Amarnath Yatra 2013

Indian Army welcomes the Yatris

Indian Army welcomes the Yatris

I first tried to visit Amarnath in 2010 but could not as the Police stopped us by entering in the Kashmir valley area by saying that the weather was not good and it was not possible to drive on high mountains. Later we learnt that weather was not the issue but the problem was locals of Anantnag and Kashmir valley area attacking the pilgrims. We were literally shocked and sad to hear that we were not allowed to travel in our country and people of our own country hate us. After that incident I had promised myself that I won’t go to Kashmir ever until the India-Pakistan and Kashmir issue is solved. But the only next year I made a road trip to Leh via Kashmir valley, talked with people and learnt a lot.

Viccky, Chintu, Driver and I (Left to right)

Viccky, Chintu, Driver and I (Left to right)

That experienced changed my view and motivated me to plan another trip so that I could experience and learn more about the people living in that area, their issues and problems. My friends were planning a trip to Amarnath in June this year and I immediately subscribed to it with so much excitement and hope to learn and experience more Kashmir. The Supreme Court of India was very strict this year with number of visitors and their health condition. The Supreme court made it mandatory for every pilgrim to go through necessary health checkup and proper registration because more than 250 people had died during the Yatra in 2012. Because of ecological concerns of the Amarnath glacier, the court also ordered to limit the number of visitors at 7500 per day.

Baltal Basecamp

Baltal Basecamp

We applied for our registration and health checkup in Varanasi. We had to go through the health checkup at first at our government district hospital. The procedure was insane as it involved a lot of bureaucracy and that same crazy behavior of government officers. The health checkup included three tests : A general blood test, orthopedic test and a very mysterious naked body checkup:) I call it mysterious because the doctor did not tell me why he wanted to see me naked. hahaha. Anyways, the blood test was fine but the orthopedist was so busy on phone that he did not perform proper checkup instead just stamped the paper saying that everything was all right.

Rates for tents

Rates for tents

That naked body test was so funny. There were all aged people in the line everyone was either laughing or kind of upset coming out of the doctor’s room. I also had the same experience when I came out of the room. The doctor asked me to stand about ten meters away from him, take of my pants and then cough. When I asked him what was this test for, he just looked at me with anger and asked me to do my business. Most probably he wanted to check hernia, I am not sure. Anyways, after getting the health certificate we had to go to Punjab National Bank because this bank was authorized by Amarnath Shrine Board to make the registration. There was a fee of Rs. 30 to get the registration but it was all right.

We wanted to go on Yatra through Pahalgam checkpoint but it was already full for sever

Helipad at Baltal

Helipad at Baltal

al days so we got permission from Baltal checkpoint. Most of the people prefer to start the yatra from Pahalgam as the route to Amarnath cave is very steep from Baltal side. Anyways, we got our so called health certificate and registration paper without going through proper health checkup. We started our trip from Varanasi by taking a train to Jammu. It was a 28 hours train ride hence we decided to stay over night in Jammu and take a rest. We started our journey again the next morning and our plan was to reach Baltal base camp by the same evening.

Beautiful nature

Beautiful nature

It was kind of surprising to see the number of Police and Army here and there but its quite normal in Jammu and Kashmir. Anyways, another shocking thing was police checking on the way to Baltal, We were stopped several times on the way, even in Srinagar where they wanted to see our registration certificate, check our bags etc. It was still 3 hours for sun to set and we were hardly 2 hours away from base camp and suddenly our vehicle was stopped and asked to park in an Army base camp. Once we entered in the base camp, we saw minimum of 200 other vehicles of such people like us who wanted to go on Amarnath yatra. We asked others about why they were stopping the yatris but nobody knew the answer.

River

River

Even Army people did not want to tell anything. They had arranged free water, tea and snacks but we needed an answer. Finally we asked an Army guy who looked from South India and he said that people from Anantnag area were attacking the vehicles of pilgrims therefore for security reasons the vehicles were stopped. He also mentioned that the traffic will be allowed again once the security is arranged on the street. It was so sad to hear such thing but what to do. We were waiting at that Army camp for two hours and finally heard that now we could start again. The fleet was guarded by Indian Army and they were with us until we crossed the sensitive area.

Pilgrims on the way to the Holy cave

Pilgrims on the way to the Holy cave

But it took a lot of time and we were stopped again around 70 KMs from the base camp and we had to spend a night at another Indian Army camp. There was a huge langar setup by someone from Lucknow. I had heard a lot about langars enroute to the cave but it was the first time when I saw one and I was really impressed. They had almost all of the food I can buy in my city, they were offering free blankets, hot water and several other services and everything was free of cost. Anyways, I did not eat there as the line was also huge. We hired a tent for Rs. 700 and spent the night there. The tent was small but there was nothing better than it. There were only 4-5 restrooms for maybe 5000 people so we did not take a risk and started our journey early in the morning time the next day.

I near to the Holy cave

I near to the Holy cave

We arrived at Baltal around 8 am and were planning to start trekking immediately but could not as our registration was valid for 3rd of July and we were in Baltal on the 1st. I was the only person in my whole ground who had not been to Amarnath  before and everyone was telling me that the date doesn’t matter, what matters is the registration certificate. Hence we were quite sure that we would get to go on the 1st even our registration was valid for the 3rd. But because of strict orders of the Supreme court all of the rules were properly followed, rarely happens in my world:) We tried our best by talking with Police but it seemed impossible for us to start trekking that day. So we started looking for a Langar to stay and luckily found one run by someone from my own city.

Super crowded near the cave

Super crowded near the cave

When they heard that we were from Varanasi they immediately offered us free sleeping arrangement with free food, hot water, clean and private washrooms… what else do you need, it was just awesome. We spent that day just wandering around, looking at different langars, talking with people, testing different food etc. Since our registration was valid for the 3rd and it was the 1st, we did not know what we were going to do the next day. Everything was so restricted that it was not even allowed to go further away from the base camp. We met with an Army guy the same evening who suggested us to reach at the entry gate at 4 am the next day. He said that if we can reach that early then there is a possibility that we will allowed for yatra even a day early.

The black is not clay, its dirty snow

The black is not clay, its dirty snow

We had two seriously fat guys in our group and they were having really hard time in walking. Walking on high altitude mountains was a serious problem for them. Everyone suggested them to take helicopter service which would reduce the journey by 6 KMs. I had also never sat on a helicopter so I also decided to go with them. The next morning all of my friends, excluding my two fat friends and me, left the camp 3.30 am and luckily they were allowed to start the yatra. We arrived at the helicopter station around 7 am bought our tickets but the process so crazy that it took us 7 hours to get our boarding pass. I am not joking, it literally took us 7 hours. The guys working at the ticket counter did not have a computer, they were managing all the data on register.

Local phone booth run by solar panel

Local phone booth run by solar panel

I could easily see that they were not trained at all and did not know what they were doing. The helicopters were standing and waiting for passengers and they could not sort out who to send in which helicopter. It was seriously frustrating and hilarious. Finally we boarded on the helicopter at 1.30 PM. It was a very short journey of 7-8 minutes but good enough to get a sense about this flying machine, I liked it. The helicopter left us at Panchtarni which was 6 Kms passing the cave on the other side (en route to Pahalgam). The walk to the cave was seriously steep and fat friends could not walk hence they got on a pony. There were more ponies than human which was a serious pane. The route was very steep and narrow and then thousands of ponies running continuously was just too much.

Indian army offering warm water to the pilgrims

Indian army offering warm water to the pilgrims

The dust and all the shit of ponies was kind of killing the experience but the nature was absolutely fantastic. Beautiful clean rivers, water falls, mountains, snow, green valleys, lakes…it was amazing experience to hike. I had to walk on snow at several place en route to the cave. Finally I reached at the cave but the line was huge. I had to spend around 3 hours in line and then I finally got inside the cave. Everyone in the line was talking about the holy pigeons. But different people had different stories. Some of them were saying that the real holy pigeon is white, another one was saying that the real one is always with its pair… Anyways, I got to see several, minimum of 10.

Security everywhere

Security everywhere

I was seriously excited about seeing the Shivalingam but at first I could not really understand where the lingam was because there was snow everywhere in the cave. Other people in the line showed me a 4 feet tall piece of snow and referred it as the lingam. They said that other pieces of snow represent Ganesha and Parvati. I paid my respect and came out of the cave. It rained continuously when I was line and since I was not wearing my shoes and had not eaten  anything since that morning, I felt affected by hypothermia. I was dizzy and felt seriously confused. I had never experience such physical condition before but I knew what it was.

Inside a langar

Inside a langar

I immediately tried to find a langar where they were offering hot Kheer. It was just like heaven to have found some food. I felt a lot better after having it. I also found my friends who had left early morning on foot. We decided to leave cave area and try to walk back as much as possible. We had decided to reach Seshnag by the night it did not work. The Indian army had closed the exit point at Panchtarni by 7 PM and it was not possible to go further. We rented a tent and spent night there. The next day we started walking back early in the morning time and reached Seshnag by 12. I know that we could have made it much more faster but I always to see the lake at Seshnag and spend some time there so we walked slowly, enjoyed the nature, talked with people…

Snow everywhere

Snow everywhere

We were only three friends who wanted to stay over night in Seshnag and rest proceeded  to Pahalgam the same day and arrived there by the evening. One of my friends brother in law, Mr. Amarpal Sharma who is a member of State Assembly in UP from Sahibabad, runs his own langar at Seshnag. We stayed at his langar overnight and it was a very big relief. They provided us private tent, comfortable bed and private clean washroom. We relaxed overnight there and the next day proceeded for Pahalgam. I had always wanted to visit Seshnag lake but I noticed that nobody was going down to the lake. Everyone just walked the lake on mountain and literally there was no one other than a few pony owners. We went down to the lake and it was amazing. The lake was crystal clear with blue water.

Beautiful nature

Beautiful nature

But my friend said that he had seen change in the color of the lake because all of the waste created by hundreds of tents at Seshnag is drained into the river. This was very sad to hear. I asked one of the pony owners if they drink water out of the pond and he said they used to but not anymore because of pollution in it. He also seemed very concerned about the pond dying. I don’t know when our governments will become serious about the dying nature, seems like they have learnt nothing by the Ganges. Anyways, we left the lake and started walking towards Pahalgam. We arrived there after three hours and then took a taxi back to Jammu. We were back in Jammu the same night around 3 AM. The yatra finished but it raised several questions to me :

1) Amarnath shrine board and Jammu Kashmir government’s attitude towards the yatra and pilgram.

2) Jammu and Kashmir state police behavior

3) Locals behavior and their feeling about yatris visiting their land

4) Threat to the environment in the name of religion and pilgrimage

5) Social harmony

Pilgrims and Ponnys

Pilgrims and Ponnys

Going back to point number one- Amarnath shrine board and Jammu Kashmir government’s attitude towards the yatra and pilgram. This was a very strange thing I noticed that the Amarnath shrine board and Jammu Kashmir government did not seem helpful at all. All the people run langars and pilgrims were complaining about the Shrine Board and Jammu and kashmir government. The people who run langars were saying that it was very easy for them to run their langar until last year when Indian Army was given responsibility to organize the yatra. But this year its state police and Shrine board organizing the yatra and they are trying to make it as complicated as possible for langars to survive.

Indian flag, just love it

Indian flag, just love it

They said that everyday and several times some officers from either the Shrine board or the government come, try to inspect their services and always say that something is not correct. It was really funny to hear that they had made it prohibited for langars to serve anything cooked in Desi Ghee and sweets like Gulab jamun. Their argument was that Desi ghee is very heavy and people can get heart attack by eating anything which is made of desi ghee. They were just trying somehow to disturb the langar runners. By law they had prohibited carrying any plastic and were literally each and every person’s pocket and bags to see if anyone was carrying anything that had plastic. I was really happy to see such action to protect environment but after a while I realized that this rule was only for pilgrims and not for the locals at all. Locals were openly selling plastic packaged food and other items and nobody was there to stop them.

Sheshnag Base camp, Himalayas & Sheshnag lake

Sheshnag Base camp, Himalayas & Sheshnag lake

Point number 2- Jammu Kashmir Police was so rude and cruel to the pilgrims that I never felt safe around them. They stopped us at several places on the way to the base camp to check our identity, luggage and our pockets in such a way that we were terrorists. The local drivers also informed us to be more careful when being checked by such officers because sometimes they already have some illegal items with themselves which they put in the luggage of passengers while checking their bags. Just looking at them was really horrifying experience. Once our vehicle was stopped on the way to the base camp and we were asked to just wait at a parking place where there were already more than a couple of hundreds of vehicle were waiting.

Indian Army medical camp for pilgrims

Indian Army medical camp for pilgrims

We had no idea why we all these vehicles were stopped so we tried to contact some police officers there but again they were so rude that it seemed like they wanted to kill us. Finally I saw an Army personal and contacted but his behavior was completely different, he was so polite and answered all of our questions and finally we learnt that we were stopped because the locals were attacking the vehicles of the pilgrims hence extra security was needed. Finally all of the vehicles were released in security of Indian army that helped us crossing the area where tension was. I also spoke with several Indian army guys regarding their view on Jammu and Kashmir police behavior and even Army guys said that if Indian army was not present in the valley then forget about locals even the police would kill the pilgrims. It was very very unhappy feeling to see state government behavior.

Sheshnag Lake

Sheshnag Lake

Point number 3- In my view most of the locals do not like pilgrims at all. They literally called us Indian and made fun of us wherever and whenever it was possible. I could easily see hate and anger on their face for me. The locals attacking the pilgrims is not a new situation at all in the valley area and I had read about it so many times but when I went through it personally then I realized how horrible the situation was. I once talked with a guy from Punjab who runs a restaurant during the tourist season and he told me half of the people of valley area support outsiders visiting their land half area completely against it. And even the half who support it are the ones who somehow make money out of tourism. If there was no money for them they won’t support it either.

Sheshnag Lake

Sheshnag Lake

One of the stops during the journey was Sheshnag which is named after a beautiful Himalayan lake Sheshnag Lake. Most of the people just stop here to take rest and then continue walking, nobody really goes close to the lake but I did. The lake was beautiful but again I experienced something which turned all of the joy to a sad experience. I went to visit the lake with my two friends Sonu and Kuvar. When we arrived, there were no other tourists but we saw a few locals (lets say 8 or 10 young boys) who were just hanging out having fun. As soon as they saw us, their behavior changed immediately. They started throwing stones towards us, were using abusive words, a few of them got naked so that we go fight with them. All of those guys were the once who make their living by renting their ponnys to the pilgrims, very sad and scary feeling. And it was not only at Sheshnag, we noticed similar or worse behavior everywhere in the valley area.

A dead ponny in the lake

A dead ponny in the lake

Point number 4- Because of no regulations environment is seriously harmed by the pilgrims. I saw garbage and plastic everywhere. The snow had turned black in the entire route used by the pilgrims. All of the camps discharge their entire waste, including raw sewage, directly to the nearest river or the pond. Sheshnag had minimum of 100-200 camps offering lodging and food to the pilgrims. I am sure that minimum of 4-5000 people were sleeping everyday in Sheshnag and entire waste was being directly discharged into the Sheshnag lake. I also spoke with a few locals of that area and they said until 10-15 years ago when the yatra was not so popular and the number pilgrims was also not much the primary source of their drinking water was the water coming from Sheshnag lake but its impossible for them to use that water anymore because of all the raw sewage and other waste in it which comes directly from the camps of the pilgrims.

It only looks clean, it has sewage in it

It only looks clean, it has sewage in it

And this situation was not only at the Sheshnag area but it was at all of the spots wherever camps are situated for the pilgrims. There was no waste management at all and imagine the waste created by hundred of thousands of people every year who do the yatra. There is no proper waste management anywhere in India and we are used to it but seeing such beautiful and sacred place going in the same condition like any other Indian cities was one of the most disappointing feeling for me. I had a chat regarding this issue with one of the camp owners and he said that their feeling is also the same like us and they are more than willing to provide whatever is required to make the situation better and have contacted the concerned departments and government but there is no help at all. I don’t know how long those glaciers will be able to survive and we need to understand that if those glaciers area not there there then even the Amarnath won’t be able to survive there at all because he is also made of snow.

Indian Army temple

Indian Army temple

Point number 4- It is my personal opinion that the best human feeling is the harmony with the people around us and worse situation is when there is attraction or harmony in people’s relationship. It was not my first visit to the valley area, definitely first time to Amarnath but I had been to Kashmir several times before, and I have realized one thing for sure that the people of Kashmir do not like the people who come from out of valley area. There are several groups with different demands. Some of them want to go with Pakistan, some of them want to have a free nation, some of them don’t like the pilgrims because they are non-Muslims and some of them want to convert everyone to Islam.

Water everywhere

Water everywhere

And this movement is so strong that they have no space for outsiders. They just hate anyone visiting their land. As an outsider, for themselves, I could not enjoy as much as I could have if they were welcoming to us. The biggest reason behind my travel is to talk with the locals and it was impossible to interact with locals in the valley area. In fact I was surrendered but only because they wanted to sell me something or were begging or cigarettes or candies. The poverty in the valley is so extreme that you might encounter with groups of people begging of chewing gum if you are chewing one or they will ask you get food from the pilgrims camps for them. Other than this they have no interest at all which was very sad feeling for me. If they can just maintain social harmony then their entire situation could change in one tourist season.

A waterfall

A waterfall

Kashmir is like a heaven for Indians and everyone wants to go there but just because such experience I had, not many people return back or recommend others to visit. Tourism can bring huge amount of money to the valley which could solve most of the biggest problems they are facing but just because of the bad information spread by the locals militants and other groups they have no respect at all for tourists. It is very unfortunate situation and someday Kashmir has to come over it otherwise they will be in the same condition for coming unlimited years as they are now- poor, violence, illiterate and overall seriously crazy. The great poet Amir Khusro wrote a poetry in Persian to describe the beauty of Kashmir in this way- “Agar firdaus bar ru-ye zamin ast, Hamin ast o hamin ast o hamin ast ” meaning “If there is a paradise on earth,It is this, it is this, it is this.”

Anyways, the nature was beautiful and the experience was once in a life time experience. I hope that someday there will  be peach and prosperity in Kashmir as well and the attitude of people will also be welcoming and they would also be proud of their Indian identity just like any other Indian citizen.

Bharat Mata ki Jai, भारत माता की जय

Bharat Mata ki Jai, भारत माता की जय

 

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.

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.

Europian food for Indian tounge and belly

food at a Turkish restaurant in Budapest

My God, I had serious problem with food in Europe (Hungary, Austria and Slovakia). It was first time in my life when I went out of India and everything was a huge shock for me including food. I had asked my host, Dora and Attila, several times before leaving India about the food for me and they always told me that there won’t be any problem at all. In fact I was planning to carry some Indian spices with me but when I saw that Attila and Dora were so confident about availability of food me in Hungary then I just decided to leave everything on them. I had no idea what I was going to eat in Europe before I left.

Hungarian food

I arrived in Hungary in the evening time around 7. My host took me for a walk and then to a restaurant. I was provided the menu and I looked at it but I just did not know any food at all. I asked my hosts to choose any vegetarian food for me and they told me about a few dishes that there were vegetarian but still I had no idea. So finally I just left everything on them and they ordered something for me. The waitstaff brought the food and it looked very beautifully decorated with fresh leaves. It looked very hygienic and healthy but still I was not getting that feeling of excitement.  The look of the meal was not so attractive to make my mouth water.

vegan food

I think it happened only because of the color and smell of the food. The color of Indian food is usually either red, brown or something bright. You see the gravy, spices, chillies…The only food I think of with its natural color is the plain rice. Whereas my first European food looked very very plain with its natural color. It felt like I was going to eat something raw, uncooked or half cooked. The smell was also so different that it just didn’t feel like food at all. Anyways, I tested it and it had this really super strange taste that only after two bites I exchanged my food with my host’s food but it was also the same.

They sell 1 Samosa for Rs. 75

I tried to eat salad but it was mixed with vinegar and mustard sauce which was again something that I could not eat. Finally I ate a little bit of french fries from my host’s food. Anyways, I finished my dinner with half empty stomach. I didn’t take my first meal very seriously and I had a hope that I would find something the next day. We went for the lunch next day and again I did not have any option at all. I was having more problem because I am a vegetarian. Europeans eat meat all the time, even in their breakfast. You can buy meat just anywhere, even at a supermarket or a grocery store. So you can smell the meat everywhere. And another important thing is that they don’t mix many spices as we do in India so you actually very strange smell of meat. I think the smell was more of the meat whereas in India the smell is mixed of spices and meat.

Kheer for Rs. 100

I don’t mind if anybody is eating meat in front of me but I was having a little bit of problem because of the smell. Anyways, it was not a big issue. My second meal was also something that I could not eat and ended up eating french fries with ketchup. My hosts tried their best to get me some European food that I liked but unfortunately European food was not for me. In fact once they took me to a vegan restaurant but I still did not like their as they also used vinegar, mustard sauce and raw garlic sauce in the food. I was not going to any regular restaurant at all, they were taking me to the best options possible but I could not eat anything.

Bombay Express

Finally after my fourth meal at the vegan restaurant I got stomach ache and diarrhea and it happened not because of the quality of the food was bad or something but just because of my stomach and tongue were not liking the food at all and by this time it was just too much. My body just wanted to get rid of the food I had eaten. I did not have any fever and the diarrhea also did not stay long which clearly mean that the quality of food was good but my body didn’t like it at all. My hosts were asking me to just try different options and see if I like anything. They told me if I did not like anything then I just did not need to eat it but I never felt doing it because I did not want to waste their money.

Indian spices

After seeing me struggling with food, my  hosts also gave up and they took me to an Indian restaurant called Bombay Express in Budapest. Bombay Express was a huge relief for me. I did not eat anything there but I bought Indian spices. They were selling a lot of Indian products like Lijjat Papad, MDH Kitchen King, Chaat Masala, pickles and several other things that we usually eat in India. I was so happy to have found spices and bought Kitchen King and Chaat Masala because I had kitchen available at my host’s place. We went back home and I cooked my own food which was like finding refrigerated water in the desert of Sahara:) I just took all the vegetables possible at home, cooked them with Kitchen King and ate with rice.

Paprika

Something really funny happened is that I needed some chillies and asked my hosts if they had any chillies at home. They gave a special kind of chilly called Paprika which is the native chilly of Hungary. They told me that it was so hot and I should not treat it as Indian chilly. But at first I thought that Europeans don’t eat chillies so he just did not have any idea about how much chillies do we use in India. Attila had suggested me to use only one chilly but I used four because I was confident that I would be able to eat it without any problem but I was seriously wrong. The chilly was so hot that mouth was burning when I ate my food:) Paprika had a spark in it which one can easily feel. Anyways, since I was so hungry I just did not care about anything and finished my food. I won’t forget paprika at all.

Menu at Bombay Express

So this is how I survived by cooking my own food at home. And whenever I went out I would either carry my own food or I just ate some french fries with a bottle of beer. But I made sure that I was carrying my both spices – Kitchen King and Chaat Masala along with ketchup. I thought a lot about why I was not able to eat the food my host and other Hungarians were able to eat and I discussed about this issue several times with Attila and Dora also. Sometimes I was so  upset that I was kind on angry but then I thought that I was not in Europe to enjoy the food.

Food at Bombay Express

And if I could not eat the food others were able to eat then it was my problem. I work with foreigners from all over the world and I go with them to restaurants and I see them liking Indian food. They always tell that Indian food is very good. The only problem they usually have in India is with the chillies otherwise they appreciate our food but I did not understand I being an Indian and others I know who have been to Europe did not like their food at all. I talked about this food issue with several other people who had been to Europe and they all had same experience like me.

At one moment I thought that it was because Indian food has better taste than European food which now I feel like is not the truth. Europeans and Americans can eat our food and appreciate it only because they have a lot of options available in their country and they grow up eating different kind of food from all over the world. My first guest after I returned to India told me that they cook Indian food every once in week at home in Oxford. And now when I think about other people I meet they also tell me the same thing. They either cook different food or they go to different restaurants where they have got a lot of options.

Whereas in India we usually eat only and only Indian food and even the foreign food we have is cooked with Chaat Masala or something Indian. So their tongue, stomach and mind is opened for different kind of food. They have an idea about how their food would taste like hence they can enjoy the food. But with a person like I just did not have any idea about what I was going to eat. I feel that most of the Indians will have the same problem like me and it is only because of our limited orientation of mind about food. I would like to make a few recommendations for Vegetarian Indians like me who are going to travel in Europe about food-

  • Try to find an Indian restaurant (But it doesn’t mean that you will find Indian taste because they cook for their people and food taste a bit different. But it could be a huge relief)
  • Check if there is any option of cooking the food at the hotel.
  • Carry at least Sabji Masala, Kitchen King, Chaat Masala (for sure) and ketchup. Chaat Masala is ready to eat and you can change the taste of any food and give it an Indian feeling:)
  • Try to find Corn (Maize). Because you can always find hot water and boil it if nothing is available.
  • Pizza and Pasta is always a good option because we eat them in India but again their pizza doesn’t taste like the one we have got in India.
  • French Fries with Beer (Life Saver)
  • Different kind of breads with cheese, butter, eggs.
  • If you like coffee then you will love Europe as they have got real coffee and they know how to make it.
  • If you are going to be in Hungary then don’t play with their Paprika (the red chillies), believe me its seriously hot.
  • And after all if food really matters a lot, the most important thing for you, then just don’t go to Europe:) haha

I hope this post will help you. Feel free to write me if want to have any suggestions about food in Europe.

Europe visa approved

Finding any category of visa to any developed nation has always been a huge problem for us Indians. In fact once I had applied for an American tourist visa and it was also denied because they thought that my economical relations with India was not strong enough to prove that I will be coming back after the trip and it happened only 2-3 years ago. This time I got an opportunity to visit Europe. I was invited to Hungary by a friend of mine, Attila, who started an education program for poor kids in Varanasi with my help. Other than Hungary Attila had planned a trip to Slovakia and Austria as well. I did not need to get separate visa for all three different countries because they are all part of Schengen countries and only one visa for Schengen area was enough for me.

I had so many invitation letters sent by my American friends when they wanted to invite me to the US and all of those letters were written on just plain paper but they had provided their residence and income proof with a covering letter stating that they will be taking care of me while I will be in the US but still my visa was denied. Attila did something different. He went to concerned government office in Budapest and wrote an invitation letter through them and sent it to me. The letter looked very professional, it had signature of Attila and some government officer. Other than this it had some basic information about Attila and me also.

I went to Delhi with all the supporting documents, in fact I carried whatever I had. All the certificates, residence proof, income proof and other documents. Now Hungarian embassy also works with VFS for visa document verification which was not the case only until a few months ago. So I went to VFS office instead of Hungarian embassy to apply for my visa. It was kind of confusing place but luckily I found it. The office was located at International Business Center next to Nehru Place metro station. This building had several different VFS offices working for different countries.

For popular destinations they had different rooms but for a place like Hungary, France, Italy, Switzerland they had only different counters in one room. I went to the counter for Hungary and as I was expecting there were not many people in the line because not many people go to Hungary. In fact Hungarian counter was working for France:) Anyways, the staffs were helpful. They checked all of my documents, charged me the visa fee, VFS service fee and that’s all. But they did not have any information about when I will be called for the interview. They just asked me to go back to Varanasi and wait for the phone call.

I asked him to just to give me a clue and said that it was jut not possible at all for him to make any guess. It could take any time up to 15 days. I decided to stay somewhere close to Delhi hence went traveling to Haridwar, Rishikesh and Dehradoon. I was expecting to get a call within next two-three days because Hungarian embassy doesn’t process so many visa applications. But I was not right at all, they called me on the 6th day after applying and asked me to come to the Hungarian embassy a week after which was on the 12 day after applying for visa.

Another interesting thing was that they asked me to bring the evidence of contract which I did not understand. They were asking me to bring photographs of Attila working with me, traveling in India, doing anything…they just wanted to see the proof of my relations with him. I had so many pics so that was not an issue at all. I returned back to Varanasi stayed here for a few days and then went back to Delhi again for interview. I arrived at the embassy on time but the counselor was late by 20 minutes. The counselor was just like the counselor I had met at the American embassy two years ago- she was nothing but a robot.

She would ask me questions and write about it on a piece of paper, then ask another questions, that’s all. She asked me for the pics but did not even look at it. It seemed like she was the busiest person in the world. She just did not want to talk with me. haha. To be honest American counselor was more like trying to read my mind, he was playing with my answer but this lady was only interested in asking questions and writing down my answers. Her questions were very interesting. The best one I liked was if I knew the last name of Attila and his wife. Luckily I knew their last name so it was no problem. After all these questions she showed interest in keeping my original documents for verification.

She took my income tax return document along with tour guide training certificate. She told me that I will be informed once they have made any decision. I got a call by VFS after a week or so that my passport was ready at the VFS center in New Delhi. But I was already in Varanasi by this time so sent an authorization letter to my brother to collect the passport on my behalf. He collected the passport and saw that visa was approved. They issued visa for Schengen countries which meant visa for 26 countries. Nothing was so complicated but I won’t say that anything was easy at all.

I had to go to Delhi at first and then nobody knew how long would it take for interview after applying for visa at the VFS, I was just wandering around here and there spending all of my money, and when they called me for the interview it was after a week. Anyways, I am not really upset with anything but I think such things could be easily avoided if they want. They just need to book an appointment right away for the interview or take maximum of one day because the passport and application is sent the same day to the embassy from VFS office. If they could have informed me the date of the interview even the next day then I would have saved at least Rs. 25,000 which I spent just traveling here and there near to Delhi.

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.

Won Citizen Journalist award

I had exposed a scam in ticking at Sarnath in Varanasi with help of CNN IBN in September 2011. There was a huge scam of reselling of entry tickets was going at Sarnath and I exposed it and as an impact of my report the corrupt government officers were suspended and a reliable system of ticketing was introduced. For this work I was nominated as Citizen Journalist of the year and finally won the award. The selection process of journalists was divided into two parts- First Phase – when the IBN18 Editorial Board generates a list of nominees in the category of Citizens against corruption and Second Phase – which was based on an online voting on www.ibncj.com.

The award event was organized at the Taj Palace Hotel in New Delhi. CNN IBN arranged my flight tickets, hotel and other facilities in New Delhi. The Taj Palace Hotel was just awesome, I was really surprised to see the luxury. Anyways, the event was nicely organized and chief guest of the program was Vidya Balan. When I looked at her first, I just thought that I had seen this girl somewhere because there was a huge difference between the face I see on TV and face sitting in front of me. It again proved that there is a huge difference between real and reel life:)

The event was a delayed by an hour and half but I was not surprised at all as I experience such thing all the time. There were other people also who were nominated and I got to talk with a few of them. It was nice talking and listening to the people who were fighting against corruption. There was a guy from Sonbhadra who was shot, but luckily survived, only because of his fight against corruption in government schemes. I met one other guy who from India-Pakistan border area in Rajasthan who was attacked and beaten so hard that he could not walk properly anymore.

It was a shock to see what could happen if you start fighting against corruption. Anyways, finally my turn came. They showed my story on a big screen, called me on the stage and gave me an award for my fight against corruption in tourism industry. The award was presented by Vidya Balan herself. It was really a nice feeling to get such honor. I had never thought that such thing would ever happen with me. The award motivates me to keep my fight on. Here is the video of the show:

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.

Shiva Ganges View Guesthouse, Varanasi

Shiva Ganges View guesthouse is located near Manmndir ghat in Varanasi and is also well known as red bungalow as the whole building is painted red. The location is very nice as it is situated right along the river side and is walking distance from Harishchandra Ghat, the cremation ground. I had a French guest staying there and told me something about the guesthouse which made me write this post. In fact he was staying at Hotel Haifa before meeting me but changed the hotel only because of my report about corruption at Hotel Haifa and I really appreciated it.

Anyways, it was my first time when I got to enter the hotel and my first impression was very good. The hotel is run by an old man named Mr. Tondon whom I saw greeting his guests and doing all the formal things. After a while he asked me about what I do and when I told him that I am a tourist guide, he asked me to meet with him later personally. He said that he has a lot of work for tourist guides and would like to work for him. I knew that I would not be able to work for him as they do not even pay the real wage of tourist guides decided by government of India but I just agreed on meeting with him later.

I knew that if a tourist guide ever gets an assignment through any guest house or budget class hotels then they have to give a cut from their wage to the hotel and I just don’t do this. And in any case, since I charge more than the government rate he would have not been able to afford me. I went to the hotel several times while my guest was staying there and every time I had a positive impression until the day before my guest left. He asked for the final bill and bill indicated the amount different than what they had agreed before the guest checked-in the hotel.

When the guest moved there the first day, Mr. Tondon, the owner, asked for Rs. 3500 per night but on the last day he gave the bill of Rs. 4000 per night. When the guest asked about the difference of Rs. 500, he said that he was not sure about the room he was going to rent. It was crazy, how come a hotel could the tariffs? And in any case if they agreed on Rs. 3500 then it means Rs. 3500. It could not be Rs. 4000 without informing the guest. The guest was very upset and tried to convince Mr. Tondon that it was his fault and he needed to charge Rs. 3500 but Mr. Tondon was very profession in saying that it was not a fault of anyone but it was just a mistake that happened unintentionally.

The guest decided to give up as he just wanted to relax and did not care about Rs. 500 extra but it was really disturbing for me. This behavior of Mr. Tondon made me curious to see the room. I went to see the room of my guest and it just did not look worth Rs. 3500 or 4000 per night. The architecture was old and unique but walls were dirty. It had a strange golden color on ceilings. The washroom was also dirty and I just did not get any feeling of staying there. I would never ever give Rs. 4000 per night for such a room. I often have to book the hotels for my guests and if their budget is over 3000 per night then I prefer Hotel Ganges View, Palace on Ganges or Rashmi Guesthouse.

Palace on Ganges or Ganges View rooms are expensive but they are worth it but Shiva Ganges View rooms were not worth Rs. 4000 per night for sure. Another complaint about Shiva Ganges View was noted by a Hindi teacher named Mr. Binit Mishra who had a student staying there. On the very first day Mr. Tondon asked him for 50% as commission but Mr. Mishra immediately denied to give him anything. Mr. Tondon said that if he doesn’t get any commission then he won’t allow Mr. Mishra to enter in his hotel. Finally Mr. Mishra informed about it to his guest and the guest checked out the hotel.

It is really strange behavior from hotel owners in Varanasi and I often have to encounter through such situation but I never understand how a business owner can do it. What do they think of the business? Do they know anything about how the world is changing and it is becoming easier to find information online? Anyways, it was such a stupid behavior of Mr. Tondon and I hope someone gets to read this post before staying there. I have already made a few reports about other crazy services in Varanasi. But it doesn’t mean that I am trying to target certain people. I believe that it is better to take action than being quiet or keep complaining. And I will be keep writing about anything weird like Shiva Ganges View guesthouse. Peace. Thanks.