"Juste ca pour ca?" "It will take as long as it takes" and "All that for this?" were the cliches coming out of our mouths the first two, excruciating days.
When plane landed on day three, we all looked at each other in disbelief. "Third time's a charm." When we peered out the plane window at the Srinagar airport at the barbed wire fences, the dozens of soldiers, the watch towers, and the grey and yellow land, a new thought entered my head: "Could this be the promised land everyone spoke about? Maybe they made a mistake and landed us in Kabul."
So many guns.
We stayed in the plane as fighter jets flew overhead ("for passenger safety, please wait as the fighter jets have passed") and 'deplaned'. We collected our baggage, registered and made our way outside, we met the driver who took us to Firdous' home. Through alleyways, past men in Pherans woman in full Burkas and sprawling houses that had been abandoned by their owners for less turbulent country. People stared at us through the windows as though we had nine heads. I did not see an Westerners for the next three days.
We wove through a labyrinth of alleys through a series of gates, the final one with an armed guard. Kashmir was cold and Firdous's home was no exception. He sat us down and a young boy lit the kerosene heater. The light in the living room was dim and the curtains were drawn. We shivered a bit and warmed up with our first of many Kashmiri teas (I began to call it Kashmiri pee for the repeated bathroom visits). We were joined by two young men, Gowhar and Arshid. Arshid works with Firdous (Firdous baba they call him) at the Kashmir Foundation for Hope and Peace's New Hope journal. The foundation seems to have many projects in addition to the journal, including vocational training for Kashmiri youth, rehabilitation of victims of violence and a partnership with Washington-based "Faith-based Reconciliation" group.
Gowhar is working with the Washington project in addition to setting up something called "SPACE", a place where university-aged students can discuss divergent points of view, learn crafts, a gallery to showcase their art, a host for out-of towners, a help line...it is very ambitious. And wonderful. All three of them were such inspiring activists without a trace of self-righteousness. Their enthusiasm was contagious. It broke my heart. They all need web sites. whew. Anyone want to help us?
We sat and drank tea and talked about the 7-month ban on internet use after the attack on Parliament last year. Then about the electrical outages (as long as a month!). "We are not so energy-dependent as you are," laughed Firdous. Gowhar, who used to work for an org called Green Kashmir suggested that Kashmiris would be much more capable of dealing with an energy crisis than the rest of India.
Firdous' son came into the room and peeked at us shyly before crawling into his father's lap. "He is a quarter to three years old." As it got dark outside, the mood began to change. Everyone started looking anxiously at their watches. Firdous suggested that we should get to our hotel before it got late (it ws 5:30). "We don't want you to be collateral damage," he said with a twinkle.
The hotel was gorgeous, freezing, and nearly completely vacant. This is a phenomenon in Kashmir. A former haven for tourists with residents for whom hosting is a vocation, the city now hosts dilapidated house boats, hollow-corridored hotels, and idle taxi-drivers. The hotel staff was effusive. They gave us hot water bottles, 20 lbs of blankets, an electric blanket (trust me, we needed it all. It was freezing!) and bottles of water. The dinner was awesome (Paneer Pudina is unripened cheese in a mint curry. It rocks) and flavorful and included with our rooms. I turned on the tv at 8:00 and watched brainless Bollywood romances to ward of my sense of fear and the gnawing feeling that I was under house arrest. At 9:30 Analyse This came on. It was oddly fitting for a movie choice.