This is chapter 7 of the Graduate & Live 2016 Summer Tour of Asia, where three traveling freelancers take advantage of their freedom. In this installment, Ryan, Aom and Ashley travel to the notorious, but beautiful region of Kashmir. The land here is disputed between Pakistan, India and local separtists. For this reason tourists are typically advised to stay away.
Srinagar is the largest city in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Known as the summer capital of India, it's surrounded by mountains, lakes and rivers. Although there’s no active war, both India and Pakistan claim the territory, which technically puts it right in the danger zone.
Though we had no plans to stop in Kashmir, Ryan, Aom and I visited Srinagar because a man named A.J., who we met in a travel agency, said it was beautiful. We arrived on May 28. The air was fresh and the streets were clean, which was starkly different than India I had come to know. We hopped in a vintage jeep and headed to A.J.’s place, and I had no idea what to expect. We were winging it. And I'll admit -- I was a little afraid.
As we drove through Srinagar, I realized that there would be many more differences than no litter. A.J. said that Srinagar is a popular tourist destination, so I tried to look out for other foreigners. I didn't see any Westerners.
As we neared the city, I noticed that every woman and girl dressed in a white or colorful hijab. In that moment, I learned that Srinagar was a Muslim state. I sunk down in my seat, nervous about sticking out even more than I had in Delhi or Varanasi.
”Wow, this doesn’t even feel like India,” Ryan said. “This is what I’d imagine it’d be like to visit an Arab country.”
We made it to Baktoo’s Palace, which turned out to be row of massive, handcarved houseboats. The woodwork was exquisite, with each detail finely tuned. Red velvet curtains hung in each room, partially blocking the brightness of the sun. Mustafa, the owner of the boats, introduced himself and brought out a pot of cinnamon tea. I started to chat with the other travelers staying on the boat. A British woman, a Swedish man and two Indian men shared our space, planning to leave the next day for a hike.
The sun set, and the boys broke out a bottle of bourbon. We sat on the deck, drinking, smoking and soaking in the lakeside view. As the syrupy brown liquid neared the bottom of the bottle, the group began to speak in Hindi. They were laughing and joking, and some English words made it through, but it was impossible for me to keep up. Even though there were efforts to include me, I felt a bit isolated.
The experience gave me a whole new respect for the foreigners who come to America with only a few words of English. Normally, I'm able to speak my native tongue, no matter where I travel. I have the most respect for Aom, who is currently teaching herself English.
On the first night, I heard a noise that woke me from my sleep. It was a deep, drawn-out echo from across the lake. At first, it sounded like a moan, but maybe it was a didgeridoo? I wasn't sure, so I rolled over.
The next day, I learned the sound was a Muslim call to prayer. Muslims pray throughout the day and night, and at this mosque in particular, the call sounded at 4 a.m. Over time, the prayer became familiar. It even started to soothe me.
The next few days at Baktoo Palace would be a high learning curve. At times it was difficult, but I grew to love being out of my comfort zone. I learned the proper Muslim greeting, As-salamu alaykum ("peace be upon you"), and its response, Waʿalaykumu s-salām ("and upon you, peace"). I learned how to do my laundry by hand. And with each home-cooked meal, made with love by Mustafa's mother, I learned the meaning of generosity.
For one week, I rarely left the boat. I had healthy, clean vegetarian food, the beauty of the mountain and calm of the lake. I drank endless pots of Kashmiri kahwa tea and talked with the other travelers. Rowboats would constantly float up to the deck, selling food, crafts and jewelry. All in all, it was paradise.
The Baktoo clan treated us like family, offering home-cooked endless pots of Kashmiri kahwa tea. I feel like I truly built a relationship with them. I’d love to spend more time here, living and writing, and soaking up the scenery. But there’s always an excitement of starting something new.
Though I mostly focused on writing, Aom left our floating flat a few times. Apparently, someone approached and asked why she wasn't wearing a hijab into the city. The interaction lasted for a moment, and the man walked away.
“Ah, don't worry about him, he's old fashioned. For us, we prefer for women to be covered because we feel like it gives them more respect," Mustafa said. "Think of it like this.... you don't go to church in a bathing suit.”
"But we understand that other people are brought up in a different way," Mustafa said. "We don't begrudge anyone their right to be who they are."
Though I respect all religions, I guess I was afraid that all religions don't respect me. The culture may be different, but my week in Srinagar showed me that there's nothing to fear. I’m grateful for Ryan, and I’m grateful that he pushed me to do something I was afraid of. People are people. Yes, there are good people and bad people -- but mostly good.