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.
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.
I, receiving the certificate
I finally got my tour guide license on the 30th after three years of wait because I had applied for it in the year 2006. I started preparing for the entrance exam after applying for the license in 2006 and continued it for a few months but finally I stopped because the tour guide association of India sued the Indian government for issuing the license. They never want new people to come in the industry as they are afraid of loosing their bread and butter because most the old guides are not good. They got their license when it was so easy to get it. Now the process is tough but it will definitely produce better tour guides who are at least trained to not chew betel while talking with their clients:)
My brother Chandan, who is an escort, told me something really funny. He said that when he was in Benares last time with his group, he had hired a government approved tour guide who went with them for morning time boat ride. This tour guide started talking about Benares, Hindu religion, Benares culture and Ganga. He said several times that Ganga is not only a river for Hindus, she is considered as mother. After a few minutes when his speech ended, he started chewing betel and later spited it out in the river Ganga in front of his clients. The clients got really upset and they asked him if Hindus spit on their mother and he just did not have any answer. I hope the people who have attended this training program will not do such thing.
Sana and I at convocation hall
The tour guide training program was stopped several times because the tour guide association of India was always suing the government. They sued the government first time right after the application forms were open and then it took few months to settle things, and then government organized entrance exam and then again tour guide association sued the government and the program was stopped again for a few months as the case was going on in Delhi High Court. Finally the government won the case and High Court of Delhi ordered the government to start the training as soon as possible so finally training was started after 3 years in August 2009.
The training was held at IITTM in Gwalior where I got to learn a lot. The total duration of training was 16 weeks- 6 weeks of classroom teaching and 10 weeks for field work. There were over 75 lectures in 6 weeks and I did wrote my research paper on Benares. I focused on cultural diversity of Benares. There was a written exam and an interview at the end of the program and I passed both and finally got the certificate. Now I have to go to Delhi to India tourism office with a police verification certificate and then they will issue me a provisional license which will be valid only for two months. And after two months my red card (the permanent license) will be issued. I hope they will not create any problem in Delhi.
After completing the classroom teaching and orientation tour, now I am supposed to do field work for two months in my local town. I wanted to choose the subject LGBT tourism because nobody has done it before in India and it was a good opportunity for me to relate my NGO and the research I have done about LGBT society in India with this project. I was so excited for it but finally I had to cancel my plan because a few of my friends and other people advised me not to do my project on LGBT tourism.
They said when a professor interviews someone, everything depends on his mood. If the professor likes the project then green signal otherwise red for sure. It doesn’t matter what is written in the project and since LGBT tourism is a new concept in India and most of the people are against it, maybe the professor would not like it. I also found it true because I have seen how against people are against LBGT society in India so I decided to work on ecotourism. I wanted to promote rock paintings and waterfalls of Mirzapur district. I did some research online and found that nobody was selling the tour of Mirzapur which seems like an ideal place for ecotourism.
Two days before I was supposed to inform the institute about my project I read a news article online that three foreigners were robbed at a very famous waterfall of Mirzapur. A few parts of Mirzapur district are known as a Naxalite affected area and this was the only concern I had in my mind and after reading this article I realized that if I promote such a destination where there is no security, it will be really bad. Now I had only one option to do my project which was Benares itself which I did not want to do. All of the guides who have done their project on Benares before wrote about heritage, culture and mythology and I was really not interested in those.
I know that tourists are not same as they used to be ten or fifteen years before. I have noticed that tourists do not want to hear much only about history. They like to hear about society, social issues and politics more than art and history. So I chose the subject Benares but my topic is “Benares: A Place for Everyone”. I want to write about diversity. My professor also liked this subject. She said that nobody had written about it before and it seems more interesting than the history of Benares.
The reason I have chosen this subject is because Benares seems to have amazing diversity. I don’t really know if it is true or not but maybe it is the most diverse city of India. I want to write about how this one city is a very important place for Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and Christians. I know that there are not many Christians in the town but there are few very old churches which I can write about. I want to write about how the reputation of the city for dying has changed to a city of life.
Benares has always been famous as the best place to die for Hindus but now we have huge a number of migrants from other districts who come here to live. People come to Benares to have a job and survive. It’s a new thing going on in Benares and it is an interesting thing for me. I can write about a lot of things but I don’t really know how much I want to write and how much would I be able to write or how much would I be able put my thinking in my project report but I am excited for it.
I think it has become our compulsion to use the word “Pending” again and again. Maybe we use this word most in the whole world. We have most number of legal cases pending before courts in the whole world. People file a case and spend their lives but never get any result. Now people feel better settling the case on their own. I never want to go either to the police or to the court for any reason.
If I go to the police then I have to bribe them and if I go to court then I have to bribe and wait both until the judgement is given. And sometimes judges are also bribed and their judgement is not judgement. Once I filed a case against a computer shop from where I had bought a computer about eight years ago. I filed this case because he had given me wrong price. The same computer I had bought from him was worth Rs. 23,000 but he wanted to charge me 43,000.
I told him to either give my money back or take the computer back. He took the computer back and gave me two post dated bank cheques. When I went to the bank to get my money from his account, the bank clerk said that there was no money in his account. I informed the computer seller about it and he told me to go to the bank again after few days. I did it several times but never got any money.
Finally I decided to go to the court for it and filed a case. It took more than seven years and a lot of my personal time and lawyer’s fee and finally judgement was given in computer’s seller guy. I had made the computer guy write on stamp paper that he took my computer and had given post dated cheques, I had receipt of the computer, I had everything to prove that I was cheated but still judge gave judgement in favor of computer guy because he was bribed. So it took eight years and no judgement.
I had applied for a tour guide license two years ago but have not got it yet. The whole process is stuck in the several courts of India. First of all it took almost one year for government to see the paper and organize exam and then later old guys sued government because they don’t want new blood to come in this sector. Even though I have qualified the exam but Government has been giving temporary license which nobody likes at all, we need training and a permanent license. I don’t know when I will have the training and permanent license, but doesn’t seem like I will get it within next one year.
I applied for one other tour guide license which is issued by state government about two and a half years ago and same thing with this program as well. Government was sued by old guides and the case is still pending in the court. To be honest I had forgotten about it and I believe it must be same with everyone. We had to pay Rs. 500 with application which doesn’t seem to come back to us again. Maybe this exam will never ever be organized because we have not heard of any hearing of this case.
I applied for a registration for paying guest house before one and a half year but have not got it yet. They call me after ever fifteen-twenty days and tell the same thing that they are doing survey and will start issuing the license soon. Once they told me to apply again because they had lost my papers. It was not expensive to apply, but it again took at least few hours. I have been hosting guests at my place without having license. I just inform to the local intelligence unit but I will feel better if I have a license.
Now it seems like it will take another year to complete the guide training program. The guide association of Jaipur has sued the government again. They want the government to organize training exactly as it had been done with them. Their training consisted of classes for three and a half months and a orientation tour for fifteen days. This time the training is like forty-five days of classes, fifteen days of orientation tour and two months of research. I think this time training is better than the last one.
The guide association of Jaipur says that some candidates of this year program have submitted fake documents. They are asking the government to get each and every document checked through related office. I am sure they just want the training to be delayed as much as it could be. They don’t want new guides to work during the Commonwealth games 2010. About ten million tourists are supposed to come to India to watch the Commonwealth games and they don’t want anyone else to take benefit of it.
Since our training is postponed, the candidates of this year’s program are going to sue the government again for not starting training. I got a call from the advocate who is going to sue the government. He says that the government will issue temporary licenses to all the candidates who are supposed to get training this year. I will also go to Delhi to get the temporary license. I don’t know how long will it take to get the permanent license, but it is overwhelming now going to Delhi again and again and paying advocate’s fee.
Finally I got tour guide license after one year of drama. My advocate was extremely good working on this case. He sued Ministry of Tourism in Delhi High Court and Delhi High Court ordered Ministry of Tourism to issue temporary license to every applicant until they declare result. My advocate called and told me to go to Delhi and collect my license from Tourism Office.
I reached there and it was the first time when I was not asked for bribe to get some work done in a government office. They have issued me a temporary license for next one month which I have to get renewed every month in the same office in Delhi. This license permits me to work with any foreigner as their tour guide anywhere in North India. They have issued same kind of license to over 200 people which is nothing, we still need at least 2,000 more guides.
My advocate says that if government doesn’t declare result until next three renewal of my license, he will sue government again for giving permanent license because after working for 90 days as a temporary employee anyone can sue their employer to give them permanent job. I know it will take at lest 30 renewals until they declare result, after all there are already four cases pending in Indian courts.
Now I can get a job very easily with any travel agency but I will not do it because I am not prepared to work as tour guide, I don’t want to be like other old guides. I think I will study first and then work freelance for a while. A lot of people write me asking about tour of Benares and tour guides and usually I tell them to contact UP tourism to get a guide but now I have a option to work with them.
After a year of giving exam of tour guide few applicants came together and decided to sue Ministry of Tourism for not declaring the result, I was also one of those applicants. I was informed about it by my elder brother. I went to Delhi to meet the advocate in Delhi High Court. He wanted my date of birth certificate and xerox of admit card of the examination.
I met more than 20 applicants in his office who also wanted to be part of this case. Most of them were from Rajasthan and Agra, I think I was the only one from Benares. Advocate said that it will take maximum of 10 days for case to be finalized which sounded strange to me, after all we have most number of cases pending in the whole world, ie 40,00,00,000 which means one out of every three person is involved in some kind of case.
There are already three cases pending against this exam and it was fourth one, I don’t know what government is waiting for. They should give license to everyone and let the market decide who is good and who is bad. Since there are very few government guides, they are never ever interviewed, they are just hired even they don’t know anything. Most of the times travel agencies hire a private guide, who has no license, and a government guide also. Non government guides talk to clients and government guides are just to protect the group. Usually they chew Paan and keep their mouth shut and let the private guide talk to clients and if Police comes then they talk to Police.
An American contacted me to book his train ticket from Varanasi to Agra. I told him to buy ticket online but he could not do it as it was so complicated for him. He had told me to meet for dinner in Benares. We met in Benares in his hotel near Assi ghat. He was staying in very nice hotel. When I entered in his hotel, I found one 50 years old man talking to two western girls that he was unable to find a train ticket so he mailed a guy in Varanasi and offered dinner in exchange of booking his ticket.
I knew he was talking about me so I asked him if he was Christopher and obviously his answer was Yes. I am sure he had thought that I helped him in greed of a dinner at a nice restaurant in Varanasi. He was happy to get his ticket and then he asked me what restaurant I wanted to eat at. I had never thought about his offer, I thought he just wanted to talk me but his thinking was quiet strange. Usually I don’t want to eat in restaurants so I said that I didn’t want to eat with him.
Then he said that he had told his hotel that he will eat out somewhere in any restaurant therefore hotel will not prepare food for him. So I took him to a restaurant where he had his dinner. We talked a lot about Coke issue and again he was not agree that Coke was doing wrong. He thought that it was people’s and Indian government fault.
Next day he called me again asking if I would be his tour guide and I excepted his offer. We went to a lot of temples, wandered around in city. He was very much interested in meeting people so I got him meet to Lali Baba. I am sure he was quiet happy with my work but he paid me very little salary. I think he was the richest person I had ever worked with but the least salary I had every got in my whole life. A person who was a piano player and had housing in upper east side of Manhattan, where the average per head salary is $3,20,000 per year, paid me only $10 for one day of work.
I could not ask for more money because I didn’t see the money he paid me. Later when I saw that green note, I found that it was only and only $ 10. It made me remember about what Lane told me- You don’t need to be rich to spend and poor to save money. hahaha, It was so funny.