GUEST POST BY HERB LEVENTON
In Srinagar if you want to get the shots you need to get up while it is still dark and get on the lake. So, eleven hardy folk were up at 4AM floating three people per shikara towards the floating market. Dark and cold we floated for an half and half in silence with the boatmen rowing away.
Passing the mosque, the shore line dotted with three-story, two-hundred-year-old wooden houses in different states of disrepair, we all knew that we were very far from home. As we got closer, out of the darkness came small wooden boats loaded with tomatoes, eggplants, cabbage, cauliflower and some vegetables I have never seen before and with names I could never pronounce.
The small channels led to a big opening which was filling with grizzled men with grey beards that were weighing their vegetables on scales that probably were worth lots more that their lot. Lots of bargaining, yelling back and forth, rupees passing hands, handshakes, sealing the deal.
Joining this disorganized chaos were seed sellers and a really cool shikara painted with a sign that screamed "Delicious Man", who rowed up to our group of 5 boats, and in perfect English, tried to make a hard sale – the cookies, baked just an hour before, tasted of cinnamon, and were way to good to pass up. The seed man had packets to sell which many in the group bought in the hope that they will grow, bloom and have them dreaming of this morning on Dal Lake long after they will have returned home.
A GUEST POST BY HERB LEVENTON
Image © Jeremy Woodhouse. The friendly face of Kashmir – a local leaving the floating vegetable market after buying his supplies
All I could think of was how when you have a camera you have a passport to the world
Hailing from Canada, California, Connecticut, Caracas and points in between, 11 photography enthusiasts with a passion for travel met in Delhi and took the first flight out to Srinagar. Not known to most, this city in the far north of India straddling the border with Pakistan is Islamic, located on mirror like Dal Lake, and just re-emerging as a tourist destination to those in the know. With former chief of UN photography services John Isaac and intrepid photographer Jeremy Woodhouse leading, the group was immediately engaged and in the thick of it.
If you are a curious photographer and want to get an immediate jolt, the best places to start is the market. The group walked the narrow streets of the market shooting the men with henna beards, the old wooden storefronts, the baker, the butcher and the life of a city very alien to us. Some girls were shy and hard to engage but if you want to get to know people you need to join them and a few of us jumped on a school bus loaded with girls in green uniforms and had an immediate interchange. These kids all pulled out their cheap Nokia phones and as we shot them they giggled and photographed us. All I could think of was how when you have a camera you have a passport to the world.
After just a day and a half this Kashmir trip has been be fantastic, the people are friendly, the house boat we are staying on is full of ambiance (and a few spider webs), the muazzin's call to prayer is our clock, and the beauty of Dal Lake puts you immediately at peace. Srinagar feels serene, not sure whether it is because the people have been through so much hardship and are all depressed or they are a spiritual people whose goodness comes from their belief system.
Image © Jeremy Woodhouse. Beautiful Dal Lake
ANOTHER GUEST POST FROM HERB LEVENTON
Traveling and photographing in India is so special because interacting with the people is so warm and human.
I have now been to India three times over the course of the last six months and my friends at home joke that I am now commuting there to work. I am starting to believe that if you go to India it will help you become a better person. Seeing Indians living in abject poverty will not help you appreciate things back at home because once at home you immediately fall back into your routine and self absorbed lifestyle. What India does do is help you step outside of your self and observe things and see things differently. I believe that how, and what you photograph is changed because of this.
Today was spent traveling across the parched northern zone of Gujarat. A few simple interactions along the way made a long ride a source of laughter. After two hours in the car we stopped at a small village where many tribal people and non tribe merchants live and work. Walking down the dusty main street everyone seemed to be smiling at me and random people would pull up along side of me and say in broken one word english, "German", "England", "America" all wanting to know where I was from. One guy made my day by asking me what village I was from. I said New York and he replied, oh, good village.
When checking into the hotel I heard that the drivers room didn't have a fan and I asked the receptionist why not. With out a blink she said because of the earthquake. I smiled at her and told her that that was in 2002. If this was back at home I probably would have asked her if she was crazy, here in India all I could do was smile. An hour later walking in beautiful, atmospheric Buhj the far northern city in Gujarat I stopped for an ice-cream. As I was eating it I saw two kids looking at me and I bought them ice cream as well on a day when the temperature hit 106. Within seconds about fifty kids were around me. I didn't buy them all ice-cream but did take lots of photos of them and they all seemed to be happy. The ice-cream vendor smiled at me and offered me another ice-cream and said it was an honor to give me an ice-cream for free.
As anyone who has ever been to India will tell you electricians have turned wiring a room up into an art form. In my room near the bed were six switches, each wall had two more, the bathroom had four and to figure out how to lower the a/c you would need to be a mensa. After fifteen minutes of trying to figure how to turn the light off in the bathroom without success and lowering the a/c I reluctantly called the desk and a sweet, soft spoken girl came up and I asked her to help me. Five minutes later she called downstairs to get help as she couldn't figure it out either. Within minutes another girl came up bearing towels. I told her we needed help with the lights and not towels. She said she didn't know anything about the lights in the room but extra towels always make guests happy. I think I will go sleep in a freezing room with the lights on.
ANOTHER GUEST POST BY HERB LEVENTON
Gujarat is the real India, little changed, traditional village life very much intact
Woke up at seven in the morning and walked around the beautiful gardens at the Balaram Palace where I spent two nights. Immaculate room, sub zero a/c that works and a breakfast that would get four stars in Zagat's. Gujararti cuisine is mainly vegetarian, seasoned not spiced and artistically prepared.
As we were driving further north I saw five camel carts with people and all of their belongings. I told the driver Jagdish to slow down and follow them. He smiled, laughed and said we would soon be making new friends. The encampment that they stopped at and entered was populated by the Mir tribe. Not all Gujarati tribes wear nose rings and tribal garb but these people were definitely in style. They looked at me and I looked at them and then this boisterous women charged out as us and told Jagdish to get me out of the sun and that she loved my gopi cap. Within minutes I started taking photos. They laughed and fought over who was going to get into the shot. Jagdish ran back to the car and grabbed my laptop and I downloaded the shots. Within minutes about 100 Mir were crowded around the laptop laughing and poking each other. We drove off and found the closest kirana (grocery store) and bought a big sack of rice; turned around and I delivered my gift of thanks. My tour operator Smita from Delhi who is guiding me said that I just helped India - US relations
According to my mini travel thermometer it was now 103 outside. We were headed to our next photo tour destination, Dasada. The major roads in Gujarat are in better shape than the west side highway in New York and we made it there in great time. The Rann Riders lodge being our base for the next few days, it was great to check into this lodge that had a pool, huge outdoor dining room, internet and bhunga (round mud brick) rooms. Fresh lime sodas were the first order upon checking in. Definitely the drink of choice in India.
A twenty minute jeep ride took us to a mixed Rabari, Metasar and Koli village. Photographing the women walking to the stream to wash clothes, dodging dung patties, watching women winnowing, sweeping in front of their homes, kids playing, men smoking their evening pipes, shepherds bringing their flock in all made for a great three hour late afternoon/ perfect light photo opportunity.
Gujarat is the real India, little changed, traditional village life very much intact. You feel very far from home but still warmly embraced. With the prolific photo leader Jeremy Woodhouse leading the way you will return home with an incredible portfolio. This is definitely a "boutique" photo expedition and not the canned photo tours being offered by others. This photo expedition is for the experienced photographer/ traveler.
Must be running on adrenaline I woke up my second day in Ahmedabed at six o'clock in the morning and immediately went outside to smell, taste and breathe the air. One of the guide books I have said it was one of the most polluted places on the globe but the air quality was excellent this morning. After eating a breakfast of foods that I can't pronounce but sure tasted good the road trip began.
First stop was the Adalaj Vav step well located 30 minutes outside of the city. Great sign when you start a trip and you are the only car on the road. This totally intact, massive 4 story well was built in 1040 and the pillars and symmetry lent itself for some good architectural photography. Catching the right angle with the correct lighting was difficult but I did find a place where I saw some strong shadows. A few workmen were sweeping the structure and I brought them over and we had some laughs posing with our arms out or above our heads. The shadow shots came out great and the guys didn't want to go back to work and wanted to continue the photo shoot.
Next stop was the Hindu temple an hour away by the name of Bechragi. Our local guide said that the temple was interesting but I would probably find the Hijra's who spent their days there of more interest. This group of people are called the third sex in India and are marginalized by Indian society. My guide knew the chief mother, Lila, and introduced me as his Amercan friend. Not feeling comfortable focusing my camera on them I tried to engage them in a little small talk via the guide as a translator. Some had heavy chains on their ankles a few growled at me and Lila let me know that if I wanted to photograph them the conversation would be over. I explained that I would be bringing a photo group over in January and doing a tribal tour and saw them as a tribe. Lila seemed to like the way I put it and soon enough we were negotiating the plan. I promised to buy sari's for the akha"community" and a small camera for Lila. I was then given permission to shoot some portraits of the group. Some smiled, some teased and some primped.
Gujarat is not on the tourist trail so finding a lunch spot with a western sense of hygiene was a chore. We eventually ate at the temple dining hall. Chapati, beans and potatoes and a prayer that I wouldn't get sick was on the menu. The lighting was great and the photo opportunities in the cavernous hall were terrific. Everyone smiled and wanted to have their picture taken while eating. You can call this food photography on a photo trip.
Next stop was the town near the Balaram Palace Resort where we would be staying for two days. The barber shops, women in sari's, cattle in the road, the dust and sand kicking up and the camels pulling carts all created a photo buzz. People kept on running over to me smiling and saying "from where" 'from where". It was like I landed on the moon and was the first foreigner to ever be there. The only person who was really fluent let me know that they would be talking about me for weeks. No one asked for money for having their photo taken and the hassle factor was zero. They loved being photographed, especially the guys in the barber shops. It appears that Indians love going to the barber.
Sharing the road with cattle, watching the shepherds bringing their sheep in from pasture, and watching the tribal women balance water pails on their heads let me know that this was a great destination for a cultural immersion photo trip.
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Jeremy Woodhouse is a professional photographer and traveller. He leads photography trips to all corners of the globe