Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Me chuna passand rood"

March 28, 2011:  8 more sleeps left in Kashmir. 

It is a cold, rainy day here in Srinagar.  After convincing myself to walk about this morning, I am back here in bed, after a hot shower, with the electric blanket warming my bones back to feeling again.  I am drinking instant coffee and tea, reading a good book, and I am trying to convince myself that this is precisely where I would like to be today – but it is not.
            The last week or so I have felt, on and off, a bit split about my travels.  Yes, India and Kashmir have been and are incredible, and this is an experience I must savour and seize every day.  However, in many moments I am tired of traveling.  This is not my home, and I am not wholly at ease.   No, this is not my home, and this is important information to have gathered.  As much as I have complaints about Canada – well, let’s be honest here, about K-W – for better or for worse it is my home.  Traveling has shown me just how deeply our environment shapes us.  In just a few days in a new place I am already shaping my explanations of personal spirituality to people in terms of Allah, I learn to avoid collisions in the street the way every town is different, I learn the local accent for the way to say thank you, I sense the season and take the back-alleys home without thinking about it.  Instinctively we attune and mimic the mannerisms of our host, the idiom of our place.  Weeks shape us, so what about years?  I am missing home, though I have no idea what parts of it, and it is against my own conscious decision.  So I sit here and read and write try to stay warm, and encourage my knees to bend towards walking in the streets I ‘should be’ enjoying. 
this is a genealogical chart starting with Abraham, with Mohammed as the blue square in the middle.  I couldn't figure it out, but it is really neat. 

if any muslim could explain this to me, i would be grateful.
  Srinagar is an interesting place.  Though I have read about it, it is still surprising to me.  This morning I walked in the grey rain north towards the old city, where I stopped at the impressive sufi mosque Pir Dastgir Sahib.  Not a single sign was in English, so it is a good thing I guessed correctly and asked twice at the gate if I was the right place.  Inside it continued to be cold, even through the ornate carpeting, and the decorations were glorious and surprising compared to the dreary exterior and slum-like neighbourhood.  Rich carvings in gold and silver plate held places in honour, and many prayed at the set of coffins and shrines set behind glass – though I do not know whose they are or why.   I prayed for a few short minutes, and continued on to the place I have been looking forward to seeing for a very long time.  

     Just minutes ahead, again unsure if I was at the right place, I finally found the signs marking the small and unassuming shrine of Ziyarat Hazrati Youza Asouph….  aka the Rozabal shrine.  This little place is the home of a big story.  The local legend, backed up by loads of quasi-academic history, is that this is the place where Jesus of Nazareth was finally buried after he came to India after his resurrection.  Now, the idea of him traveling in India may be new for many Westerners, but in the Eastern world I am coming to see that this is largely accepted as fact.  There is actually a lot of solid evidence that at least suggests strongly that he had wandered here, if not after the so-called resurrection, then almost assuredly in the ‘missing years’ in between his pre-teen years and when the New Testament picks up the story again as a 30-something adult.  There are a few books about the subject, and I was eager to see the famous place.  Personally I have to say that I feel very strongly that he did come to Kashmir, though whether or not this is his shrine I really have no inkling.  Inside, at the base of the coffin, there are footprints carved into the stone that indicate crescent moon scars said to indicate the stigmata.  I just have to groan when Indians cite this as some kind of evidence of this being Jesus’ tomb, since it is just about the weakest thing you can think of, possibly representing anything.  However, there is other, better evidence.  
Crypt at Rozabal
The gate was closed and looked locked, but I opened it and creaked the door open and let myself into the tiny space of worship.  The main shrine is cut off to visitors via a screen, but you can sit and look at the fairly ordinary shrine and wonder for as long as you want.  I was the only one there, and I sat and meditated alone for some time.  No one else came, and I sat in silence until I became too cold.  Whether it is Jesus’s tomb or not, it is fun to entertain the story, and I enjoy the mystery of it, which in many ways captures an essential aspect of India.
I had wanted to continue walking from here to the huge Jama Mosque and then to the Old City, but I was getting too darn wet and cold.  I flagged the next bus and got on it without asking where it was going.   Luckily, it was heading to Lal Chowk, so I got off close to the popular Coffee Arabica for an expensive but good and warming cappuccino before heading home. 
Any minute now the sun is going to come out… Any minute now I am going to head out and do something… Any minute now…yep… really soon…
The rain did stop that day, and I managed to go out and do some gift shopping before having dinner at my now favourite little place on Boulevard st just a short walk down the waterfront from my guest house.  Yesterday was a cool morning and Firdous drove me down to the old city to finish seeing what I did not make it to the previous day. He dropped me off at the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in Kashmir and one of the largest in India, which has room for 33, 000 persons to worship.  Built in 1672, the real attraction is the wood -  each of the massive 378 roof-support columns is made of the trunk of a single deodar tree, and the effect is still gorgeous.  My guidebook tells me bags and cameras are prohibited, but I strolled in without a glance from the men chatting at the main entrance and took many photos.

From there I strolled through the old city market lanes and eventually found my way to the Khanqah of Shah-i-Hamadan, a 1730 Muslim meeting hall built on the site of one of Kashmir’s first mosques.  It is said to be Srinagar’s most beautiful historic site, and I could not disagree.  Though non-muslims are allowed only as far as the doorway, the entrance and exterior itself are impressive enough.  

 From there, I walked a bit in the old market lanes, got a bit lost trying to find chai, and eventually found a bus to take me back to Dal Gate.  There, I went for a walk on the other side of the water, where all the houseboats are.  But I didn’t get far.  Parvez, a sweet Kashmiri guy about my age who speaks fair English, hailed me down on the cobblestone walk.  I met him and his friend a couple evenings ago – like many others they had stopped me while I walked to say hello and ask where I am from.  (you have no idea how much this happens everywhere in India.)  When they invited me to sit and chat and actually were not selling me anything.I did, and I have talked to them a few time since.  They hang about the Dal Gate waiting for their houseboat clients to show up so they can ferry them via shikara to the boat.  Well, he invited me for tea on his houseboat, and since I was curious to see one (and never turn down chai) I agreed and moment later we were sipping tea on his 1920’s, ‘A’ class (which is below deluxe and super-deluxe classes of boats) houseboat.   

Eagle and crow on houseboat
 Some German girls had just booked out in the morning, and it was peaceful and clean.  He offered to take me for a shikara ride, and so of course I accepted.  He does not have a fancy one – just a small, plain, unpainted boat – but it was nice.  I got to paddle for a while too, and let him and his friend smoke and joke to their passing shikara taxi friends that I was their servant.  

 I keep on going back to that grimy little pakora-wallah near my place.  Him and his son are sweet, and I am positive that by sitting there and eating greasy spinach pakoras, omelettes and chai, and chatting with the locals, I am getting the most authentic experience of the place as possible.  Firdous’ son tells me that this little place has been in business for a couple generations, and I suspect that some of his cooking equipment and serving dishes have been around since the beginning.  They may even have been cleaned at some point – possible during his father’s time. I have lost most of my caring about this type of thing, and even largely about what I am eating.  I don’t where or when, but at some point of my travels I have utterly abandoned all sense of diet or healthy living.  I suspect that it took just too damn much energy to actually try to keep a decent diet – I was constantly missing out on experiences. 
giant pakora. (he will tear off a piece for a few rupees)
  Maybe I’ll blame Emma a bit.  I wanted to experience the real India.  (Well, you can’t do that when you refuse to eat sugar, for one thing.  It is in everything.  Yeah, like even curry.) You can’t do that if you are going to spend your day finding a place to eat a fresh salad.  And how can you not try things that are being passed around, like India’s best-selling cola (the Coke-made Thumb’s Up brand) or the chilli-flavoured banana chips, masala cheesies, pistachio cookies, saffron ice cream, not to mention some of the snacks coming from the roadside vendors – god only knows what is in them (because the illiterate vendors surely do not).  And hey, when you are hungry and are offered mystery cookies, so what?   
coffee and pakoras at the Tao cafe (i loved the copper stuff)

Me and Mr. Pakora-Wallah (note battered eggs on left.  they were OK with his carrot chutney)
 My body is now quite accustomed to awful air, weird water, huge amounts of salt and MSG and sugar, and I bet a good amount of my diet comes from the worst kind of processed and refined cooking oil imaginable.  I am surprised I still function.  Sure, I buy some fresh fruit at the stalls to snack on but otherwise I think I owe a great deal to my double-ration of Klamath algae, matcha tea, and enzymes that I take with every meal.  Oh, and chyawanprash.  At any rate, when I get home I am going to need to do some serious detox and also get my fitness back.  Gee – it must be over ten years since I have gone over a month without running.  Yikes!  Soccer is going to be fun in the early season, eh? 
 So at this dark nook, we talk about cricket today (what else is there to talk about today?) and one man says something very poignant.  We are talking about how all of Kashmir is cheering for Pakistan.  The man says, “All of us are for Pakistan.  Kashmir is part of Pakistan.  Everyone knows this.  Only India does not know this.”  I nod and feel that he has summed up the situation pretty well.   
I go for another walk and the weather is cool and clouds dramatic against the backdrop of the Himalayas.  Sheep and wild dogs roam the small streets of Dal lake, and quiet women in gorgeous dirty frocks work with soil to prepare for the upcoming lush growth.  Soon, the whole area will be bursting with green, and the open waters packed with lotus.  These huge eagles – and I am still incredulous that they are so prevalent here – swoop and dive and sit regally on lamp posts, chiefs of the land.  Eagles!  Everywhere!  I just can’t stop being amazed by their size and grace.   One scared the heck out of me the other day when I was walking by the water and it swooped down, just a few meters from me, and ripped a small fish out from beneath the lily-pads. It was awesome.    
Soon a hint of rain appears, and at once it is hail that looks like coarse salt.  When it gets wet and heavy, I seek shelter by some tiny stores, and wait out the storm.  Like always, I end up chatting with locals, and they teach me my phrase of the day:  Me chuna passand rood – I don’t like the rain.
Christine has invited me to stay at her place, but by the time I call her Tuesday evening, things are complicated.  There is a curfew already in effect in 5 zones of Srinagar, and she cannot come to pick me up.  This India-Pakistan cricket match, the semi-final of the World Cup, is a huge, huge event here.  I cannot find the best analogy for Canadians.  The closest I can think of is that it is similar to Canada v. Russia, but maybe more like it would have been in the 1970’s since nowadays there is no politics involved, only passion.   Here, it is mostly political, and the passion comes from another region of the heart.  For no particular reason having to do with cricket, in the minds of many here this match plays out the battle between India and Pakistan that has been so constant and volatile over the years.  Things like this have the potential to spark all sorts of nonsense.  I am told to plan on doing absolutely nothing at all today.  The morning will be quiet as the match goes from 2:30 10 pm.  Shops will be closed, and the tourist area where I am will be a nice place walk if it is sunny.  But as 8 or 9 pm approaches, the game will be largely decided, and curfew will be in effect across this city of over a million people.  Firdous is glad for the curfew.  He knows that win or lose, hooligans have a way of making trouble.  He is laughing at me for choosing this day to be in Srinagar.  Although part of me wishes I would have planned to be in the country today, I am really curious to see how this plays out – this is a rare chance to see something like this.  Of course, I am going to watch from a safe distance.  I will walk around the area during the day, and at night I can listen from the roof, send out Mir (the guest house servant) to scope things out, and probably, just wait for tomorrow morning to get down to the streets and talk to people.  We’ll see.  I am fervently praying that Pakistan will win.  I would much rather see hooligans celebrate than be angry.
Otherwise, I am so, so thankful for my Kindle – I am getting a lot of reading done and I love its portability and the access to my library.   Now, I am being extremely lazy, sitting on my electric blanket this morning reading and writing, drinking tea (I can actually see my breath inside my room today) and soon I will go for a walk and have breakfast at the pakora-wallah, and see what the word is on the cricket fever. 
I wish I could stay in Kashmir.  And, I can’t wait to get home. 
Man in his shikara - possibly his home

Sewing the floral design with copper thread

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