Sunday, March 27, 2011

Getting closer to Kashmir

Char Chinar, Dal lake, sunset, me. Sigh.

My second full day of Srinagar. 
Before coming here, I had tried to connect with Justine Hardy, the wonderful person/ author that I mentioned way at the beginning as having written a great book about Kashmir and who is also doing wonderful work here.  I did not know if it would work, but I thought I would try.  She responded to my email at Christmas, and I called her from Delhi.  Now, I was taking a rickshaw to find Baghat Chowk, MET lane, and to follow signs to Kashmir Lifeline and Health Centre (the centre she created) for an 11am meeting.  I really did not know at all what to expect.
            When I arrived, she was upstairs with a group of 10 young, bright Kashmiris, (male and female) who were in their 2nd month of training for this new centre, and I introduced myself and sat in to the meeting as it got under way.  This brand new centre (they are still waiting for their toll-free number so are right now only seeing people in person at the clinic downstairs) helps Kashmiri’s with any mental health problems, but notably stress disorders and PTSD, since this is rife in this area where there has been so much turmoil over the last 30 years.  These university graduates are learning counselling skills, but are also learning computers and journalist skills as they go out and spread the word to the media.  They are a wonderful group, and their English is the best that I have heard since arriving.  Keen, fun, and curious, they drill me with good questions about all sorts of things ranging from my schooling to facebook, and very soon I feel that I am with professional peers and friends.  

Justine opens their daily training session with a guided meditation and explains that they have all been trained in Reiki as well, and I by the time ten minutes are gone we both can’t believe how well we agree in many ways.  They spend much of the meeting going over their past interviews with newspaper reps, and ready themselves for heading down to the ‘press enclave’ on Monday.  Justine is clearly a powerhouse of a woman.  Her beaming bright eyes and cheerful smile remind me of some of the more divinely inspired persons I have known, and you cannot help but like her.  I have enormous respect – she is doing something so totally good for this world, it just astounds me how a person could find the energy to put this all together and not lose themselves. 
We pass around tea and cookies and laugh as Christine Huettinger – Kharoo, a Swiss Psychologist that married a Kashmiri man, comes in.  She is helping train the students and will be their guide in the first days of their counselling sessions when the phones and email lines go live.  She is also warm and likeable and within minutes I have been invited to her house in the country for tea, dinner, even to live there for the week.  I may not go that far, but I have taken her up on the visit, and tomorrow she will pick me up when she comes in to town to get a doctor, and we will visit the rural clinic she runs and hopefully work a little bit.  I don’t know what to expect but I am eager for a taste of not just rural Kashmir, but also an authentic home.
Street vendors wearing the ubiquitous Kashmiri poncho-with-arms, the 'Pheran'
I just can’t get over the fact that I came here with very little knowledge of what Justine was up to besides the fact that it was in mental health for Kashmiri’s, and what she is doing is so much up my alley.  At some point in the meeting I feel tremendously emotional – so many levels of my self, my heart, mind, and soul – are being touched here in this little room that I can hardly stand it.  I truly don’t know what to do about that, but I will see what happens.  I obviously can’t commit to doing much for them – at least certainly not yet.  But I promise that I will be back again during my stay to help in whatever way I can.  
When the meeting is over I talk to some of the girls that have stayed to eat their tiffin-container lunches.  We talk about Hindi movies, what they do with time off and the weather.  They are cheering for Pakistan in the cricket world cup, which no longer surprises me, as I have noticed a consistent anti-Indian sentiment in this new world of muslim Kashmir.  Apparently India beat the favourites – South Africa – the other day to make it to the semi-finals.  But the semi’s are going to be against Pakistan.  This is huge.  This is like Canada vs. Russia in world hockey.  The girls mention that if Pakistan wins, there will surely be ‘crackers’ (firecrackers) and joy.  But, if India wins, they cheerfully shrug and say that there will be a curfew and there will stonings in the streets.  Personally, I think I just made plans to stay in my guest house that night and watch the game with Firdous and his lovely helper Mir!
Typical shopping street:  Dal Gate
For mom - this is a typical storefront on the above shown street

The whole conflict is so much more obvious to me know that I am here – this land is far removed from India both culturally and physically.  People talk about Kashmir and India – as if they were different, and this seems to be very true in many ways.  Ethnically, it is quite unique, but I get the sense that this place more like Pakistan, which is essentially closer to it than any major Indian cities.  There are barely any Hindu pandits here – or at least they sure make sure they don’t stand out from the muslim majority.  And I have yet to see a Hindu temple – though I know they exist.   A lot of things which were notably Indian from the rest of my trip are not here and it really felt right away like I had left India – just like it did when we went to Dharamsala.  It is interesting, since I have yet to be in an almost entirely muslim population before.  It really rounds out the religions on my trip, eh? 
The whole experience with Justine and her clinic leaves me feeling very right about the whole world, and I whistle my way back down to Baghat Chowk where I catch  a crowded bus back downtown for a late lunch.  In Canada I loathe public transport, but here it is fun – getting packed into a small bus with way too many others and chugging your way across town for 4 or 5 Rs – I don’t know… I get a kick out of it.


Day 3.  I went hotel-shopping this morning, trying to find a cheaper place to stay, but I had little luck.  I did find a place that was decent that would save me 100 Rs a night, but I really didn’t like it nearly as much as this place, nor its location.  After 2 hours, I don’t know what the hell I am doing, or why.  Even if I find a new place, it is only going to save me about $20 CDN over 10 days anyways.  I guess it is my McRae reflex, to find the best value – but also I was just a bit surprised by the price of my original guesthouse and had not budgeted on it.  It’s OK though.  In the end, I like it here and my heart tells me to stay and not force myself into some dumpy place just to save face and money.  That may sound a bit strange to some, but this is a sore spot for me.  I am struggling a bit internally with my money right now.  Not that I am getting low, but more that I am struggling with how it feels to be living like a rich person here.  It is not comfortable with me, even though I know that it would benefit my future self to become more at home with it.  
my room at Blooming Dale

{Note:  My guest house here is 500Rs/ day (I got him down from 1200 to 800 to 500 without dinner – but I know that this is lucky timing – starting April rates start creeping up to high season peaks, and places like Blooming Dale will be full of guests paying about 1600 or so at least a night) and I spend another 200-300 per day on food, and on top of that there is any other touristy-type expenses, and extra treats.  Gifts and personal purchases don’t factor into that – but that brings me to maybe an average of 900Rs/ day, which is almost $20 CDN.  Agh!}

Since it is another lovely day, I figured I would take the afternoon and check out the super-famous Shalimar Garden, then Nishat Garden nearby.   
Me at Shalimar Gardens
 Also, after I specifically asked, Justine has recommended that if I have any shopping to do for Kashmiri handicrafts, that I could go to the store of her landlord (and subject of her book In The Valley of Mist) called Kashmir Mahal.  It turns out to be quite the boutique – kind where I imagined rich woman sitting on the chairs, getting served tea as a thousand fabrics are flown in front of them.  Unfortunately, it is a bit out of my league – but I am shown some of the most incredibly fine works of wearable art I have ever seen.  Their pashmina wool is so light you barely know it is touching you, and I am shown a shawl with intricate hand-made designs that would have taken well over a year to complete, and sells for many hundred US dollars.  They have carpets, too, but I don’t even bother looking.  Apparently Hilary Clinton shopped here once and took 3 hours to choose 3 Kashmiri rugs – but I don’t think she was asking about prices like me.  In the end, he did give me a ridiculous “Justine-Price” on a beautiful item that I couldn’t pass up as a perfect gift.  But much as I wanted to give him my business, that was it.  

I walked from there following the sunset on Dal Lake until it was done, and then I hailed a bus (that is the nice thing about buses in India, they just stop whenever you need them to) and went for dinner at the famous and pricey Ahdoo’s.  I had a Lotus stem curry (70Rs plus rice 60Rs) that was incredible, and walked home in the cool dark night as blackouts rolled through the town.
Men wearing Pherans
Dal Lake at Sunset with anchored Shikaras

Day 4.

Took a long bus to Soura Institute – the largest hospital in West Srinagar – where Manzoor (Christine’s husband) picked me up, with Dr. Fawzia in the back.  We rumbled through country roads for another 30 minutes to get to their village of Dogpura, where I spent the day.  It was really nice to see rural Kashmir, meet Christine’s extended Kashmiri family, see inside their homes, eat with them, and hear some of their story.  I admire Christine tremendously – she moved to rural Kashmir in 2001, married Manzoor, converted to Islam, and began and hard life I can’t imagine coping with after being a Swiss psychologist.  They farm many acres of land (growing enough rice every year to feed their whole extended family) and built their own home.  I could not do it.  She now has a gorgeous 4-year old boy named Tawseef and she works hard to run do all this and run the health clinic on her property, which is funded by Swiss donations and the sale of Kashmiri shawls in Switzerland.   On the way back into town we stop at a home of one of her shawl-makers to inspect and pick up a large piece of fabric that will be washed, ironed, and cut into 4 shawls.  It is really interesting.  
Christine, Tawseef at the entrance to their clinic and home

Christine's kitchen/ eating platform
I really like Christine and her family seems to earnestly want to have me back.  I don’t know how well I will handle the lack of privacy of living with them, but I would like to try for maybe 2 nights – we will see.  I will at least go back to visit another day, and maybe Wednesday during the cricket match will be good timing since even if there is a bit of trouble in the city, the country will be unaffected.  
Unnamed bird seen from Christine's window.  She has never seen it before.


  1. Hello Rob.

    Our Helpline has been functional after your visit. And our National Toll free no. 1800-180-7020 (Time: 10am-05pm) Except fridays and saturdays.

  2. That bird is verditer Flycatcher