Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cricket update

So, India beat Pakistan in the semi-final last night.  In the end, all the hype about hooligans was just hype.  The streets were quiet and businesses were mostly open during the day too.  There was a curfew in effect for certain zones, and according to newspaper it was "unlawful to gather in groups of more than four" in the street during the day.  But I can tell you that there were at least 10 men standing outside the grocery store that has a big TV you can see from the sidewalk (what they call 'footpath', I foolishly found out one day.) I went out for dinner as usual around 8pm, and the streets were deserted.  You could hear the game coming from homes, people cheering, and there was the occasional firecracker going off, but otherwise not a big deal. Perhaps it was different in other parts of town - I'll check the newspaper. 
So, that is that. 
One good thing is that while I sat with Firdous watching some of the game I asked a hundred questions and now I finally understand how to play cricket.  Wait, that is a good thing, right?  Well, it will help my conversations today if nothing else. 
Today I will go work at the Lifeline clinic and possibly go to Christine and Manzoor's place in the country for the night. 
In more important news - it is sunny!

"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

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.

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