Monday, September 21, 2009

Tips for the traveller in India

India is a very safe and welcoming country. Here are some tips and advices for the traveller, coming from my experience of the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajashtan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Sikkim in the North of the country.

* Don't be scared of dogs who are barking at you. Shout back at them with confidence (In Hindi: "Ja!", "Go away!") and throw kicks in their direction to scare them off. If they seem really dangerous (because some are, of course), you should catch a big stone that you will throw directly at them (an advice given to me by a cop in Jaisalmer at night, when there is not a living soul in the streets after 10pm and stray dogs are in control of the city).

* If an Indian threatens you, bare in mind that you are highly protected as a tourist. They know that and will not touch you by fear of police reprisals. If they isolate you, pretend to feel sick and that you need some air or that you have to go somewhere, and make your way to the nearest policeman. Alternatively you can jump in a cab to get away.

* The prices are indicated on all packaged products, convenient to verifie that you're not being fooled. In the jungle or other scarcely inhabited places, it is possible that the price will be a few ruppees up. As well as drinks in restaurants, obviously.

* You will notice that the children are more smily when they look at the photo you just took of them than when you were taking the photo. So try to not make them pose, which they'll tend to do naturally, by distracting their attention somehow (making them speak or laugh...). Do not pay them, you should rather offer biscuits, candies or chocolates.

* Avoid giving money to beggars. After only a few days in India, I understood that the best way is to completely ignore beggars because taking it in consideration will not help in any way and it will affect you, at least emotionally. Upon my arrival in Mumbai, a gang of youngsters circled me and was enquiring about the contents of my camera bag and wallet. I had in fact created the problem by starting talking to them. The situation would not have happened if I had completely ignore them.

* Don't let anyone guide you anywhere. It will always end up in a store or a very expensive rickshaw ride or a request of money "for the visit". Always embarassing.

* Similarly, don't let people take you to transports. At the exit of train and bus stations, pass straight through the crowd of people offering you rides, taxis or cheap hotel rooms. You're better off avoiding them and looking for the "pre-paid taxi" booth, where you will be offered a normal fare, or hail a taxi from the street. If an auto-rickshaw does not use the meter, always negotiate the fare before taking it. If necessary you can compare with other rickshaws. In Delhi, you can often divide the announced price by three to calculate what a normal fare would be! Don't expect to pay this price though, and you'll be reassured to know that even locals are being ripped off by rickshaw drivers in the capital. Also, make sure you have the right change.

* In train stations, look for the "Tourism Information Office", where you'll get help to book your ticket, or will be able to get a last-minute train ticket. The tourist is king in India, and you should take advantage of your rights as such. Many trains have "foreign quotas" so you can still get a ticket for a train that's booked out. To find your train, always ask a train station agent, do not ask someone from the public.

* In the street always ask your way to office workers (in suits) or alternatively to a police person. The general public tend to not know their way too well (from my experience I'm under the impression that 95% of people cannot read a map!), but they will still try their hardest to help you! They will unpurposely lead you in the wrong direction and you'll get frustrated.

* Be patient. Or learn patience in India.

* Visit Sikkim. My meeting with the local populations and the exquisite biodiversity has made for an unforgettable experience. I hear that all mountain areas in India are beautiful places to visit (Cachemir, Himachal Pradesh...).


I haven't had the chance to write any concluding observations as I feel that my trip was much too short for this. I am hoping to go back to Sikkim and stay for a while sometimes. Maybe even do some actual field research about the place and its people, who I really got along with. Overall I will just say that India has been very interesting, rich in experiences of all sorts, and a very beautiful place.

Thank you very much for your attention, and for your feedbacks!

See you next year for !!! ^^


Tuesday, September 15, 2009




If Kolkata is the Paris of India (even though from what I saw the artistic and cultural level of Paris is not even remotely matched), then Mumbai has to be its London. Fast-paced and buzzing.

After avoiding a 30-odd strong queue of sweaty Indian men by rushing to a counter that luckily just opened to get my train ticket to Santa Cruz station, I turn back to find that a bunch of people have gathered on the way. I make it through them to realize that they're circling an interesting scene. a couple of men, helped by one of those policemen with the wooden stick, are holding a guy's hands behind his back and tying them together. The man is bending forward and struggling pointlessly. After tying his hands they start hitting his back and ribs rather angrily. The policeman is just supervising, making sure the beating goes well. "He's a thief, a pickpocket", explains my mate Rahul, whom I had met for some shopping down Linking road and Hill road in Bandra. They have some fancy restaurants and cafes there. A good butcher too, reputed for his beef. Gotta hit that one some day. In a country so over-populated and with such diversity (diversity of political views, religion, life styles...), I understand that the law and order has to make itself respected with an iron fist. Such a show of repression as I witnessed today made an good example of that thief to the public. Steal and you will get a beating, the police will make sure of that. There are so many people around that the only way to maintain order is to create a strong fear of such drastic punishments.

The rush "hour" in public transports (Trains!) goes from 7.30 till 11am and from 4.30 till 9pm. No time for a yawn. Crowded trains where you may not be able to find a seat but you don't want to either because of the extreme heat. better to raise both arms, grab a handle hanging from the bars above and raise your head to try and catch some air. The bodies sexily intermingled. Elbows and foreheads. Wet underarms in faces. And they say India has lost its eroticism. Managed to find some seats with your friends? A few stops to go? Perfect, let's have a game of cards! A handkerchief placed on the laps and let's deal the cards. But fast.

The next stop in Kajur Marg, my stop. As I try to stand by the exit (a door which is constantly open to let both the air flowing in and people sticking their body out to catch the air), a group of people insist that I stay at the back of the train facing the exit. It turns out they're also getting off, but the rule is that, especially at busy stations, people should get on the train before getting off! Nice piece of Indian logic: people should board the train first, find a seat or a place to stand before letting people off. So the train stops, we hold as far back as possible to avoid the flow of people rushing in like crazy, looking for a seat only to realize that there is none available, then grabbing a handle somewhere between the rows of seats. The trick, if you're on for a long journey, is to stay as close as possible to some seats to be able to grab them as soon as someone raises from his seat. Only when the crowd has settled can we start struggling our way through the packed wagon to try and reach the exit.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Which country?"

Which country?

Which country do you come from?

Which country you from?

Where are you from?

Where do you come from?

Where do you from?

Which country do you belong to?

Some people I met seem to be making a funny use of English language at times, with the double use of "also" for instance. The word "only", tend to be used a lot, at the end of a sentence. After hearing it a lot of times, I've gathered that it means "just" which should be placed before the word it applies to ; Or it does mean only but is placed at the end when it should precede the word it refers to ; Or sometimes "only" doesn't carry any meaning at all but it follows an advice. "I will return in two months only" (I will return in just two months), "it's five minutes only" (it's just five minutes away), "the person can be found at this time only" (Only at this time can you find the person), "you should go this way only" etc.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009




My grandmother Mamie Guillevic will be proud to know that I spent this morning volunteering with the missionaries of Mother Theresa's charity.

I went to the Mother House for the 7am breakfast, in the center of Kolkata not far from AJC Bose road. We had tea, brioche bread and bananas with the other volunteers of all nationalities (many Japanese). Mother House is the covent where Mother Theresa worked, lived and prayed, and it is where her grave is kept. Today I will help out, with about twenty others, in one of Mother Theresa's "houses". Those houses are allocated to patients according to the type of disease and age. There is the children house and the house for elderlies affected by serious illness, or dying. Mine is the latter, where we go by bus.

Arrived at 9am, we begin by greeting the occupants, the girls are in charge of the women house to the right and we take care of the men on the left or sitting outside on a low wall in front of the house. The greetings are warm and all are smiling. I shake many hands, and I would shake some more later, sometimes the same ones. Important first contact. We then clean the floor with buckets of soapy water and brushes. The place is nice, with beautiful birds in a cage by the entrance, and it is clean and bright (well it must be when the clouds are not covering the sky like they are today). We rub, give massages and chat up the residents. Two of us have comfortably installed them on chairs outside to give them a shave. Everybody seem happy, except for one gentleman who grumbles as I help him climb the stairs that lead to the house. He doesn't need me! Another one is making conversation while we are cleaning the dishes. If he had spoken in French I would certainly have understood as much as I did in Bengali. In any case he sounded cheerful and punctuated his Bengali with "thik aache! Thik hai!", evrything is well, super cool! He seemed happy with our presence. Then one permanent employee of the house came to take him to the house to rest, which made him yell at the guy. We are washing the dishes in big buckets, I rub the dishes in one filled with soap and water, and my mates rince them in two other buckets with clean water, to my left. To the right the employees bring the dishes, dirty plates and glasses after having emptied them in a bin.

Between 10:30 and 11am, we take a break on biscuits and chai, then we get ready to serve lunch to these gentlemen. Some have to be helped with eating, but most of them are fine on their own. They're sitting on the ground or on benches, and eat with their hands, as usual. The meal actually looks quite delicious: rice covered with a serving of daal, ladyfingers vegetables, a small orange (slightly lemony in taste) and a piece of fish in curry sauce, Bengali style. After serving, I get the buckets ready for the coming washing up, and we sit down and chat with the other volunteers while they eat. After cleaning the dishes the morning is over, some of the residents go for a nap. We feel a little tired too, but very happy to have helped. I swear I would have done it again, but unfortunately I have plans for the end of the week, including a lunch at Rimjhim's friend art gallery tomorrow. Sorry Mamie!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Room with a view

Attached bathroom

Laundry service