanasi and I would like to learn more about it.

Josh Massad’s World Through Music

Josh with village kids

Josh with village kids

I am working with a musician named Josh Massad on a project called world through music which is about teaching music and other subjects through music. Josh travels all over the world and teach music to kids. When he works in the US, he teaches African and Indian music to American kids, when he is in Africa, he teaches Indian and American music to African kids and at present when he is in India, he is teaching African, American and Asian music to kids in Varanasi. He had contacted me about a month ago asking if I would like to work with him.

Josh teaching Kanjira

Josh teaching Kanjira

The project seemed interesting to me and I agreed to work with him. He wanted me to organize his performances at schools in Varanasi. I thought it would be good for Josh and his project if he gets to work with different kinds of schools and kids therefore I organized his performances at city schools, village schools, private schools, government schools, play schools and schools run by NGOs so almost 50 performances in 25 days. There are 25 performances at village schools where kids come from really poor families, 10 performances at NGO run training centers for girls, 10 performances at city schools and about 5 at NGO run schools.

Dancing with a kid

Dancing with a kid

I have organized a performance at a school for children of sex workers in Varanasi. Actually children of sex workers can not get admission in any school because they do not have any residential proof and any document talking about their father’s name and there is an NGO in Varanasi which started a school specially for children of sex workers and we will be working there as well. I have organized one performance with kids of my education program. I have organized a performance with day time bondage child laborers. Actually there are a lot of bondage child laborers in Mehdiganj and Lok Samiti runs evening classes for them and we have a performance with those kids also.

Josh teaching map

Josh teaching map

Josh carries a map and a few instruments from different parts of the world. First of all he talks about geography, he teaches about seven continents and countries in it and then show these continents and countries on a map and then he introduces all of his instruments and shows on map where they come from. It was so interesting to see that village kids did not have any knowledge of geography at all. They did not even know in which continent India was there or they could name states of India. I was shocked to see this but I hope Josh’s lessons would help them.

showing an Indonesian instrument

showing an Indonesian instrument

After introducing his instruments, Josh plays these instruments to kids and teach them African songs. He teaches different songs but the one song that he teaches at every school is a welcome song from Africa called Fanga Alafia, Ashe Ashe. Kids love this song. They sing the song together with Josh and enjoy it a lot. Josh teaches them different styles of clapping and sometimes he teaches some basic yoga techniques as well. The project is going well, kids are happy, josh is happy so I am also happy. Few teachers at some schools asked me why Josh is teaching African songs, they don’t think it is going to help kids in any way.

Kids also love to play the instruments

Kids also love to play the instruments

I just don’t expect kids to learn all of those Josh’s instruments and geography in one day but I am sure that Josh’s performances will at least create interest about world geography and music in the kids and if they just look at the map only once at their home, I will feel like the project is accomplished. Josh is planning to make a documentary about his work next year and he wants me to organize things for him. He is planning to start a mobile school in India and again he wants me to organize it. He wants to bring musicians from different places and travel with them and teach music and geography. It sounds really exciting and I am looking forward to it.