Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Settling In!

By the time we reached Delhi airport, bound for Srinagar my mood was already lifting, like the smog over Delhi. I had slept my first night in India and already this new world of mine for the next few months was beginning to feel familiar. The upward trend continued as our plane descended on the Kashmir value and I marveled at the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas coming into view. This is where our adventure was going to truly begin. It seems ironic really that in my most recent incarnation as an art auctioneer on a cruise ship I spent a great deal of time fantasizing about a time when I could say goodbye to my ocean dwelling days and be back on terra firma and here I was fantasizing about the romance of turning back the clocks to the raj era days and spending a few days aboard an Indian houseboat – granted I would be floating on a lake and not an ocean – but a body of water nevertheless! So here we were in Srinagar with the daunting task of choosing from one of 1400 houseboats that can be found on Dal Lake and no real plan of action. It turned out we didn’t need one! As we stood in line for a pre-paid taxi from the airport, 2 of the other 4 ‘westerners’ on our plane turned to us from their pole position at the counter and politely asked if we would like to share their taxi. Well it seemed like a reasonable suggestion given that we were going to the same place and it would halve our expense (from $8 - $4 – for the 36K trip). A polite and perfect English speaking middle aged man guided us from the door of the arrivals hall to the pre-paid taxi stand and assisted us with our luggage and then of course hopped in for the ride and explained that he was the owner of a houseboat on the lake and perhaps we would like to take a look. Well – with 1400 to look at I was glad of a little head-start on the process so we figured why not? And before you know it we were sitting with a pot of Kashmiri tea in the parlor of his houseboat (our new home for the next few days) discussing our deal and bargaining like crazy. Our new Spanish friends from the taxi stand were now our houseboat mates and as a group of 4 we were wheeling and dealing for the best price on all manner of tours and rides and the 2 day journey to Leh in Ladak along with this fabulous rustic old houseboat roof over our heads.
My husband excelled in the role of hard-ass deal-maker and as we factored and figured and calculated we came up with a number that seemed reasonable to us and eventually met at a point much closer to our original starting point than that of our new Kashmiri land-lord. Hands were shaken, smiles were exchanged and our first appointment was confirmed. Shikara ride on the lake, 5:30pm and until then free time to shower, relax and take our first meal aboard.
As we boarded the small wooden boat that was somewhere between a native Indian dugout canoe and a Venetian Gondola with a canopy we already felt a new sense of peace and calm from our first few hours in Srinagar and as our driver almost silently paddled us down the channel to an open stretch of lake we felt the sensation of a clock ticking backwards or at the least, time standing still. I leaned back on the cushion, closed my eyes, took a deep breath and for the first time finally felt ‘glad’ to be in India. But the tranquility I suppose was somewhat of an illusion: as we glided along admiring the lotus flowers and the lily pads, the intricate carving of the many houseboats we passed, the brightly colored shikaras passing us by we were startled by the sound of something that we could only presume to be an explosion within a fairly close proximity to the edge of the lake on which we paddled. As we turned to find the source of the noise we saw a cloud of smoke rising in the sky above the houses to the west of us and we were reminded that there probably was good reason for all those travel advisories against Kashmir – it was after all still a politically unstable place, not far from the Pakistani border – with constant terror threats and tensions brewing just below the surface of that tranquil veneer. We later confirmed that it was, in fact, a car bomb exploding that we had witnessed from the comfort of our shikara. It had caused 4 fatalities and 16 hospitalizations. A sobering thought and one that made it a little more difficult to embrace the ‘peace’ and feel at one with the world. But we were determined not to let the incident dampen our stay – the bomb after all was meant for police, outside a jail and although civilians had been caught in the blast we thankfully were not in their number and so we stay calm, enjoy the beauty surrounding us and remain grateful to be alive. For me, there is a wonderful peace to be found in the mountains. The magic, the majesty, the sheer magnificence and scale of the Himalayas are unmatched anywhere in the world; so to me this is heaven. I do indeed feel truly happy to be here despite the ever so slight chance that it might not actually be that safe. And I mean – let’s face it – who is safe these days?

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