‘I felt safer in Srinagar than South Africa’
When Chantelle Flores, an internationally-acclaimed photographer from South Africa decided to visit Kashmir, she had certain apprehensions due to "negative publicity" of the Valley. However, all her fears vanished when she landed in Srinagar.
"I did not face any problems during my stay in Kashmir. I hail from South Africa, and have been a victim of 'gun crime' on numerous occasions during the years I have lived there. I felt safer in Srinagar despite the overwhelming military presence, and the (negative) news reports about Kashmir," Flores told Greater Kashmir.
"In South Africa, we don't walk in the streets because it is so unsafe. So it was really refreshing to be able to do it here and not worrying about anything. I also felt that someone was always willing to lend a helping hand," she said, with a smile.
Having travelled widely, Flores is recipient of global recognition award by Canon South Africa for inspiring women through her travels to follow their dreams in the photography space.
She has travelled to 57 countries and is a regular contributor to the National Geographics Your Shot, while her travel adventures have been published in many mainstream magazines.
"When I arrived at the Srinagar airport, I was greeted by my friendly hosts. They assisted me to the tourist office and transported me to my houseboat. Baring all the security and questions at the airport, the people were exactly what I thought they would be—kind, caring and hospitable. They had warm smiles and kind eyes. They always went above and beyond to make me feel at home. They loved hearing stories and loved learning about my way of life," she said.
Flores said she was fascinated to see people in Kashmir who spoke English fluently.
"Almost everyone here is highly educated; you don't see much poverty on the streets. Individuals spoke English fluently, and the people who I crossed paths with had high ambitions for their future," she said.
While planning a trip to Srinagar, she said she decided to connect with Danish Mir from 'Being Kashmir' and 'Go Kash Adventures' to address her safety concerns.
"He assured me that it was completely safe for tourists to visit and that people from around the world were highly respected and welcomed."
THE CULTURE AND PEOPLE OF SRINAGAR IMPRESSED HER.
"I fell in love with the old Srinagar City. My first visit was with Mukhtar Ahmed, Kashmir's renowned photographer. He offered so much insight into the architecture, historical sites and the people who lived there. For me, the brown-washed architecture reminded me of the architecture in old historical cities in Europe, except that the buildings have wooden intricate and ornate details only unique to Srinagar."
"The shop owners were so excited to hear that I was from South Africa, and excitedly pulled me into their stores to offer me 'Nun Chai' and hear stories of my hometown and my way of life. I felt like I had arrived at home, and was catching up with old friends sharing with them my travel adventures," she said.
FLORES BELIEVES THAT SRINAGAR HAS A UNIQUE CHARM TO IT.
"The old city is comparable to many small villages in Europe—vernacular and colonial architecture with buildings glazed with brown paint and distinctly unique Kashmiri ornate details. The narrow streets are winding and offer something unique around every corner. People curiously take a peak, share a smile and signal a greeting to you when you are passing underneath their romantic protruding balconies."
FLORES SAID THE DAL LAKE AMAZED HER.
"The beauty of the Lake is unsurpassed especially during the autumn months. I couldn't find myself putting my camera down for very long. I photographed same things so many times every day because the setting kept on changing, and each day offered something different and unique. It's also so interesting to be immersed in the lifestyles of locals living in and around the Dal waters, and experience their daily activities."
She said the Mughal gardens are appealing to the eyes of a photographer. "Each one offered a new splendor, and I was fortunate enough to be out capturing the early snowfall. Winter and autumn infused this day giving me a handful of prideful images. Coming from a country that does not have either one of these enchanting contrasting seasons you could only imagine the excitement I felt on that day."
Asked about her message to tourists who have apprehensions about visiting Kashmir, Flores said: "Before visiting, I used to be like an uninformed tourist – apprehensive about Kashmir."
"My message would be: don't be misled by the media. The situation in Srinagar is not as bad as it seems, especially for tourists. It's a beautiful place that will not disappoint you. Looking back, visiting Srinagar was the best decision I made, ignoring all the fears that the media conjured up into me. I had planned to stay for one week, but ended up staying three weeks. If it wasn't for an international outbound flight, I would have definitely stayed much longer," she said.
"I felt like a local here and made lifelong friends from Srinagar before and during my visit, and ended my trip on a good note. Srinagar was surely my favourite and most memorable city during my two-month visit to India. I loved it so much," she said.