Thursday, April 7, 2011

Last days of Kashmir

Kashmiri woman with characteristic profile, earrings and shawl.
I am in the airport, waiting for my flight out of India. I am leaving India, and my feelings are mixed.  I am exhausted, but I can tell you one thing:  British Airways just became my favourite company.  When I finally arrive home, I will have been in transit from Srinagar to Toronto for almost 36 hours.  Yikes. 

Yesterday (what? Yesterday? Man, it was a long time ago) it seemed like it was trying to be a nice day in Srinagar.  I was cold and grumpy though, and I decided that the only thing I needed was to go for a very long brisk walk, to get blood pumping so I could have a sense of both my feet and my brain again. 

            From Dagapora I walked all the way to Soara bazaar, and I was no longer cold.  I bought ‘biscuits’ (cookies) on the way from a grocer who decided that I looked like a really good person and therefore, should not pay for them.  (I insisted.) Found channa and samosa at a really good street vendor nestled in the bazaar, and I was surprised when the guy took my samosa and mashed it all up into pieces with his bare hand before pouring the channa on top.  It was excellent. 
Great lunch
            Walking back, it started to rain.  I waited under cover, but it was not letting up.  So I trucked on. By the time I was passing the grocery store I had entered on my way, the grocer saw me cold and ragged and beckoned me into his shop for hot drinks.  Rizwan was the nicest guy you could imagine.  He sat me down, called his sister to bring coffee over (nobody drinks coffee in Srinagar, but he offered) and grabbed some chocolate cookies from the rack and wanted me to eat the whole pack. 
Rizwan and his store door
 He spoke virtually no English, but he managed to say something about his brother coming with a car.  I thought that he was telling me his brother would drive me home.  But when he came we just talked for a bit and I realized I was getting an umbrella instead.  By the time I realized that, I was very late for my connecting with Christine.  I walked as fast as I could in the muck, but somehow took a wrong turn.  Again, a very friendly guy took me out his way and showed me a shortcut back to where I wanted to go, just in time for Christine to pick me up on the dirt road on her way, and all was well. 
Dr. Fauzia's family - keeping me warm

            We went to finally get the sweater for my aunt from the store above K. Salama and then drove Dr. Fausia home.   There, we were invited in for tea and met her wonderful family.  Knowing I was wet and cold they piled wool blankets on me and gave me a piping fresh kangri, bottomless tea, and coconut biscuits that I could not refuse.  At this point, I was actually hoping for some Kashmiri folk to treat me very badly and be very rude – everyone was just so darn wonderful everywhere I went that it was not helping me prepare to leave the next day.  
Azur - "I play Chess"

Manzur and a woman helping at the day clinic

Dr.'s assistant
Woman shopping at Dagra bazaar
    This morning was busy.  Manzur and I left early to beat traffic and go to Blooming Dale so I could settle my account there and pick up my bag.  At one point, we were flagged down by military men to stop and pick them up.  6 of them piled in the back of the van.  But the moment we started to drive again, the back tire burst.  It was hilarious.  Kinda.  So they got out and flagged another vehicle, while Manzur and I changed the tire.  We didn't break a record, but did it in time that Ralphie would have been proud of.  At Blooming Dale, Mir saw me wearing my loaner pheran and,  beaming, gave me a big hug and (I think) asked me to come back soon.  He is the sweetest guy.  
Dagnamit, Blow out!

            After a stressful trip to the airport via the store to exchange a wrong sized item given to me the day before, I went through the most incredible and thorough security screening I have ever seen.   I am not criticizing, but giving my approval.  So much of the time we find security checks everwhere – particularly in India - that you could sneak an elephant through – but not in Srinagar.  It actually starts a full kilometre from the airport itself, and the they make you get out of your car (which they check) and then put all your stuff through a baggage scanner.  Then you drive the rest of the way to the airport to be dropped off.  Inside, there is another luggage scan and pat-down.  Then you take your luggage to be checked.  After, you wait in line for another security check and pat-down, and another carry-on scan.  After that, they take your carry-on luggage, dump it out on a table, and go through the whole thing.  (wow!)  Next, you are in the gate area, and you have to go out and identify your checked luggage before they put it into the aircraft.  I can tell you that I felt very safe on the IndiaGo Airlines plane that took me the hour and a half to Delhi. 
Srinagar airport
 In the Srinagar airport I found that Gulshan Books had just opened up a stall, literally the day before.  The wonderful  Saheem who had served me at their store in Lal Chowk was there, and of course remembered my name and greeted me warmly.  He inexplicably had a copy of a book I had been looking for but that they did not have at their larger home store.  It was Holger Kersten’s Jesus Lived in India.  It was all over bookstores in southern India, but I did not want to lug it around with me.  It had loads about Kashmir, of course.  I gobbled up the book during my long hours of flying and waiting in the airport.  I like his introduction to Kashmir on page 34:

            “Kashmir is sometimes called the Switzerland of India because of its fertile valleys and their large, smooth lakes and clear rivers, surrounded by green wooded mountains, lying at the foot of the ‘roof of the world’.  This paradise has attracted people from far-off  regions ever since ancient times, and especially during the Golden Age of Kashmir, when pilgrims came to the green valleys from all over he world in order to study the teachings of Gautama Buddha at the feet of the celebrated scholars of Kashmir. (…)  Despite its idyllic location, Srinagar is a noisy and turbulent city, humming with commercial activity.  The city is spread between and over several lakes, on the left bank of the large Lake Dal, and is thus interlaced by a number of waterways that have given Srinagar the atmosphere of a Venice of the East.  A considerable proportion of the population live in the houseboats that lie in great humbers on the canals of the old town, or moored to the banks of the lakes and beside the ‘floating gardens’.” 

Entrance to Delhi airport
            In Delhi, I broke a personal record for early arrival at an airport.  I arrived from Sinagar at 4:30 and took a free bus to terminal 3 to await my flight at 8:15… am the next morning.  Yes, I could have found a hotel etc., but I decided I didn’t want to bother with the cost and hassle.  So, I hung out in the airport for a few hours.  And let me tell you that the new terminal of Indira Gandhi airport is new, gorgeous, and is cleaned with a maintenance schedule that rivals the Taj Hotel.  I watched scores of drone workers sweep sparkling floors just done a few minutes ago, and I watched in amazement as one guy swept and dusted the back of an outside planter box that only a drunk person could possibly stumble through the pots to notice while on their back.  At any rate, it was certainly clean enough to sleep on the floor, if not eat off it.
yeah, I'm cool - my bag is made by Reebok AND Nike...

At this point, I am reflecting on my trip.  I am not going to say anything dramatic like, “I can’t believe it is over.” or something like that.  It has been a long journey, beautiful but at times very trying, and I am really glad to be going home.  That is important, since the appreciation of coming back to Canada was, after all, part of the reason for the trip. 
            I learned a lot during this trip, of course.  Obviously, I learned about traveling, about traveling in India, about the places and people and religions – but all that is a given.  I learned about Rob too, about the reality of my solitude, about the way other people draw me out in my worst ways sometimes, but that when I really want company, the right people can enhance my experience of Self and Other.  I learned that I don’t like to travel very much.   That I indeed love India, but also utterly despise much of it. 
            Oh, this is futile. I cannot write about what I learned on this trip.  All of it will be a part of me in every moment going forward.  Has India changed me?  Of course.  In what ways?  Well, maybe after a little while, you can tell me. 

            Kashmir touched me in a surprising way.  I expected to enjoy the landscape, but I did not expect to fall in love with its people.  In many places in India I found warm people, but in Kashmir it was altogether different.  Perhaps exactly because they have been through such hardship, their welcoming embrace and hospitality is so deep and touching.  It just puts us cold Canadians to shame, really.  It was hard to feel comfortable with, but I was aware that I could allow myself to just step into another’s home and be served as a guest, and loved as a temporary family-member.  We sure as heck don’t do that in Canada.  
Workers with Kangri, Pherans, Samovar waiting at the side of the road
            Everywhere I went, I heard and read again and again about Kashmir being desperate for the tourists that used to flock to the region before it got progressively bad publicity.  The businesses are suffering tremendously, and more than that, we as a planet are losing some of the artisans that have for generations made handicrafts coveted the world over.  But the fact is that people aren’t coming, and are not importing as much either, and the sons of the masters are choosing to not to practice their father’s art.  I cannot convey with enough emphasis how much I wish I could get you all to feel the same desire to support this region in any way possible, whether it be by travel, by donation, by purchasing handicrafts from the safety of your home, or also and just as importantly by becoming less ignorant of this magnificent place, and telling others about it.  Just like many Indians think Canada is a state of the US, many North Americans don’t have a clue as to where or what Kashmir is, and this is, I feel, a great tragedy in itself.  

            In a way, I am glad that I am out of Kashmir and I don’t have to go back – I have done what I wanted to do.  On the other hand, I made such profound connections there, on many levels – how can I not go back?   Right now, I feel like I just want to push it out of my mind, or else it will tear me up.  I wish that you could all experience the place, and I hope that at least some of you will understand from my writing that it is a good, safe place to travel to – it will almost certainly open your mind and your heart.   

1 comment:

  1. hi Rob,

    i was surfing on net looking info about kashmir and the northern india. and it brings me to your blog. Thank God.

    im going to delhi and kashmir only for ten days next year, on mac 2012 and i hope i can cope with the ice-cold weather. To read about how warm the people of kashmir is great. hope that everything goes well for a solo traveler like me soon. :-)