Welcome to the Himalayas: Day 152

Indiana is not a place where you need to worry about gripping the purse at your side or walking cautiously to your car at night with mase at the ready. This lack of high thrills and danger may be one reason why some say it's a boring place to live. In fact, I think it's worth the money to see a spy/martial arts/thriller movie in the theaters, just for that walk to the car at the evening's end. I know I'm not a Bond or Chan, but something makes me feel like I've got a battlefield to face when the double doors close off the movie popcorn smell behind me. The bushes could be covering a group of black-outfitted ninjas, or a sniper on the roof may point his laser between my unprotected shoulder blades. I often do a skipping walk to my car, zig-zagging in between cars, while shouting to my friends that I'll call them tomorrow. I can't go to Steak'n'Shake now; there's a hit out on me. At the sight of the hawkers and scamming taxi drivers at the international flight terminal, I got the same anxious jitters and uncapped the pen in my hand as a makeshift weapon (that is, until I could located the bottle opener in my bag), held low at my side. Upon leaving the protection of the airport, it's hard not to feel like a potential victim of every trick on the streets. Amplifying this sensation of worry would be the Lonely Planet side stories, warning naive travelers of moments when others let their guards down and lost money and lives. I forgot the feeling I left with from my last India experience and stuck my nose at my trust in a well-highlighted guide book.

After dozing off the exhaustion of two sleepless nights and a sun-scorched day in the desert, I cut through the smelly, humid air of the Pahar Ganj district, bee-lining it to one recommended restaurant after the other, not even hungry but ordering a $.05 piece of bread or drink to validate my indulgence of their AC.

And the I started to make the most shameful of travel accessories, the day-to-day itinerary. It didn't feel right, but, hey, when your own vulnerability consumes you, control is sought by any means. I booked a bus to Manali, a destination chosen because it was colder; reasoning stops there.

Equipped with an LP, an itinerary, and an unhealthy distrust in everyone around me, I patrolled those seedy streets once more before my eighteen hour bus ride into the foothills of the Himalayas. India is its own world, in appearance, in movement, in the way things work and the way they can lead to the next fantastical moment. I hate to try and use cliche phrases or vague generalizations to describe a place I want others to experience on the magic carpet of my words. So I'm not gonna say, "Um, wow, it was dirty and smelly and gross."

Instead, imagine a street lined by buildings that have no order, uniformity, or evidence of being cleaned in the last fifty years. Power lines and wires stretched above the lanes as if a massive electric spider constructed a floating civilization above the puddled and filthy ground. Humans of all ages and professions, dogs, cats, rats, cows, bikes, rickshaws, and elephants move about, to their own agendas, all while amazingly dancing in time out of oncoming, chaotically unpredictable traffic; like a Visa CheckCard commercial until someone sight-seeing or mind-boggled by their surroundings sends a cyclist off track and into a Kashmir apple vendor.

Thinking of both my health (mainly avoiding Delhi belly) and the astoundingly low cost of eats, I stopped at stood, confused, in front of an ash-covered bread stand, hoping to score some tasty goods with the nine rupees jingling in my board shorts. A stranger bailed me out of a 'Lost in Translation' moment (three rupees a chapati, three chapatis for the road) and then surprised me with his hold on the English language.

Thinking I was ordering my lunch, he, my new friend Mudi, invited me to join him for chow at his shop and inquired about my India plans. I thought this was one of those moments I was read up and prepared for, thanks to an LP warning box; he mentioned Kashmir. RING THE ALARM!!! A SCAM! Oh, the nerve of these Kashmiri poachers...why I let him in far enough to start the schpeal...wasting my last hours in Delhi. His kindness made me reflect mild interest and appreciation on the outside, but I was working on an escape route inside that would match the suave of his approach. And then he took me to a travel agent, his roommate and lifelong buddy, where the pitch continued.

The previous day, I rolled my eyes and ran from any chattering stalker who mentioned a leisurely trip to Kashmir, knowing that most of these men were involved in an old trick that sends travelers to the tip of India cheaply and corners them into paying boat loads (or, in this case, house boat loads) to do anything else.

Ashika, the agent, made his case by pointing at the numerous pictures and newspaper articles on the wall, claiming not only his company's legitimacy, but their sky-high level of satisfaction from previous travelers. And then they proceeded to call one happy customer after the other, one being an American woman of 24 traveling alone who was at the family house boat...nice hand, my friends. Each reference affirmed my hopes that these Delhi hooligans weren't crooks by any stretch of the imagination.

My LP laid open on my lap to the page quoting Bill Clinton in 2000: Kashmir is probably the most dangerous place in the World.

Comforting. The minutes disintegrated, and my bus departure time tested me to make the right decision for my safety, to cut the right wire, to choose the right pill. There was something about these guys and their effortless charisma, not to mention addictive humor; it seemed like they didn't really care which way I swayed but that I enjoy myself, though knowing Kashmir was the answer to my big travel dreams.

It's true; I didn't come for the India of urine stains and city smog. I had taken nine steps toward the mountains of my favorite books, and this major move seemed like the final, appropriate choice for the tenth step. More of their friends came and went, jokes and friendly punches thrown, and chai after chai flew down our traps while they laughed at my distressed decision making process..."If you think too much, nothing will happen." My shoulders lowered simultaneously with the rise of a grin, and the invisible NO I had hovering above me, like a Sim City player indicator, faded, leaving me bare and ready for the adventure ahead.

High fives all around. The itinerary became a bookmark in the Lonely Planet I closed for two weeks. I was refreshed and oddly more comfortable with the new plan. I watched as Ashika took care of the business of buying my unused bus ticket, booking a flight, and telling his family in Srinagar I was on my way to their house boat. This tiny room full of boys extended and invitation to stay in their apartment that night, along with their friend from Holland, Lika, who had known the rowdy bunch for years and was in town to visit them. Not that they didn't give me a good gut feeling of security, their company's reputation hanging on the positive treatment of their customers, but Lika's presence made it easier to accept and explain the choice to those who may be skeptical from afar.

Gut instincts led to belly laughs and one of the best moments in my trip. When it comes to social moments of joy on this journey, none top the ones that make me wish I had a camera embedded in my forehead. These are times I know I'll want to remember in sight, spirit, and detail, but pulling out a camera would ruin that which is most priceless of the moment at hand. Those next twelve hours included interesting conversations over coffee, games and a few beers on a rooftop over Delhi, and sitting on the floor in a small room with five other people, fingers slick with orange cooking oil and lips tingling from the spices of home-cooked meals, parted in smiles.

The boys were childhood friends and all had an air of being naturally intelligent and downright gifted; they absorbed us seamlessly into their fermented dynamic in the way only instant comrades can. They impersonated every nationality under the hot Delhi sun, told embarrassing stories of each other, gave me a 3am lesson in making Kashmiri tea, and welcomed me to the Himalayas, pointing to Mudi's colossal nose, also known as K2. We slept like pick-up sticks, scattered across the floor, each of us pretending the billowing AC was mountain air off the Karakorum range of their homes...and my new destination.