Sunday, 27 September 2009

It’s all a matter of Perspective.

So – you may recall that in my last post I talked of the peace and tranquillity of Dal Lake and Srinagar. Well – I’d like to take it back! I mean – there is a natural beauty about the place that does lull one into a trance like state from time to time – but as Srinagar is a predominantly Muslim area there is also the regular and rigid call to prayer from the Mosques, which sort of disrupts the peace. It is true that perhaps at other times of the year these prayers may enhance the ‘authenticity’ of the Kashmir experience, however, we made a slight error due to lack of micro-planning by arriving in the midst of Ramadan, a month of religious fervour unmatched by any other in the Islamic calendar. Ramadan is the month where Muslims must fast from dawn until dusk and the prayers are longer, larger and louder. It turned out that our houseboat was barely 50 meters away from the nearest mosque and so the call to prayer at 5am quickly became our favourite. (Said with a hint of sarcasm). There were times when the ‘praying’ sounded more like anguished war cries and it felt as if our presence in the neighbourhood was not perhaps so welcome as we had initially presumed! Not only were the calls to the mosque more frequent, the final prayers of the day continued uninterrupted for about 2 hours. Now had there been only one or 2 mosques within earshot this may not have been so bad but since every mosque on the shores of the lake had at least one loud-speaker pointed at the lake and the acoustics of the valley seemed to amplify the sounds it meant that the resulting mangle of sound was far from pleasant or peaceful.
But I am probably focusing a little too much on this minor setback to the peace. There were many great moments to our time in Srinagar. A day trip to the mountains of Pehalgam where we had the chance to hike up to some spectacular viewpoints above the mighty flowing river beneath and for a moment wonder whether Heidi and Clara would come bounding over the next mound into the clearing in which we found ourselves with only a yak or 2 to keep us company.
Then we had a day of touring around the local vicinity of Srinagar itself and had the opportunity to explore the side streets of the old city (quite close to where the bomb had exploded just 2 days before) and truly step inside the world and minds of the locals. We were able to enter the mosques and shrines and experience firsthand the paradoxical nature of this alien religion. Under one roof there would be women moaning and wailing at the pain of glass separating them from the shrine of some great holy man, others sitting quietly in a corner lost in silent prayer and then still others seemingly going about their daily gossip sessions without a moments thought to the ‘holy’ house in which they found themselves. The attendants of the mosques were invariably friendly and quick to inquire ‘which county?’ in an attempt to display their English speaking abilities. In most cases they were even happy to pose for a photograph, which surprisingly wasn’t always followed up with an open palm. Within and around the mosques we were able to see some incredible artwork, in many cases dating back centuries, which was most definitely a highlight of the day. But for me, I think one of the most surprising features of the surrounding area of Dal Lake were the Mughal Gardens dating back to the 16th century. As we strolled through the gardens on the Eastern shores of the Lake, it was hard not to feel that these water features and beautifully composed landscapes were somehow out of place. It was more like strolling through a cross between the gardens of St James Park in London and a Chinese water garden. The magnificent backdrop of the Himalayan foothills surrounding Dal Lake seemed to call for a more rugged and less ‘organized’ version of nature. These gardens have been maintained quite well and contain some gorgeous botanical specimens – but somehow it just didn’t feel like India.
Lunch that day was provided by ‘local craftsmen’, which basically meant the mandatory stop off at one of the many outlets for local Kashmiri goods. We were shown a magnificent display of silk and wool rugs that, had our budget have allowed, we would have loved to indulge in – but alas – the price of the kind of rug we would have wanted would have amounted to at least a month’s living expenses in India – so we were forced to thank the salesmen for their free lunch and be on our way. It was a memorable lunch though – not for the omelettes and toast – but for the conversation we had with one of our friendly salesmen. In the time that it took for us to eat, we learned that he had 2 wives and 5 children, the last 4 of which had been with his second wife – apparently the first wife had proved incapable of providing him with a son on her first attempt, therefore a second wife had been necessary. He was 14 years her senior (probably quite a small age gap compared to many) but had married her at the tender age of 13. Their first child (a boy) had been born only 2 years later. She was currently 23 with their fourth child being a year old. As he explained all this and the fact that most of the time he stayed in Srinagar to do business and spent only 1 or 2 days a month in his village with his family I reflected on my own position: 33, newly married, childless, travelling with the world with my husband and felt truly glad to be from the ‘western’ world.
Our final day in Srinagar was spent hiking to a Hindu Shrine on a hill above the lake, which gave us a phenomenal overview of the lake and the city followed by some of the mandatory errand running that has to be done once in a while whilst on the road. One of the errands was obtaining cash to pay for our stay in Srinagar and make sure that we had enough money to provide for us during our stay in Leh (our next stop) as we had been warned that obtaining money from one of the 2 ATM’s in town there was not always possible and if it was possible usually involved monumental queues. Well apparently getting money in Srinagar wasn’t going to be that straight forward either. We arrived at the ATM only to be informed by the machine that it was ‘low on funds’. However as we stood pondering our next move (trying not to panic too much about how we would pay our houseboat bill) an Indian man approached and successfully acquired his Rupees without trouble… we tried again…..this time the message said ‘contact your bank’…….Oh crap! This was all we needed! True, I hadn’t ‘informed the bank’ in writing before we departed about our impending wanderings, but having inquired twice about Indian Rupees and obtained US$ travellers checks only days before our departure, I assumed that the bank in question would have the brains to understand that this meant I was going overseas. We decided to resort to an alternate bank account (which was supposed to be off limits for the duration of our stay) and I then proceeded to make the call to the number on the back of my card; to be told by ‘Gemma in Coventry’ (it did occur to me that it would have been quite funny to call my UK bank from India, only to be ‘assisted’ by a call-centre worker in India – but apparently that was not the case – Gemma being from Conventry!!) that there was no problem with my card. Only a day later however I received an email from dad telling me that the fraud department had called to speak to me and wouldn’t discuss the matter with him – Obviously Gemma was not exactly up to speed with the status of my account when I called! Now maybe it’s just me, but to me it seems a little stupid that if ‘unusual’ activity from overseas is seen on a card that the only means by which the bank would try to contact you is by calling your home number. Obviously if the use is not ‘fraudulent’ and you are in fact out of the country and simply going about the regular business of accessing your funds from a foreign ATM, calling you at home is probably going to be a bit pointless. I did point this out when I called the bank for the second time in 2 days but was politely informed that they don’t send emails for security reasons… stupid is that?!? The funniest part of the call was that when she asked me if I’d informed them whether I was going overseas and I told her that I’d spoken only yesterday to one of her colleagues she confirmed that there was a note stating I was in India – but only until November?!?!? I distinctly remember telling Gemma until at least April – seriously I think the call centre in India would have been more useful than the one in Coventry!! Anyway, the card was finally re-instated and we once again have access to our funds – thank goodness.
We said our final goodbyes to Srinagar at the tender hour of 5am as our jeep to Leh sat waiting by the lake shore – apparently we had quite a drive ahead of us. In the darkness we listened to the last of the calls to prayer fading away behind us and looked ahead to the new adventures in store.

1 comment:

  1. Great read Carrie. Banks - don't assume! Bastardos!! Looking forward to the next story. Be safe.