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India: A photographer’s Pilgrimage

25 June 2013

By Louis Kleynhans

When I began preparing for mytrip to India, I tried to get as much information as possible. We were going on a photographic pilgrimage. The advice varied a lot – as you can imagine. The piece that stuck out came from a good friend, who told me that nothing could prepare me for India – it’s just sensory overload. Boy, was that an understatement.

My main concern was the food, and getting the famed ‘Delhi Belly’. I couldn’t afford to spend a week in bed with all the work we had planned.


The food

I was told not to buy food from street vendors, and to only eat in restaurants and at the hotels, which was good advice. The food costs still turned out to be pretty low, and an average meal cost around twenty rand. At the end of the day, we didn’t have any serious food-related troubles, aside from two members of our team coming down with a mild case of Delhi Belly from McDonalds! Fortunately, they recovered fairly quickly.

The diet was very challenging – we ended up eating Rotis three times a day, and the worst for me was that there was no meat! I phoned my wife every day, and asked her to stock up on meat for my return.


The traffic

As it turns out, my biggest concern was not to be food. In fact, it was the least of our troubles. The traffic was the real issue – we were involved in no less than four fender-benders just from the hotel to the airport. It’s just plain bizarre –they manage to squeeze six lanes of traffic into a four-lane freeway. Amidst the chaos, there will be a guy on his bicycle, travelling against the flow of traffic. Buses, Tuc Tucs, trucks, rickshaws, cows and elephants stop wherever they want to. The behaviour of our South African minibus taxis seemed so mild in comparison when I got home.

Words cannot describe the experience – these roads are truly crazy.


The people

We were going to be working on two of the holiest cities in India; places where Hindu and Sikh go on pilgrimages. Again, words fall short to describe the sheer number of people that live in India. Your brain understands that a billion people live in this country, and it understands that a billion people is a lot. But really, it doesn’t understand until you are there. There is no space to move. I feels like trying to exit a stadium after a big event. You’re squashed – always – wherever you go. It’s hot, sweaty, with no room to think, much less to move. The funny thing, however, is that you almost feel safe in the chaos.

Our other big problem was the heat. We experienced temperatures of up to 50°C for days on end. Aside from being uncomfortable, of course, why would this be such an issue? Well, we kept all our camera gear at the hotels, in an air-conditioned room. When we took the gear out on a shoot, the massive temperature difference caused all the lenses to mist up. Eventually, we realised that we needed to “heat” our gear up slowly. We left it all in a non air-conditioned room, then under a tree just before we began to shoot, and then out in the hot sun on location. This took around 40 minutes a day, but in the end, we got some amazing photos!

Read more about Louis pilgrimage to India in his next blogpost, which focuses on their reason for travel.