Friday, April 18, 2008

Smurf Mafia

I think I’ve been kidnapped by drug-dealing Punjabis.

At the time, it seemed like a really good idea: Friend and I would pay a taxi to drive us up to Srinagar, Kashmir, normally an 8-hour drive, and then we’d stay with a quintessentially Indian connection—friendofafriendofafriendofafriendofafriend. No worries, right?

Then comes the water buffalo stampede. S. PLURAL. The first time was funny…before it was an hour long. Then Driver-ji decides to pull off the road umpti-bagillion times to have conversations in bushes with mysterious turbaned men (god forgive me, a lot of them looked like smurfs…large, hairy smurfs.) At first I think maybe he is getting his homosexual on, until Friend sagely points out that the unmarked car following us up the mountain seems to contain drug-shaped packages. Awesome. Driver-ji is an opium dealer and likes to take hits and weave all over the road, singing in Punjabi and declaring his undying love for me while insisting I sing American folk songs. Inexplicably, all I can remember is “When Doves Cry” by Prince. I don’t even like that song.

At hour 11, our open car door is hit by the Indian version of a semi, and we sit shivering in the Himalayan air while Driver-ji and the other driver get into a yelling match in the middle of the road while the other men vigorously concentrate on staring so hard at me and Friend that I’m seriously concerned they’re going to start pelting us with eyeballs. Then we get stopped by the military. Twice. Turns out militaries like to use machine guns to vaguely gesture at you while they keep saying the Hindi word for paper: kagaz, kagaz! Great, they’re going to take our passports, kill and rape and rob us in some variation of that order and then sell our papers on the black market. OH. MY. GODS.

Oh. They just want a piece of paper to write down Driver-ji’s info in case they decide his bribe isn’t big enough. And now friendofafriendofafriendofafriendofafriend is calling Driver-ji every 13 seconds to make sure we’re still alive and has been waiting in the Himalayan Lakeside Cold for seven hours to make sure he can paddle us out to his houseboat the second we get there. I don’t even think I’d wait in the freezing cold like that for my own children, let alone a stranger 13 times removed. Even amidst fear and ridiculousness, nobody does hospitality like India.

Kashmir itself was lovely, aside from the machine-gun toting military. Even though I'm American, the sight of so many guns very distinctly creeped me out. (Kashmir has long been disputed between India and Pakistan, a conflict which often become militarized, so it's understandable.) There is something very vital about a culture that fiercely holds on to its identity under such surveillance. And if I’m being frank, that fierceness is not always a comfortable thing to be near.

We lived on a houseboat in Dal Lake, which was full of houseboats and loveliness and nestled in mountainsmountainsmountains. You had to take boats everywhere, including through the lovely Old City, which made me think of an ancient Muslim Venice. Instead of street vendors, they had lake vendors, canoes going around and selling everything from flowers to soda to toothbrushes to dress material. We rode ponies up to a glacier and impressed all the warm-weather persons with our flip-flop-wearing ways. At night, I got paddled back to my houseboat by my pal Feroz, and as we wove in and out of gardens and houseboats, slipping through star-scattered lake, we talked of religion and water and I remembered for the thousandth time how much others are not others at all.