Kashmiri Bondage

For the hike near Sonamarg, I gained two companions: Monika and Susanna. They were two Polish women just beginning a month’s tour of northern India. It turned out they had a similiar story to mine: wander into a supposed “government agency” near Connaught Place in Delhi to find a map/train information/objective advice, get thrown out with a package to Kashmir and a promise that it will be “the highlight of your trip to India.”

Hmmm.

At least we knew what we were getting into, unlike the young English couple we met in Narangh village, our trekking base. They were told they were going to the Himalayas. Technically, it’s true. We were indeed in that fabled range. But Bashir, the world-weary tout who sold us all on coming here, never uttered the word “Kashmir” to them. Clearly they’re inexperienced travelers to wind up in a place without knowing its name. But that doesn’t justify taking advantage of their naivete. It’s hardly surprising, though.

When Monika and Susanna asked them how they felt about being in Kashmir, considering the history of violence, their answer was so very English: “I’m sorry, but we’re where?”

This is where we five found ourselves.

Glacier River

The perspective is from atop a glacier, which was as covered with dirt and twigs as a bear just waking up from hiberation. Every day, the village women climb it to collect firewood, which they balance on their heads, the burden softened by a bundled-up scarf.

Gathering Wood Closeup

To reach Narangh, we had to pass Wusan, the largest Indian Army base in Kashmir. More barbed wire, machine guns, and soldier boredom.

It took three hours of travel over the pothole-blasted, organ-rearranging, serpentinely coiling roads that are one of Asia’s most frequently encountered native beasts. We had to take a roundabout route because the regular road—the better road, mind you—had gotten treacherous, and a bus went over the side. One person died.

So we took the road less traveled. So infrequently traveled, in fact, that as we bumped through villages in the Kargan district, we got treated as if it were 1962 and we were the Beatles in the US for the first time. Well, kind of. There were no teenage girls fainting from an overdose of nascent hormonal lust, but there were many reactions like this one:

It was already late afternoon, so we took only a short hike with Umar, one of our guides. The first place he brought us was just a few hundred yards from our quarters, which I thought of as the Blue Bunker. It was a 600-year-old Hindu temple, part of an enormous complex of archaeological ruins.

Narangh Ruins

My very own ruins to explore!
Umar helped me find the more unusual ancient pottery sherds that date to the time of the temple. Millions of such sherds litter the roads, farms, and complex grounds.

Mocking Girl

This girl was visiting the ruins as well.

After she demanded I take her portrait, she turned snide and mocking. She grabbed me around the shoulders and sat me down with her companions, a friendly enough couple in their 20s and and a embarrassed-looking boy. She photographed us with a cell phone.

She swaggered around the complex like a Viking in a tavern boasting over his mead about raping the local wenches, like a one-eyed pirate looking to stick a sword in someone. She was macho and arrogant.

I’ve been laughed at in many countries for many reasons, from my strange big nose to my feeble attempts to speak the local language to Because There’s Nothing Else to Look At. That’s boredom or curiosity. This was hostility.

When I moved to leave—shows’s over, nothing to see here, folks—she tugged on my arm and loudly derided me in Kashmiri. Smacktalk requires no translation.

I wrenched my arm from her grip. “You know, I can play that game too,” I said. “I can stand here and say stupid shit about you in a language that you don’t understand. And you know I’m talking about you right now. You can tell. And you know I don’t like you.”

Not my most articulate tirade, but of course that didn’t matter. She could easily read my anger. To her credit—and my everlasting irritation—she flinched only a little, shooting back with a Kashmiri rant.

“Go to hell,” I said with a dismissive backward wave as I left.

She clearly wasn’t a Narangh local, because she was clean. In Narangh, most of the people were friendly but filthy. (These two facts were, as they frequently are, completely unrelated.) Their clothes were mapped with months of stains, their hair snaggled with untamed bedhead, their fingers and faces grimy with mountain dirt. The children were even dirtier, layered with what seemed like a short lifetime of grime.

It was downright confounding. It made no sense. The village was built on a slope along a raging river, and countless streams and creeks rushed down the mountains to join the icy flow. The village was isolated, but not so isolated that the kids hadn’t seen our type before. We were often pestered by a swarm of sweet-smiled Hellos, as I began to think of the kids: “Helloooo pen! Helloooo baksheesh! Helloooo tip!”
Was it about poverty? Certainly they were poor, and labored hard to survive, but food and water seemed plentiful. Was there no time to bathe? Were all efforts spent pushing against the slide toward desperation?

Monika, Susanna, and I compared notes. Were the poor of Nepal this dirty? How about Mexico? Egypt? Bhutan? Delhi? Iran? China? Vietnam? Thailand? Guatemala? Nowhere we had been had we seen people as caked with dirt as the villagers of Narangh.

Equally grimy was the place we bunked down. Monika, Susanna, and I lay side by side in sleeping bags, cocooned like the silk worms of Kashmir that feed on the mulberry bushes, get plump and spun and boiled alive for their thread.

Accomodations

That first night, we played cards with Rami, a beak-nosed guide from Srinagar; Shaafi, the cook, who liked to wear his sunglasses indoors, at night, and manage to cop a feel three times by suddenly lifting me right off the ground in a bear hug; and several Narangh guides.

Rami proved to be a wicked card player. He also revealed a penchant for going pantless. Shortly into the game, he stripped off his jeans to reveal grey long johns, heartbreakingly skinny legs, and a far less endearing bulge.

“It’s like the sun,” I whispered to the equally horrified Susanna and Monika. “You can’t look at it directly.” The chill mountain air kept us under blankets, so at least the sun set for the night.

After cards, we moved on to another game, which we dubbed Kashmiri Bondage. The English woman and I were tied together at the wrists with a twisted string. We had to figure out how to separate ourselves. As the group roared with amusement, we contorted and bent. The string tightened. I crawled between her legs at some point, which only made things worse. Though laughing, I began to feel claustrophobic. Eventually, Shaafi relented, spluttering and nearly sweating with laughter as he showed us how to loop the string around our wrists and over our shoulders to release us.

I still can’t tell you how he did it.

Eventually, we booted Rami and the other guides from the room; they had intended to bunk down right next to us until I insisted that men and women sleep separately. Rami took his pantless self and the other guys to another room.

I went to bed thinking about how Kashmiri Bondage seemed an appropriate metaphor for the trip. We were restrained by Kashmir through mysterious techniques for unexplained reasons. And only the Kashimiris knew the way out.

*******

The next morning, Shaafi made breakfast in the “kitchen”—a corner of the Blue Bunker.

Narangh Kitchen

We took our tea outside on the cement porch. Immediately, Roma appeared. She was one of the children who lived next door. She may have been the daughter of one of our guides—not Umar, but another one, whose name I can’t recall. He kept abruptly sitting down next to Monika, Susanna, or I at an unnerving nearness, intently stared into my ear (since I avoided eye contact), and repeatedly offered to sell us hashish. Maybe it was the drug’s potency that was responsible for the deranged and slightly hysterical look in his eye.

He is on the left. Umar is on the right.

Trek Guides

Of all the kids that asked us for pens, baksheesh, and tips, Roma was the most committed. She was clearly very intelligent, and a master manipulator. At first, Monika was a goldmine of goods—barrettes, cookies, hairbands—but eventually got annoyed by Roma’s relentlessness, as did I. Susanna, on the other hand, was a soft touch, dancing with the kids and making them giggle, but she handed over fewer trinkets. But her sweetness kept Roma’s hope alive.

Here she is watching Monika and Susanna, and plotting her next move.

Roma

I put moisturizer on her cheeks, which were flaky and cracked. Watching this, her ancient grandfather gestured towards his Mars-dry heels, and I handed him a tissue full of the cream. He dabbed it on the painful-looking skin.

And then, finally, the hike began.

Trek 1

There were ponies for each of us. Susanna and the English couple rode them, but Monika and I preferred our own feet. The rocky path, often slippery with snow, wasn’t to be trusted, and neither was the dubious intelligence of a pack animal. If I was going to fall, I’d prefer falling directly from my own ass, rather than the pony’s.

The day before, we had passed numerous women carrying bundles of wood on their heads. “Kashmiri woman strong,” Umar had said with a grin. Now, as we climbed higher through the evergreens, and I continued to refuse the offers of pony assistance, he looked at me approvingly. “Madam is very strong,” he said, hitting one of the ponies on the ass with a switch. “Madam is very good walker.”

Shortly after this rest stop (photo by Monika)—

Trek Group

—the group began to splinter. Monika and I walked ahead, Susanna and the English couple getting on and off the ponies depending on the difficulty of the path. At one point, one pony reared and then stumbled forward. The English guy plunged over the pony’s head to the ground. I gave him a wet wipe and some bandaids, but it was clear that the extensive abrasions were going to pain him all night.

Perhaps that’s why he and his girlfriend gave up on reaching the summit. They and their guides turned back when we were still below the tree line. We three continued on with Umar. Surprisingly, the trek was easy, considering the village was 3,000 meters above sea level, and we climbed another 3,000 meters. The air was thinner, winding us quickly, yet I felt amazing. Endlessly energetic, clean, alert. Why did I feel so damned good? Shouldn’t this be harder? I was trekking in the Himalayas, after all. Where was the stress, the massive challenge to my endurance?

And then I fell. Yay!

Jen Scrape

Perhaps the wound would scar. Then I would have tangible, lifelong proof of how badass the Himalayas were. (photo by Monika)

The treeline had been charred by a fire caused by an unfortunate meeting of cigarette and petrol. Umar and Susanna climb past it toward the summit.

Near Summit

Snow draped the summit. We ate pack lunches while perched on rocks. I took off my shoes and spread my damp socks across another rock, hoping they’d dry by the time we finished eating. Crows gawking in the trees monitored exactly where we threw our orange peels and bread crusts. Umar offered me another egg, and I handed him a chocolate bar. He got restless while we rested, and climbed to the true summit.

Umar Summit

The English couple had left for Srinagar by the time we returned. The next day I climbed around the ruins again and tried to track down the archaeologist who was working on the temple restoration—a fact I was only able to find out that morning, despite having pestered everyone with questions about it for two days. Shaafi came with me to translate, but couldn’t find him.

Monika, Susanna, Umar, and I took one final hike. I wasn’t interested in climbing high, so when I found a peaceful spot where the grassy eaves of nomad houses dripped with the spring thaw, I stayed behind while the rest continued up.

For 20 minutes or so, I mediated on a rock in the middle of a creek. My eyes were closed when the three of them returned, so they passed by without my noticing.

Seeing me with my eyes closed, Susanna later told me, she and Monika decided to leave me be. But Umar wanted to wait. He felt responsible. And what on earth was I doing, anyway?

“Is Madam sleeping?” Umar asked.

Susanna considered what to tell him. “Madam is praying,” she said. He accepted this answer with a nod, and they moved on.

I laughed when she told me. “Well, there was no God involved, but close enough, I guess.”

We packed and got ready to return to Srinagar. Umar’s wife, Nasima—undoubtedly the cleanest person in the village—and Monika got acquainted.

Monica and Nasima

******

That night back in Srinagar, Rami turned against me.

There were hints during the week that I might fall out of favor. At first they wanted me under their thumb. But I kept changing the tour, or ignoring parts of it, or insisting they take me somewhere else, and always with the questions about the conflict. They were clearly exasperated with me. Later, as those of us in Kashmiri Bondage started to swap the stories we had been told, and the way we felt somewhat imprisoned, they instead tried to keep me away from the other houseboat captives. They knew I had the ability to document it—pen, paper, pictures.

It came to a head that last night. We five inmates were drinking Kingfisher in their houseboat’s dining room, which was decorated seedy Victorian. The curtains in particular were like fallen women—once upright and vibrant, now defeated and sagging. It was slatternly cozy.

Rami entered the room. His smile hung on a mocking frame of teeth. He was tired of us. He asked what I thought of the hike. I said the hike was beautiful, and the people of Narangh nice enough. But for the price—nearly $100 a night in India, for Chrissakes, where such money can buy some serious luxury—the Blue Bunker had been incredibly, astonishingly dirty. It had been represented to us as “having everything.” I don’t need everything, but for $100 a night, I expected a hell of a lot more.

It wasn’t the village I was complaining about. It shouldn’t be altered for us. But the Blue Bunker could’ve been. It was as if the grime of all of India had been concentrated in one room whose many windows were never opened.

Rami’s face turned eggplant. Perhaps he was hurt. We had have a nice first night playing cards, despite his pantlessness.

“Why didn’t madam tell before?”

“Because—”

“Why didn’t madam tell before? Now I can do nothing. You tell me now, I can do nothing.”

“Because—”

“It is nothing. Why didn’t madam tell before? Madam say nothing—”

I was getting pissed. “I’m trying to tell you right now. Do you want to hear what I have to say?”

He glared. “Okay.”

“Because those were the circumstances. What could be done? Everything was dirty. I was trying to go along.”

”Why didn’t madam tell before? Maybe I can do something. Now it is nothing.”

This logic was infuriating. “That’s not the point. You’re not addressing what I’m telling you. I’m telling you we paid too much money for how dirty everything was. The floor, the carpets, the blankets—we paid too much for what we got. Your company charges too much for what it provides. It’s misleading.”

“Madam didn’t tell me so there’s nothing I can do,” he announced. And then he stormed off, leaving behind a dust cloud of stunned silence that settled over our Kingfishers.

More interesting, however, was his second appearance a couple of hours later. It was nearly midnight, and we had been carousing as much as five people with five large beers can—that is to say, not thoroughly, but at least in earnest.

Suddenly, we heard thrashing and banging, as if a horde of rabid mongooses were frothing at the kitchen pans. There was single, impressive thump, and then a silence. A bleary-eyed Rami leaned around the doorjamb.

“What time does Madam want to go?” he barked. We were all called madam, but he was looking at me.

I thought he was talking about the following morning, when I was scheduled to have a shikara ride around Nageen Lake before heading to the airport.

“I thought 8:30?”

“No, back to the boathouse.”

I was sleeping separately from the others in a houseboat about 100 meters away, which was moored to the placid shore of Lake Nageen just like the one we were hanging out in.

Why did he want to know?

“You mean now? I don’t know. Whenever.” I waved my hand at the group—meaning, I’m having fun here, so when it stops, I guess.

“You can borrow our torch,” the English woman said helpfully.

“It’s okay, I’ll go whenever,” I told Rami.

“Madam cannot!” he snapped.

“Why?”

“It’s very dangerous!” he barked.

“To the other boathouse?” I said incredulously. “It’s a hundred meters away. You’re saying it’s dangerous to walk 100 meters?” I slept in that houseboat for four nights, so it was a fine time to tell me now. But I knew he was lying.

“Madam, this is not Delhi, this is Kashmir,” he said threateningly. This was a new one. I’d never heard Delhi referred to as if it were the quaint country mouse to the bad-ass city mouse Srinagar.

“What do I have to be afraid of?”

“Many things! Madam, this is not Delhi,” he said again, waving his hands over his head. “There are soldiers—”

“You’re saying I have to be scared of Indian soldiers?” I asked, once again incredulous.

This was moving beyond the borders of bullshit into the realm of you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me-how-stupid-do-you-think-I am. I needed to be scared of Indian soldiers—who were nowhere nearby, not even at their daytime post on the road more than 300 meters away—about as much as I needed to worry about being chased by a Yeti.

“If something happens to Madam, it is not my responsibility! It is her fault!” he yelled, and stormed off for the second time.

This left us perhaps more stunned than the first tirade did.

“He knows we’ve all been talking and know their lies,” Monika said.

“He doesn’t want you talking to us,” the English woman added.

This was probably true, but I proposed a more prosaic reason: He was tired, and wanted to go to bed, and I, without knowing it, had been keeping him up. So he decided to use the conflict to scare me into doing what he wanted.

It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but it was perhaps the most egregious example, and certainly the most absurd. The others asked me not to say anything to the management, because they still had another few days to stay there. They were seriously concerned they might be intentionally stranded somewhere by the tour operators. I promised.

The next morning, I was more than ready to leave Srinagar. The boat ride was quite pretty—

Twin trees

—but I wanted out. I had a sense of dread I couldn’t shake.

I had a whole other adventure getting to the airport. It was because of my cab driver. Rami had told him I was a journalist, and he had worked with many journalists, particularly one “Bob” from the BBC during the early 1990s, when the conflict was at its bloodiest. He was determined I understand the motivations of the insurgents, particularly the rampant corruption in Kashmir. The police, the politicans, the people—everyone is on the take.

So instead of driving me to the airport, he first took me to meet a leader of the insurgents from the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Party, perhaps this guy. He phoned someone, the words “American journalist” leaping out at me from the stream of Kashmiri. Above us, on a terrace, a man stared down at us. I could feel his eyes on the top of my head.

It was a Sunday, and the contact couldn’t meet me until the next day, when I’d already be back in that retiring country village known as Delhi. I couldn’t decide whether I was relieved or disappointed.
Then we headed for the Srinagar airport, where I went through a remarkable six security checkpoints. Repeatedly groped by female police officers, I got more action in that half-hour period than I’d had since that last intense, sad hug with my husband, Steve, at JFK.

“Don’t tell them you’re a journalist,” the cab driver said to me in a low tone as I filled out the departure form every foreigner needs to complete when leaving Srinagar.

But of course I knew this already. Only the Vietnamese authorities have known, and that was because I had no choice. He watched with approval as I wrote, yet again, “consultant” on yet another government form.

“Be careful,” he said, gesturing beyond the last checkpoint, where he could no longer come with me. “Don’t cause any trouble.”

“Who, me?” I said. He gave me a knowing look. I had been in his company for just over an hour.

I’m still trying to process what, exactly, went on in Kashmir. There’s much that happened that I haven’t mentioned. I do know this: Its surreal, singular nature gave rise to a whole new set of adjectives, which Monika, Susanna, and I kept coming up with. Faced by an object that is confoundingly dirty? It’s Kashmiri dirty. Viewing something unpleasant? You’re looking at the Kashmiri sun. Caught in a situation you can’t escape, where you are potentially in danger but perhaps are just being taken for a ride? You’re in Kashmiri bondage.

12 Replies to “Kashmiri Bondage”

  1. Jesus Christ, hon. When I asked you about Kashmir you said you were a little freaked out but.. wow.

    On a more positive note, I got the package from China! You’ll forgive me if I don’t eat the yak jerky as bot the bag it was in and the the bag the nice rocks from Leaping Tiger gorge both came open, and with 2 months of surface mail jostling it’s like rock dust & spicy flavor yak jerky now…

    Love!

  2. I don’t know, dust-covered yak jerky sounds pretty yummy to me…Taste the Adventure!

    Wow, it really did take two months. Crazy. At least I didn’t beat the package home. Are the rocks still mostly whole, or have they been reduced to bits?

    What about the Mandarin-subtitled Iraq’s Most Wanted deck of cards? Are those a score, or what?

  3. Also, the yak jerky kinda smells like cat food. Cat food that’s been in a box bouncing around china/who knows where else for two months.

    Well, I guess it’s nice to see that the Chinese can cash in on the stupid hype that sold a wholly illegal, duderheaded act of international hegemony to an uncritical population too!
    No wait, that’s depressing.

    while we’re using this as a chit chat board as you don’t seem to be doing email or text anymore- we got our tax refund- It will be in the joint acct by the need o’ the week.

  4. Where are you off to next?? The photos from Kashmir are beautiful, but the story disturbing!
    Love Mom

  5. I left you a comment on ” Get your God on”. Did you receive it? Dad and I are getting ready to put the boat in. My business is really hurting. The buyers are bottom fishing and the sellers don’t want to hear that the market has changed!! When you get a chance, get back to me.
    Love your mommie!

  6. What a story! I knew you should not have gone to that “God Foresaken” place!
    What would you have done if you hadn’t hooked up with the Polish Trio?
    Thank God you didn’t devulge that you were a Jounalist. You could have gotten yourself mixed up in something life threatening.
    My God, please come home already!

    Love Dad

  7. I agree with your dad, skinny lady. Come hooooome. booo hooo. your a very brave young woman. I hope all other adventures are more safe and fun. We miss you and think of you often. Its getting harder over here wiyhout you. next time don’t go for so long. Don’t mean to make you feel sad, just loved. see you soon.

  8. Hey, everybody, it’s fine, no need to worry! I’m not even in the country anymore.
    The thing about safe and fun is, I get bored after a while…

  9. hej Jen .. I’ve finally read it .. it brings it all back .. and the most amazing thing is that in some sense the story actually goes on .. new thigs I keep realizing .. new marks that I discover it left on me .. anyhow .. I wonder how you are … cheers, monika

  10. Hi Monika –
    I know what you mean, Kashmir will continue to resonate in my mind for a long time…
    I’m fine, adjusting to life back in NYC. Hope you are well!

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