I may have made a truly horrifying decision, pushed by the approach of an immediate journey, the desire to part with the urban jungle; the work of three assuring and ambiguously generous salesmen along with the back-up by happy Western customers…my gosh, who knows why I flew to Kashmir.
It's a thrill I normally find enchanting, but I may have abandoned my survival instinct. An adventure began, and I've taken to heart the discomfort factor all too much, up-ing the ante for life-changing and life-ending. Maybe I'm hoping, at some point, Che will peek into my dreams and say, "Now that's impressive," or maybe I just want a good story for cocktail hour. The present days and previous months are times of incredible personal vulnerability, and, while I dig my nose into my guidebook, I sometimes have no power against the moments of frightening spontaneity that present themselves for the snatching. I'm drunk with Himalayan fever and prepared to cry in awe and fear for a chance to be among the magnitude.
The previous passage was written after my arrival to Nageen Lake in Srinagar. As the boys warned me against, I, again, did too much thinking, and it led me to believe the explosions I heard from my perch on the houseboat balcony were gun shots and echoes of warfare. They were wedding celebrations.
Truth be recalled, I felt safer in this conflicted land, filled to capacity with armed militia, than I did in bomb-riddled Delhi. Government officials spotted me on the tarmac and gave me a phone number to call if I felt, for one instant, I was being swindled or put in danger. Escorted by police into the growing mob outside, I found my ride without the slightest hassle.
Nature's peaks struck me on the plane, and nature's leaves gave me something I knew I desperately missed: autumn. Though I couldn't completely silence the skepticism of my trip up north, the majority of my time was spent completely relaxed. I awoke early, crazy for the Kashmir tea and special flat bread of the region. I pounded through 300 pages of Indian fiction, which took place in the Himalayas, while upon my lakeside throne. And I ate dinner in the family boat next door with my hosts and their homemade goodness. Old men rowed me across the lake as if I deserved, past stretches of lily pads, Moghul bridges, and reflected mountains, on a taxi boat that resembled more the Dalai Lama's chaise than a means of transportation.
Fayaz, my host, scheduled a trek through the Gangabal Valley, fit with a cook, ponies, and their gypsy owners (and by gypsy I mean the acceptable term for people who live in the Karakorum mountains). It was my heart's desire, but October 6th came and went, and I remained on the boat's porch writing this:
This sky seems higher than any other, even though this one can actually be touched by things that trump its celestial magnitude. Some days the sun grants those peaks the penetrating colors that reveal their nooks from miles away and make this view spectacular for my waiting eyes…even when I know and feel the anticipation of the crags that top the world. This moment should be spent in the mountains, just hours from a pristine lake that will make our base camp for three days. Instead, just as the CNN ticker announces, we are denied the rights to embark past the neighborhood gates...
Following Ramadan and Eid, the military authority of J & K (Jammu and Kashmir) province issued a curfew, for the first time in over a decade, to prevent protests or civil unrest the world's media came prepared to capture. We approached checkpoints guarded with waist-height coils of razor wire and army officers in full bullet-proof gear.
Fayaz and the driver tried to bat their Kashmiri eyes and flash the curfew slip we had obtained for passage into town, regardless of the lockdown. Fayaz and the highest police commissioner were old drinking buddies, an unlikely bond in the Muslim community, and he gave us access to the guarded streets that could usher us out of town. Overnight, the rules changed, all passes now void, and every officer had the right to shoot on sight any civilian crazy enough to wander the streets sticky with tension.
Our fully-loaded jeep maneuvered through the neighborhood labyrinth until it tried every way out, and as the neighbors sat in their doorways, sipping chai and smoking, talking to their friends and customers, they stopped to stare at our brave mission, wondering if we would succeed in breaking curfew and getting out of town. As we passed, the only sounds of the high walled lanes were rocks grinding under our tires and the disturbed gurgles of the chickens on our roof.
Fayaz turned to me, after many failed attempts and told me I was to get out of the car at the next checkpoint and convince the gun, and the man holding it, to let me fulfill my dreams of trekking in Kashmir. I think they were amused by my timid audacity but, unfortunately, unfazed. Fayaz said they respected me more than the others in the car, but they were beyond peace talks. I guess we weren't a horse, or a chicken-topped jeep, of a different color. No way; no how.
We returned to the family houseboats, wearing all-telling, disappointed smiles to communicate the misfortune and apologies. Even as the slightly pink clouds reflected their frozen blow across the rim of those beautiful beasts, my present situation failed to match the freedom their presence and natural beauty stand for. 245,000 Indian army officers told me my encounter with the living hills must wait until tomorrow. I waited a year from my desire's conception to see what the peaks could do to me, and one more day made me appreciate the flexibility allotted to Americans in America, who can trek where they want, without the threat of manslaughter.
Kashmir stood alone, resting on its sky scraping laurels for ages, and, once pressured, help was needed from the closest source. Success was met. Hands shook for friendship. And people died. Now two animals fight for beauty, putting those relatives of the land in constant turmoil. They smile and make crafts. They paddle frilly boats and hold the hands of their fellow man friends. And on days like October 6th, they can only inhabit the front yard, if they're lucky, while others fear placing an eyeball around the curtain.