Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kashmiri Entourage

I have found it continually difficult to sit down and actually write this blog post. In fact, I am currently traveling again for business and haven’t found a chance to sit and write in my standard leather bound journal.  As such, all of the questions that lay before me, the thoughts which surround me, and the actions which ensue have gone undocumented besides keeping me from continuing this recreation of travel experiences. Time continues forward, even if we sometimes wish it did not. 

These past four weeks have been a whirlwind of events that I can scantly grasp on to. Yet, to start, I am lying in bed having just closed down the restaurant my father and I have worked hard to create. To his credit, the majority of the brunt work was born by his blood and sweat as well as a previous attempt to enter the cuisine industry in Cochabamba, Bolivia; a venture he was accompanied by my younger brother in for a short time. That experience led my father to the concept and creation of an Indian restaurant in La Antigua, Guatemala.

On the night I started to write this post, a young couple from Bangalore came to eat at the restaurant. It was discussion with them that has begot an interest in continuing my story from where I left it…

Photo 1: The simplicity of water and wooden boats.
A cool summer breeze awaited me on the tarmac; the plane had stopped well short of the terminal as a ladder was rolled out to the opening cabin doors. It was a record temperature for Delhi on the day I decided to fly to Kashmir, somewhere around 115 degrees Fahrenheit; I could not recall have ever felt so uncomfortable and was anxiously awaiting the cool mountain air that Jahangir assured me kept Kashmir so pristine and welcoming during the summer months. Jahangir and I had been discussing this trip between days of business and tourist activities while sipping chai either back at the warehouse or along one of the many chai houses that decorated the highways of Rajasthan; and finally we had arrived.

Not even moments outside the airport gates, I watched military jeeps filled with young Indian men bolstering machine guns as they patrolled the nearby streets. The timing of my trip was fortuitous as there had not been any recent negative military developments in the region for quite some time and the height limitation for hiking on the mountainsides raised high enough to expose and allow entry into a series of temples and monuments that no one but military had stepped into in approximately 30 years.

Unlike what I saw in Delhi and Jaipur, Srinagar's architecture consisted primarily of multi-level wood framed buildings, and actually resembled what I imagined much of Sweden or Austria to look like only in significant disrepair such as the internet cafĂ© I wandered into. A sign outside misled me into believing I would find a long sought after cappuccino;  instead I found a rickety staircase that carried me up three levels past boarded up windows and falling railings to look into a sweaty room packed with what could only be the Indian equivalent of Commodore 64s. Okay, so maybe these computers were not as dated as my initial viewing suggests, but the technological capacity definitely boarded on the side of “what’s the point”.  I used this opportunity to write a short e-mail to my girlfriend (now wife) back home about my current whereabouts; an hour later the email was actually sent.
Photo 2: Sunset at Dal Lake in Srinagar

I wandered the streets of Srinagar until dark and then met up with Jahangir near a mosque built lakeside and watched the sun slowly drift into the water. Young girls on the grounds in front of the mosque kept running up to me to tell me that there older sisters found me cute; the number of marriage interests seemed to climb each day according to Jahangir’s father. I snapped photos of the failing light along the water while the cool night air brought thoughts of both the need for a sweater and the invitation of a warm comfy bed back at my hotel. With a fairwell to Jahangir and his father, I pondered what the following day would bring as I drifted into the subconscious.

Photo 3: Wooden boat on way to floating market.

Having woken to no electricity, I thought it best to make my way out into the rising light and catch a glimpse of the rising sun; I had also read that Saturday mornings boasted a floating vegetable market which I was keen to see. Stepping out into the wonderful 80 degrees weather, I made my way down to the lake hoping to catch a boat ride to the market. At 6am, the sun barely up, I was able to watch the water glisten from touches of the sun and watched the soundless ripples created by an elderly man paddling his goods towards the water market. The photo I took does no justice to the true sense of calm, peace, and quiet that surrounded me.

Sadly I never actually made it to the floating vegetable market; my stomach was still quite upset from the days of near death intestinal failure. I was a good half an hour’s walk from the hotel and there were no restaurants or other public facilities anywhere in sight. Making my way around a corner I stumbled upon the most grotesque public toilet I have ever step foot into. I will bypass the details of this event which turned into a spectacle involving my slipping on the floor and an urgent need to find a shower.
Photo 4: Temple of Fresh Water outside Srinagar

Later that afternoon after a very very cold shower (no electricity still) I was allotted the opportunity of witnessing the ritual first hair cutting of Jahangir’s nephew at the first Mosque built in Kashmir. The mosque was completely wood construction, very unlike any of the mosques or temples I had seen to date in person and in photographs. According to Jahangir’s father, this was the location of the first step in introducing Islam to the territory of Kashmir.

The entire family including myself spent the remaining day at a temple and Mohgul garden with lush green mountains backset. We drank refreshing cold water from within the temple’s walls that came directly out from the mountain and poured into the series of man-made water features. In similarity to the Japanese gardens, the Moghuls paid special attention to the movement of water throughout their gardens seeking a harmonious movement that seemed to only trickle through and create a soothing sound. As dusk fell, fruit bats began their feast on the insects in the air, skimming just above my head. The last reflections of light were showcased by the colorful saris worn by the garden’s female patrons.

Photo 5: The encroaching clouds.
Jahangir took me on two distinct excursions with our time in Kashmir: Golmarg and Sonmarg. The road trip to the mountain Golmarg gave me my first real glimpse of the forested and mountainous surroundings which comprise most of Kashmir. Golmarg is a typical stop for most Indian tourists to Kashmir where a gondola swiftly moves people up to a flat area on the mountain where chai and fried foods can be sampled while perusing the surrounding environment.

The sheer magnitude of people in this area was overwhelming and I luckily convinced Jahangir and his friend to walk further up the mountainside with me to retreat from the crowds. I was sorely disappointing in our return trip which showcased an incredible lack of 
Photo 6: The view surrounding Golmarg.
caring for the environment by the Indian tourists, evident by the extent of garbage and debris as well as the lack of grass where grass once stood. On the contrary to that though, it was fascinating to watch the speed at which the clouds roll in and to feel the temperature changes that occur throughout the day in the mountain ranges of Kashmir. We were some of the last people to come down the mountain that day and on the way back down I noticed that it is possible to completely miss the camouflaged army encampments which are built into the mountainside so that invading military would be unable to see the traps awaiting them.

Photo 7: Long melted glaciers have left vast dry valleys.
On day three of my Kashmiri voyage, my friend and business partner took me to an area known as Sonmarg where we hiked along whitewater rivers towards the mountains with the last remnants of winter's ice slowly melting away resulting in hundreds of tiny waterfalls. Being young men, we made competitions of everything including how long we could hold our bare feet in the freezing river water, my stubbornness did not prevail in this endeavor and we finally had to agree to both pull our feet out at the same time. Meanwhile, his father would patiently waited for the ambitiousness of youth to make its way back down the mountainsides towards the 4x4 vehicle where he proceeded to tell us stories of his childhood in the mountains and the glaciers that used to be present while we drank chai at a roadside chai house.

Photo 8: Birth of a waterfall.
The road to Sonmarg was long, a journey lasting almost two hours with spectacular views of mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, raging white water rivers, long-haired goats, and evergreen forests. The serenity of the natural environment surrounding the Kashmiri people is truly superb and I could almost begin to see why Indian and Pakistanis alike claim affiliation of this mountain state. With such pristine and untouched nature, the availability of resources is likely abundant.

Photo 9: My father, okay not really.
Coming around a bend in the roadway, I caught glimpse of an oil truck in the roadside river, clearly the truck had been there for some time without any hope of rescue. It was a shocking dichotomy of nature versus man-made contraptions and almost seemed to be environmental-political statement by mother nature. As the driver continued to speed us up the mountain highway, I thought about the day before at Golmarg and the destruction caused by man's unwillingness to simply care for the surrounding environment. Golmarg had instilled a false belief in the sentiments of the Indian population towards the outside world; a complete disregard for that which does not further their personal goals and paths towards wealth. Sadly, over the past eight years of traveling to India, I have not seem many signs to contradict this belief, but have been witness to further and further social selfishness with each trip. 

Photo 10: Mountain sheep with no fear of man.
On my last morning in Srinagar and only two days before I was supposed to board a return flight in New Delhi destined for Fort Lauderdale, Florida; I found myself in a confused state. My time in India had been extraordinarily challenging for me and my emotional stability, but the nature I had witnessed over the last week seemed to have repaired much of my scarring. In the dawning light of Kashmir and again walking along the lake, I found myself not wanting to leave this truthfully most peaceful environment. Shortly thereafter I was reminded of the realities of Kashmir as I heard the echo of a canon in the distance. 

Photo 11: Last Dawn Standing, Canons blasting in the background.

1 comment:

  1. cool pictures! makes me remember our visits to kashmir when I was a kid...miss that place. truly heaven on earth....