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« 14. The Taste of Kashmir: Part II of II | Main | 13. Apple products bring the world together »
Sunday
Aug142011

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 thatHard 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 warningit 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.

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