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Saturday
Aug132011

15. An Unexpected Twist - the End of India and the End of Part I

“Like I’m falling out of bed from a long dream. Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying…if you think this is over, then you’re wrong.” Separator, Radiohead

My morning ritual in Dehradun.This is the part of the story that takes an unexpected twist—for both of us really. You see, I am writing this from my nephew’s bed in Califon, New Jersey. It’s 4:28am on the morning of July 19th and I can’t sleep.

As I sit here in bed writing to you, I am reminded that a little over a year ago I was doing the same thing, writing on my MacBook Pro into the night because once again I could not sleep. At the time I was back on the east coast for more than two weeks, which was the longest visit I had had to my hometown since I left 9 years prior. For five nights in a row I laid in bed writing and rewriting, the only difference being that a year ago I was writing my mother’s eulogy, trying to figure out the best way to honor a woman who gave me everything.

A year later on June 22nd, the one year anniversary of her death, I was sitting in my hotel room at the Hotel Ajanta in Dehradun, India, partaking in my morning routine of sipping my tea and ordering room service, which the kitchen had come to know as a bowl of fresh fruit with honey on the side, two eggs over-easy, and two chapatti. Looking out the window upon Raijpur Road and thinking about my mother, I decided that the best way to honor her was to fly home and surprise my family for a family reunion. I booked the ticket that morning and from that point on, the rest of my time in India felt like I was just killing time. Since I had a little under a month left and since I felt I hadn’t seen what I felt was enough of India—that was when I decided to go to Kashmir. 

I’ve been home now (home meaning the place where I grew up and not Seattle) for a little over 24 hours and barely know where I am. I slept for about two hours last night and when I woke up I thought I was in a hotel in India. One minute I’m in Janpath Market by Connaught Place in New Delhi walking among the masses of disheveled rickshaw drivers, street vendors, tourists, touts, beggars, and cheats—my olfactory bombarded by the scents of steaming, rotting garbage, human shit and piss, and India spices—and the next thing I know I’m in the rolling hills and manicured farmlands of New Jersey where people mow their lawns in patterns like the outfield of Yankee Stadium. And it seems to me like everyone around me is driving Range Rovers, Mercedes, or large Suburban trucks; and everything I need is just a short, traffic-less drive away; and the most simple tasks happen with speed and competency. It leaves one feeling somewhat confused and conflicted. You’re excited to be back in your western world of convenience, and yet a part of you still craves the madness, the chaos, the grime, and the dysfunction of India. The fortunate news for me, however, is I don’t have to jump right back into the reality of my life as I knew it. New Jersey is just one of two stopovers before I leave for Vietnam, China, and Thailand. More on that later.

***

Garbage on the street in New Delhi, not far from the Red Fort.The two great tragedies of India for me are 1.) that I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to MC, and 2.) that I didn’t get a good interview with him. I was after him for more than a month to interview him and he would laugh and say in his accent, “Ok, Ok…” While I tried to explain the importance of the interview in regards to our work and fundraising efforts—how I wanted to publish several articles about him, and at the end of the article have readers be able to go to the Web and listen to him in his own words—he was always too busy, spinning like a top or a whirling Sufi dervish. It was not until my last day in Dehradun that I got an interview with him. I was at his house having breakfast with his family yet again and told Mrs. Mehta what I was trying to do. She must have cracked the whip behind closed doors because that afternoon I finally got the interview, even though I only had a half hour to conduct it.

While I haven’t listened to it yet, I’m not feeling it. I should have taken the reigns earlier and pulled him in. It was a rookie move on my part to let him steer far off course in the answers to his questions. He didn't realize I was trying to guide him in a direction, but how could he since I wasn't guiding.

The previous day I had just read the first chapter of his book and had a hundred more questions than I previously anticipated because the opening chapter could be right out of a Hollywood movie. It begins with him as a lawyer fresh out of law school in his home state of Jammu & Kashmir. The political turmoil of the state was running a high fever and MC was asked to lead an independence movement. He was angered that his peers nominated him but reluctantly he took the role. One by one the people who supported him disappeared because they needed to earn a living, tend to family needs, or because the risk it involved was too great. It seemed MC was standing on his own when he began going door-to-door and village to village.

He eventually reinvigorated the movement and in the process was being hunted by the police, and so he was constantly on the move with the police right on his tail, sometimes missing him by hours. In his wake the police tortured his friends for information about his whereabouts but they never gave him up. Sometimes he would be on the move for days, barely eating. With just ten rupees in his pocket, he staged a protest that drew 20,000 people. Everyone came to hear MC speak but the police cordoned off the area. It seemed there was no way in so his friends put him in a disguise. When he took the podium the place ignited and he gave a fiery speech.

The police dared not move in because of the possibility of a riot ensuing. When the speech was over, hats began to be passed around to collect money for the movement and in the melee he was cloaked in a shall and ushered through a window where he had to climb to the roof of a building, then jump from rooftop to rooftop to a place where a motorcycle was waiting for him below. When he reached the waiting motorcycle, the jump gave him pause because it was almost two stories to the ground. Upon turning around to look for another way down he saw in his line of vision a large monkey gnashing his teeth and coming at him and so he jumped to the ground below where he was knocked unconscious. When he came to he was put on the motorcycle and sped out of the city at breakneck speeds. This was one of two instances that began MC Mehta’s career. In this opening account of his career, it is apparent that from the beginning the fight against injustice has been in his blood, and judging from some of the other events that have happened to him in his life, I would have to say all 36 million Hindu Gods were looking out for him.

An Indian friend sent me a birthday cake and I celebrated with the Tibetan girls who ran the guesthouse where I was staying in Delhi.The purpose of my interview with him was partly selfish, because I wanted to know what made a man of his character tick, but I also wanted to make his work known—more specifically to potential donors so they could hear MC in his own words, words that burst forth from the man’s soul with passion and love for the earth and for those who don’t have a voice to speak.

The problem with interviewing him was that when the interview began, MC the man disappeared and the lawyer appeared. Everything he said was slow, deliberate, and methodical in his thinking, unlike the man I know who is quick-witted, charming, and as funny as can be.

As an example, one afternoon we were taking a vikram through New Delhi. If you’ve ever been to India, you know that at any given stop light there will be people trying to sell you magazines in clear plastic wrap or plastic trinkets. They will not leave you alone and if you ignore them, they tap your arm and open their palms towards you. On this afternoon, a child came up and was trying to sell us this plastic chicken whose head bobbled while making a most awful, cringing-inducing sound. The child was relentless. MC and I just stared forward in an unacknowledged uneasiness that said, I feel compassion for this poor kid but what to do? The stop light was endless, and finally MC looked at me, pointed to the plastic chicken and said with perfect comedic timing, “Indian ingenuity.” It was brilliant and broke the tension and I almost fell out of the rickshaw laughing. Off we drove, both of us still giggling and grinning wildly until we got to the next stop light where we would find yet another vendor selling magazines and small plastic flower pots with flowers that bobbled.

That morning, well before the interview and breakfast, I sat with MC on his side porch and chatted with him over chai. As an observer, in my eyes his life had occurred in three parts; his formative years, which I speak of above; his middle years, when he became discouraged with law, met his wife, and she encouraged him to take his fight to the Indian Supreme Court; and his latter years, which was where we were and included his desire to build an international climate change center.

I said to him, “I wanted to ask you this question in our interview, but I’ll ask you now. If your life were a 3-part play, where would we be? Third act? Curtain call?”

He went into his deep thinking trance and began telling me about those early years as a grassroots organizer and then how a chance meeting with a man began his career as we know it today.

At a public meeting MC was invited to, a man stood up and lambasted lawyers saying that they were all criminals and that lawyers used to be important productive members of society during the freedom movement. Now they represented nothing but greed.I spent my birthday, which was my last day in India, visiting the Taj Majal. It seemed the thing to do since MC is responsible for saving it.

MC asked the man what his problem was and the man said the Taj Majal was his problem—that it was suffering from marble cancer due to the polluting industries surrounding it. India’s greatest monument of cultural heritage was in a state of disarray and no one cared. No was watching or listening

MC asked the man to send him information about the Taj Majal and that night MC couldn’t sleep. To make a long story short, the man sent him the materials and MC never knew who he was and never heard from him again. But because of that man, MC filed his first case in the Supreme Court to protect the Taj Majal. What ensued was a 20-year legal battle that is still ongoing. The result of his legal victories, however, created a green belt around the Taj and all of the offending factories were forced to shut down, move their location, or upgrade to cleaner fuels and energies. In total, this included an astounding number of more than 1200 industries. For a man to take on the Indian government and all of those mafia run polluting industries—well that takes balls the size of the Jupiter and I wanted to know what that was like to have those swinging around.

We went on to talk about a lot of things that morning. He shared with me many hardships and doubts he had about himself as he was a rising lawyer, how he didn’t always know which way to turn when presented with a fork in the road, which I really found astounding from a man of his clarity and conviction.

“You know, when someone younger like me looks at your career and life, it seems like you were always so focused and had no doubts, that there was always a clear line running from point A to point B,” I said. “But it wasn’t straight and there were a lot of forks in the road you had to deal with.”

“I was supported by my faith,” he said.

We talked about faith and fear, and what a ferocious impediment fear is. We talked of how Gandhi and his followers threw their clothes in the fire and essentially had nothing to fight with except vision and the loincloth covering them, and he went on to say how modern India has forgotten its roots and lost its way. Speaking of the poor and voiceless who he has spent a great deal of his career fighting for, he said being poor is just a state of mind and health. You are poor if you’re surroundings are poor and you can’t meet your basic needs of clean water and air. But you are rich if you are happy and healthy and surrounded by your family and friends.

I was completely moved by our conversation, as I have been several times with him in India, and was fully aware in the moment that this was perhaps one of the most important conversations of my life. While I can’t tell you the particulars of our conversation, it was more of a feeling that it gave me and the tears I was fighting to control told me of the conersations importance. I realized in the moment as he was imparting all of these wisdoms that he was one of the teachers I’ve been looking in my adult life. While I didn’t tell him he was like a father figure, he talked to me the way in which I wanted my own father to talk to me. What I wanted from my father was for him to share with me what he had learned or knew about life. I think my father undervalued his wisdom, however, or maybe the complexity of being the only survivor of an attack on his squadron in World War II was a shadow he could never get out from under, a shadow that prevented him from making that emotional connection.

After breakfast, MC, Mrs. Mehta, and I jumped in the Toyota Qualis and headed out to the ashram since my preparation to return to the United States was underway. The whole ride was I was just staring out towards the mountains thinking about how the first time I had come down this road, the landscape was scorched, brown and burned out, but now that the monsoons had come the trees and the mountains were bursting forth with verdant vitality. This lush explosion of external life was a mirror of the way India had brought new life to my internal world during the previous last three months.

The thought of departing India was leaving me feeling nostalgic and my mind went on autopilot as it moved through a picture show of my life. One unexpected memory that came to mind was from 7-8 years ago when I dabbled in Reiki classes with my friend Sue. It was about a year after my father passed away that I began exploring with Reiki and energy.MC in his New Delhi office. It's still under construction.

Part of the Reiki class required practicing Reiki on each other. When you are receiving Reiki, all you have to do is lie back, relax, and try to be open. Sue did some Reiki on me, letting go of her conscious mind and control and moved into a place of feeling and intuition. After about a half hour she stopped and said, “This might sound really weird but I think I had a vision of your father and he was holding a brown box in his hand. Does that mean anything to you?”

“Actually, I do have a cedar box on my bookshelf that I keep random artifiacts of my life in and it was his.”

“Well, this is pretty far out there but in this vision he handed me this box and told me to open it. When I opened it there was a beautiful glowing ball of gold. He said that it was all of the love he wanted to give you in this life but couldn’t. He also said that he always wanted you to travel and see the world because he couldn’t for various reasons. He said that you should just go and not look back or question anything and that everything will work out for you.” I hadn’t thought about that incident or memory in years.

As I mentally moved through the landscape of my trip and how it had deepened my connection with the world and myself, I thought about a spiritual practice called the Examen. This was a practice started by Saint Ignatius Loyola, who was the saint that my college was named after. In its simplest form, at the end of every day you are supposed to reflect and write down what made you happy and what made you sad or unhappy. From that information, teh following day every day, you should be working to move closer towards that which makes you happy and move away from that which makes you sad.

I went on to think of this in an even more simple fashion that made sense to me; the law of expansion and contraction. Every aspect of life as we know it is subject to this law, from the intangible of our thoughts to the laws of physics that hold the universe in place. I think to be happy human beings we should constantly be moving towards that which expands us—and move away from that which contracts us. It’s a simple formula or barometer for measuring when you’re feeling good. I believe that when you are in a state of expansion you are on the right path that was created with lessons uniquely intended for you. Of course you'll get the lessons from life no matter what path you choose. I think they just tend to be less painful when you are on the right path. When you are in a state of expansion, it’s as if you are being led by magnetic north to that which awaits you.

I can write statements like the above by intellectualizing and compartmentalizing life, but like much of life these are experiential discoveries to be made. The purpose of life is to drink from the cup of experience, and what I experienced in India like no other time of my life was that of expansion in every cell of my body. On the way to ashram I determined for myself that life is about the ascension to our greatest selves and the way to do that is through the expansion of the self. There is no point in playing small. Life is a ball of Playdough given to us to create something with. We’re all given the gift, but not all of us create to our potential. Hemingway said it best when he said “Every man’s life ends the same. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguishes one man from another.” 

***

With the exception of not getting to see MC before I left, I managed to see my other three most important friends, which included Ranjiv, Bhuvan, and Mona.

One afternoon Ranjiv took me to an ashram in the mountains to meet a “holy man.” Ranjiv has been on the search for years and almost went down the path of being a renunciate and so he was interested to meet the yogi. We lasted maybe 35 minutes before the yogi kicked us out. Ranjiv was asking him questions that challenged him and made him feel uncomfortable and in the process offended him in his line of questioning. It was a bit of a let down as I was looking for the yogi to say something insightful but it never happened.Night shot of a full moon from the rooftop view of my guesthouse in Delhi. I used a long exposure.

As we walked out, Ranjiv said, “I have seen a million of these guys throughout India and many of them are charlatans. They renounce the world, their pride, and their ego, and yet they act superior to you because they have done this. A true yogi would not have taken offense and would let each person find their own truth as opposed to saying there is but one truth. The real ones are simple and humble.” After my initial shock and disappointment of getting kicked out of a holy place wore off, we laughed on the ride home and talked philosophically about the essence of being, which continued over a cup of coffee at Cafe Coffee Day, becuase as their tag line says, 'a lot can happen over coffee.'

It was great as always to see Bhuvan as always, and as always he challenged my thinking in our discourses. Regarding a situation I was dealing with, he said, “How do you get a baby to jump into the pool?” He wouldn’t tell me the answer and said I had to find it on my own. I still don’t know what the answer is for me. I think he was just saying that you can’t think everything through in life; sometimes you have to take that blind leap of faith and have an experiential experience.

In another conversation he said, “All great successful people have three things in common; 1.) they find time to themselves as a ritual; 2.) They have a good core, whether it’s from family, parents, a foundation in God, or a handful of key supports; and 3.) they always have a sense of purpose and vision. They define who they are by themselves. Not by other people’s vision or expectations.”

Finally, I got to see Mona, my 75-year-old friend from Philadelphia who had been living in India for 25 years. Mona left me with some great parting words. She said, “The key to a successful life is a huge dream. Everyone’s dream is different, but it has to be big. Big enough that you want to go out and struggle to make it happen.” When she said struggle, her body tensed up as if she were reliving some of her own struggles and she pounded the table with her right fist and then took a drag off her cigarette with her left hand.  

I asked her about forks in the road and what to do when those present themselves. “The dream creates the path,” she went on to say. “When the fork in the road appears, you can’t make a mistake. What you do is make a choice. It’s like driving a car. If you start going down the road and it doesn’t feel right, then you simply turn around.”

“Happiness is peace of mind," she went on to say. "The greatest joy in life is not obtaining the happiness or the end goal; it’s in the pursuit of the happiness where the joy is to be found. The climbing, the going, the doing, the experiences—that pursuit to make the dream happen—that is where true freedom exists. Somehow you never get tired or warn-out because the dream is so big it keeps you going and the energy you find in the pursuit is very fantastic. That is where true happiness exists—in the pursuit. Because once you reach your goal, then you’re sitting on your ass again.”

Finally she ended with a short meditation on her own life. “Now I have another form of peace. Sitting here, letting it happen—letting things happen, letting go of the pursuit, letting go of everything. Now I have quiet time. It’s very different than the pursuit and things are coming to me. For the first time in my life what I need is coming to me and there is no struggle or fight in it. But I am tired. I’m not sure I’m going to make it another year.” I can’t begin to think of going back to India right now. For the time being it wore me out but I hope to God I get to see Mona again in this life.

This is the much-abridged version of the last two weeks I spent in India, but this story could not be complete without mentioning the most terrifying car ride of my life.

The more I got to know MC and hear his stories, I would always say, “Your life is like a movie or a TV drama.” As an example, without going too far into the backstory, there was a 36-year-old yogi who was a disciple of an older yogi who was creating a lot of stir to prevent development on the Ganges River. The older yogi looked at the younger yogi as an only son. The young yogi decided to fast unto death in protest of the development on the Ganges River. He was getting a lot of press and eventually fell so ill he had to be hospitalized. Somewhere, either in the ambulance or in the hospital, to teach the older yogi a lesson, the mafia got to the younger yogi and poisoned him. Under normal conditions the young yogi would have survived his fast, but instead went into a coma and died after a few weeks. It was all over the news, but of course, the chances of it actually making change in India are slim because the corruption is vast and big money makes the perpetrators untouchable.

MC on the television show where he was a guest speaker.MC was involved in the case as an advisor and was a friend of the yogi. He was asked to be a speaker on a live television show, something akin to Larry King Live. The broadcast was for 8pm and we were about 45 minutes away from the television studio. No problem, we thought. The studio was sending a car 1.5-2 hours early. And so we waited at MCs office, patiently. And we waited some more. MC seemed disaffected while I anxiously paced the floor waiting for the car. “What to do?” he said in his typical fashion. “Tis their responsibility. If I don’t make it I don’t make it.”

The studio began calling MC in a panic. “Where is the driver?” The driver in the meantime was circling the Moolchand subways stop where MC’s office was but was lost and had the wrong number for MC. Finally, at 7:30pm, the driver showed up. After a brief heated exchange in Hindi between MC and the driver we were off.

Traffic was heavy but the driver did not look at that as a burden. He was as aggressive as a NASCAR driver in third place trying to take the lead. When we got out of the heavy traffic, the driver opened it up, coming up on cars at about 120-kilometers per hour, slamming on the brakes, swerving in and out of traffic, and missing cars by millimeters. Had we so much as barely clipped another car, we would have been history. In the mean time, the studio kept calling and calling and the driver would just mute it every time. I could barely look up. There was no seat belt in the back seat of the small car so all I could do was surrender to the driver’s skills. The closer we got to the studio, the more risks the driver took. We barreled down two lanes roads the wrong way towards oncoming traffic. We ran red lights and we cut people off. We drove up on curbs to get around traffic at stoplights. MC laughed and said his tagline. “What to do? Tis India.” He was loving how terrified I was and that fact gave me a miniscule relief from the terror I felt.

Finally the driver picked up the phone to alert the studio we were two minutes away. When we got to the studio, the guards ran out and blocked traffic as we swerved right across oncoming traffice into the entrance with no brakes and almost going up on two wheels. The driver locked the brakes as the tires screeched to a halt on the pavement. MC’s door was opened and he was ushered into the studio right into his seat as the opening credit to the show rolled. I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the powers that be for letting me survive another harrowing near death motor vehicle experience in India.

The end India, the end of Part I.

 

Sunday
Jul172011

14. The Taste of Kashmir: Part III of III

Oh thinking of heaven. – Seeds of the Night, The Cave Singers

The next two days in the alpine air were spent walking about, meditating, journaling, and just staring at the awe-inspiring glacier that rested on the lip of the mountain like a mustache on a Kashmiri. Late in the afternoon on the second day, Palla, the cook, and myself hiked to the highest accessible point nearby. While it looked not much higher than a hill, it took more than 2-plus hours to scale.

By the time we reached the top it was getting cold and blustery. We were almost eye level with the glacier when a storm rolled in. As we began our descent, we moved through a cloud and it was not long before the mist turned to sprinkles, and by the time we reached camp it was raining. The rain continued for the remainder of the evening, relegating us to our tents for the long night. With nothing else to do, I wrote about 8 or 9 pages in my journal, which is something I have not taken the time to do on this trip because most of my time is focused here, on MC’s work, doing podcasts, or working for my job at home.

It was a cold, damp, and wet night, accentuated by the lack of integrity of our tent. Everything around the perimeter of the tent was beginning to get soaked so I pulled all my belongings close to me. After laying awake in the complete darkness for what felt like an eternity, I finally decided to take a Xanax, but not even that worked. It was a miserable, restless, uncomfortable night on the mountain and outside the tent it was as dark a night as I have ever experienced.

The following day we left the mountain lake to camp on a river. When someone says we’re going to take a shortcut in Kashmir, don’t assume that it’s necessarily a good thing. After a 2.5-hour hike to the shortcut, the old man and “guide” who had returned late the previous evening took the three horses the long route and we descended straight down the mountain for another 1.5-hours.

I have never done anything like this before and hope to do nothing like it again. On top of it being treacherous, I was exhausted and cranky from the lack of sleep the night before and the “short-cut” required the utmost concentration. There were parts that were probably more apt to rappelling, but down the face of the mountain we slid and slipped as best we could without falling. One misstep would almost certainly have resulted in broken bones, paralysis, or worst-case scenario, death.

When we finally reached the bottom, we waited and waited. And waited. All I wanted to do was lay down but the old man, the three horses, and all our gear was nowhere to be found, and so the cook and Palla took off to find him. To make a long story short, there were a lot of opinions as to where to camp. The old man wanted us to camp right in front of his house. The cook wanted us to camp near a group of at least ten Israelis. Again I was furious and in my mind I could not only wait to get off the mountain, but to leave Kashmir. I walked off to find a place on the river to mediate and calm down and by the time I returned 40 minutes later, they took my suggestion as to where to camp and our tent was already up. The old man started to build a fire, which meant collecting as much wood as possible, throwing it in one pile, and pouring fuel on it. I took the reigns and suggested a more slow and steady approach that was less combustible. When that was done we sent him to his house, I popped a can of beer, and we camped on the river for the night.

Jesus in Kashmir

In Kashmir, as well as many other parts of India, Tibet, and China, it is widely accepted that Jesus taught and learned in the region. There are even ancient writings and paintings in caves in Asia that depict Jesus’s visit to the region. In Kashmir you can visit a tomb where supposedly some people believe Jesus’s body was taken for final burial. They contest he survived the crucifixion and spent his remaining years in Kashmir. No matter what text you believe, historically speaking there was an extraordinary man named Jesus who walked the earth around 2,000 years ago and the quality of his thinking and teachings changed the course of history forever.

I know a bit about this subject because being that my mother and father were highly devout Catholics, from 2nd grade through college, at the behest of my parents, I attended Catholic school. Religion classes, as well as the Bible, were obviously always part of that curriculum. In these classes we learned about Jesus’s early life from birth to 12-years-old, and His ministry from the age of 30 until he was crucified at the age of 33. However, there are 18 years of his life where nothing is recorded and nothing is written regarding where he was or what he learned. One line in the Bible, from Luke 2:52 encompasses, those 18 years. “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature with God and man.” Now I don’t know about you, but a lot happened in those years of my life.

As a naïve schoolboy lacking the wisdom and perhaps the inquisitive nature to ask the right questions, I never really gave those missing 18 years much thought. I suppose I thought he was just working away in the woodshop, building things that were so cool people must have thought that they were made with the hands of God. This was a critical flaw in my thinking. Why did I never press further into what he was doing all those years? Maybe, just maybe Jesus took those woodworking skills on the road as a way to earn, learn, and travel.

Up until sometime in the last decade, I always took for granted that Jesus knew from an early age that he was The Man, and not in the captain of the football team way (cricket in India), but the Son of God. I didn’t really consider that perhaps his life was an evolution and an unfolding instead of immediate enlightenment at birth. I had never really considered that Jesus the man went through this search like we all do; that he was in search of his purpose, that he felt emotional pain, that he felt betrayal, that he may not have always been sure of himself, or that he may have struggled at certain times as to whether to go left or right at the fork in the road.

Thoughts from 14,000 feet

I think the journey towards God and a greater understanding of ourselves is much like the journey of an artist. When the artist is young and expresses an aptitude for his art, he begins by learning the rules; he studies structure, composition, form, color, theory, scales—whatever is needed to understand the form that is the delivery vehicle for what he wants to express in the world, or more precisely, what he needs to express. Once he knows the rules, he throws them out and forges his own way and understanding. Through this process, he gains a more intimate knowledge of his craft and a personal relationship with it, and it is through this process that he learns to express his own truth in the world.

I was thinking a lot those three days about what Jesus thought about wandering the 18,000-foot mountain peaks of Kashmir, if he indeed pass through. I would not have thought about this most likely if it were not for my friend Maria from Argentina. Maria, whom I had met over breakfast at the Divine Ganga Guesthouse in Rishikesh, bought me a book entitled, The Aquarian Gospel According to Jesus the Christ. It is a slim but dense book compared to the Bible and it speaks of the missing years of Jesus’s search and how he went from being Jesus the man, to Jesus the Christ. The book says that in the years that are not chronicled in the Bible, Jesus traveled throughout India, Kashmir, Tibet, and China to learn from masters of other religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and many others. There is even a film on this subject called Jesus in Kashmir.

One afternoon, Maria and I were wading in the Ganges River and Maria began recalling to me how she manifested a three-month scientific study on a remote island near the Galapagos. She was alone for that time with just one other scientist and the only book she took with her was The Aquarian Gospel According to Jesus the Christ. Probably based on conversations we had, but mostly for reasons known to her, she bought me this book in Rishikesh. I had a lot of time to myself at the ashram and so at night, at the edge of the jungle, surrounded by the stillness of the foothills of the Himalayas, I read this book.

During my 3 days in the mountains of Kashmir, walking beneath 14,000-foot peaks that are perhaps tens-of-millions years old, I spent a lot of time thinking about the journey of my life and about Jesus’s journey through the lens of this book, because if ever there was a place to contemplate, the mountains of Kashmir certainly have the potential to expand one’s consciousness. I don’t think any human being could not help but be humbled by the sheer scale of space, the experience of grandeur, and the omnipresence of the infinite. It forces one to look within or above, not simply outward towards the horizon, which is what we generally do in our hurried urban lives as we rush about from point A to point B with the illusion of purpose and productivity.

I realized at this point in my life, when many people are focused on building structures, in their lives, the time and space I have to think is a real luxury, but it shouldn’t be. We should all be taking that time for ourselves to answer one essential question. In his book, I Am That, according to the Indian sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, there is only but one question to life and it is; Who am I?

The seeker is he who is in search of himself

Give up all other questions except one: “Who am I?” After all, the only fact you are sure of is that you are. The “I am” is certain. The “I am this” is not. Struggle to find out what you are in reality.

To know what you are, you must first investigate and know what you are not.

Discover all that you are not—body, feelings, thoughts, time, space, this or that—nothing, concrete or abstract, which you perceive can be you. The very act of perceiving shows that you are not what you perceive.

The clearer you understand that on the level of mind you can be described in negative terms only, the quicker will you come to the end of your search and realize that you are a limitless being.

As I thought about my life and thought about the life of Jesus, I wondered—if Jesus walked these mountains, what would he think about? I thought that perhaps he learned that in the stillness of prayer and meditation—and especially when in the presence of nature—the answer to the question “Who am I?” might have come to him.

In the process of those lost 18 years of inquiry, I thought how perhaps Jesus discovered that he was not his body, this physical self that is merely organized matter surrounded by an electromagnetic field of information. Perhaps he realized his body was a container, a vessel of consciousness, only the vehicle that allows us to ask the question, “Who am I?” Perhaps he noted that stored in the cells of our body is a reservoir of not only our past experiences, but also our reactions to those experiences, and that most of the time this reservoir of the past is the place from where we act and react. I thought about how maybe Jesus might have considered that the only way to truly be free from this automatic response was to be the master of his mind.

I thought that maybe walking beneath the snowcapped peaks of Kashmir, Jesus might have discovered that in the stillness of meditation, he could use his mind as a conduit for information from God, the Divine, or another plane of existence where all that exists is instantaneous thought. Perhaps Jesus thought about how the mind is just a prisoner of the body, but that the soul and the human spirit are limitless and cannot be caged. Maybe Jesus considered when the mind is clear and pure, it can emanate signals as a radio tower might and conversely receive signals. Perhaps in answering the question, ‘Who am I?’ he discovered “I am.”

Like Buddha, Krishna, Christ, Moses, Mohammed, and all the other men who became prophets, they were artists in their own right. Their art was learning how to live their lives in the highest expression of the Divine Consciousness for the greater good. I believe we all have the potential to attain this consciousness, but it takes a lifetime’s practice. A musician cannot pick up his instruments and play a fugue on day one. It takes years of practice and devotion to master his craft. They same truth abides if we truly want to know God. God, or whatever name you want to call the Creative Expression of the universe, is an experience. We are not separate from that experience, but of it. God, like the instrument in the corner, is waiting to be picked up and learned.

***

A day later I’m sitting with Shaqeel telling him about the less-than-stellar quality of the camping equipment, the old man’s lack of commitment or interest, and that I was disappointed in the whole thing for how much money I spent. While the beauty was incredible, it was nothing like he had promised. I showed him pictures of the tent and he appeared shocked. He said he was calling the people he booked the trip through. He dialed a number right in front of me and began his conversation in Kashmiri. God only knows with whom he was actually talking to. Probably the girlfriend he had up in the mountain town, despite living with his wife at the guesthouse. Shaqeel hung up the phone and said, “I will never use them again.”

I told Shaqeel that it was so beautiful, however, that I was still willing to write an article about it. We sat in the courtyard of the Noor Guesthouse going over the when, where, how’s, etc. of an article of such a nature, and when I asked him how much he wanted to charge, I expected him to throw a few thousand on top of what I paid, but instead he paused, looked at me and said; 25,000 rupees. As I wrote it down I said to myself, why did I pay 35,000? And then it was no longer to myself. It was then that he told me he didn’t know Palla, didn’t trust him, and that I shouldn’t either because Palla had thrown 10,000 rupees on top of the cost for himself.

My mind was spinning at the betrayal. It wasn’t about the money. It was about the I swear to Allah crap and all the conversations we had about how his Dad taught him money was nothing and how he kept saying, money doesn’t mean bloody shit. It was about the he’s not a tourist; he’s my brother bullshit that got me.

I asked Shaqeel why he let this happen and he didn’t have much of a response. Then he said, “I didn’t make any money on this. I hired the people for cost. I don’t need to cheat people. Allah has blessed me with this guesthouse and so much more. I don’t need to add a surcharge. All I ask for in these situations is the gas and car money. “And he went on to say that Palla was a piece of shit and not to trust him, that he was young and stupid. When I said to Shaqeel I needed to confront Palla about the situation, Shaqeel told me I could not bring his name into.

“I’m just a business man. I’ve got a good reputation in the Lonely Planet. I don’t want him or anyone he knows causing trouble.”

On top of all of this Pinto, was getting paid out of that 10k and Latiff and Erica were now aware of the situation as well. I felt like a complete fool and had no idea who I could trust.

The next day, Palla knew the score and we went out to a tense lunch, because it was clearly visible I was pissed.

“You know why we’re here, right?” I asked him.

“Yeah, I know,” he said.

“Why?”

“You tell me?” he said as the opening moves of the chess match got underway.

After some back and forth, I cut to the chase. “Look, be a man and tell me the truth. You tell me the truth and we forget everything. I just want the truth”

He immediately jumped on the defensive and said whoever told me whatever they told me were liars. Keeping Shaqeel out of it, I told Palla that I met a tourist who paid 25,000 rupees and that when I did my research and went to several trekking companies, all the prices were around 25k. I never implicated Shaqeel though, which I should have, because chance are, I’ll never be in Kashmir again.

Instead Palla got very passionate and said, “These are houseboat people that told you this! They are all lairs! They are just saying that to get your business, and then they will rip you off. I swear to Allah!” and so on and son on. He had no idea that his own people sold him out.

Over the course of the next day, nothing was resolved, no truth came out, and everyone continued to blame and bad mouth the other person. And I really only saw him when I left. The truth in Kashmir is as illusive as access to the glacier on Gangabal Mountain.

*** 

I am simplifying everything here for the sake of brevity. Can you believe I’m saying that? Imagine if I told you the whole story and all the details. I would take even more of your life than I already have.

I admit I became emotional at my lunch with Palla. I was pissed, felt betrayed, and another issue that was occurring for me on the home front exacerbated it all. This whole thing may not seem like a big deal, and it’s certainly not about the money. I have pissed away $225 on a lot less, and in the grand scheme of my life, I will never miss or even remember that money. It was more about feeling like you are constantly being played a fool, it was about letting your guard down in a country where you always need to have it up—and then getting stabbed in the back. It was about feeling like everyone was in on the joke but you. It was about feeling that our friendship was cheapened by the value of my bank account. As I said before, I don’t mind paying a price for value, but to feel like I got ripped off pisses me off, and then for that to happen by a friend…well that just sucks.

Fortunately, now I’m writing this with some distance and I am reminded that money is the root of all evils and that it can corrupt even the most honest man. I don’t know the truth, but I do know that Palla comes from a very poor family. Would I have done the same in his situation? Maybe at his age, but I doubt it. If he did initially put that surcharge on our trek (and in the process get an experience he would never have had in his life), was it to benefit his family? I really doubt it. It sounded like it went into his pocket. It doesn’t really matter now anyway. As I read the Indian newspapers and see the Islamic and separatist actions that are still going on in Kashmir—headlines I didn’t read prior to going—I am looking at the financial loss as a safety tax. And in addition to this, I can say I had an experience not a lot of people have had or will have, at least for a while or until the US embassy lifts their travel restrictions.

The shitty thing about this whole Kashmir experience is I actually really liked hanging with all these people, from Ayub and Farook, to Shaqeel, to Palla and Latiff, but how can you have a friendship based on the suspicion that someone is trying to get something from you?

From where I was with my anger, I can’t believe that in the course of writing this and by the time it has come to print, I actually miss them all. But I really miss Palla. I know that deep down he is a good kid and our friendship was real.

In my moment of anger and self-righteousness, I wanted Palla to know I was hurt and that I felt betrayed. I wanted him to get the lesson to never do this to a friend again. Perhaps the real lesson was meant for me, however—to know the value and importance of forgiveness and to remember that everyone makes mistakes.

***

Although I’ve never tried heroine, I’m imagining it’s kind of like Kashmir; the first hit gets you really high and sends you into states of euphoria you’ve never experienced. But when you crash, you inevitably get really sick and vomit.

But then you’re left wanting more and you know if you could, you’d do it all over again.

Thursday
Jul142011

14. The Taste of Kashmir: Part II of III

Every heart is much the same we tell ourselves down here
The same chambers fed by veins the same maze of love and fear
We thought you were a saint but the halo was an eye
It’s hard to see how there could be so much dark inside the light – In the Dark, Josh Ritter

Sunday, July 3, 2011, Lavazza Coffee Shop, Connaught Place, New Delhi

Taking in the scenery at our destination.When I closed the computer last night, paid my bill, and left the Jade Garden Bar and Lounge, the once bustling streets of Karol Bagh were desolate. It looked as if a carnival had swept through town, the vacant streets littered with trash and an unfamiliar feeling that percolated between loneliness, abandonment, and danger. As I walked down the wrong street, from behind dumpsters street dogs lurched with ferocious barks and small groups of the homeless and destitute huddled in doorways and beneath lights. Others moved through the shadows like ghosts or specters. Garbage was strewn about the streets and when a single breeze blew through the corridor of shops, litter and refuse danced and rolled through the streets like tumble weeds somersaulting across the plains of eastern Colorado.

I began the morning with the intent of exploring Karol Bagh, but after stepping outside at 9am and realizing that everything was still closed, not to mention the wall of heat that assaulted me the moment I stepped outside of the air conditioning, I went back into my room. I decided to postpone my exploration to when the shops opened but instead got caught up in a conversation and stayed in my comfortable room until check out.

I checked out of The Rockwell Plaza Hotel and on MC’s recommendation headed to the Likir House, a hidden gem of a guesthouse run by Tibetan’s and owned by Rinchen Chando, the head of the Tibetan’s Nun’s Project. She is the woman I had the privilege of hearing lecture when I was in Dharamsala. The rooms are quaint and comfortable, but more appealing is that they are spotless, something that is hit or miss in Indian hotels and guesthouses.

Who knew that the only place you would find order amidst the chaos in India was in the subway?The Likir House was in the Lajpat Nagar neighborhood, about 9 kilometers away from the Rockwell Plaza Hotel, so being that but both were right next to metro stops, I decided to brave the metro. Braving the metro is a bit of an exaggeration with the exception of the crowds. The metro in Delhi is a world-class transit system and surprisingly and comically, the only place in India where I have found any sense of order or structure. First, passengers must walk into the station and pass a heavily armed soldier safely barricaded behind sandbags. Then they must go through a metal detector, get patted down, and then pass their bags through an x-ray machine. Once at the actual point of embarkation, passengers line up single file behind a yellow line at designated places where the train doors open. There is also a women’s only car, which much to my surprise the men respect. This tells me that the Indians are at least capable of abiding by order, rules, and structure; perhaps they just thrive better in the chaos. Unlike the rest of India, there is not one potato chip wrapper, empty plastic water bottle, or cigarette box on the ground; in fact, because there seems to be a faint layer of dust and grime that covers most things in India, one could argue that comparatively speaking, the Delhi metro system is spotless. 

Since the previous night’s minor exploration was successful, I decided I needed to explore a little more of Delhi, and so by 3pm I was in Rajiv Chowk, the epicenter of New Delhi tourism, otherwise known as Connaught Place. Think of Connaught Place as a dartboard. In the bull’s-eye is a park and around it, moving out in concentric circles, are the shops, roads, and structures that make up the dartboard. Beneath the park exists what I consider to be the Indian version of Dante’s Inferno. It’s called the Palik Bazar.

Palik Bazaar is an underground labyrinth of shops with peddlers hawking everything from jewelry, to electronics, to books, to clothes. It’s dimly lit by neon and halogens and here in the underground peddlers and swindlers feed like sharks in the dark abyss of the ocean. The people coming at you occasionally go so far as to paw at you as if Cerberus, the two-headed hound of hell himself, is trying rip off your flesh. Have I become jaded and cynical? You be the judge. Do I exaggerate? Not much. The Bazaar contains wall-to-wall people through narrow corridors and being a white person, again you are constantly harassed.

“Hey friend, take a look at this belt. You like t-shirt? Where you from? Come have a look. Special price for you. Hello. Hello? Hey friend, over here—hello?” It was funny the first 4,142 times. I have started to answer the question as to where I am from in a variant of two multiples; first, I say, “I’m from Mars,” and I point towards the sky. Or I say, “No hablo Ingles.” On one occasion, much to my surprise the Indian man spoke back to me in Spanish, to which I replied, “OK, you got me. I just don’t want to talk to you.” On another occasion I said something in gibberish, doing my best to give it a hint of Mandarin. Some people laugh and continue pressing you for your name and origin of country, some people step back, and others really don’t know what to make of it. It all depends on my mood, whether I am feeling playful or just outright pissed.  

I was finally pushed to my limit one afternoon when a skinny, little Indian grabbed my arm. In a gut-reaction I did not know I had in me, I grabbed him by his pencil-neck and pinned him to wall. “Don’t you ever fucking touch me again or I will kill you and not think twice.” I had so much adrenalin pumping through me that I had him lifted off the ground and just his toes were dangling to the floor. I held him so tight to the wall that he was grasping for his breath and in his eyes I could see the fear of God. “Get ready to meet your maker you little maggot,” I said, and then released my grip, returning him to the earth and the memory of breath. He scurried away like a cockroach in the light.

***

This of course is the work of fiction and one of many violent fantasies that have played out in my head whereby I inflict bone crushing pain and violence on the offender. In all my travels, I can’t think of a place whose peddlers and beggars are more aggressive than in India. Apparently what I have deduced from the compilation of these facts is that I as I get older my tolerance level for crowds is rapidly diminishing, at least in crowds where I’m a marked man, like Waldo in the children’s picture book, Where’s Waldo.

Just to add insult to the day’s injury, as I write this to you from Lavazza Coffee Shop, I am dealing with a hint of Delhi belly, the symptoms being doubling over pain in my abdomen and the potential loss of bowel control. Ahhh India…Love it or hate it, it’s all part of the experience.

Meanwhile, back in Kashmir

Mughal Gardens, Srinagar, Kashmir.The morning after our excursion on Dal Lake and starting the previous night, starting when his buzzed kicked in, Ayub was not only heavily touting, but pushing a 6-day, 5-night trek “I really want to take you on this trek,” he said as he continued to outline the highlights like Anthony Robbins might give you an overview of how to be a more effective human being. He’s a hell of a salesman that Ayub. I was sold. I’ll drop the $400 or $500 on a once-in-lifetime experience.

When Palla showed up we all made small talk for a while until we got down to business, which is always when the side conversations in Kashmiri begin. Kashmiri, from what I understand is a complicated language. Not even Indians understand it and so they exist in this safe little language cocoon, discussing your weaknesses and how to exploit you right in front of you.

We started talking about the trek and Palla told Ayub that I was his brother, not a tourist or a customer, so he should give me the friend price. Ayub looked off as if calculating the numbers in his head and came back with the quote of $1700, which I recognized he did not say with confidence.

“Are we flying up to the mountain on a magic carpet? Sorry bud, but you must think I’m rich or something. Plus that takes up almost all of my time in Kashmir. I came here to see my friends.”

Some numbers were thrown back and forth, the length of the trip was scaled back, but I said we should settle up our bill from the night before and then I’d think about it. Palla called Gasha and they talked, then Ayub and Gasha talked, and finally we arrived at 2000 rupees for the previous night’s stay on the houseboat.

“OK, well I’m checking out this afternoon after we go for a walk.”

“Why you checking out?” Ayub said. “You’re going to stay in a hotel or guesthouse? You can do that any time. This is Kashmir. You should stay on a houseboat. That’s the whole experience. Come; I take you look at my other houseboat. You can stay here for a thousand a night.” He took me to the houseboat next door. The room was small, stuffy, and dank, and since I had stayed in one of the nicest houseboats, there was no going back for me.

“Well, I’ll think about. I’ll leave my stuff here for now.”

When we walked away and were out of earshot, Palla was worked up and said in a huff, “What are you doing man? I told you he’s going to rip you off in the end. Look, you can stay there if you want and go on that trek and hang out with them. But don’t tell me you came here to hang out with us.” Not that I know Palla all that well, but it felt a little uncharacteristic. Without it being in the forefront of my awareness, I thought that it felt a little off. “These people are very cunning and they talk with a serpent’s tongue. I know houseboat people. You can’t trust them. If you want to stay on a houseboat, my cousin has one, but I don’t trust this guy.”

Palla took me to the Noor Guesthouse where he said I should stay and he could get me a deal on a room. His cousin Latiff was there as well, who—as I write about this and think back—probably overcharged me for something back in McLeod Gange.

I was saying hello to Latiff when Erica from Rishikesh came running down the stairs and hugged me like I had been away at war for years. My jaw dropped and I was quite confused.

When Erica and I left each other in Rishikesh, I told her that if she wanted to meet some people in McLeod, she should look up my friends. Apparently she had found Palla’s cousin Latiff on her own and had gotten what she told me she was looking for; a good looking Indian man to sleep with, in this case, ten years her minor. What’s entertaining is that Latiff had slept with her friend in McLeod, which she knew about, and now she was sleeping with Latiff. For someone like Latiff, or any decent looking local in a tourist town, there is a never ending assembly line of women. At 22, having spent the last seven years in McLeod Gange, which could be one of the most highly traveled mountain towns in India, he is already a pro.

***

The inside of my room at the Noor Guesthouse.Palla and the owner of the Noor Guesthouse, Shaqeel, talked back and forth in Kashmiri negotiating a price for my stay. Palla told me that Shaqeel is a very good man and fair, and he again told Shaqeel that I am a brother, not a tourist. Palla came back to me at 1000 rupees a night, which I thought was odd because Erica was paying 250, granted she didn’t have a bathroom. I probably should have checked my Lonely Planet, being that the price was written in the Lonely Planet.

“Oh, you have the best room in the place and the only one with a canal view,” Palla assured me, “so he wants a thousand.” Who’s going to pay a thousand for this dump? I thought. I guess I am. At that point, I had been unsettled for the previous 48 hours and I just wanted a place to lay my bags and rest my head for more than a few hours. I went back to the houseboat to gather my things and much to my relief, Ayub wasn’t there, so I didn’t have to deal with the pushing and pressuring. His brother gave me the why a guesthouse and not a houseboat? song and dance as well but finally said, “As you wish. Please come by for tea.”

The following day Palla took me to Mughal Gardens, which while beautiful, was another miserable tourist stop. Conversation began the day before with Shaqeel about trekking and we continued to talk about it, Palla justifying the cost and reassuring me again that Shaqeel was a very honest man, as if he had known him for years. When we returned to the Noor Guesthouse, we moved into negotiations and again Palla pitched the he’s my brother, not a tourist routine; again the side conversations in Kashmiri, right in front of me.

To make a long story short, we settled at 35,000 rupees ($800) for a 4-day, 3-night trek. This included 3 Beasts of Burden, a cook, a guide, tents, food, sleeping materials, and whatever else was needed. In addition, Palla would get to come. He also took it upon himself to invite his friend Pinto. “Pinto is big and not afraid of anybody or anything. He’s in case we get into any trouble.” I didn’t really think too much about any of these statements at the time because I felt safe in the security of my Kashmiri friends. I finally agreed and thought it was awfully nice that Shaqeel is letting them accompany me. Granted, I am paying for an experience they will never otherwise have, but so be it, I thought.

That night Erica and I went to Latiff’s mother’s house. We all hung out on the roof—immediate family and cousins—and drank Kashmiri tea, had biscuits and bread, and played Carrom, an Indian board game. Eventually all of us sat knee to knee in a circle in their tiny kitchen eating a simple yet spicy dinner with our hands made up of rice, dal, mutton, and vegetables. It was a very nice evening, although it ran a little long for my taste. We all went for a walk at one point and I continued to discuss the issue of the trekking and lodging with Palla. “Don’t worry about the price of the guesthouse. I know how to deal with him. We’ll get the price down,” he said.

The following morning I was up before anyone else and working on my computer. Shaqeel came out and said, “You remind me of my best friend, Michael Nixon. He is from the states too and he has a computer just like that,” and he showed me a signed picture of Michael Nixon snowboarding. He later said, “I’ve been watching you. You’re very cautious. You’re so much like my best friend Michael Nixon.” Again with the accent on ‘best.’ Apparently Michael was a professional snowboarder and comes to Kashmir every winter. Shaqeel and I got talking and I told him I was a writer. He asked me how I knew Palla and for how long. I told him how we had met in McLeod Gange and hung out for about two-and-a-half weeks. He just shrugged and said you have to be careful whom you trust in Kashmir.

That afternoon, Palla took me to lunch at his family’s house. In both Latiff and Palla’s house, there was no furniture, just wall-to-wall carpet and a few cushions. Their prize possessions were their family photo albums. I watched Palla thumb through it with such pride and joy. I had never seen him glow like that before. It was a wonderful thing to see, someone who loved his family as much as he did.

Post-meal hookah with Palla's father.I can’t tell you how many people were living in either of the places, but it was a lot. Brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins, but they love it—and they wouldn’t have it any other way. After lunch, Palla’s father who was only 2-3 years older than me (more proof that Kashmiris age prematurely) insisted I smoke some tobacco with him. And yes, it really was tobacco. I quite enjoyed it and since I’m not a big smoker it gave me a nice head rush. Who am I to refuse the offering of a post-meal hookah?

That evening, I handed over 36,000 rupees to Shaqeel (about $800), even though I didn’t feel good about it. “You know,” I said, “I’m a writer and I could write an article about your business. I could publish it in the New York Times. Hundreds of thousands of people would know about it.” I was trying to play their game a bit. He thought about it and knocked off a thousand rupees (about $20) or something ridiculously small. He wasn’t budging much and I was merely a rookie in the ring with a weathered pugilist. Once he found out I could possibly help his business, it seemed to change our relationship for the better. It wouldn’t be long before Shaqeel had another best friend. I can see him saying to the next sucker, “You remind me of my best friend Tim.”

Amateur Hour on the Mountain

I wonder why we got wet the second night?By the end of the first day of trekking, it was apparent that this was not exactly a reputable trekking outfit. I’m not sure if this is just the way it is in Kashmir or what, but it was about as budget and makeshift as it gets, definitely not the makings and refinement one would expect of $800.

At 6am we left the Noor Guesthouse by Shaqeel’s vehicle and drove to the end of the mountain road where we would begin our trek. The mountains were practically on top of us as we raced up roads that clung to the mountain, moving at speeds which seemed disproportionate to the size of the car and the drop. “Do you see that peak?” Shaqeel said to me, pointing to a jagged peak that towered above us. “That’s Pakistan.” Holy shit, I thought.

Trying to be casual I said, “So uhm, do Pakistanis ever cross over or is it heavily fortified by the military?”

“Oh no,” Shaqeel assured me. “They would be in a lot of trouble if they ever crossed over. Maybe sometimes they get lost, but they would never do it on purpose.”

By 9:30 our gear had been packed and placed on the beasts of burden and we hit the trail. “What about our guides?” I asked Palla. “Where are they?”

“They will be right behind us. I told them I didn’t want to see them while we hiked. It will be better this way.”

Sheep grazing at 14,000 feet. We set out with one horse and a few bottles of water, but we hadn’t had any breakfast. That was fine. We had 3 horses full of food and supplies right behind us. They also gave us an extra horse in case we got tired Well that was awfully nice of them to supply an extra horse, I thought. I’m sure that horse had a cost, however, and had come from an extra 10,000 rupees. Not even a quarter of a mile in, I was leading the charge and Pinto was bringing up the rear on the mule. “I hope he doesn’t kill that thing by working it to exhaustion,” I said to Palla. I was not feeling it about Pinto at this point because he was rather stoic and seemed disinterested the first time we shook hands. He didn’t speak English but he turned out to be a valuable member who got things done and was interested in my comfort and happiness after all.

The hike began like the space shuttle taking off from its launch pad. Our trajectory was more or less straight up for three long, hot, and hard hours. I am usually a fast hiker and this was no exception. I am of the opinion that I should get there, and then enjoy myself, as opposed to enjoying myself on the way, but that’s me.

Our horse grazing not far from our camp site.We kept meeting villagers along the path, asking them how far our destination was. The Gujarat people (the local mountain people) would either say it’s not far or that we were nowhere near the final destination, Gangabal Lake. We also kept waiting for our guides. We would wait for 20 minute rests, assuming they would be right behind us but they never showed. Finally, about ¾ of the way up they showed up. I thought Pinto was going to rip their heads off. The cook and the guide were actually scared and asked Palla if he could calm Pinto down. Some food would make things a bit better I thought.

As it turns out, we didn’t have enough food not to mention the guide, an old man, said he didn’t feel well. So Pinto turned him back and told him to return the next morning with more food and chicken.

Speaking of chicken, I heard something that sounded like chirping for most of the way up, but assumed it was one of the cords rubbing against the leather of the saddle. It was at this pit stop that I discovered a chicken strapped to the back of the horse and pleading for its life. That poor bird haunted me the rest of the day as we made his death march towards the gallows, and I wasn’t sure I was actually going to be able to eat him. Turns out when you’re that hungry it’s not even an after thought. I just said, “I don’t want to see that bird anywhere near me. Kill and clean it as far away from me as possible.” I like my chicken and meat packaged, not pleading. This experience caused me to pause and consider scaling back my consumption of animals.Dinner haunting me. Brings a new definition of farm to plate.

When we finally reached camp 7.5 hours later, I was surprised by a.) the quality of the tent—meaning there was no quality, and b.) that there was only one tent. I was promised, among other things including competence, two tents. Being that I was settling into my role as the client, I felt I had a right to be pissed off. It was indeed visible and Palla and Pinto felt my energy beginning to swirl like an Atlantic storm in September.

Without consulting me and in the name of making me happy, Pinto and Palla sent the cook about a quarter of the way back on horseback to fetch a tent. Luckily Pinto was a good cook so our dinner would not suffer, and if anything, it would be enhanced. I tried to do some fishing while Pinto slaved away over a hot burner but was unsuccessful. A nice Gujarat man humbled me by gaving me the gift of two fresh rainbow trout he had caught (even though I freaked out that I told him I was an American, which meant he and his cronies may come and either make an example out of me or steal everything I had.) Palla assured me it was fine. Darkness began to overtake the land.

When the sun was well behind the glacier and very little light remained in the western sky, a figure appeared on the horizon. The cook returned but his load seemed light. This was due to the fact that there were no more 6-man tents, as if I wanted to sleep in a 6-man tent by myself. 

  1. That would indeed be terrify in the desolate landscape compounded by the uncertainty of whether or not we were actually in friendly territory
  2. Body heat makes a big difference in a tent in the mountains, and being that the sleeping bag might have been sufficient for a rancher in the late 1800’s who slept by the fire, I would have froze to death.
  3. Our camp didn’t have a fire because at 14,000 feet there was no wood, only grassland with grazing sheep and cattle.

Another view of our lovely tent. At least the scenery delivered.The tent was only one small problem, however. While the cook left to fetch the tent, the rest of the horses, still saddled up, had taken off and there was no sign of them. I was told if the horses fell in a ditch they wouldn’t be able to get up or the Gujarat people might steal the saddles. Either way, these were not exactly favorable conditions.

Somewhere in between dusk and night, Palla and the cook departed on foot to find the horses. It was a moonless night and the more you watched the sky, the more the sparkling gems told of the impending darkness as they to popped and twinkled against the receding shades of blue and gray. I pulled myself out of the Category 4 hurricane that was growing within, smoked a cigarette, and forced myself to laugh at the absurdity. I decided I needed to set a precedent.

When Palla and the cook returned without any horses, everyone was on edge because I had been on edge. As the leader and consumer of this situation, I needed to make things right before they spun out of control further.

Palla workin' the lines and makin' deals. With a scaled back tone from where I had been an hour prior and with my finger wagging in his face, I said, “Palla, you want me to have a good time right? This is what I need you to do for me to be happy. I need you to tell me everything that is going on at all times. Everything! No more fucking side conversations, you hear me? You translate everything for me and tell me what’s going on at all times. I also need you to think ahead of the situation—think of questions I might ask and answers I may want to know. Think of what’s going to make me happy. Think of what’s going to happen an hour from now. Use the head Allah gave you. If I knew you were sending the cook back for another 6-person tent I never would have had him go back. That’s just plain fucking stupid. When a situation presents itself, and when you have translated what’s going on, and when I have all the information, I will make a decision. Then if I need input I will run it past you and Pinto. You got it?”

I often forget that Palla is only 22.

 

Tuesday
Jul052011

14. The Taste of Kashmir: Part I of III

"But now she's gone yes she's gone away, a soulful song that would not stay
You see she hides 'cause she is scared, but I don't care I won't be spared."
- I Could Have Lied, Red Hot Chili Peppers 

July 2nd, 2011, The Jade Bar, New Delhi

The Delhi train station at 5:30am. Calm before the storm.If you will allow me to be a stater-of-the-obvious for a moment, I would like to make a blanket statement; the thing I hate about India is how much I stand out.

It’s like everywhere I go there is a target on my back that says, approach me, I’m white > that means I’m a tourist > that means I’m rich. Surprisingly, however, tonight for once I blended into the crowd, not because there were other white folk around, but because I was in the midst of an undulating sea of people on Ajmal Kahn Road in the Karol Bagh neighborhood of Delhi. You see I have had this as yet unfounded fear of Delhi. There are endless stories of people being cheated, robbed, taken advantage of, and being taken for a ride—literally. You hear them constantly when you’re traveling through India and even Indian people say the people of Delhi are “bloody shit.” How is that for a graphic term? I like it as an expression, but not when the visual is attached. From what I have gathered, “bloody shit” is the Indian superlative for lying, cheating thieves. And of course, I am not talking about the general citizens of Delhi; I am talking about street vendors and people in the service and transportation industry. Of course I realize an argument could be made that you're going to get these people in any major metropolis but right now these people are on my bloody shit list.

From the countless stories I have heard, even the thought of Delhi has caused a physical reaction in my body. The last two times I stayed or passed through I felt like everyone was out to get me, but tonight, the only people who approached me were a few people selling belts. Granted, if I got too close to a shop some merchant would try to pull me in with, “Hello friend. Where are you from? We make you a special price. No, no, you walk away the price is no more good. I know you want buy now.” In so many words. 

There is definitely not a recession in India. There were so many Indians out tonight looking for ways to spend their money that I moved through the streets with relative ease and mostly unnoticed. It was a refreshing break from Kashmir. You know how after a hard night of drinking you wake up the next morning and it tastes like you ate a shit sandwich? That’s kind of the lingering taste in my mouth from Kashmir. That was the last thing I expected when I arrived at Dal Lake 8 days ago. The beauty and fresh mountain air made me think it was going to be the best part of my trip, and in one way it was, but in another way I feel robbed and cheated. From what I hear of others, however, if you don’t feel like you got taken advantage of, then you really didn’t experience the true Kashmir.

It’s about 9:30pm, July 2nd, and I’m writing to you from the Jade Garden Bar and Lounge on Padam Singh Street, in the Karol Bagh neighborhood of Delhi. I’m sitting in the back-most corner of the restaurant next to a window with a view of the street below, and I'd like to imagine I'm relatively unnoticed except for the glowing Apple logo facing the patrons, and my face, glowing in the computer screen like a ghostly white specter. The Jade Garden has an Asian theme and red globes of light with Japanese images and characters hang from the ceiling. The music is lively, the patrons middle class and happy as they sip on mixed drinks and beers while eating curry, tandoori, and sweet and sour dishes.

The Jade Bar has a bit of an edge to it, like it could be in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle or the East Village in New York City. A plate of Tandoori chicken just arrived at my table and I’m drinking a double Vodka Tonic on the rocks. What separates this place from New York or Seattle, however, is that the Vodka, tonic, ice, and lime juice all come separate. That’s no big deal. But what really irks me is how stingy they are; a single is 30ml of vodka. How am I supposed to have any fun with that? The only redeeming value is that the stirrer in my drink says “Smirnoff” on it, my father’s brand of vodka. It’s a pleasant surprise to have the memory of my father placed right in front of me in an atmosphere where it might not have otherwise arisen.

In the back corner of the Jade Bar, in honor of my parents, I tipped my glass and made a toast to them saying thank you for everything.

Landing in Kashmir

Leading up to rush hour on the lake.If you’ve just joined me recently, I spent my first 2-3 weeks in India in McLeod Gange, which is right next to Dharamsala, home to his Holiness the Dalia Lama. I spent most of my time there with my two Kashmiri friends, Gasha and Palla. They could not speak enough about Kashmir. “It’s like God himself came down and created it,” Gasha said over and over.

After McLeod, since I unexpectedly found myself volunteering in India for an environmental lawyer named MC Mehta, my plans of doing the backpacking thing were waylaid, and so I spent the majority of my time in India basically in a 20-kilometer triangle made up of Rishikesh, Dehradun, and the Swastigram Eco-Ashram, which is in the middle of nowhere, right on the edge of Rajaji National Park. About three weeks ago I decided it was time to see a little bit of India, and since Kashmir was so highly touted, and since two of my closest friends in India were there, I called Gasha and booked a ticket to Srinagar.

It is hard for me to talk to Indians on the phone sometimes, never mind in person. Very often I am on a crappy cell phone with a poor connection and it can feel like I’m swimming up stream as I wade through their accent. MC Mehta—the man who I have probably spent the most time with in India—forget about it. I have no problem in person but for some reason communication on the phone is challenging. I suppose what I am getting at is, while it was a little difficult to cut through Gasha’s accent, what really threw me off was his tone. I expected him to be more excited that I was coming to Kashmir.

We had talked once or twice leading up to my departure, the plan being for him or his brother to pick me up in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. I hadn’t heard from him in a few days so I decided at the airport in Delhi to give him a ring.

“Oh, hello brother,” he said. “I’m glad you called. I couldn’t find your number. I can’t pick you up at the airport. I am at a ceremony for my big brother.” (For some reason Kashmiris always throw in that definitive adjective so that I recgnize that he is either larger or older.)Interior of the houseboat at night. That's Ayub's brother. I took the guitar off the wall and tried to play to break the awkwardness of Ayub relentlessly hitting on the Israeli girl.

“Just take a government taxi to Dal Lake,” he said—I think. Or Dal Gate…Or Gal Date…Something like that. It took about five minutes to get to that detail. Now mind you, this not so little detail was thrown at me about 20 minutes before boarding my flight, and the Lonely Planet I bought in McLeod Gange, which I have never actually cracked open, was packed in my checked baggage. 

(Sidebar: I need to interrupt this blog to let you know that Hard To Say I’m Sorry, by Chicago just came on. {How sweet is that video? And not sweet in the tender, touching way, but in the way that is full of timeless awesomeness.} I thought it was a funny choice until I discovered when the techno kicked in that it was a remix, followed by a remix of YMCA by the Village People. India is really funny sometimes. Now back to your regularly scheduled blogcast.)

Some concerned friends and my surrogate mothers (my sisters) had read the warnings on the U.S. Embassy Web site regarding Americans traveling in Kashmir and did their best to put the fear of God into me, as if I was not aware of the warnings about traveling to Kashmir (granted I did not read any of them until the last possible moment). Anyway, my Kashmiri friends assured me it was safe. But with several people coming at me time and again with the PLEASE be careful warning, it gave me a mild case of traveler’s anxiety. This was accentuated before I left MC and Mona. MC told me to trust no one and not let anyone know where i was from and Mona laughed and told me how the Kashmiris do business; they will pull you in as friends and then take you here and there to buy things like rugs, which as it turns out is their friends and they all get a cut of the business.

“Mona,” I said, “You’re just being grouchy and cynical. Have some faith in people! These are my friends!”

“Yeah,” she muttered under her breath in an all-knowing way, “Friends all right. We’ll see.”

The view from the roof of the Lucky Peacock Houseboat.I had Gasha and Palla, my Kashmiri hosts, so I wasn’t too worried. BUT—all of this went to hell when I got the call that no one was picking me up, that I didn’t have a place to stay, and that I didn’t even have a map of the town. The last thing you want to be doing when you’re traveling by yourself is thumbing through a Lonely Planet at the airport in which you’ve just landed, or in the middle of a city where the bus, taxi, or metro just dropped you off. You might as well take a boat to the Great Barrier Reef, throw a bunch of chum in the water, cut yourself a few times, then jump in the water.

What I am trying to say here is that having no one to receive me in Srinagar put me into a bit of a panic and I knew if I didn’t come up with a plan I was shark bait.

(On yet another sidebar, I just want to say: depending on your perspective, I’m either a great traveler or a terrible one. I very often run this question through my mind. When things are clicking I think, ‘Man—I’m good at this!’ And when they’re not, I think—‘Man, how could you be sostupid!?!’ The fact of the matter is, I almost never make a plan and I never do research. I mostly rely on networking, the new friends I make, other people telling me what to do and where to go, or other people arranging my accommodations and transportation. It wouldn’t hurt, however, as I later learned, to at least thumb through my Lonely Planet India. )

As I was queuing up to board the plane with my mind in hyperkinetic manic mode, I received a call from an unknown number. “Hello? Is this Tim? This is Ayub, Gasha’s friend. He says you need a place to stay. I have a houseboat. When you get off the plane, get a government taxi to Dal Gate and I will wait for you.” At least for a moment my chest expanded in breath, but everything was still completely up in the air. Dal Gate? What the hell does that mean? And how do I know this driver isn’t going to take me for a ride? Or that he hates Americans? Or that he’s not going to just take me somewhere and he and his brothers cut my throat for the sport of it and leave me to be ravaged by vultures? OK, the plan is to not let anyone know you’re an American. Time to put your poor man’s Irish brogue to work. That seems like a middle of the road choice, right? Why would Kashmiris have a reason to hate the Irish? Who hates the Irish anyway? What a fun time I had in Galway. Oh wait—the British hate the Irish. Well, probably not all of Britain, but mostly those in Northern Ireland. I can’t even remember what they were fighting over. Man do I love Guinness and U2. The Joshua Tree—that album was flawless. A masterpiece. What I would give to hear In God’s Country right now, the Edge’s screaming guitar overtaking me while I’m drinking a Guinness. At least I can listen to some U2 when I get where I am going. Wait—I have no idea where I’m going. Shit. Fuck!

My Lucky Peacock

The first thing I noticed on the tarmac in Srinagar, the capitol of Kashmir, was the intense security. All of the buildings were painted in camouflage and everywhere you looked there were army men with M-16s. Ever since the Mumbai bombings, security in India has been intense, but this military display was far more intense than anything I had yet seen. You see Kashmir is predominantly Muslim and they want their independence from India. I asked quite a few people about this and the consensus, at least to me, is that the young, uneducated, and those who lack employment want their independence. Those who are earning a good income and are somewhat educated—while they would like their independence, they know they are greatly benefiting from India, and that without India, Kashmir would turn into Afghanistan and there would be no tourism and a lot of people starving. While the situation in Kashmir is not exactly the powder keg say Israel and Palestine is, it is certainly a volatile place where the wrong action by the police or military could cause the place to blow. With that said, it does not seem that the Kashmiris like the Indians, and vice versa.

The view to the right from the Lucky Peacock Houseboat, along with woodwork detail.Because of all the hype, as you know from reading the internal rantings of a manic lunatic (a la me), I was on guard from the outset. After I exited the plane, near baggage claim foreign nationals are required to fill out some paper work. As I was filling out the paperwork, I looked down and noticed a small boy with his hand in my bag, and by small I’m talking probably 5-years-old. I looked down and in a gut reaction I gave him an adult shove that sent him back a few feet and I shouted at him. Much to my surprise, the boy ran behind the counter where I was filling out the paperwork and into his mother’s arms. I don’t think she saw what happened because she smiled at me. If a stranger did to my child what I did to this boy, he might get a bottle cracked over his head. The boy, no doubt, said white man scary. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and so I’m going to assume this kid was just curious, but from the rest of my Kashmir experience, that could have been what his parents taught him, because those Kashmiris, they sure do like the kind of paper you can exchange for goods.

I followed Ayub’s instructions and got a government taxi, which was the nicest public transportation to date that I have traveled in in India. If this was government run, clearly Kashmir was benefiting from the infrastructure Indian taxes were creating, not to mention that the roads in Kashmir were in great condition as well. The car had leather seats, air-conditioning, a CD player, and GPS, which I haven’t seen in India yet. Surprisingly, the driver’s headrest had an American flag on it. Being in the heightened state of awareness I was in, driving through town it felt like every Muslim man with whose eyes met mine caused him to do a double take as they watched me drive off.

A Canal in the middle of Srinagar, Kashmir.When we finally got into Srinagar, it was far and away the most beautiful part of India I have seen yet, granted, I have seen very little of a massively diverse country. In my plush government chariot, we crossed multiple bridges and canals, and streets and promenades lined with trees and gardens. The architecture much to my surprise and appreciation was more wood and brick than the concrete and aluminum, which seems to be the predominent building materials in India. Besides the incessant ubiquitous honking of horns, men in Muslim attire, and women in burkhas, Srinagar felt more like Amsterdam or Switzerland then Delhi or Agra.

***

Sure as bloody shit (as the expression goes), Ayub was waiting for me at the gateway to Dal Lake to take me to The Lucky Peacock, his houseboat. We got in a shikara, the small wooden boat that takes you to the houseboats and made some small talk. I don’t think we had even made it to the houseboat, which was only about a 5-10 minute row, before he let me know he had a Swiss wife and two kids, and that he splits his year between Switzerland and Kashmir. I never did see the wife. He was a handsome man about my age and an easy talker. In fact, I would have to say in general that Kashmiris, both men and woman, are a good-looking group of people, at least in their youth. I think the majority who stay in Kashmir hit a “best if served by” date, however, and they age prematurely due to hard and stressful living. This was later confirmed by Shaqeel, the owner of the Noor Guesthouse, where I would stay the following day. I thought Shaqeel was perhaps 50. While he didn’t know his exact age, he guessed it was around 35. More on him in Part II.

Captain Ayub.Ayub showed me to The Lucky Peacock houseboat and said, “Is this OK for you?” He knew he had product and he knew he had me because my western eyes had never laid eyes on anything quite like it. The woodwork was decadent, the detail exquisite, and each piece was carved from the hands of true artisans; not to mention that the property was floating on a quiet canal full of lily pads, songbirds, and swooping cranes. In the front of the boat there were two great lounging areas with comfortable cushions, perfect to just read or watch the day go by. The only problem was Ayub and his brother were almost always around and always having friends drop by who wanted to chat, or inevitably, take me to their carpet factory to buy Kashmir rugs. “You should really sell these back home. I’ll give you a great deal. No middleman. My best friend owns the factory…” You wouldn't believe the number of best friends Kashmiris have.

“Well how much is this place per night?” I asked Ayub. He showed me some government rate sheet which said 4500 rupees a night (about $100) and I was like, are you fucking kidding me? But he said, “You’re a friend of Gasha so you can just pay what Gasha says.” I heard Mona’s voice in my ear, as if she was standing on my shoulder saying, “Yeah, friends all right.”

Getting to Kashmir

Making our way past the lily pads on our way towards the center of the lake. The previous 24 hours were not as smooth as they were supposed to be. On the overnight train from Dehradun to Delhi, while it was nowhere near the first hellish train ride I had in India, I did not sleep as much as I would have liked. Fortunately, this time my seat was confirmed and I was in 3rd tier AC. I didn’t exactly t know what that meant until I walked into the frigid car. Well, that explains the AC. The 3 tiers means that within each of the perhaps 10-12 small compartments that make up a train car, there are 6 beds stacked to the ceiling, 3 on each side.

I might have gotten 2-3 hours sleep on the 6-hour train ride if I was lucky. One nice unexpected fact was that you are provided clean sheets, blankets, and a pillow, however, I was slightly on edge about falling asleep with my laptop, wallet, passport, iPod and so on, so I did my best to either sleep on it or wrap my arm around the strap. Paranoid? Perhaps. Cautious? Most definitely. You gotta be when you’re the only person watching out for yourself—and of course as many stories as there are about Delhi, there are about being drugged or having bags stolen on trains. Unless you're out of the cities or with locals, it's hard to let your gaurd down in India.

The one fact that was bringing me some relief about arriving in Delhi was that MC’s driver was going to pick me up.

“What train car will you be in? 3B? OK. When you exit the car, just wait right there. My driver will be there,” MC said.

But as things go in India, something came up for the driver. This is the Indian way for a certain class or subsection of Indian society. If they don’t feel like working or showing up, they simply don’t. Getting paid is more of an afterthought to the whimsy of the moment. And so I exited the train and waited. And waited. And waited until I finally called MC.The parlor of the houseboat, looking out towards the water.

“Ah, hello Tim? Are you all right? I’m so glad you called. I’ve been trying to get a hold of you all night and I sent you an email. The driver could not make it so you’ll have to get a taxi.” My phone was off all night to conserve my battery. I was low on battery because the Vodaphone service constantly—and I mean constantly—serves advertisements to your phone keeping the display on the phone lit, thus eating through your battery. ie: Delhi XI Quiz: Which of these left arm seamers from India plays for Delhi? Click OK to find out!

No ride meant the twitching and cringing again, the physical response to having to move through Delhi on my own.

From where my train pulled in, I made my way to the taxis. I took a moment to soak in the sunrise then into the hornets nest I descended. Toothless, dirty, disheveled, soulless pariahs came running at me, tugging at me or trying to lead me by my arm as they vied for the rupees in my wallet. But the way they come at you—I swear it feels like they're coming for your soul. I could almost smell the dishonesty on them, but then I realized they were just wearing the aroma of Delhi’s summer heat.

A kind Indian woman guided me toward the government taxi stand. “Don’t ever trust these people,” she said, and so I took a cab to MC’s apartment where I showered, ate breakfast, and we went over some of the issues we needed to cover. I asked the driver to turn on the AC and the bastard said it would cost another 100 rupees.

Before I knew it, I was on The Lucky Peacock in Kashmir. With only a few hours of sleep to my name, Ayub fed me and I fell into my hand carved bed and into a deep, heavy sleep.

***

When I woke I returned to the front of the boat and they asked me if I wanted to take a shikara to see the lake. “How much are they?” I asked.

He quoted me some outrageous price for the covered shikaras and then said about 800 rupees for the regular one (about $17), which is complete and utter bullshit. I am always tentative to spend any money when I have no concept of rates. When I’m traveling, I have no problem paying the value of something, but nothing pisses me off more than when I find out I got ripped off. Of course there is going to be a tourist “tax” on whatever you do, but then to get the white man’s surcharge on top of it is and frustrating and enraging.

“You didn’t come all this way to sit on a boat, did you?”Ayub asked. Well, I guess not, I thought. Kashmiris are slight of hand and masters in the art of suggestion. But I wasn't paying 800 rupees.

Ayub and his friend Farook took me out on the shikara and they asked me if I wanted any beers. “Well sure,” I said, “But I didn’t bring my wallet.”

“No problem. You’re a friend of Gasha’s.” (Mona: “Yeah, friends all right.”)

Farook and I on our way out to the lake. Kids don't smoke. Do as I say, not as I do. Anyway, I don't smoke back in the states. It's vile.Where the waterway opened up from a canal to the lake, Farook jumped off the boat and bought some beers along the waterfront. We drank, smoked cigarettes, laughed, and talked quite a bit about women and their genitalia, mind you—I was not leading the conversation. I was playing the supporting character of dude in agreement number 1.

We paddled to the middle of the lake and the scene lit me up, both on the inside and out. It was simply stunning and nothing like I had imagined Kashmir to be. I thought Kashmir would more akin to poverty and the Stone Age than a hustling and bustling tourist scene, with fountains in the lake, and well paved roads. Its beauty, baked in a clay dish of classic charm with a peppering of modernity, combined with essence-of-dramatic-waterfront, and garnished with the foothills of the Zabarwan Mountains cascading down to the lake, could rank it in a second or third tier of the most beautiful waterfronts. Right before the sun sank behind the mountains, everything in the foreground was ablaze in Kashmiri fire, and when the sun sank behind the mountains, if there was ever a Kashmiri impressionist painter, the oils on his brush would have crafted the pastel scene upon which I was floating. I was getting filled with love from the beauty and the beer.

Fountains along the Srinagar waterfront.All the while, Palla and Gasha were on the phone with Ayub back and forth. Ayub kept telling me they were coming to meet us on the lake, but they never showed. Since we were drinking beers he told me if we were caught on shore we would get fined, or worse because I was a tourist, but I don’t know if that was the whole truth. The truth, as you’ll find out in Part II, is highly evasive in Kashmir.

Palla finally rented a Shikara and sailed out to find me, urging me to get on his boat. I was torn between my new hosts who were getting me drunk and going with my old friends, but owning to my allegiance, I jumped on Palla’s boat and both boats headed back to shore.

Palla, Gasha, Ayub and I took a walk along the waterfront while Farook stayed back with the boat. Palla and I kept saying, “I really can’t tell you how great it is to see you.” It was really a fantastic feeling to be reunited with and old,but recent friend.

When the party of four had separated into two parties of two, there was urgency about Palla. He was trying to get me to come with him and I told him about the situation I was in. Eventually he just said, “OK, you party with them tonight, have a good time, and tomorrow I’ll come get you.”

Kashmiri fire at sunset.

On the way home, Ayub and Farook bought me BBQ on the lake. Everything you could want is available on the lake by shikara drivers who row up to your boat selling their goods, from drugs, to corn on the cob, to toilette paper, to Lays Sour Cream and Onion potato chips. It’s quite a scene. Again I thought as I was throwing back spiced mutton skewers, what is this going to cost me, because the Kashmiri way is to not quote a price, then really stick it to you in the end. (If you don’t take my word for it, just read about Houseboat owners in The Lonely Planet.)

After the BBQ, we came across some young Israelis who were staying at Ayub’s sister’s houseboat and followed them home. One of the girls said she hadn’t spoken to her family in about two weeks and needed to tell them she was alive. Ayub used the opportunity to invite her back to his houseboat to use his Internet.

The three of us hung out for a while on his houseboat drinking, smoking, and talking. He told me to put on anything I wanted from his iPod and so I chose Bob Marley. A.) Alphabetically it was the first thing that jumped out at me and B.) Can you really go wrong with Bob Marley? India, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Tanzania—as a general rule, I’d say that Bob is not only universally accepted, but it’s generally welcomed, especially when water, beer, and warm weather is involved.  

Despite the fact that Ayub and I drank the same amount, he seemed drunk and was quite forward with this girl who looked as if she was maybe 20 or 22. When she went to the bathroom, he leaned in and said, “I can get her if I want. Just watch.”

The view of houseboats on our way home from being out on the lake.When she returned from the bathroom she said she needed to go home. Ayub had to row her home on his boat, which was maybe the equivalent of two city blocks. When she turned her head, he gave me the sign to stay behind, as if he was going to get it on with this young thing. However, when he turned his head, she waved me to come with her in urgency.

Again, I was in somewhat of an awkward position, but I decided to accompany the girl home and designate myself as the chaperon. The girl seemed pretty innocent to me, despite Ayub’s opinion of her, so I didn’t really want to leave her alone on a boat in the middle of a body of water with him in the condition he was in.

So I said in my head, fuck him, and I jumped on the boat with them. He gave me the stink eye.

It was quickly becoming apparent that he was not the model business owner, husband, and father that I had imagined him to be when after a few beers I naively said to him, “You seem so familiar to me but I can’t place it.” I bet he is familiar to a lot of people.

The next day the lake shined golden in the morning sun. Ayub looked like shit and his eyes were bloodshot. I Could Have Lied, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers was playing in the background. I said good morning, walked passed him, and laid down on the cushions to soak in the morning's fresh lake air.

 




 

Friday
Jul012011

13. Apple products bring the world together

"Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right." – Scarlet Begonias, The Grateful Dead

One of the reasons why I originally disliked Dehradun.The day that everyone left the law camp, I was supposed to go to Rajaji National Park with MC and Myriam, but as it turned out Myriam backed out and MC’s wife and daughter were going as well. Since it was his daughter’s 26th birthday, I thought perhaps they might like to just be together as a family. In addition, because of train and bus schedules, my friend Preetika was the only student who couldn’t leave with everyone else so I felt bad leaving her at the camp all by herself. As it turns out, it sounded like I made the right decision. MC’s jeep got stuck in the mud and almost slid down a cliff. They had to exit the car in tiger and elephant country while the driver tried to get the car out of the mud. Meanwhile, Mrs. Mehta was trying to stay calm because she has a heart condition. India is a stressful country, even for Indians. Even something as leisurely as a drive through a national park can turn the opposite way quite quickly.  

For how much time I’ve spent at the Eco-ashram, it’s fairly pathetic that I haven’t explored too much of its surroundings. So while the Mehta’s were somewhere in Rajaji National Park, Preetika and I went for a walk about two kilometers up the road. I had heard one of the little stores sold eggs, and being that I reached my quotient of rice and dal I asked them to make me two fried eggs and chapatti. I didn’t realize the chapatti had to be made, so they invited us into their house. Dusk was turning to night and they were just about to eat, so the villagers invited us up to the rooftop of their home where they fed us dinner. They were simple, kind people who opened up their home and hearts and wore enthusiastic smiles while asking us about the ashram and MC. They said they had heard a prominent lawyer bought the ashram years back and they wanted to know why he had never held a meeting of the villagers or why he doesn’t teach them law. Preetika translated and tried to explain to them how busy he was but they didn’t quite get it. She went on to tell them how she had attended the law camp and how I was helping MC write grants and whatever else he needed. They told her to say thank you to me for helping India and that it means a lot when a foreigner come to help their country. I think they are giving me a little too much credit, but I’ll take it.

On our walk home, we stopped at a temple devoted to Shiva. We both bowed our heads and said a silent prayer. As we were walking back I said to her, “What do you say when you pray? Do you say thank you? Do you ask for something?”

“Mostly I don’t say anything,” she said. “I just remain still and silent. Shiva knows what I need. I just say hello, how are you doing, and that’s it.” I found it rather beautiful in its simplicity. We could probably all use a little more stillness and quiet in our lives.

Preetika was leaving around 11 that morning, but she insisted we wake up at 5:30am to show me the walk she and some other students discovered. I didn’t realize that the ashram had about 30 acres, and so we walked through the forest as a gentle morning rain accompanied by thunder rolled through the valley. We wound up in a beautiful field next to some mango trees, picked two, and sat in the middle of the field watching the mountains while sunbeams tried to break through the thunderheads. You’re probably saying—why had he never explored the property? I think it was that first conversation I had at the ashram when they mentioned the elephants and leopards.

Plant a garden. It's a good way to get past the blues.Preetika left and for a while I relished in the peace and silence having had almost no time to myself for the entire week. But it didn’t take long for loneliness and the blues to settle in, as happens from time to time when you’re traveling. I lay in bed for quite some time moping and wondering what to do with myself and finally decided I needed to snap out of it. There are not too many better ways to break the blues than to occupy yourself with something that’s not only productive, but empties the mind, and so I planted an herb garden with some of the leftover plants the students purchased. The “shovel” was practically a medieval tool, the result being blisters all over my hands, but it was worth it.

A few days later on June 15th, MC’s driver dropped me off at the Ajanta Continental Hotel in Dehradun. I was excited and relieved to get the same room and the same rate, which I later was told never happens. The only reason I got the rate the first time was because I was gracious, polite, and smiled. Sometimes a smile goes a long way. The owner, Bhuvan, later told me an Indian business man or traveler would never get the rate I got because they are generally rude and a pain in the ass. Once again, what was only supposed to be a few days, I was surprised to learn at check out had turned into a week.

Morning ritual in Dehradun.On Friday evening I needed to email something to MC, plus I wanted to update my computer with the latest software fixes and podcasts, so I went into the business center in the hotel and plugged into the landline. Bhuvan, who at the time I did not know was the owner, asked if I would like tea or a lime soda.

When I was finished with my work I poked my head into his office to say thank you and noticed he had a nice Apple desktop computer. “Nice computer,” I said. “I love Apple products.”

I said the right thing because he began extolling the virtues of Apple products and told me how he had bought iPhones for his whole family and several friends. “Even my Dad is using them. Please, come in. Have a seat.”

We began having a nice chat and I told him a bit about what I had fallen into in India (working for MC) and how it was serendipitous because I had wanted to be involved in some sort of service while in India. “Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “I’m not Mother Teresa and I’m not looking to take a vow of poverty or anything. I still like my iPod and my MacBook Pro and the ability to eat sushi whenever I want.”

“You like sushi, do you?” he said, putting his hand to his chin. “Hmmm…what are you doing tonight? Would you like to have dinner? I’m having dinner with some friends and you should come along. I’ve been trying to have my friend make sushi for a long time. Maybe she will if it’s not too late. It’s an interesting mix of people and this woman is partly responsible for the organic movement in India.”

“Well actually, I was just about to go to dinner but your invite sounds far more interesting,” I said.

“What do you like to drink?” he asked me. This was one of the best questions any one had asked me in a while.

“I’m pretty easy. Beer, wine, vodka, whiskey.”

“Oh perfect. I was going to grab something from the hotel bar but Mona should have all of that.”

Bhuvan brought some extra food for everyone from the hotel restaurant and we drove about 4 kilometers up the road in a direction of Dehradun I had not yet been.

We wound up at Mona Shwartz’s house, a 75-year-old woman who has been living in India for more than 25 years. Her life story is a wild one, but I’ll get to that more completely in a future podcast.

The evening brought with it an eclectic mix of people; there was Bhuvan and myself, Mona, an architect who was also a Tarot Card reader and energy healer, an Indian woman who had been recently divorced (which is quite taboo in Indian culture), an older Indian couple—the husband of which was a retired high ranking air force officer, and another older gentleman who looked like an Indian version of Ernest Hemingway. I told him what I was doing and whom I was working for, and he replied with hubris and bravado, “I didn’t even know there was such a thing.” His tone gave me the impression that he was scoffing at the idea of environmental law and he went on to command, “What has he done?” The Tarot card reader/architect chimed in that he knew all about MC Mehta, had been following his work for years, and that he was a very impressive man.

I felt there was something hardened about the man who made the remark. Beyond him being a large man, he had a resigned sadness about him—my feeling and sense told me that he had some burden of the soul. I later found out that he had lost two children and as a result had dealt with some pretty serious alcoholism. He had been dry for sometime but had a small glass of wine that night.

I was staring across the table at Mona all night, dying to know what her story was. What was a 75-year-old Jewish woman from the Mainline in Philadelphia doing in India? I tried to talk to her but she is hard of hearing and it was almost impossible to talk across the table, and so my inquiry would have to wait. I sat next to the retired air force officer and chatted with him for a while, and at one point he had the whole table hanging on his every word as he recounted a harrowing tale of how his helicopter suffered mechanical failure and dropped out of the sky from several thousand feet. He walked away from the crash with some cuts and broken bones but he said he received something not a lot of people get to receive—a second chance at life. Had we been in a more intimate setting, I would have loved to ask him how that changed him or if he has lived his life any differently as a result.

When the evening ended, I told Mona I wanted to hear more of her story, and that I would love to come back and interview her. She welcomed the idea.

I was feeling pretty warm on the ride home, my head swimming in a bit of vodka and wine. Serendipity had once again touched down in the form of a conversation over Apple products, but then again, I did write that day in my morning writing exercise that I wanted to have a serendipitous meeting. No joke. When Bhuvan dropped me off, since I had not seen much of Dehradun and I had never been to the hill town Mussoorie, he suggested we go for a trek the following day.

Bhuvan having a moment of contemplation.The next day we met in the hotel lobby around 1:30pm and he had lunches packed for us from the hotel kitchen. We made a stop at his house to collect some things and I saw a part of Dehradun I did not know existed. Of course, like anyone of means in India, he had a wait staff, a chef, a driver, guards, and so on.

After the pit stop, his driver took us up towards Mussoorie. On our way we encountered a very recent car wreck. A car had flown off the side of the road on a turn and hit a tree about ten feet above the ground. It was wrapped around the tree and the windshield was shattered. Almost no one wears seat belts in India. It was just another humble reminder of the fragility of life and an example of the result of not being careful on the lawless roads in India.

After about an hour-and-a-half we reached our destination and went for a great hike. When we reached the top of the peak, we paid our respect to Shiva at a temple. Later, we walked to the other side of the mountain and sat in silence as we stared in awe at the sunbeams shining down like stage lights on the endless hill of the Himalayas.

Bhuvan is a relatively new to the outdoor scene but a true enthusiast. On the way down the mountain, he wanted to trail blaze to see if we could find our own route. We started walking down some very steep terrain, all the while I was gently persuading him to abandon the plan for what he knew. He quickly realized it might not be the best idea.

We had some great conversations that afternoon about our lives, mediation (he does transcendental meditation twice a day for 20 minutes), and just the places life takes you when your not looking. Each story he told seemed to contain simple wisdoms.

“There is an old story about a woman who was knitting in her house and lost her needle,” he began. He went on to say how a man came by and saw her on the ground outside the house. He offered to help her find her needle but they couldn’t find it.

“Where did you lose it?” he asked her.

“In the house,” she replied.

“Well then why are you searching for your needle out here?”

“Because it’s dark in my house and I’m scared.” He went on to say, “You see Tim, the point of the story is that we all know where to look for the answers, but most of us are afraid to go there.”

“Life happens from here to here,” he said later on down the trail, first pointing at his left temple and then his right. “It all exists in the mind, then it is brought forth into existence through language, and then the world occurs to us as a result of language.”

The previous night he had asked me about my grateful/creation journal and once again expressed an interest in it. I told him how it was an experiment in consciousness, creation, and connection.

We talked about my parents and how what a year can make because almost exactly a year prior my mother had passed away. I told him about my father and gave him some history lessons of World War II. We talked about how we face a whole different set of challenges than our parents. Our parents worked hard to put bread on the table but we have the time and luxury to think about what we want out of our lives, and sometimes that comes with the cost of being lost. Our freedom requires being responsible for the choices we make—and we went on to discuss how our kids and every generation has a whole different set of challenges to address.

I told him how I have more than 40 journals of my life on paper and he asked me if I ever go back and read them.

“How does that make you feel reading them?”

“Well,” I said, “I look back through them very seldom, but when I do, I read them with compassion for the kid who wrote them. It’s almost as if a character in a book lived them. Then at other times the things I read are still as painful as when they occurred.”

“Life is like school,” he said. “You have to keep learning until you get the lesson and graduate on to the next level. And when you don’t get the lesson the first time, you keep repeating the level and each time the lesson gets bigger and harder.”

He said that it sounds like I am sometimes living in anticipation of the next thing in my life, and I agreed and made a generalization how it might be a western tendency.

“You should focus on being in the here and now,” he said.

“Well actually, I have been, and that’s a lot of what this trip is about…I don’t know,” I trailed off.

“No finish that, articulate that, because you need to hear it yourself. The sounds of the words need to resonate within you like a bell.”

“Well, this experience of travel has brought out some of the best parts of me and I love the way that makes me feel. I have found new heights of experience and personal happiness, the kind of happiness that no one can give you but yourself. And I know that when I am feeling happy, the frequency of my vibrations attracts more and more good feeling into my life. I just need to figure out how to stay there.”

“Well, the thing about life is you can’t unless you reach enlightenment, which almost no one achieves. You know how you have compassion for that young boy? Remember these feelings you are feeling, and regarding the pain when you read those journals, don’t beat yourself up over those things. That young boy could not have had the knowledge your current self possesses so you could not have made the decisions you wished you had made. You are here, now, where you are supposed to be. Keep bringing those good feelings into your life because the feelings you push out are like a radio frequencies and in the silence and stillness you pull in the information like a radio antenna.”

This is the time of evening Bhuvan wanted to set out on the second hike, the peak being at least an hour away.When we finished our trek it was getting late and Bhuvan pushed on to summit another mountain so I could see the view from the top. We started on our way but the terrain got somewhat treacherous and once again, I gently talked him out of his impetuousness. He just wanted to share the view, but I didn’t really feel like falling off a mountain.

Later that evening he said, “You know Tim, we went on that beautiful hike and we climbed to the top of the mountain, but we only spent about 20 minutes up there. It was an end point, a goal we reached, but that really wasn’t the purpose of the trek. Where the trek really occurred was during the journey, and that is the beauty of life.”

I agreed and told him about Juliana, whom I met in McLeod Gange, and how she had given voice to something I was wanting to say, and how he was giving voice to some things I wanted to say as well.

“It’s not me who is giving voice. It’s you who is bringing it out in your seeking and conversation.”

The house that Hotel Ajanta built.Bhuvan was quite keen on doing another hike on Sunday so he sent a car for me. When I got to his house he kept throwing out ideas, most of which revolved around challenging hikes. While I was up for anything, nothing really grabbed me. I was essentially a mirror as he talked through options to himself. Finally he said, “You know what? It’s Sunday. Let’s just have a nice leisurely day. We’ll pack a lunch and take my bike about 15 minutes up the road. We can hike up a river and find a nice place to relax and have lunch. How many beers should I bring? I’ll bring some wine as well. Hang tight while I call the hotel and have them deliver our lunches.”

I was a bit tentative about hopping on the back of his Avenger motorcycle, but like most things in life, once you move past the fear and into the experience, you find out you actually love it and you wonder what was holding you back. I was enjoying myself so much I was wishing our destination was further away.

When we arrived, we hiked up through a river valley that in some areas bordered on a canyon. We could have stopped anywhere, but Bhuvan, ever the enthusiast, pushed us onward.

After an hour’s climb up the valley, we found the perfect watering hole and set up camp, popped two Carlsberg beers, and toasted to new friendships and a happy life. His cook had given us the fixings of coleslaw, grated mozzarella cheese, and mouth-watering chicken tikka masala. We put the makings in between two pieces of whole grain bread (“I don’t eat the bread the hotel serves,” he says) and then added a layer of Lays Sour Cream and Onion potato chips to add some texture. I will be replicating this combo.

“Wait,” he said, as I began to devour my second sandwich. “Let’s have some wine. It will be a nice accent to the sandwich.”

Macrobiotic eating. Mona had this made especially for me.The following day I took a Vikram up to Mona’s place. Since she had heard I liked Sushi, she prepared a macrobiotic sushi lunch for me. We talked all afternoon and I interviewed her about her life story. She told me how she has written several drafts to a book about her life.

To compress a very large life into a nutshell, she was sick and dying and was healed through Macrobiotic eating. Since most people come to the Macrobiotic way of eating because they are sick, the motto is “1 and 10,000.” The creed is that you can take any help you want to heal yourself, but once you are free of your illness, you must pay it back 10,000 times. And that is what Mona has been trying to do ever since she began to be healed in her 30s.

“You know,” she said, “You don’t know why you walked in my door today but I have been praying for someone to come for a long time to help me tell my story. Several people have started but not followed through.” It was a daunting statement upon which to be on the receiving end. I told her we could start with the podcast and an article.Another course.

We sat all day long and when I left that afternoon, I said my goodbyes. But there would be three more said before I left Dehradun, because one way or another, I found myself back at her place. Once because I was trying to find The Grand Bakery but the Vikram driver had no idea what I was talking about, and knowing that we had gone too far but that we were near Mona’s house, I stopped by. She invited Bhuvan over that night for dinner and Bhuvan brought a guitar for me to entertain her. Bhuvan wanted to record it and post it on YouTube but I made every excuse why it was a bad idea; the guitar was out of tune, I hadn’t played in a long time, I can’t remember how the songs go, and so on and so on.

“Tim,” he said. “Come on. Share the love.” He won out in the end, and always being in control, he took about ten minutes to set up the lighting.

Over the course of a few days, Mona had shared with me a small chunk of her life story. She did not exactly understand what I was recording it for and at times forgot she was being recorded. 

“You know,” she said, “I’ve never told anybody some of these things.” She later asked me to keep parts of her story off the record, but I said, “Mona, if you’ve never written about this stuff, then what is in your book? You’re book can’t work without your life story, because that is what brought you to macrobiotic eating.”

The result of a day on the river.What I can say about Mona is that she is a woman of immense faith. At a very young age she fell in love with a poor boy, but instead got married to a person of her means and class, a man she never should have married. She very quickly had two children and was under immense stress from the marriage. At one point, her daughter—still under a year—became very sick. She would cry when the mother and father were in the same room, but when they were separate she was fine. Their relationship was that toxic. The marriage didn’t work out so she went to the west coast and began a new life, but years of internal unhappiness and the stress of being a single mother slowly began to destroy her body. Through a serious of auspicious events, she met, was nursed back to life by, and worked for two of the founders of Macrobiotic eating in the United States. “My life just works now. It took 75 years but it works. Everything I need just comes to me.”

Her life reads like an epic, which included being lead by an astrologer to Goa, India, where she was told she would meet certain people that would show her the way. She met them and that is how her life in India began. At one time in the 80s she was one of the only white people living in Kashmir and survived three attacks on her life. Since she had almost lost her life earlier, she did not fear for it, so she said no one was going to scare her or force her from Kashmir. As a precaution, she rounded up a few Gujarat (the mountain people of Kashmir) in case it came down to a fight. And it did.

One day the commander of the area came to her house high on something and told her he was going to kill her. There was a standoff in the house and the commander had a gun to her head. He finally decided he was going to kill her, and as he cocked the pistol the sky went black and a tornado touched down more or less on the house. She was yelling out to her guards to open the windows and the commander was yelling for no one to move. She told him to shut the fuck up and told her people what to do. The house was saved, the commander went running, it was the only place in the area where the tornado touched down—and she was never bothered again. This will all be in her words in the podcast.Working at Mona's.

Her life is too big to tackle here, but she has trained chefs in macrobiotics, now trains boys in her house to cook Macrobiotic, and has started a Sunday farmer’s market in Dehradun. She is a lovely woman to sit and talk to and reminded me of my Aunt Lily, who wasn’t really my Aunt but an old, warm, friendly lady who always had a cigarette in her hand and a drink at happy hour. I can’t exactly say Mona always treats her staff with grace, however.

“No! This spoon doesn’t go with this dish. Are you stupid? Get! Get away!” she might say, slapping the servants hand.

“Mona,” I said. “I love ya, but if I worked for you, I would kill you.”

“No you wouldn’t,” she said. “You wouldn’t take it and you’d walk away. If I was easy on these boys, they wouldn’t become the best.” While they barely speak English, much can be said in tone. But she is Mona and she gets away with it and they put up with it because a.) she is paying them, and b.) they understand she is a demanding old lady and most of the people she has trained have gone on to five star restaurants.

Mona has a strong support system in Bhuvan and many other people. On Monday night a girl that works for her got beaten severely by her husband. She showed up at Mona’s house and Mona called another friend who took her to the hospital. The husband, an abusive alcoholic, had beaten her before but this was the worse than all the others combined. This is a sad reality for many women not only in India, but throughout the world, but it was the first time I had come face to face with it.

By the time she got back from the hospital on Tuesday, Mona and I were knee deep in her closet looking through papers as she searched for versions of her life story and work. For years she had also been clipping out newspaper articles that she found relevant.

“Someone should preserve these,” she said. I had no comment.

I was relieved by the distraction of the girl returning from the hospital because I found it overwhelming to sort through her life and it reminded me of the stacks and stacks of papers that my mother had created when she took up our genealogy as a hobby late in her healthy life. While there seemed to be a methodology or a hierarchy to the work my mother put together, only she knew what that was, and so to us it was only bags and bags of paper, notes, and pictures that were often scattered about on the dining room table.

Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. While I was thinking about her all day and thinking about what I was doing exactly a year prior when I got the phone call, I didn’t really have much time to really think about it; my day was consumed by trying to get back to the Eco-ashram to pack my belongings for Kashmir and then trying to get back to the hotel.

Since MC was busy in the morning I had to hire a Vikram to get out to where he was. The driver had no idea where he was going and we had no communication so every so often we would stop and I would hand him the phone. We spent a good frustrating hour roaming the outskirts of Dehradun. When I reached him, we hopped in his car and went to have lunch at his house where for the third time I got to dine with his wife and daughter.

After lunch was over, MC and his daughter were off somewhere and I told Mrs. Mehta how much I appreciated everything and what the day meant to me.

“I understand,” she said. “I was very close with my mother and had a hard time dealing with her death for a long time afterward.”

“You two would have been fast friends and could probably pass days talking without even noticing the setting and rising sun,” I said.

After lunch, I drove around Dehradun with MC and his daughter getting her application to Cambridge law school notarized, as well as a trip to the bank. She doesn’t want to go, however. Her interest is in theology and she wants to teach. Finally, after a long day, I got dropped off at the hotel and checked back into the room I had checked out of only a few hours earlier. I have grown to love that room and am looking forward to my return.

My plan for the evening was to go out to dinner and then just write, think, and reflect upon my life with my mother. Before I went out I dropped in Bhuvan’s office to say hello and he said, “What are you doing tonight? Shall I call my kitchen at my home and have them make a pizza? What would you like to drink?” There are few questions more satisfying than that in India, because sometimes you just want to have one or two but many places are dry. And so we had pizza, Rum and Cokes, and beer. Bunvan was dissatisfied with the way the kitchen reheated the pizza, so even though we finished almost the whole pie, he ordered Dominoes.

Later in the evening, I finally got around to telling him where I was one year prior and why—which was the El Chupacabre in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood of Seattle, eating cheap Mexican food and drinking Margaritas with a small group of friends who came out to be with me on the night my mother decided to leave her body, as the Indians would say.

“Well then—let’s raise our glasses,” he said. “To the love she created and to her love that endures.”

On my last day in Dehradun, Bhuvan let me linger in my hotel room until almost 5pm, even though my checkout was noon. On our hike he had told me that he hates receiving gifts because he is so finicky, but I didn’t care. I found a small journal with a great Einstein quote on it about creation, wrapped it in a page of The Times of India, and slipped it under his door. I wrote him a note on the inside thanking him for his generosity and friendship and how he now had to use this gratitude/creation journal every day. He texted me thinking I had left but I was still lingering in the room. When I received his text I went to say goodbye and he was already writing his first entry.

 

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