Friday, February 26, 2010

Presentation of my travel

What follows is a translation of the speech I gave for the oppening of my photo exhibition on Thursday, the 25th of February 2010 at the restaurant "Aventure Exclusive" (127, Championnet street, Paris XVIII).

I choose to give a two-part presentation, where I will firstly give my thoughts about India before I went there, that I will then confront to the reality as I experienced it during this trip. I often get asked my reasons to go to India in the first place, for what often seems like a rather long time (3 months), and I find myself answering with a few clich├ęs like I always enjoyed Indian food, or I really liked Indian movies and such. Although these are all quite true, I essentially decided to go there because I wanted to get away from home, as far as possible. And India struck me as the perfect choice to escape from my European reality, as it seemed so radically opposed to our lifestyle. Getting away from the West, and check out how things felt like on the other side of the world.

India as I imagined it to be was a poor country, with most people living bellow the poverty level, and in misery. People therefore escaped their rough life by watching the latest Bollywood, which offered a long enough entertainment (often lasting around 3 hours) full of twist and turns, of dancing and singing, so they could escape the daily routine. These movies, many of them I already enjoyed before going to India, would show a shiny India full of colours and magnificent landscapes that I was eager to discover. The cities, on the other hand, would be overcrowded, overpopulated with a diversity of people, beliefs and religions. Krishna followers would sing "Hare Krishna" in the streets with drums and bells. As for the concept of time, Indian people would assume a cyclic view, were the end is only an opportunity for a new beginning, offering an optimistic and peacefull view of the world and the salvation of reincarnation to fulfil your destiny. As opposed to our idea of a linear time, like an arrow going upward towards social fulfilment and ending with our inevitable death, which is in this view harder to deal with. Also, I was going to be mesmerized by the scents of spices, cardamone tea, and exquisite curries.

Let's talk about Bollywood first, because it is one of the reasons for my love for India that I tend to bring up the most, and my knowledge would almost inevitably impress as much the westernerns than the Indians I met during my trip. The theory of escapism that I mentionned seemed to be quite close to what I observed. It corresponded pretty much to the fact, and the explanations that I was given by some locals. However, I would like to give two precisions about the relation to Bollywood films that I witnessed. The first one is that people would adopt behaviours in real life that were inspired by the films, and many people know by heart many of the old and more contemporary songs. India definitely sings and dance, and not just in films. I was able to confirm it by spending a week-end on Diu Island (state of Gujarat) with seven Rajashtani friends. Dilip Singh and his friends were singing songs from the movies everytime we were in public transports (train, coach, moto rickshaw). Their favourite game was to sing in turn, and starting each new song with the last syllable from the previous one. When it came to my turn, I had to improvise with the few Bollywood songs that I knew, or fall back on the odd French classic. My mind is inevitably on our trip to Diu Island on the morning train, a trip that takes no less than 8 hours, and which was filled with joyfull singing and laugther. Here we can see that people are far from being mere spectators, but that they become actors/singers in real life, mixing with the life in films. In the respect that trains are a metonimy of Cinema, one could identify the beautifull Indian landscapes showing through the train windows with the roll of a film projecting images. The other observation, parrallel to this one, is that real life events inspire movies and many very "real" topics can be found, amongst which terrorism, the indian-pakistani conflict or issues around the casts system. For instance, the movie New York (watched with Juliette and Aditi in Delhi, July) deals with the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, and A Wednesday (watched with Rimjhim and her husband in Kolkata, September) tells the story of a terrorist threatening the Mumbai police forces. Also, the TV film Un Hazaron Ke Naam, in which I acted (Mumbai, July), tells about the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

Then, the astonishing landscapes are not always were you expect to find them. The countryside in West Bengal was beautiful with its terra cotta temple contrasting with the luxuriously green hills (in Bishnupur). But I really fell in love when I found myself lost in a tiny village in the mountanous region of Sikkim, next to this immense National Park (The KNP). Mountains, in this region, are treated as buddhist deities, and so are some lakes, which adds to the impression.


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.