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Main | 14. The Taste of Kashmir: Part I of III »
Sunday
Aug142011

14. The Taste of Kashmir: Part II of II

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 thehe’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

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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