Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Adventure 4: "Mission: Kashmir"

I'm in Kashmir!

A little technical detail... I realize that it says "Adventure 4" in the title of this post but there are no adventures listed before this! That is because everything I have written previously is still on my laptop in Noida where my uncle lives, but I am not there right now! I am in Kashmir! So here's what I'm doing. Since I have regular internet acces here, I will simply update you on what is going on right now on the blog, and upload what I wrote on my laptop later. It appears that when I go back to Noida I will have regular internet access from my laptop itself.

OK back to my point! I'm in Kashmir and it is rather amazing! I arrived here on January 8th at around 3:00 PM. My mom and I were picked up personally by the wife of the Chief Engineer of the Indian army in Kashmir. They are family friends, so it worked out to our advantage! We are staying with them until the 12th. We drive everywhere in an armored (bulletproof) car. We are truly getting royal treatment because they have so many people working for them! Brigadier Ashok Bhutani is a big shot here, the top gun, if you will. So as soon as we entered their house (which is a government-owned property) we were greeted by several servants who took our stuff and showed us to our room. We freshened up a little bit and came to the living room where Anita Aunty (Ashok Uncle's wife) greeted us with some kahva. Kahva, for those of you who don't know, is a traditional Kashmiri drink. I typically don't drink things that resemble chai or coffee, but I tried Kahva because it was offered so nicely to me, and it looked good! I mixed in some Kashmiri honey and tasted it. It was unbelievable! I told Anita Aunty that I wanted to take some of every ingredient back with me so that I can make it at home on my own! It was so good! Anyways we then had some food (served absolutely royally), and soon thereafter left the house (in the armored car) to visit the local Shankaracharya Temple. When we got there, the gate was closed, but we honked the horn and a local guard came out. Anita Aunty told him to open the gate, and he said that the temple had already closed down. "It normally closes at 5:30," he said, "but you can come back any time tomorrow morning and we'll be here." Now, keep in mind that we were traveling in the Chief Engineer's vehicle, which everyone knows is his vehicle. Anita Aunty wields some authority! She told the guard to open the gate anyways and let us in. He told us that the temple up the hill would be closed anyways in a couple of minutes, so there would be no point going in. And anyway, he couldn't open it. She told him to go talk to the authority up at the temple. He went up and came back down to our little convoy, and told her that he would open the gate if she really wanted to go inside. She said she did, and he opened the gate. We drove all the way up the hill on the winding pathway in the intense fog (by 6:00 PM here in the winter time there is no light, and a dense fog settles over the city), only to find that the actual gate was locked from the inside! We took some pictures at the gate anyway, which I will upload later (when I get access to my laptop again).

When we returned we were greeted at the gate again by Ramesh Bhaiya (their main servant), who again took all our stuff to our room and made us comfortable. I feel so at home here, everything is just run so well! I love it. I am currently working on Ashok Uncle's laptop.

OK one more thing - though Ashok Uncle is a Brigadier, he is extremely fun. He has a great sense of humor and when you talk to him you would never guess that he's in the army until you ask him about it. After we got settled in, we went upstairs to find Ashok Uncle watching some movie on TV which he called a "useless movie." Ramesh Bhaiya served us all some more kahva, which was amazing again. I think this might be my new favorite drink, besides water and milk, of course. (Milk is slowly slipping from the ranks though! I don't know why...)

After talking for a while, we were escorted to our room by Anita Aunty and Ashok Uncle, who showed us that our bed had heated sheets! (Can you believe that?) However, here in Kashmir where it is so cold in the winter and there is no central heating, they need stuff like heated sheets and a special thing called a bukhari, which is a heating unit that they have in each room that is operated by turning on some gas inside it, lighting a match, and throwing it inside. It is a kerosene-fueled device.

A little note about Ashok Uncle and Anita Aunty, they are by far the most amazing couple I have ever met. They have been married 25 years, but are so deeply in love that it penetrates anyone surrounding them too. I feel so good when I am around them. They give off such positive vibes! I told them about my observation and Ashok Uncle very wisely said, "as long as there is respect in the relationship, nothing can go wrong." I silently agreed. As long as there is respect between two individuals, there will never be a tendency to emphasize negativity. Thus, even when they fight (for they will fight, they're only human), it will not last long, and/or it will end positively. You really only read about this couple in books and fairy tales! I am thoroughly impressed.

Another thing - I can feel my hindi improving tremendously. My policy is this - even if I'm not speaking correctly, at least I'm speaking. The worst that can happen is either someone laughs at me or corrects me, and either way I'm fine. I hope that at the end of six months here I will be speaking like a local!

Both my mom and I have been waking up naturally without an alarm at around 6. When we woke up this morning (Jauary 9th) we were joined by Anita Aunty who came down to our room at around 7 to have tea with us. (I drank kahva). Soon thereafter we were joined by Ashok Uncle. Both of them were in their pajamas too, it was so cool! I feel so at home here. We decided we would leave at 9 AM for Gulmarg, a very famous tourist spot known for its ski resorts. We ended up leaving at 10:00 though! A whole hour late. And unfortunately this hour was crucial, for on the road we got stuck behind a HUGE convoy of army trucks! We passed them up carefully though, and ended up reaching Gulmarg at around 11:40 AM. The altitude was some 10,000 feet high, and the snow was piled up at least 3 feet high! Our vehicle got stuck RIGHT at the check point before the resorts started, and we wasted at least an hour stuck in the snow! Finally Anita Aunty, my mom, and I got out of the car and walked the rest of the 200 meters to the check point. I took lots of pictures, which I will upload as soon as I get laptop access.

This area was absolutely beautiful. I mean, I have never seen so much snow in my life (even coming from Chicago)! In the summer time, this same resort is a golf club. It is famous for its national and international golf tournaments. Gulmarg is a really beautiful place. I went skiing a little bit, it was a lot of fun! Then we ate some authentic Kashmiri food and started for home! By this time it was already around 4:00 PM. I was so tired already though, but on our way back I took lots of pictures as well! Later, Ashok Uncle, Anita Aunty, mom, and I went to a steam room/sauna that was inaugurated by Anita Aunty only two days ago! It was an amazing experience, as I have never done that before! We came back and had dinner, and soon it will be time for me to sleep.

I am amazed by the locals here. Kashmiris are such beautiful people! Their complexion is fair and their eyes are light... They are apparently known for their beauty. They have classic Aryan features (if you don't know what Aryan features are, look it up on Google or something, I'm not sure I can quite explain in words. And I don't mean the Nordic Aryans, I mean Indo-Aryans). And they have intense expressions. Kashmiri people have gone through a lot in the past 30 years or so, due to wars and other hardships. Many of them simply fled the state, to settle in other parts of India and often other parts of the world. Those that have remained throughout were oppressed for a very long time and are still suffering from their past conditions. Since entry to Kashmir is extremely restricted, tourism has died down almost completely, and the locals used to get their revenue from tourism mostly, so it has been very devastating for them.

The Indian army holds reign over the area so that no infiltration can occur from the Pakistan side of the border. Pakistanis and Indians look alike, since Pakistan and India were both simply India not too long ago, so it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. Sadly, those that have infiltrated in the past have caused a lot of damage to the local people. For those of you who don't know, this war has been going on for many years, due to Pakistan's interest in Kashmir's "liberation." This interest is sparked by the fact that part of Kashmir lies in the region that is currently Pakistan. (To my Pakistani friends, this has nothing to do with you, I am simply speaking from the point of view of my own questioning and observation. An average Pakistani is just like an average Indian, and is not directly involved in the terrorist activity that happens in Kashmir. I am talking here only about the very specific few who are involved.) The driver keeps on showing me places that were bombed or blasted or gunned down or whatever, so it is not an unnecessary protective measure that the Indian army has taken. The Indian soldiers all stand outside, rain, shine, sleet, snow, hail, or whatever, protecting the land from infiltrators. I am amazed at their courage. These are people from ages 18 to 35, sacrificing everything for their country.

Tomorrow I am going to the actual Kaman Post at the border between India and Pakistan, so I will see first hand what goes on there. It will be a dangerous mission, but I think it will be worth it if I come out of it unscathed. Staying with the Chief Engineer of the Indian army in Kashmir has its own charm, I guess!

P.S. Please don't forget to comment!!


ekta said...

Its sad to hear that such a beautiful part of the world has been so engulfed with terror and fear at all times. I just wish that soon there be peace, and our beautiful brothers and sisters can roam around undaunted.

madhu said...

Great reading. Entertaining throughout. Curiosity about Kahva is definitely piqued. You can start a Kahva business in US!

mary! said...

va i miss you so much please please please be careful, your adventures sound so amazing i wish i was in india with you!! think of you you!

watersquash said...

NOIDA that's where I was when they released a story about some crazy dude was was abducting children and selling their organs for money or something, they found skeletons when they were digging around the neighborhood for pipelines

I think my cousin is somewhere in this region, by the way...he's an army engineer and we don't always get to know where he is

!! you are in one of the most beautiful places in the world !!
again, a safety plug...BE CAREFUL
can't wait to hear from you again :)