Amanda and I woke up the next morning, our first on the houseboat, totally refreshed. It was some combination of having the place to ourselves, perfect silence at night, and the assurance a traveler rarely gets of not having to guard his/her things in the presence of others that made for such a complete rest.
I walked out to the dock, the sun still low, Nasir sitting on the edge with his toes in, drinking Kashmir Tea. We talked a little more like the night before, discussing the ugly state of politics and autonomy in the region. Sitting right in front of him, bobbing up and down in the water, was the small boat that I ‘d asked about the day before so Amanda and I could paddle ourselves around and go wherever we wanted to.
We ate breakfast quickly and embarked. For the first fifteen minutes in the boat we had little progress, cutting sharply across the water, unable to figure out how to control the boats pattern of movement and nearly pinballing into several Shikaras. The boat was larger than a kayak or canoe, and too wide to sit in the middle and paddle a few strokes on one side than the other.
We slowly improved, remembering the technique that Dean had told us, to make a “J’” as you paddle; Sitting on one side of the boat and giving the paddle a strong pull, reversing it only slightly at the end- the hook of the “J”- so as to correct your stroke and make it straight rather than a slow, perpetual circle.
Once we had our motion down we cruised freely, first to a small market for water and snacks, and then into the main channels of houseboats, dozens of Shikaras easily passing us by. We had managed to get our stroke down, but were by no means quick on the water.
A small channel disappeared into a thicket behind a few houseboats, and we took it not knowing where it led. We disappeared into the less populated channels of the wetlands, looking a lot more like the Everglades than northern India, beautiful tall cottonwoods and birch trees providing a canopy over the boat and blocking us from the sun.
The channel slowly opened up once more and we were in a small town sitting on the water. Buildings of all ages surrounding us. Some newly constructed, others barely clinging on to their decrepit exterior. By this point we’d been paddling for a few hours and were in need of a break. We found a small bridge straddling the channel, pulled our boat to one side, and found a small cafe sitting right on the waters edge.
The owner loved us from the moment we walked. He greeted us with a beaming smile and a strong handshake, introducing himself as Amin. He was overjoyed that two Americans had stumbled into his shop. He sat us down by the window, gave us hot and fresh Kashmir tea infused with cinnamon and cardamom, and snacks from his display window out front.
We made conversation with him and realized we were already the talk of the village when his wife, mother, son, daughter, and a group of boys came in to say hi and giggle at various moments.
When we were ready to leave and paddle back we asked for the bill, which Amin flatly refused. He told us that we had come in, drank his tea, sat in his place, and were now his brother and sister. As such, he refused to take money from family. His old world charm continued to impress Amanda and I, and only after some insistence did I pay him, finding a way to bridge the polite actions of our two different cultures.
Amanda and I left, paddling back the way we’d came, too unfamiliar with the terrain to try a different way back to our boat. The journey to-and-fro tired us both out and we had little energy for much else the rest of the day.
What little I had I used to convince her that we should go for a small evening paddle as the sun was dipping below the Himalayas, to get a lake- perspective sunset. It was the perfect call. We sat in the boat for half an hour, paddling on to change our orientation as we watched the light slowly fade away.
The following morning we left, from our houseboat back to Dean’s Shikara, and then a taxi to the airport where we boarded a flight from Srinagar to Delhi.
Although three days is hardly a sample size, Kashmir and Srinagar were almost oddly tranquil. It was almost the perfect opposite of the wider reputation of the area to the eyes of the outside world. It was a curious experience for how seemingly perfect it was, the complete decompression to what was a nominally relaxing, but very thrilling month in India. It really was at total odds with what I’d expected from Kashmir, and in the best way possible. Having known such polarizing ideas of a place without any personal experience of the conflicts and reconciling that with my own now- gained experience gave me a lot to think about and rework in my own impressions.
There are no un-beautiful places in the world. Each has its uniqueness, visible at the very least to those who own it and share its land. Any local I’ve met regardless of the place has not needed convincing that they live in a beautiful place, but the outside world often does. Our conversations with Nasir and Dean convinced me that Kashmir was one of these places, in need of convincing to the wider world.
People stopped us on the streets, in internet cafes, even in passing on Shikaras… everyone either wanted to know what we though of Kashmir or what our plans were and wanted to show us more. Everyone wanted to share their favorite corner of their homeland. Things like this rarely occur in places flooded with foreigners, where locals learn a profit is to be made from a visitor, where experiences become overrun with insincerity and it’s no longer the experience people leapt at in the first place. Outsiders become dollar signs.
Outsiders here are looked at as an opportunity to spread the reality of Kashmir much further, to let the world beyond know it’s not a foreboding landscape but one of tranquil beauty and dramatic power tucked away in the highest valleys and peaks of the world.
That was what I loved most about Kashmir. Everyone that approached me, or Amanda, had a beaming smile and a twinkle in their eye because they saw us as messengers to the outside world, as that opportunity. They all knew how beautiful Kashmir is, and they wanted to make sure everyone else knew too. They all wanted to say,
Enjoy your stay in Kashmir, and then please tell the outside world how wonderful it is here. And then tell them to come visit too.