Friday, March 25, 2011

Srinagar - blessing in the vale

The day that most of the group left was quite nice, for the most part.  Having essentially nothing to do, I settled in a good book and sat on the porch for a couple hours after breakfast before walking to Alaknanda to use the internet and print off my recently purchased Tatkal train ticket to Jammu.
            I was in for a bit of a surprise when I found out upon printing my ticket that, although I had purchased the ‘emergency last-minute’ ticket, it was still waitlisted – meaning that I still had little chance of getting on the train.  This was frustrating. Originally, I had bought my ticket for this train on January 18th, and still I have no guaranteed seat the day before leaving.  I found a travel agent and asked him what to do.  He told me I could either wait until 2 hours before the train left to check again and see if I made the waitlist cut, or I could go down to the New Delhi train station right away, which is the only place one can buy the special ‘tourist quota’ tickets they have for every train.  He could tell that a few were still available, but agents are not allowed to actually sell them.  
So, I walked all the way back to Hamdard, grabbed my passport, and took a 45 minute, 140Rs rickshaw down to the train station.  Ten minutes later I emerged with my better, cheaper, and confirmed ticket in hand, and got on the first rickshaw whose driver did not respond to my request for ‘Hamdard University’ with an absolute blank stare.  Don’t know if I have said this before, but welcome to India.  
That night, Grayden and I decided to finally do something we had been hoping to do every time we were in Delhi – to watch a Bollywood movie in a real Hindi theatre.  We checked online, found out the hottest movie of the day, and the closest theatre, and found our way down by bus (mostly by accident).  Grayden had Indian Mcdonald’s for dinner – it was like a big mac but with chicken and he thought it was pretty good.  It was in a super-trendy little shopping area called PVR Saket, and it occurred to us that there was an interesting irony here – working at McDonald’s in India is actually cool.  I continued my more-than-a-decade-long veto on the place and opted for cheap rice and dhal across the way.   
Grayden getting creeped out by Ronald

Then we made our way to see Manu weds Tanu at the theatre and we were surprised that we got frisked by security that went through my bag and took my camera until after the film.  Can you imagine security friskings at movie theatres?  Inside, we were pleased to see a lot of standard cinema fare:  popcorn, nachos and pop, but we were not ready for the assigned seating on our tickets (which we were eventually told to ignore) and the fact that an attendant actually came to our seats and asked for our refreshment order.  So then, we just had to.  So I got a popcorn delivered to my seat in the middle of the movie – the guy even came back with change!  The small crowd was talkative and clearly they do not have the same social code during a movie – one guy had his cell go off and Grayden and I were amazed when instead of turning it off in embarrassment, he answered it and went on to have a very emotional conversation without the slightest hind of holding back.  I figured I would be OK with the plot since Bollywood is never too complex, but there was a subplot with this grumpy brother character that I still  have no idea about.  And why the hell did he get arrested in the end?!  Sheesh.  Even though we could not understand the Hindi, it was a lot of fun.   The most amazing thing to me was the way just about everything in the movie – the language, the environment, the style, the mannerisms – all of it had so much more meaning to me now that I have been steeped in Indian culture for 2 months.  I loved Indian movies before this trip – I think I am going to love them even more now.  We’ll see.  First thing I do when I get home is rent this darn movie with English subtitles and figure out what the hell it was really about.  Still, I like Grayden’s idea of simply subtitling the movie ourselves without having a clue to what is being said. 

The next day was another ‘off’ day – just waiting for the evening to come.  I lounged around reading and meditating, then got me a 20Rs haircut at a funny little place nearby.  At 4:30 Don and I accompanied Darrol to the Indian International Centre where he was to give a talk in the evening on Spiritual Ecology.  This centre is pretty cool – we don’t seem to have anything like it in Canada.  It seems to be a sort-of academic society for the elite, where the rich intellectuals in Delhi hang around and have their tea and posh dinners and enjoy a legendary library and an ongoing list of lectures and presentations by international professionals in various halls around its luscious grounds.  It is situated neatly in a block of prime downtown space neighboured by home offices for places like Unicef, big banks, I think a newspaper, and something that may have been the French embassy. I met an Indian man while drinking tea before the talk who teaches Physics at secondary school and also works as a translator for Hungarian and Bulgarian language materials.  Why those languages?  Because he thought there would be less competition for a translator, so he decided to learn them a few years ago.  Ha!  Dr. Bryant’s talk was introduced by the new president of the Tibetan Society, and though there was a small crowd, he is obviously a very respected man in that circle.  His talk was fantastic and very well written – I can only hope that the audience understood all of what he was saying.  I had to leave to catch my train before the question period was over.
Darrol is the one who is neither Indian or Tibetan
The overnight train was fine once the Brazilian boy across from me stopped vomiting into a leaky paper bag when the cabin got in motion.  It was pretty gross.  I slept ok, arrived in Jammu virtually on time, and before 7:30 I was in the back of a jeep with 6 other men heading to Srinagar.  I was tired, but I remembered:  I was now officially in the state of Kashmir.  I did it!!!
 It was a breathtaking drive, both in terms of the scenery and the fear that I felt if I dared look at the side of the crumbling mountain roads as we squeezed by slower trucks and buses.  I am glad I was not sitting shotgun, that’s for sure. We arrived just before 5 and Firdous, the wonderful man that owns the Blooming Dale guesthouse where I was booked, came and picked me up from the tourist centre in a flash.  I had barely dropped my bags when he was offering me chai and asking me if I wanted to go with him as he played tour guide and drove a south Indian couple to a couple sights.  It was beautiful.
Dal Lake (and the famous island Char Chinar) in the cool mist of morning

Waking up:  Oh my god, I am in Srinagar! 
It was darn cool during the night but I discovered something delightful that they use in this city where there is no heating inside the buildings:  electric blankets. Wow!  Where have you been all my life?  Letting them heat up before bed and slipping into toasty covers was virtually ecstatic, I tell you. 
I made tea and went for a walk along Dal Lake as the sun crept up and made me take off my shawl.    Yeah, I said that.  Yeah, I did that.  I went for a walk along Dal Lake.  Whew.  Do you know how long I have wanted to do that for?  I feel so blessed and so grateful, I am really battling with feelings of worthiness for this whole thing right now.  How the heck did I manage to be blessed enough to end up in paradise like this?  What good did I ever do to deserve this?  I don’t know.  Of course, I realized that these are not the questions to truly ask:  all of us, of course, deserve our highest joy and our dreams, whatever they might be.  But I feel indebted to the world, like I had really better give back in some way.  Firdous reminds me that every rupee that I spend here is doing a great service to Kashmir, but I hope for much more than that.
I ate breakfast at the greasiest and possibly dirtiest little hole in the wall I have yet been to in India – my omelette and (I couldn’t resist trying it) ‘bread pakora’ (battered and fried white bread.  Really!) came on smeared tin plates with a dirty fork and the table was glossed with polished rather than washed off grease.  It was great.  I didn’t touch the fork for anything.  For 25 Rs for an omelette and excellent chai, I’ll go back, too. 

Breakfast! (I know, I can't believe it myself...who is the health nut?)

Again, I was invited on a tour with Firdous and the Bangalore couple – this time up Shankaracharya hill.  This is pretty cool.  The hill is the highest thing in Srinagar and the city is formed between and the lake.  The temple on its top was built somewhere around the year 500, and they have no idea how on earth the enormous slabs of stone were brought up the hill.  It isn’t supernatural or anything, just curious and astounding that such effort had been made at that time.  More significant is that Shankara (basically the founder of advaita Vedanta and it’s most significant proponent) attained his enlightenment here before setting off to create the four maths or learning centres of advaita throughout India.  I wish I could have stayed to meditate there – maybe another time. 
Apricot blossoms on Shankaracharya hill

In the afternoon I took a 4Rs bus to Lal Chowk (the main shopping area) and enjoyed walking the busy streets without getting mauled by touts.  Another good thing here is that they don’t always clamour and shout at you to bring you into their stores.  Amazingly, I can even browse inside stores here in Srinagar often without even being approached.  This has never, ever happened to me in India so far, and I am guessing it is their lack of foreigners plus their inherent politeness working.  I was actually enjoying shopping a little, since now I feel that I can actually buy something without worrying about weight and size etc.  I am going to buy another cheap small bag and pack it up with gifts for my return.   The prospect of a bag loaded with kashmiri goods is admittedly very exciting to me – I am going to try to bring tea spices and pickles too – and it should be ok. We’ll see what I can afford and what I can fit – I plan to push the limits of both.
Typical Kashmiri and notably alpine architecture on the central bank building

 I passed about a hundred shoe stores – they must have a thing for shoes here – and I since I could use a new pair for the cold weather, I might buy a pair of nice Clark’s that I found for 700Rs (approx 15$).  Believe it or not though, that is expensive for shoes here!  (Possibly they are stolen, I have come to think). Good thing I wasn’t wearing good shoes though, since I stepped right into a street sewer so stagnant that it looked like concrete.  Did I mention I was wearing my open Keen’s like always?  The men on the corner laughed at me, as did I, but it was utterly disgusting and I brought the smell of a toilet with me the rest of the afternoon and scrubbed by right foot and shoe like a madman when I got back home.  So, if you want to know what a Srinagar sewer smells like, there is a good chance my right shoe will never lose the stench.  
Lal Chowk

 I did find the Gulshan bookstore that I had read about and got lost there for over an hour.  I ended up chatting and having salt tea with the bookseller that hovered by me the whole way, and it was nice.  (Once you break the ice with these people, all their friends come by to watch and listen.  If you want to be the centre of attention, just be white and come to India.)  They are publishers as well and have a whole wall of Kashmiri books.  I bought a nice book of info and recipes about Kashmiri cuisine – yes I am actually going to try to make some of this stuff!
View from Shankaracharya hill

I have not mentioned it yet, but yes, I was a bit worried about coming to Kashmir.  As soon as you mention the place, people get concerned looks on their faces, and ask you if it is safe, if you know what you are doing.  But right now things are very peaceful, and the people are very cheerful about that.  Yes, the military presence has been tangible since Jammu, and it is a bit unnerving to see men with rifles at regular intervals.  But really, this is just another place.  I see now that in all these places like Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan (which are all very common, and all very close, by the way) people are still going about their lives.  The rest of the world perceives the place to be in tatters – and of course sometimes that is true – but even during the hard times there are businesses running, children playing cricket in the fields, universities handing out grades to aspiring young adults.  It is possible to visit Kashmir.  And it is possible to do so easily and delightfully, as well.  People are warm, living is cheap, and life is good.  (The women are surprisingly white skinned, quite often, too.  And I mean not just fair, but I keep on doing double takes on these white faces that look more Greek than Indian.  And yes, the Greek influence here is ancient and real – their folk medical system is still connected to the ancient Greek system, called Unani. I’ll get some pictures soon.)  Srinagar is an alpine town, a place for the aesthete, populated by lovers of nature and of fine crafts.  It feels like a town like Banff or Lake Tahoe, but you can afford it.  I love it.
Houseboat on Dal

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