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Monday, February 24, 2014

How I Went to Sonamarg: Kashmir Tour Diaries

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Disclaimer: This is the second story of the 'How I went to Kashmir' series. If you haven't read the previous one, well, in short, it is the year 2012 and Nero is in Kashmir, as tour leader of a group holiday. Having arrived the previous day, he’s had a trying evening as they all go shopping and in different directions. For hours. What will happen hereafter on the trip?

There are many troubles in the life of a tour guide.  With that profound thought and a snort, I shut the alarm that had been behaving most uncouthly.  The worst , I thought to myself as I flung the blanket in disgust and left my bed 2 minutes later, was to have to wake up before your group did.

As it turns out, there are far greater problems in the world. Loud children at a breakfast table, grandmothers assuming its their right to demand dosas for breakfast in Kashmir, flustered waiters rushing in with dishes that were not in the pre-decided menu, disapproving hotel managers, grumbling drivers waiting outside the hotel, and the ability to keep all these people happy.  Aah, the joys of a vacation.

An hour later, we left for Sonamarg. As tour leader, I sat at the front with Fayaaz, our twenty five year old driver. Throughout the six day trip, he would tell me the stories of Kashmir.

Behind us, everyone was singing songs and being extremely off-key. Packets of chips were being passed all across the mini bus, and the kids were devouring them as if it was their last meal. But that’s what tourist holiday are like eh. I looked outside, feeling the cold breeze on my face. The rain fell ever so slightly, that exact amount of  drizzle which draws you to put your hand outside the window and let the drops slither over your arm. Silently, I recounted to myself all that I should know about Sonamarg, to tell my group once we got there. My research, I congratulated myself, was impeccable.

Uh Neeraj, can you tell me what tree that is?” a voice asked from the background. I turned back and saw an old man beaming at me, positively pleased with his question.

There comes a time in every man's life when he wishes he had actually watched those Krishi Darshan shows on DD. I stared hard at the tree, and strangely it looked just like any tree should – leafy, barky, greeny ..

There are two ways of reacting when you don't know an answer to a question. Either you can do the right thing and accept that you do not know but will get back later with the answer. Or, you can furrow your eyebrows so exaggeratedly that the audience is misled into believing that you do know the answer but god damn forgot it one nano second back. It's a trick I have mastered over years of not knowing answers in my school, college and MBA years. I chose the second approach and went about furrowing, exaggerating, furrowing some more.

It’s a kikar,” Fayaaz whispered softly. “Kikar” I boomed loudly to my audience. “Used for firewood, and in building fences,” Fayaaz muttered again. “Used for building fences and hedges. And also as firewood,” I declared with the voice of a man who had been talking about Kikars all his life. The old man looked satisfied now.  And I, well I winked at my driver, and the seeds of a new friendship had been sowed.

Sonamarg is an approximate 56 kms drive from Srinagar. It lies on the Srinagar – Ladakh route, and is usually the last halt on the Kashmir side.

We stopped at a roadside dhaba on the way , and rushed to eat the steaming hot pakoras that a young lad was cooking on a slow flame. Its back opened out to a gurgling stream. The kids enjoyed splashing water on me, and the parents enjoyed their kids splashing water on me. I bore it, all the while feeling like a martyr.

Once the tourist cars reached Sonamarg, they were made to halt at the check point. The mountains should have overwhelmed our every sense,  for they rose everywhere wherever our eyes could go. However, it was our immediate surroundings that drew our attention, unfortunately. For as soon as  the vehicles came to a halt, a melee of  young Kashmiri boys rushed towards us, offering their services, extolling their horses, doing anything to have you pay them.

It is not a pleasant sight, the way they madly scramble towards you. Behind them are small tents. Once you hire the services of a guide, they usher you to these tents and you can change into your rented snow clothes. Small, overworked, weak ponies stand nearby, waiting for yet another journey into the mountains.  There are 4-wheel drives ready to take you up too, but then at that moment you think you are Robin Hood, Don Quixote and Rana Pratap all rolled into one , as adventurous as can be. Hence it's only a horse you want to mount. Tourists will try to clamber onto the horse’s back, and since most of them have never done so before, they will push wildly at the saddle, jerk the reins, dig their shoes onto the animal’s body, grapple with its neck all to just clamber on top of it. It is a living thing, you know. If only I could punch you for being so insensitive.

The journey up the mountains to Thajiwas glacier is amazing. As you trot ahead, one pony step at a time, the panorama literally opens up to you and you can see the different hills coming out of their hiding and taking shape.  While the lower hills are half brown, as you go higher, everything becomes pristine white.  I took all of it in, but a part of me couldn’t stop worrying about the pony and my guide. “Rani”, said Pervez (my young guide) when I asked him the pony’s name. You really are a queen, little one.

The path gradually became narrower. And more crowded. The melted snow had turned the mud to slush, so it became even more difficult for walking. Some of the horses veered around the edges of the cliff, and a few people shrieked thinking they might fall down the gorge. Pervez just smiled. He and the horses had been here too long, traversed this path everyday and were sure of each step they took. It would take some doing for a horse to actually fall down the cliff.

When we reached the snow boarding point, there was a huge number of people there. It should have tainted the beauty of the place, but so massive were the cliffs, so jagged their faces that you could not help but feel excited. The sport of snowboarding involves a wooden sled, dragging it up hill and then sitting on it and sliding down the slope. The bad part is that here, a man pulls you and the sled up the slope.  Everywhere boys were pulling kids, mothers, fathers on the sleds up hill and it took every bit of their muscles to do so.  I exchanged positions with my fellow,  and tried to pull him and the sled up the slope, and I slipped, skidded, heaved for ten feet before stopping and laughing  at the fruitlessness of it all.

Just walk up the hill with your boy, people, instead of making him pull you up on the sled. It’s the right thing to do.

We left Sonamarg in the evening, and went back to Fayaaz, the mini bus and darling Srinagar.  Earlier, we had played in the snow - even the adults gamboled about like mad kids, laughing and screaming. Then, a kid could not be found for some time and there was chaos - a crying mother, a furious grandfather, and a darkening sky. 

But those have not been detailed, for Sonamarg, much like any or all of Kashmir is not about the tourists – it is about Pervez and Rani. It is about the hills we saw. It is about the slush and the snow.

Aah, the joys of a vacation.

In Case you haven't read part 1 of the series - here

You can also read,

1)The Thimpu Bookstore
2) Dancing with a man in Malaga airport

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How I Went To Kashmir

Disclaimer: I went to Kashmir 2 years ago, for the first time as a tour guide. This is a prelude to the series of Kashmir stories I shall be sharing on my blog.

It was in the summer of 2012 when I led my first group tour to Kashmir. With me was a family of 25 people of all shapes and sizes, but mostly large and extra large. They had come to Delhi from the interiors of Tamil Nadu and not very comfortable with either English or Hindi, they wanted a guide to show them around Kashmir. On 24 June, as they animatedly chattered away on the flight to Srinagar, all I could think was how in the devil’s name was I going to make them like me, when I couldn’t even speak their language. This story is, however, about a lot more than that.

Let’s commence at the beginning. The tale of Kashmir will always start with that cold breeze that hits your face as soon as you get down at Srinagar airport and stays with you faithfully till the end. The story will, as it must, talk of the beauty of the land – of the omnipresence of the Himalayas in every frame, and the streams that always ran parallel to our tempo travellers throughout the trip. It will talk of the apple orchards and the saffron fields you read about in your Lonely Planet Guide, but it must not forget the chinars – those magnificent trees with trunks so large that you could not help wonder if this is what Enid Blyton had described as the faraway tree.

What the guide books never tell you, for they are written only to glorify, is of a shadow that shrouds the land.  Of the barbed wired check posts that you start seeing right from when you leave the airport, of the soldiers standing in the farms, of the uniformed man watching you from his makeshift asbestos cabin near the Dal.

When we read of Kashmir on travel websites, they tell us of the pretty houseboats on the Dal, Gulmarg’s cable car (the highest in the world) and skiing track, and Sonamarg’s  popularity as a snowboarding and horse riding destination.  Visit Kashmir, they tell us, to spend your honeymoon, to live in the land of the Gods, to ski, to paint, to love. A tourist’s heaven, they say excitedly.

It’s a state that desperately depends on tourism to make daily ends meet.  It is the story of the handsome Firdaus, a 17 old History Hons student, sitting in his pheran (local Kashmiri male robe) in a dingy shop just outside Gulmarg, renting out snow jackets and shoes to tourists eager to ride up the highest cable car in the world. It is also the story of Pervez, that young lad from Sonamarg, whose job is to seat tourists on underfed, overworked ponies and then guide them uphill over 6 kilometers of grass, slush and rocks to those snow-white hills where we ski and sled so joyfully. Everywhere in Kashmir there are hundreds of young men like Firdaus and Pervez, and that includes the courteous bell boys at the Adhoos hotel where we were staying – them with graduate educational backgrounds but no jobs that these degrees should have rightfully procured. 

It’s also about Fayaz and Farooq who drove us around the beautiful state for six days, and became my friends. One evening, I slipped out of the hotel and went over to Farooq’s to spend the night with his family. As I saw the lean man, hunching over his food, the wrinkles and grey hair shining in the lamp’s beam, I figured he must be around fifty. “Thirty two,” he replied when I asked him. “Twenty five,” quipped Fayaz. It is the tale of a state whose political misfortune and stress has caused an entire generation and the next to age quicker.

And that is why the internet needs more travel writers. A content writer has only the freedom to look at a place for its lush verdant valleys or sun kissed beaches. Kashmir, of course, has oodles of the former. But a travel writer has the power to smell the air, to peer inside a house, and most importantly the power to bring out a story, hopefully with compassion and life.
In Kashmir, you shall see handsome young men, with their stubbled beards and hair parted in the middle. The women are light eyed, and their heads are covered with scarves. It is a race that is naturally beautiful – apple cheeks and glowing skin.
Kashmir has had a torrid past, but conditions are now improving. The last 4-5 years have seen tourists come in thousands, the most in the last 20 years.  And that’s how we came in too, to ride the shikaras on the Dal, to tramp through the Mughal Gardens, buy original saffron and dry fruits, to run up pretty white mountains and click a dozen pictures in all these places.
But that day as we first sat in the flight from Delhi to Srinagar, I was absolutely unaware about how this journey through the beautiful land would completely overwhelm me. As my tour party chattering animatedly with each other in the tempo traveller that drove us from the airport to the hotel, all I could think of was how in the devil’s name was I going to make them like me, when I couldn’t even speak their language.  The breeze kept blowing merrily though.

---------   The End ----------

More stories on the Kashmir trip coming next week

Now Read:

1) Couchsurfing in Goa : The House near Toff Toff's
2) The Road Trip Adventures: A Prologue
3) The good men of India: A story at 17000 feet

Sunday, February 16, 2014

One Night on the Andaman Sea

There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea,whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.’  - Herman Melville (Moby Dick)

Once upon a 2008 March night...

I think I need alcohol,” Sanju informed me in a manner most matter of fact.  It was quintessential Sanjay, to want alcohol in a most matter of fact sort of way, even when we were on a ship.

You already know its not allowed on the ship,” Divya reminded him, without sounding like a preacher. And correct she was, for the M.V.Harshavardhana, as well as all other passenger ships that ply between the Indian mainland and Port Blair prohibit liquor drinking on board.  The six of us ambled along the remaining distance to the deck in silence.

There were a large number of people lined up on the deck. The stood at the edge, their hands on the railings, chatting away under the evening sky.  And then the breeze hit me.  Not like the pleasant variety that gently passes you by on a cloudy city day; this was a wind that did not care much for manners, strongly youthful and in your face. It whistled, marched along like a man on a mission, setting to conquer all. It did not want you to smile at it, it wanted you to gush in awe.

And then, I noticed her, smiling at him.

Sanjay caught my look and shook his head. He couldn’t accuse me of inconsistency though. I had been furtively looking at her for two days now, right from when the group had first reached my house in Chennai.  “Not really great manners to keep your mouth open while staring, you know,” Aditya helpfully informed. And since I am a receptive man, I closed my mouth with such a clang that all those who stood at the deck railings peered over, to gauge if the ship had hit an iceberg or something.

She was pretty. Worse, she was composed, enviably so. A kind of composure that maybe comes from being completely secure about yourself, from being brought up well and by a loving family, from being liked by all. Her grace unsettled me, even made me feel like a child in comparison, and I found myself falling deep. Rahul however was doing a significantly better job at the opening-the-mouth business, for every time his jaws parted and he said something that, she would, and this the part I don't understand, laugh. Highly unacceptable behaviour from both.

I figure that you have now been introduced to the six of us – Sanjay, Aditya, Rahul, Divya, Shweta and I. Notice how subtly I put Shweta and my name together without you realizing it? Sheer class.

We found ourselves a small vacant spot on the deck and spread a bed sheet.  In a move cleverer than the one I last spoke of, Rahul ensured that when we lay, his diabolical self would be lying next to her. I meanwhile was left rotting in between my two best friends Sanjay and Aditya.

You really had to call Rahul for this trip?” I hissed to Sanjay. “I think they are kissing,” was the helpful reply. “Oh please. There is only so much space on the sheet. That’s the only reason why she’s letting him lie that close. No body contact.” I croaked, peering over the bodies. The roar of the waves smothered the guffaws of my friends, if not the tremors in my heart.

The wind won over us all, one man one woman at a time, and we dozed off, on that tiny bed sheet, on the deck.I do not know why I woke up when she stood and left.  If life had a way of replaying itself, I would have known that it was Adi placing his thigh on my stomach that had roused me (not aroused me), but since nature does not allow any such replays, I deluded  myself to believe that it was love that was responsible.

She went to the railing and looked at the sea, possibly for answers she would not get back. From the corner of my eye, I saw a man who stood a couple of metres from her, go closer. His face was unshaven, his hair tousled and wavy. The wind pushed his mop of hair back in a way that one might think his hairline was receding.  Concerned, I stood up and seeing me, she beckoned me over with a smile. When I reached her, the man grinned at us, and retraced his steps. He had just been a regular guy wanting to talk to a regular girl.

Are you a good swimmer?” she asked me, looking into the black swirling waters below. “Like a fish, in my tub back home. Err but put me in any water that rises above my eyebrows and all you have is an expert drowner." After a pause, I added "And you?"

Oh I have always been a water baby. My father used to take us all to the club pool every day. Despite his weight, he was the best, cutting through the water like an athlete”. The pride in her voice was too glaring to miss. I tried to imagine an overweight man metres ahead of a floundering family in the pool. Years of courting has taught me that it’s always better to tease, than to admire. But at that moment, she had too much power over me, and despite myself, I found myself complimenting her father - her man.

Have you heard of the Moken?” she asked me, looking at my eyes for a moment.  When I shook my head, she pointed to her left, out a long way into the sea.

The Moken are the people of the sea,” she said and the waves swirled, as if it was their, and not her, secret she was revealing.  I touched her forehead and she smiled a bit, at my mock attempt of checking her temperature.

Deep in the Andaman Sea, somewhere between Burma and Thailand, live the Moken people, or the sea gypsies .  They travel the seas in the boats that they live in, eat from the sea, only return to land during the monsoons.”  Aditya had now stirred and was urgently trying to wake Sanjay up to tell him about us standing alone. My friends, I realized, don’t let up ever, not even on nights as starry as these.

The Moken,” my story teller continued, “are extraordinary divers. Having lived in the sea all their lives, they can see better and stay underwater for longer durations than other humans. They are lightning fast in water and can catch fish and sea cucumbers with their bare hands. You know Neeraj, Moken babies can swim even before they learn to walk. Isn't that awesome!” I liked how she took my name. I must admit I found that relatively more awesome.

The boat was leaving a beautiful wake behind, that gleamed silver in the moonlight.  “Maybe we shall spot them tomorrow during the day,” I remarked, envisioning several dark semi naked people, staring back at us as curiously, from their handmade boats.

That night, we spoke of other things too; of the constellations in the sky, the books we liked, and why Adi looked so ungainly while lying down. When we returned and took our respective spots , I looked at my friends, expecting they would  ask me all.

I need some alcohol,” Sanju informed in a manner most matter of fact. Quintessentially him.
P.S. Later in that trip, we saw flying fish, and dolphins that raced with the ship for dolphins will always be show ponies first and cautious later. But we never saw the Moken, for they who have been living in the sea for centuries know how to hide themselves if they want to.
I wasn’t to know until many years later that when the tsunami struck the coasts of the South Asian countries that 2005 December, and caused such widespread death and destruction, the Moken were left untouched. Having lived so close to the waters, they knew its every mood and whim, and had retreated to high ground a day before the tsunami eventually struck.  What we and all our modern technology could not foresee, these people had just by being close to, and respecting the sea.  That day, however the sea stayed quiet, taking care of all those who rode it.

Now Read:

1) Kathmandu: In the House of the World's Only Living Goddess
2) Conversations with a Russian Backpacker
3) The Man who Hitchhiked 25,000 kms across the World

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Secretaries of Juliet: Verona's Love Story

Top post on, the community of Indian Bloggers

Years back, as a boy going to school in Noida, I had the greatest belief in the concept of true love. Since, assuming is not the right way to go, the theory was then put firmly into practice. All of twelve years old and no facial hair or baritone to speak of, I fell for that loveliest of creatures ever made by God – Megha.

Such was the devotion to my feelings that she became a permanent fixture of my fantasy world. I saw her in the mud puddles on the road, on my bedroom ceiling and on the pages of my school notebooks. Well, in the notebook, because I scribbled her name a few times there. In code of course, couldn’t risk anyone else seeing it. Come 9th standard and it was a monumental year –  every year as soon as a batch entered 9th standard, they would discover the world of  slam books. When tackled with the profound ‘Love is…’ question, I firmed my jaw and filled ‘all consuming’

“You are cheesy,” my friends let me know.

Today,  the world seems a different place. Whatsapp has replaced chits, the faithful landline phone has been replaced by smart phones; and letter writing has gone extinct.

Or maybe not? In a small corner of the world, in the little Italian town of Verona, 13 women and 2 men reply daily to thousands of letters.  Addressed to ‘Juliet’, these letters come from all over the world. These fifteen people are known as the “Secretaries of Juliet”.

For once upon a time, as Shakespeare told us, there was a man in Verona called Romeo Montague who fell in love with a pretty girl named Juliet Capulet and from here was told the greatest story of love.

The characters might have been fictional,  but the town of Verona has declared a house to be the one where Juliet and the Capulet family might had lived. Every year, millions of people visit the town to see Juliet’s house and tomb.  The house is not easy to find, but once you do , it is a surreal sight. A small notice board declares that the house has been owned from the 1200s by the Capello family (adding that from here comes the name Capuleti, the house of Juliet).  In the courtyard, there are people from all over the world standing, some even crying. Young lovers with their video recorders, stand smiling on the balcony below which Romeo is supposed to have stood and serenaded Juliet.  Pasted on the walls of a tunnel leading into the house, are letters by hundreds of lovers wishing to be heard, wanting Juliet’s advice, revealing their innermost secrets and pain to a girl who probably never existed.

The tradition began in the 1930s, when someone left a letter on Juliet’s tomb, which is in the crypt of a monastery just outside the city walls. The tomb’s caretaker, Ettore Solimani, then replied to it. Soon more letters sat on the tomb and Ettore replied to every one of them. After World War 2, a local poet took up the practice. Later in the 80s, the town mayor asked Giulio Tamassi, a retired baker, to take charge of replying to the letters.

And that is how the Juliet Club or the ‘Club Di Giulietta’ was formed. “We get over five thousand letters every year” says Giovanna, one of the club secretaries. Most of these come from  teenage girls in the US but do not grin at that. There would be a lot coming from India too, if only more people had heard of this.

But why would these people reply to so many letters?

Nigerian-born Franklin Ohenhn, who replaced his sister as one of Juliet’s secretaries, says that often the letters take him to a world that is as far as is possible from the quiet picturesque Verona. “One girl studying in the ninth grade told me she was crying as she wrote her letter, about her boyfriend who had been killed in a gang fight.” The most disturbing letter he says he had to deal with was from another American teenager, who wanted to know if she should keep the baby of a boy she knew had only been playing around with her. “I told her to follow her heart,” Ohenhn says, looking into the distance.

Often, the secretaries take the advice of a psychologist before replying to the letters. Giovanna recalls that there was once a young man who visited a cemetery and saw the photograph of a young woman on a tomb. She had been dead for years and the tomb lay unattended to, dirty and forgotten. Moved, he returned regularly to take care of it and over time it turned into a relationship. “He lived as if they were in love”, says Giovanna.

Not just teenagers, the Club receives a number of letters from people in need of support. “There are people writing in to us from prisons, and we haven’t ever not replied to any one  says Giulio, the Club President, proudly.

What is remarkable is that all the Secretaries, devote so many hours to these letters, and do it for free. “Well, the council gives us the money for the stamps,” explains Giulio. “But it’s not even enough to cover the postage. Right now, I’m having a battle with the council. What we do brings so much tourism to Verona. It is time they stopped treating us like this. We’re all working for nothing.”
Carabetta, a club secretary smiles. “Not for nothing, Giulio…For the pleasure of reading these wonderful letters.”

And perhaps, for others, there are other personal reasons. “It has helped me to believe again in feelings,” says Elena Marchi, another secretary. “If a love affair is happy, it is happy. But what counts is to have a heart that is alive, no?

Let us drink to that Elena, if I ever come to Verona. And maybe you’ll let me write a reply to one of the letters.

Come to think of it, what was once a love story is now a great money turner for a town’s tourism. It is a strange world, folks, and a rapidly changing one. The twentieth century and a few following will be remembered for the great changes that they brought about in technology. However, it is stories such as these and people such as ‘Juliet’s Secretaries’ that will tell us that however much the world changes, there are some corners that never will; for faith works in wonderous ways.

If you like the story and are inspired to write your own letter, this is the address:

Address: Via Galilei 3 Verona, Verona, Italy (37100)
Contact Number: +39 045 533115

1.5 million tourists visit Verona every year; and Juliet’s house and tomb are second only to a Roman era arena as a tourist destination, according to Italy Tourism records.