Friday, August 12, 2016

Namaste!

My blog was initially written for my friends and relatives during my Exchange program / Erasmus in India. More than 200 posts later, this blog provides a mix of advices, information, pictures and personal experiences...


My readership is a lot more diverse than expected. While I was counting on tourists, expatriates and exchange students willing to learn more about India, I was positively surprised by the amount of comments left on my blog by Indians/locals. In addition, this blog gave me the opportunity to join the Belgian delegation in Bangalore.

Don't hesitate to comment!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Kashmir with the “In-laws”

After 5 years spent in Belgium, Luxembourg and the UK, I was back to India for a two-week vacation with Vikas’ family. Ideally set in May (ahem, the hottest month of the year with 40°C+) and in Kashmir (ahem, area known for its political turmoil), the trip was slightly daunting and I had to keep my reservations to myself as Vikas was already tense about the journey.

I was also a little apprehensive to return to India. I hadn’t been in the country for years and I was again fully used to the comfort of the West. Yes, I do enjoy hot showers, thick mattresses and toilet paper, and I am back to my good old self when it comes to screaming from the top of my lungs when I see a mouse or a rat...

This post is split into three parts: Delhi, Kashmir (background info, itinerary, advices, and impressions) and family life. Jump to the section that interests you as it is fairly long!

Delhi

We took an early flight on May 12th and reached Delhi late at night. We were to spend the night at one of Vikas’ cousins and, on the way, rediscovered the joy of Delhi’s driving style... We stayed two nights at his cousin’s place, spending time with his wife, son and mum, adjusting to the time zone and heat, enjoying homemade cooking and shopping for Indian clothes in one of Gurgaon’s numerous malls.

On May 14th, I met most members of Vikas’ joint family in Delhi, following Vikas’ lead when it came to touching feet. We were joined the next day by 4 additional members and, a quick tetanus shot later (I was bloodily attacked by my suitcase!), we were on our way to Kashmir. Our large travelling team was made of:
-Vikas’ parents
-aunt/younger mum in the joint family
-elder sister, her husband and their two kids
-second sister and her kid (her husband couldn’t make part of the trip)
-two cousins/brother-sister in the joint family
-the family’s former help

Jammu & Kashmir

Background info

Kashmir includes the Indian-administered state of Jammu & Kashmir, the Pakistani-administered Gilgit–Baltistan and the Azad Kashmir provinces, and the Chinese-administered regions of Aksai Chin & Trans-Karakoram Tract.

With its own flag and constitution, Jammu & Kashmir is the only state in India which enjoys special autonomy. It consists of three regions: Jammu (known for its numerous shrines), the Kashmir valley (famous for its beautiful mountainous landscapes) and Ladakh (renowned for its Buddhist culture).


Itinerary

-Jammu (16/5 & 23 - 24/5): Also known as the City of Temples, Jammu is the winter state capital of Jammu & Kashmir. We conveniently reached it by overnight train from Delhi.

-Srinagar (17/5 - 22/5): Located in the Kashmir Valley, Srinagar is the summer state capital. It took us 13 hours on sinuous mountain roads to go from Jammu to Srinagar. But it was definitely worth it as Srinagar was going to be our base to explore the Valley.

-Dal Lake (18/5 - in Srinagar): Nicknamed the "Jewel in the crown of Kashmir”, the Dal Lake is the second largest lake in Srinagar. The lake is widely associated with its houseboats (floating palaces that can be rented out for a night) and shikaras (small paddled taxi boats/gondolas which we used to explore the lake).

-Nishat garden (18/5 - 11km from Srinagar): Nishat Bagh is a terraced Mughal garden built on the eastern side of the Dal Lake. The garden has terraces, each representing a different Zodiac sign. The kids and Vikas’ parents got dressed up in Mughal costumes for an epic picture session.

-Sonamarg (19/5 - 84km from Srinagar): Sonamarg is a popular hill station nestled within the great Himalayan glaciers. The calm and peacefulness of the mountain were truly enjoyable. Unfortunately, the group accidentally split and anxiety grew as we were trying to find the three missing members.

-Pehalgam (20/5 - 96km from Srinagar): The town is a famous hill station located on the banks of river Lidder at an altitude of 7200 ft. Neighbouring places of interest include Aru (a charming meadow ideal for trekkers) and the Beetab Valley (a film-maker’s favourite setting for romantic films).

-Gulmarg (21/5 - 52km from Srinagar): Located in the Northwestern Himalaya, the city is noted for having one of the world’s highest cable car (Gondola). Consider booking your Gondola tickets in advance at the Tourist Reception Center in Srinagar as you might not be able to buy a ticket in Gulmarg since the attraction is highly popular with tourists.

-Hazratbal (21/5 - in Srinagar): The white-marbled domed mosque is an important Muslim shrine as it contains a relic believed to be a hair of the prophet Muhammad. Note that women can only enter the first part of the mosque.

-Vaishno Devi Mandir (50km from Jammu): With millions of pilgrims visiting the temple every year, Vaishno Devi (Mother goddess) is one of the most revered places of Hindu worship in India where the devotees undertake an uphill trek of nearly 12 km from the base camp at Katra to the Holy Cave of the Mother located at an altitude of 5200ft. While the trek itself is realistically achievable by most people in good health, the noisy and dense crowd (people, ponies and palanquins) makes the journey more taxing and time-consuming (6h/one way and 15h/complete pilgrimage). As the temple is open 24/7, we had planned to begin the trek in the evening to avoid the heat. Unfortunately we reached Katra too late to buy the tickets (tokens are used to control the flow of people) and had to start trekking the next day with temperatures above 40C. Midway I started feeling extremely dizzy due to a heat stroke and unfortunately had to go back to Katra (plan your Yatra here).

Advices

-Mobile phones cannot be used in Jammu & Kashmir as the local government prohibits roaming and restricts foreigners from buying local SIM cards.
-With the decrease in violence in Jammu & Kashmir, tourism has rebounded in recent years. It is however essential for travellers to maintain situational awareness as outbursts of politically motivated violence are possible during which they may be targets of hostility.
-Mountain roads tend to be fairly sinuous. If you are part of the 66% of people susceptible to motion sickness, looking out of the front window, chewing and taking medications might help. Cover your nose to reduce pollution smells as nausea can be worsened by bad odours.
-Train tickets to Jammu should be booked in advance due to high demand from yatris.
-If you consider hiring a guide or a driver, beware that some of them tend to work on a commission basis and may be reluctant to take you to restaurants/hotels/shops which don't pay commission.
-When planning your trip, expect long car journeys and allocate extra travelling time to allow for traffic delay.
-The climate of Jammu & Kashmir varies greatly due to its uneven topography. Coats can be rented in colder tourist spots.
-As in the rest of India, follow the usual rules in terms of safety, respect, etc.

Impressions

-I was blown away by Kashmir’s stunning landscapes and the diversity of the scenery. In addition, the region is much cleaner than the rest of India given the ban on polythene carry bags.
-Kashmiris, whose faces were beautifully sharpened by the extreme climate, were surprisingly welcoming and helpful. While they were much less staring than locals from other parts of India, they would take note of my presence and be ready to lend a hand (e.g. we spent one night in two separate hotels almost facing each others. As I was commuting alone from one to the other with Vikas’ niece in my arms, I got confused for a split second as to where the hotel entrance was. Unexpectedly, while I thought that nobody was paying attention to my dilemma, a dozen fingers pointed in the right direction!).
-Overall, I felt safe in Kashmir although I dislike the view of armed soldiers on the streets. As some members of Vikas’ family work for the government, we had the chance to spend most nights in military camps which added to the feeling of security. The only time I felt insecure was when our local driver had a fight with another driver and started racing with him (and with us still in the car!) on the sinuous and badly maintained mountain roads. There was also a protest following the death of children in a local hospital but luckily we didn’t get caught into it.
-While tourism has rebounded in Jammu & Kashmir in recent years, the large majority of travellers are Indians from other states and I only saw four foreigners during my 10-day stay. Seeing me on the side of the road (we were waiting for our driver), a Westerner sweetly stopped her car to ask if I needed some help.


Family

Cultural and language differences

Meeting the parents didn’t worry me despite Vikas’ best attempt to scare me with an endless list of do’s and don’ts. While I am genuinely (and modestly!) a good-natured person (no need to play a role), I was nevertheless hoping not to make any major cultural faux-pas...

All in all, I feel I did ok as I can only recall two false moves: accidentally leaving my sandals in front of the puja area (sacred) and touching the feet of someone I shouldn’t have to (knowing whose feet to touch is not as diplomatically simple as it looks and can vary depending on several factors such as the occasion or who else is present). Or maybe his family was too nice to highlight any blunders!

Communication, especially with the older members of the family, was also a challenge as my Hindi skills are still rather limited despite my best efforts. They were however my best supporters and were very excited every time I learned a new word. In addition, the younger members (Vikas’ cousins and nephews) were fluent in English and acted as translators when needed.

Food

Food is an important aspect of Indian culture and hours are dedicated to homemade cooking. Each region has its own palette of flavours and dishes which level of spiciness can be attuned to family habits and tastes.

Westerners are not always used to spicy food and I know several people (including my mum) who had to live on yogurt when travelling in India. While I don’t have a super sensitive palate (I can easily find dishes suiting my taste buds in restaurants), Vikas’ family is spice enthusiast. Once spiciness adjustments were made, I found their homemade food delicious!

Although I love Indian food, I am used to more diversity as I have the chance to live in a city where all types of cuisines are easily available and there is always a point during my stay in India at which I crave for non Indian food. It is a tricky topic as food plays such a big role in India and the need for international variety is sometimes taken for dissatisfaction of the local cuisine.

Fairness

Although people tend to naturally look at individuals who are beautiful, ugly or different, it is usually not considered appropriate to stare. As mention in a previous post and as reported by numerous other travellers, staring is unfortunately painfully omnipresent in India (much less so in neighbouring countries). The phenomenon doesn’t only concern foreigners but a fair skin is bound to attract more attention. While I was expecting it, the added attention must have been uncomfortable for Vikas’ family and they were quite surprised (the first time) when a complete stranger asked me to take a picture with him.

The youngest kid was somehow curious about my skin colour and asked several times how I got such a fair skin. Discrimination against darker skin is not uncommon in India and, despite her family’s best efforts, she exhibits bias based on colour.

Indian style

The trip had been planned by Vikas’ family and, in good Indian fashion, we were to share bedrooms, visit every single tourist spot on the map and take as many posed pictures as possible!

As I am used to have my own bedroom, my sleeping environment is usually controllable: no noise, no light. As a result, I had anticipated a fairly sleepless trip given our sleeping arrangements (typically 13 people in two family rooms). Surprisingly, I found the proximity quite comforting and slept peacefully most nights even when sharing a bed with 3 other people.

As far as the itinerary was concerned, I would probably have skipped some of the tourist spots and spent less time on the roads. However, as the entire planning was taken care of by Vikas’ family, I could just relax and enjoy the views...

Aunty

Arg, the joy of being called Elyse aunty! Given that I regularly have to show my ID to prove that I’m 18 (not that I feel that I look less than my real age), the aunty appellation made me feel much older. While India has a different term for every family member, use uncle and aunty for unrelated people or strangers who are older than you. Familiarity is expressed by adding the first name. Family terminology can be found here.

A bit more about the kids:
-I was quite impressed by the children. While they were quite noisy at times (well, they are kids!), they handled the long (up to 12 hours) car journeys very well.
-English is learned at a much younger age in India than in my country and having my own translators (the two older kids) proved very useful.


All in all, it was an amazing journey: bringing back memories from my previous stays in India (surprisingly, Delhi hardly changed in 5 years!), discovering a stunning part of the world and above all taking a peek in Vikas’ family life...


Aapse milke bahut acha laga!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

One year in India

I have been in India for more than a year (four months in 2005 and the past eight months). Time for some retrospection!

In December 2004, I had to choose my Erasmus (exchange student program) destination. I was quite interested in going to Asia even if I had never heard of any of the Asian universities mentioned on the list. The country definitely prevailed on the brandname. In order to decide on my destination, I sent a few emails to my seniors. I received prompt replies, some positive, some highly negative…


The night preceding the final decision, I dreamt of rats (the rat scene in Orwell’s 1984).

In August 2005, I was on my way to India. I spent four months at IIMB, returned to my country to finish my studies and went back to India in September 2006.

Indians frequently ask me how I like India. First of all, it is an absurd question as India is huge and diverse. Then, no country is good or bad. There are things which I like and others which I dislike.

All in all, I had an incredible time in India and met wonderful people. It was an amazing learning experience including both positive and negative situations. Back in 2004, I would clearly take the same decision… The question is…

…Is it worth prolonging the experience as I still have so much to discover in other parts of the globe?