Trek to the Tropical Tundra: Day 162

Trekking guide and cook

Trekking guide and cook

No blood was shed. The curfew worked. We strapped the chickens on board and waded in fresh puddles to the jeep. Over my dynamite Kashmiri bread breakfast earlier, I felt the boat sway and new voices bounce off the water. Mohamed crawled out of the flashy water taxi, the Parisian movie director a new arrival and "victim" of the Delhi boys' persuasive tongues, and packed in for the six day trek upon landing. There was a sweeping majority of Muslim men on this mountain adventure, and I guess it says scores about their abilities to welcome and comfort me that I didn't realize I was going alone into the mountain range that borders Pakistan with six men of Allah. Fayaz always kept me in the loop and half-amused/half-annoyed me with his insistence on yelling into the cell phone. Mountain coverage is just fine. Riyaz, the well-groomed cook with a powerful face, docile and steady, seemingly unfazed by high altitudes or the two vertical mile starter trek, which could be attributed to his many years of experience…or the ten daily hashish cigarettes he rolled like a well-practiced Rasta.

The three pony men, or gypsies, were 20 something mountain men named Niyaz, Riyaz, and Umar, and I think it was their interest in my uncustomary Western female ways, in conjunction with my dependence on their optimism and humor (which usually ridiculed Fayaz' uptight guiding techniques), that made us unspoken, uncommunicative friends. These simple men appeared a little rough, evidence of their lives of living just sustainably enough in the hills of India: making their own bread, using their cows and chickens for their kitchen basics, knowing nothing but cold and substandard comfort.

Throughout the trek, Mohamed and I had to insist with red face and exhausted lung that the gypsies take a comfortable seat, use blankets and dry ground to avoid freezing mountain temperatures, eat along with us, relax after the emotional exhaust of killing a chicken…the list obviously goes on forever, because Kashmiri gypsies know no end to the hassle and necessary work involved in their lives. Understandably, the 20 year-old had the makings of crow's feet and a grumble of a 30 year smoker. It's hard to accept that these overworked men and women live very far past the age of 60, but two of the men (brothers) claimed their father was 92 and still kickin'…and smokin'.

Anyway, the trek all began with a night in Naranaj, but to those of you who learn nothing from that name, I'll paint a wordy little picture. The town appeared clinging to a single highway that cut into the lower hills of the mountains. The further we swerved around the blind, unprotected, crumbling bends, the deeper we seemed to set into a valley that resonated with running river water. The walls of this, nature's gutter (only in the functional sense), were tilted beyond 45 degrees, and the effect of turning towards the towering angle causes one to lose hold of depth and reality.

Trekking in the Himalayas

Trekking in the Himalayas

As the ponies were packed up on the periphery of the town, Mohamed surprised me with an intimate sweet talking session directed towards a dog that wandered near us. Strangled slightly by a rough rope, strips of old rice bags, and a wire suspended from the makeshift collar that poked the pup from underneath, the dog charmed us if not for his sweet nature than just the fact that an Indian dog wasn't mangy and evil. She clung to our sides and claimed guard dog duties by her sustained presence; she nearly tripped me by weaving in between my legs in order to stay close.

Past the community's permanent stronghold popped up a string of tent clumps along the river, where we saw the final gypsy grazing camps before they all retreated from the impending cold. We tracked the river's stream for a half hour and sent the encouraging clicks and hoots for the ponies' progress reverberating off the valley's bowl-like acoustics. We unstrapped the loads and claimed some river bank space for our tents to rise and ponies to mow, cuing the skies to sprinkle and spit during Camp 1 high tea. Boulders thrice as wide as my grandest hug guarded our settlement from the mountain run-off but, more importantly, set up an elaborate jungle gym for our young spirits and desires to toy with danger. From these perches, Fayaz, Mohamed, and I sent our hungry eyes and a baited line into the river pools and caught two rainbow trout to fry up in the kitchen tent.

We chomped on hot food that night, long after the sun abandoned the valley, and employed our hands to rip into the meal like only gypsies and their imitators know how. And with after dinner chais and a casual question about favorite movies, Mohamed caught a fire in his eyes, and I watched as his passion for the "talkies" lit up the air of a still night in the wilderness.

In the seclusion of my own tent with a "winter husband" hot water bottle cradled in my feet, I went to bed certain of a pleasant sleep, feeling the mass of our watch dog pressed inches from my head outside the tent. Even through ear plugs, I heard the midnight growls and even thumps of a brawl occurring on the ground where my bodyguard formerly snuggled. I think there were times that night we all reclined simultaneously wide eyed and white-knuckled.

Because of repeated delaying factors thus far, we were a bit behind schedule on our trek to the skies. Fayaz remedied the dilemma by pushing the day one hike to encompass the entirety of the trek's hurdles into seven burning hours. The burning refers not to the sun but everything else: our legs, lungs, blisters, joints, the wind and snow on our skin, and then the unsettling chill of feeling our sweaty clothes freeze the back during a water break. There's no way I would have tackled this experienced unsupervised, but I certainly prefer to set my own pace that involves frequent stops to worship the peaks that come out of hiding with every vertical step. I also set no records for high altitude hiking, so I tried to grin and bear all the moments when the men ran in front of me then stopped to wait and watch my steady struggle. Anytime I pulled the Nikon from around my shoulder to click a mountain goat's billowing hair or fresh snow on a Himalaya, I couldn't tell whether the fellas were stretching their shins or tapping their toes. We flew through clouds of pine scents and past paths that gripped the hillside in fear, trickling with mountain sweat. All I wanted to do was let the jaw-dropping sights be feet-stopping and enjoy the views I paid for. The pony men began to sympathize with me and muttered breaths to Fayaz's lunacy. I refused to let such a thing annoy me and listened only to the waterfalls as applause in my ears.

Pony trek

Pony trek

I liked walking with the ponies and letting them set a pace through the muddy paths. Sometimes their hooves would misjudge a stone or pile of sludge, and a ponyman shot forward to help heave the scrambling horse from tumbling downhill. One of these times, I was stuck between a struggling pony and gravity's arm. It's funny; after this big journey and all its thrilling moments, I now know I react to the instant of possible death with a blank mind and eyes the size of swimming goggles. So much for that last second survival and rescue instinct.

The entire day was a crawl through diverse terrain and gradually worsening climates. The first scene was a steady, uphill zig-zag covering a hilly face slanted at 45 degrees to the horizon. The breeze was harmonious with the warmth of the tropical sun through the canopy. Our lunch break arrived upon reaching an idyllic, tree-lined plain, large enough for pony rebellions and wide-stretching views of new snow and secluded, unmatched power. We ate previously cooked rice curry after devouring apples the size of cherry tomatoes. Pulling them out of Mohamed's backpack with chilled fingers, one went rogue and rolled down to the bottom of the clearing. Their tastes met a tired body's hunger with a natural invigoration that sent me chasing the doomed fruit to its resting place upon pony crap. I wiped it with my sweat-drenched scarf and ate it, core and all.

Fayaz' pupils were clock faces, and he refused our requests to relax and lick our yellowed fingers. The ponies and dependant humans wound around the mountain on a path that ran, thankfully, more horizontally and squeezed into the rock's armpits. From afar I'm sure the route looked like a heart monitor pulse. The air acquired a nip and force as ominous as distant thunders.

And then the constant tree covering dwindled to patches in the distance leaving green hills, the rocky earth breaking through the carpet like stars on an undisturbed night, and old gypsy settlements from the long past summer months. A fog so arresting transformed the scene into a twilight zone or a movie set for some haunted troll colony. Minute beads of snow began to slowly coat the world.

Just like the Milky Way's streak across the black dome, the land was striped with boulder gardens that crumbled down from the peaks unseen. While the ponies panted with light feet and angered whinnies and the gypsies bounded weightlessly across the rocky streams in penny loafers, I traversed the ankle graveyards with such steady footing, I could have been stepping around spitting snakes and sleeping babies. I saw the moss and the light dew and ruled out the possibility of playful bounding with images in my head of broken feet and being flung over a gypsy's shoulder down the two miles I had just climbed skywards. The mountain started whimpering from somewhere.

We had reached Tronakun and the tree line that introduces the arctic world above. Behind a gray cloud to the left was a peak, Haimuk Mountain, and an illusion of closeness and smallness that only came about because I really knew it was the biggest thing I'd ever seen so nearby. But then I turned to my right and saw the hills curve downward out of sight. A kilometer away into the air between vertical lands blew a thick snowstorm that stopped me as would an oncoming stampede or tsunami. It was stunning. Neighbor mountains pushed through the white enough for me to see the company I was surrounded by, the most beautiful and ferocious beasts. The men were already cresting the hill in front of me and insisted I not stop moving or I'd get stuck in a cold trap. Things, people, and sights can move you to cry, but this non-replicable display, this one time vista stopped my heart. I shifted my weight, wrapped my snow-crusted scarf around my entire head, and shook in disbelief of what I was now forced to abandon for the rest of the walk to the camp site.

My pants were wet, my SLR frozen and flapping at my back, and each step brought me closer to the men and a possible hip dislocation. I didn't realize it during the trek there, but our stopping point for the night was directly behind the hidden Haimuk Mountain we'd seen across the plain earlier. The thin path's hurdles grew subsequently more monstrous until I found myself balancing on the rim of an Earth bowl against sideways snow. Water gurgled in the pit below, hundreds of meters down its untouched slopes. I froze up there at 16,000 feet high in the snowy Gandarbal range, wearing only a long sleeved tee, my fleece, jeans, and a Kashmiri scarf.

Riyaz, the "ever-enlightened" cook, lingered from the group to give me a trekking companion and someone to follow without contemplating each step, path, or rocky outcropping. My body began to conserve its energies to keep me warm and coherent instead of soaking in the scenery. When I lifted my head after crossing a fallen tree bridge and another rock playground, I saw the trek was finished. We were at the edge of a small lake that kissed the feet of Haimuk. She stood over us like a 20,000 ft tall shrine or monument to the Earth's accomplishments in beauty. I let out a gasp of awe before I was crippled by weak hips, unmovable fingers, and an inability to do anything besides layer on clothes until I ran out. The process took a half hour to become impermeable, and for the only time on this trek, I had no problem that the men didn't let me help with establishing our home base.

One tent erected in the expansive valley, and the ponies ran to the nearest nibbles of frozen greens. We were a speck amidst the white blanket that swept over us. Looking past Umar in the tent flap opening, it looked like a plain backdrop for a GAP commercial. Unable and unwelcome to assist in any way, I sat watching Mohamed fade from cold and angry to relieved and chatty as his fingers regained nerve cooperation.

We both were wearing wet clothes under thick coats that didn't make us any warmer, so I suggested using the tent as a changing room and having the others evacuate while one person gets dry, warm, and situated. I ended up being the only one willing to expose bare skin to bitter cold in an attempt to get warmer, but when non of the men waiting outside told the approaching Umar about my costume change, a very shocked, shy, and embarrassed Muslim man dove away from my sight with his freshly killed chicken dangling limp in his bloody hand.

The first time I left our mountain shelter was to achieve primal relief behind a distant rock closer to the water's edge. The storm and all adjacent clouds had long passed and left a spotless sky made even more clear by the paper thin air. I had asked about possible wildlife in the area, which were improbable presences, but I kept my African tradition of drumming my hands on my thighs to scare away any animals I could sneak up on in attempt to relieve myself.

Instead, what shook me to honest fear and submission was Haimuk, hovering over me like a half pipe wave about to crest over my head. The same way I used to think ghosts chased me up the stairs or stained-glass faces in my old house haunted me in my nightly pursuits, I was sure the looming mountain would tremble, lean towards me, and terrorize just because it would be too easy. I never took my eyes off her. The lake was her mirror. The moon illuminated her deadly outline. And this was where I took my pre-bedtime pit stop…a loo with a view.

It's proved true in every occurrence of this journey that when my body needs a night of dreamless, morgue-like slumber, I cannot manage more than an hour before lying awake, eyes wide shut. I was packed in next to my frozen backpack and Mohamed's shifting frame. Umar's body, curled desperately onto the last few inches of tarp and blankets, made it impossible to fully extend my legs without using him as an ottoman. So I rolled onto my stomach and lifted everything below the knee into the air. A light breeze outside covered the utter darkness of sound, and opening my eyelids made no difference in what I could see. I had packed myself in so tightly for slumber that every shift and reposition made me feel like I was in a Chinese finger trap. My sore hips ached as they pressed into the frozen, divot-riddled ground. Starting from 4,000 ft and scaling the 12,000 ft to base camp had no effect on my breathing or dizziness, but while buried in blankets and trying to stay warm, I had breathing fits where I couldn’t get enough oxygen and lifted my head, panting like I just swam across the lake outside. And to make matters more agitating, my sleeping pill didn't let me snooze but just kept me fully aware of how tired I really was. As it frequently plays out, I realized I was finally asleep when the rest of the men stirred awake for the second day on the mountain.

By the time the sun had exposed her entire plump shape over the eastern mountain range and created a blinding landscape, the other two gypsies, Riyaz and Niyaz, returned with the ponies from Tronakun, where they had descended the night before in search of grass and warmth for their most prized living possessions.

Fishing at high altitude

Fishing at high altitude

Cold gypsy Kashmiri bread and cups of tea later, Fayaz sent us up the nearby ridge in search of Gandarbal lake number two, a more glorious sight and prime location for fishing. My hips wanted to refuse the twenty minute trek, but two of the gypsies promised me a memorable and pleasant time, our friendships having blossomed through shared high altitude agony. And it was a tremendous sight. The water's surface resembled more a clean glass window than a rippled lake appearance. I could count the pebbles on the shallow bed and see the details in their ridges.

Fayaz caught good sized trouts with ease and a top notch French-made fishing rod. Meanwhile, the mountain men waded knee deep into the glacial runoff and grabbed the fish in their leathery hands. On the spot, the men cracked the fish' jaws and gutted their bellies to throw into a bloody plastic bag, not before squirting orange fish eggs from the ladies into the crystal waters. Some didn't die until the process had long since commenced. With those same hands, they pulled out two glasses and a Thermos of chai for Mohamed and I, as if our breakfast a half hour before had already vaporized in our stomachs.

Clicking some pics and moving back down to our lake, Fayaz passed the line to me and let me cast the hook into the dark, cold waters at the foot of Haimuk peak. I wrangled nothing, but when he pulled out a flailing trout a minute later, I slowly wrapped my fingers around the slippery muscle for the first time in fifteen years. Until it left my hands, I smiled and exclaimed the trademark sound of Lucille Ball: UUUUEEEEWWWWWWW!

We were lucky to make it to the Gandarbal lakes when we did; many other trekking groups refused the risk and only day-tripped it to the exhausting height. Fearing our luck would soon run dry, Fayaz sent us back down the mountain, the day after we climbed its entire elevation. Not wanting me to fall behind and do my own thing again, Fayaz strapped me up to an annoyed pony and led me out of the valley. It was at this point that I decided to stop fighting the "special" treatment and demeaning demands to drop my dignity for the sake of sanity. They pushed me to accept the role of a helpless lady from the trek's conception, and I took that part when I understood it wasn't an option so much as an insistence. So, I rode a pony off the mountain.

Harmukh Mountain

Harmukh Mountain

From my perch, I could fully appreciate the reality of the mountain's appearances. At some point in time, the Earth's crust collided and froze at the climax of the action, creating a militant formation of protected terrain. Each ridge stood like a soldier, standing there to make it harder on human kind to reach its deepest and most remote Shangri-Las. Writers and travelers wish to be lodged in these unimaginable crevices between rocky waves, but the fact is only a few have the ability to reach them and, because of this, their virginal value remains a bit longer until time finds a way to rape them of such virtue.

My pony's hesitant tap dance across the frequent rocky streams made me nervous and imagine our shared deaths in various scenarios. Barrel rolls down the hillsides, laterally and head first, smashing bones against boulders, my all-too colorful imagination powered on.

The end of this much shorter trek brought us to what can only perfectly represent a grassy knoll. All three tents rose in the rain, and I ran to grab our ground blankets to keep them dry under a staggering tent. The boys rummaged for firewood and ended up building a fire dome made of wet bark that sent opaque clouds of smoke into the pine trees. I was in need of a cold weather exorcism and stuck my feet in the fire's blue belly, while sitting on my winter husband water bottle.

I found myself later in the kitchen tent reading my book "Three Cups of Tea" while Riyaz cooked up a fishy, chickeny, veggie-filled storm. The hero of my real life tale was working to erect school buildings in the Karakorum villages directly north of us. On this trip, I've often wondered how local people truly reflect on efforts made by foreigners of a charitable manner. Some have said its funny (though also greatly appreciated) that people spend their time and money on service projects, while others are unwelcoming to those insistent on pressing religious superiority. I decided to do further research and explain my book to the cook.

After a labored translation, he told me he found acts like that of Greg Mortenson and his schools among the top most laudable efforts one could perform in needing societies. I briefly considered whether it was my turn to follow suit for the village of Naranaj, since some boys like Niyaz fail to receive even the simplest of educations. Foreign aid, done the right way for the most honorable reasons, is truly appreciated. However, it has never been my life's intention to search for suffering people who need me because I am an angel of peace in this troubled world. Nay; I instead am open to a mission I feel will become apparent when the right year, month, and minute allow its approach. I stored that thought in the vault and resolved to stay always aware for my cause, whenever it decided to turn up and provide a purpose in my life.

Up on those mountains, I had a mess of ideas in my confused mind. Dreams of mariachi bands, the Kashmiri blue steel eyes, my future home and meaning, all inspired by the magic around me. I envisioned camping through the summer months and building my own furniture, producing artistic wares and earning only enough to support the most basic of needs, batheing and washing in bins of rain water, while also allowing myself freedom from anger at my own culture and self-righteous mind. And I wrote all these thoughts down with the expectation of laughing at myself down the road. But I was confused and growing, and this time around I'm not prepared to ridicule my bouts of idealism. I wanted to descend the mountain ready to compromise, tolerate, and approach the interpretation of my desires with Van Gogh-like self-wisdom. After five and a half months abroad, I was becoming ready to return home and follow my own clock, hoping America would give me the unpressured freedom to do so.

The next afternoon, Fayaz sent us down the mountain once more, this time because of insufficient water supplies. Half way down the backtrack, we blazed a new trail, a pin ball course on dead pine needles. I relished the opportunity they gave me to use my own legs and started running down the trail. They were impressed (finally) and especially because all their bad knees kept them at turtle speed. When the ground cover changed to a thick inch of needles laying on top of ankle-rolling pine cones, I lagged to the back once more after some falls on the derierre put some fear in my legs. The land tilted so far, my feet reached a full point in order to keep my body perpendicular to the horizon. My toes smashed into the tips of my shoes, and with the soft muddy ground making things not-so-easy, I moved like I had a baby on my back. Fayaz, probably feeling guilty for sending us off the mountain two nights early tromped ten paces ahead of me and stopped rhythmically to wait, which adequately mocked my progress. I got angry…and this is what I wrote at the bottom of the mountain:

"My inner monologue cursed in all the chameleon-life contexts possible throughout today's trek. Yesterday, I made quite an effort to hold onto that chemical imbalance that made me raving mad when I should only be humored…or at the worst, perturbed. Today, I took the last Kingfisher (purchased completely by me) and ran to the rapids for this purge and beer binge. This trek can be applauded for many things, but I will now vent those which most aggrivate me…things so colossal to my list of needs that no Haimuk Mountain can soften the unintentional blows.

"I'm not an idiot, not helpless, not incompetent, not made of money, and not a child. I could go on, but I got enough boo-hoo exclamations in that sentence. And as I sit here ready to complain about the cost of this trek, the guide, all the lack of communication with decisions made, and the commands to speed up, slow down, wait, and "just sit there with your chai and biscuits," I know I truly reason all those factors to be worth a connection to Kashmiri culture and these mountains of nature. The other night's evening pee with the stars, the half moon, the reflecting, rippling lake, and the mountain's presence, which genuinely frightened me, was one I will try to paint with any medium necessary to recapture what a photo wouldn't or couldn't do.

"What is this insistence to possess the dignity of a Queen? Is it just because this was an exhibition of my paucity of cardio strength or because I am a Western woman being treated like a subservient child while on this soul-searching, life-defining discovery tour of my own genuine opinions and trajectory? I gotta go; it's high tea time in the wilderness…"

When it comes to these moments when emotions spoil the expected thrill and good time, it placates me to remember it's not a wasted time thanks to the opinion on travel I've formulated. My mind has cycles, and they don't stop for vacation. Unfortunately, this sometimes means I have sour memories of thrilling destinations. They are "nothing fights" that part with a smile. It's hindsight appreciation for having had the opportunity to be pissed in the Himalayas. "An adventure," after all, "is an experience of discomfort, recalled later in a moment of tranquility." The snowstorms, the freezing, the sleepless nights, the pony rides, boulder jumping, chicken slaughtering, fish gutting, intra-group disagreements, chapped lips, traversing of mountain passes, scrambles up and down steep trails, blisters, bruised toes, matted hair, and staring down the slope into a cloudy abyss…yes, it was my very own Kashmir mountain adventure.

Chickens at 17,000 feet

Chickens at 17,000 feet

The final two days, I read…constantly. I read sprawled on rocks surrounded by rushing water, read by torchlight with my feet squishing the hot water bottle, read curled in the kitchen tent watching Riyaz and Fayaz butcher a freshly killed hen, and the book ran out of pages even before finding society once more. As the Kashmiri men packed the ponies for the final trail blaze, Mohamed took a lounge on a massive boulder and stared at nothing but pure H2O flowing past him. I gave him his space and sat downstream under an oak tree, assuming his head was filled with relief and coulda, woulda, shouldas regarding his recently finished film.

I ripped apart every orange, crispy leaf that fell into my lap and covered my face from earth, wind, and fire with my scarf, singing to an audience of one. As my voice slowly deteriorates from wear, age, or lack of use every year, I occasionally test my former strength to see if I not only have the ability to push out good sound but also the creativity and genius to interpret my mind music audibly, following the greats I blare from my car stereo. I think the consensus in that valley was a negative to original music skill, and if I wasn't inspired in that oasis, it meant I just don't have it…or I have to put some all-consuming effort into it. I never let myself completely rule out an option for life on the big journey…so I kept professional musician on the table from that moment on.

I climbed onto my pony express for the last time, thoroughly bruising both thighs on the ascent, and arrived back into Naranaj atop the trusty steed that hated me. We passed the ancient ruins that marked our start and passed gypsy wives of 16 and 18 years old, all giggling at my interpretation of the hijab with my dirty scarf.

The red jeep that took us back to Srinagar pulled up after we collapsed on bags of tents, onions, and down jackets. The one chicken that survived the entire journey still flapped and jerked her neck around inside the wicker cage, watching us suspiciously for the approach and that knife that would signal her demise.

Once loaded, we followed the ribbon of highway back to roads clogged with flamboyant buses, rickshaws, impatient cars, and herds of goats on a death row walk to the big city. Our driver, a younger version of the chain-smoking, strong-eyed man behind the wheel last time, was nothing short of the craziest driver I've ever witnessed from the backseat. He was a bully on the road, overtaking cars even when smaller opponents were oncoming fast, and his handle on the dimensions of his vehicle were astounding. He cleared motorbikes and goats by centimeters at top speeds, leading me to believe he really didn't care what happened to his car or the unlucky matter that came in contact with it. Mohamed gripped the handle above the window like he was hanging above a cloudy abyss, and I sunk my fingers into the two front seats to steady myself so I wouldn’t dive bomb the boys sitting on either side of me. Fayaz, Riyaz, and Captain Insane-o chatted and smoked like they were at a tailgate, while Mohamed and I exchanged looks that said, "Someone 's gonna die on this drive home".

And once we thought we had seen the extent of his recklessness, we got to a city road and saw a woman, dressed in a lime green sari, crossing the street far ahead of our car's projected path. Mohamed and I both saw the woman in plenty of time to notice she was possibly in our way if the driver didn't slow down. I actually remember him speeding up. Our grips deepened to white-knuckle status, eyes widened to let our pupils swim in seas of trembling white, and two warning screams filled the backseat as we sent the woman running to the median. I kid you not and have no room to exaggerate this recollection. The woman was an inch from being struck by our car going 45mph. The driver had to swerve and blare the horn in order to not make contact with a woman so close that we could see up her flared nostrils. The driver laughed at his close call. This sent Mohamed into an awe-struck rage. I sat in shock with my hands over my mouth the rest of the way to the houseboat. We sent the driver foul looks and no gratitude as we slid out of the car, happy to be stationary, and ran to our rooms for the much-anticipated, fire-heated showers.

The trek was over, and we welcomed civilization like we'd never experienced it before. Chai? Send it my way! Clean clothes? I'll put on the fanciest ones I've got! Hot dinner and a Wesley Snipes movie? Who can I worship for this miracle? Throw that winter husband in my bed and let my toesies sizzle while I read my newest novel. A man that approached my water taxi a week before drifted by our balcony thrones at dusk, and we went into a shopping frenzy as another Mohamed presented his hand-painted paper mache wares.

Fayaz wandered into our boat and offered his cell phone for me to call my awaiting parents. I hadn't told them about my trip to Kashmir, for fear of raising their already boiling blood pressures, but I guess my lack of contact for nine days caused even more distress; Papa Bear was contemplating a flight to India to find me. I heard the organ from the sanctuary behind their relieved voices. While they were at Sunday church, I was watching house lights squiggle toward me on the lake's surface that Sunday night.

Mohamed wanted to share tea and chit-chat that evening, both of us finally comfortable enough to not worry about frostbite or the smell of rotting clothes to actually talk, but I wandered like a zombie to my room and apologized for answering the call of my comforter to join it in slumber. Before falling into my bed's embrace, I walked to the bathroom and thought back to the last bathroom journey in the woods. I hope it's normal to reminisce or even prefer the thrill of the life or death stroll to the facilities. I had it with every squat in the African continent, every adventure behind a big rock in Kashmir, and when it's no longer acceptable, I get a little nostalgic. Yes, my trek in the Himalayan mountains brought out the real lady in me, and I wait with bated breath for my next low encounter with a grassy knoll.

Thank you, Nature.

Too Much Thinkin': Day 153

Nageen Lake

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.