Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Adventures in Kashmir

Below is an actual conversation I had with a guy I met on the bus on the way to Kashmir. His name is Pushkar and, as he likes to tell EVERYBODY, he is from Punjab state of India. He is very proud to be from Punjab and touted his sharp intelligence as evidence that he is Punjabi. Imagine the voice of Abu, from The Simpsons, whenever you read his voice.

Pushkar: What are you reading?

Ben: A Train To Pakistan by Khushwant Singh - a novel I picked up in Pune. I think it's pretty well known here, right?

Pushkar: Never heard of it. I don't read novels. I read scientific texts and communication journals. Since I am a communications officer on board a ship, I must maintain knowledge of such important subjects.

Ben: That's good, but novels can teach you a lot about -

Pushkar: I am an expert in communications and I can solve any communication problem that could arise. Ask me a problem.

Ben: Ask you a communication problem...? I'm not sure what you mean.

Pushkar: Say you are stranded in the forest with no tools. How would you communicate with others.

Ben: I guess I'd build a fire and hope that somebody saw the smoke.

Pushkar: No, the forest is too thick. They cannot see your fire. Besides, how will you make the fire? You have no tools!

Ben: I suppose I'd rub sticks together, but ok, what's your solution.

Pushkar: Radio waves travel through the troposphere, so all one needs to do is construct a tower into the troposphere to send out a radio distress signal.

Ben: Wait. Build a tower? How are you going to do that? I thought you said you didn't have any tools?

Pushkar: Yes, I will use a sharp stone to cut down trees.

Ben: Ok - so how tall does this tower need to be to reach the troposphere?

Pushkar: 200 meters high.

(At this, he rests his case with a confident smile, leans back in his chair and looks at me like I'm a struggling freshman engineer student.)

Ben: So you're telling me that you're going to build a 200 meter tower - roughly equivalent to a 60 storey building - by yourself, using logs cut down by a sharp stone?

Pushkar: Yes.

Ben: You realize that it takes quite a bit of engineering and design raise a structure up 200 meters and that it would take quite a bit of steel or concrete to make it stay up, right?

(At this point, I was ignoring HOW he would transmit radio signals if he could get the tower up. I assumed he could fashion a microphone and wires out of pine cones and grass, or something.)

Pushkar: The human body can do amazing things when someone is in danger. I have read about women picking up automobiles to rescue their babies! Therefore, I could build a 200 meter tower if my life depended on it..

I dropped the conversation at this point. The two of us had MANY arguments very similar to this one. Pushkar embodied the danger in giving someone who was otherwise superstitious and acted on emotion access to something like the Discovery channel. He had picked up some scientific jargon from his studies and, mixed with a little Bear Grylles, he thought he was master of the world.

I met Pushkar and his father in a jeep from Jammu that went over the mountains to Srinagar - the largest city in the Kashmir valley. Our trip should've taken about 5 hours, but after 11 hours of traffic jam caused by landslides, our jeep stopped in Banihal for the night, about 3 hours short of Srinagar. I liked Pushkar's Dad. He was a teacher in a little village in the Kashmir valley and seemed to know his way around. I happily took his invitation to stay with them for the night. I have found that it is very important to make friends when travelling alone. Especially in a place like India, people prey on lone travellers and will scam you. I've found that it's better to move in packs here, and I'd rather choose my travelling partners on my own terms.

The above conversation occurred that night in the Himaliya Hotel in Banihal. Despite his father being a confident, silent, austere man, Pushkar, I came to learn, was an out of control brat who craved attention and wanted everyone in that little almost-Kashmiri truck stop of a town to know that he was from Punjab. Pushkar's sermons at the dinner table about how worthless Kashmiris were also unsettled me. He dismissed my protests to him to be quiet by saying that nobody there spoke English. He was probably right.

India is full of regional rivalries and, while the Punjabis and Kashmiris don't necessarily have it out for each other, given the situation in Kashmir, I thought it would be best to just lay low and keep quiet. Pushkar's father thought so, too, but he didn't seem to have any control over his chest-thumping, 20 year old piss-ant of a son.

The next morning I rode on with them to Srinigar where we parted ways. They went on to the father's village of Bandipore and I stayed in Srinigar to stay the week with my couchsurfing host. Despite Pushkar and his father's invitations to me to come visit, I really didn't plan on going to see them. Pushkar seemed way too volatile and way too much of a liability in a place like Kashmir. Even thought it's pretty quiet there now, I didn't want to take the risk.

But my host in Srinigar turned out to be a wash. He was a tour guide who was just using couchsurfing as a medium to attract business. After two days with him, I was disgusted by his constant attempts to get money out of me, so I started reconsidering the Pushkar option...

I called Pushkar's father and discussed the situation with him. He ensured me that it would be perfectly fine if I went up to spend a couple of days with them. Srinigar was just another city full of tourists and Kashmiri tour guides starving and ravenous after 20 years of bad business. I wanted to see the Kashmiri countryside, so I decided to give it a chance and go see Pushkar 2 hours away in Bandipore.

I came to find out that Pushkar and his father lived on a Border Security Force base in Bandipore and that his father was a teacher on base. Staying with them, then, meant that I also got to stay on base - a bonus as far as I was concerned, as not many travelers to India get such an inside peek.

The first 24 hours on base went well. I met a lot of the officers, ate mess with the enlisted guys and got lots of tours around base. But then, on the second day, when Pushkar and I tried to leave to go hiking in the mountains nearby, the guard stopped us and started asking questions about me. Later that day, when I was refused access back on base, I found out that during that morning interaction, Pushkar had called the guard a "sister-f***er" and many other bad names that don't translate as well from Hindi. Pushkar assures me that his name-calling was not the cause of my banishment from the base, but I am pretty confident that it is. The next day, even Pushkar had trouble getting back onto base and had to call his father to come let him in.

Luckily, Pushkar had a friend who was local and lived near by. After learning that I couldn't come back on base, Pushkar sent me to stay with this friend. The friend's family was a traditional Kashmiri one that lived in a traditional Kashmiri home. That means no furniture. I was directed into the front room and offered a pillow to sit on. It had been an exhausting day of hiking and dealing with a drunken Pushkar. My banishment from the base was only the last in a string of offences that eventually made me blow up at Pushkar for his arrogance. I was extremely tired and mentally frail when I sat down on the pillow in that Kashmiri house. All I wanted was some water and some sleep.

But seconds after I sat down, the whole family - 9 of them, I counted - filed in and sat around the wall on similar pillows. And stared at me.

I have grown accustomed to people staring at me. It happens to every foreigner on the streets of even big cities in India. We're just fascinating, I suppose. But this was a more extreme case. After my long day, I was not prepared for dealing with this. Hardly anyone spoke English, either, so all we could do, really, was smile and nod back and forth to each other. It felt ridiculous.

Luckily, or so I thought, the electricity went out and it was dark. I could deal with that much better than with 18 eyes staring at me. But then, the woman sitting closest to me turned on a flashlight and set in front of me so that my face was lit up and they could see me better. I could only laugh.

Later on, I thought that it would have been funny and it would have broken the ice much better if I had stood up and danced or something wildly silly but, as I said, I wasn't all there mentally. The best thing I could think of at the moment was to show them pictures on my camera. Indians are fascinated by romance, so I pulled up a picture of Bryn and passed it around telling them that she was my girlfriend. I think they were more fascinated by the digital camera than by the picture of Bryn and me in the Ukraine, but at least it stole the attention away from me and diverted it to the camera. It put a big, goofy grin on my face to think about Bryn and how silly the situation was and how funny and un-tense it would have been if she had been there. I relaxed and let go, and suddenly the staring didn't bother me anymore.

Eventually, they lost interest in me and filed off slowly to go make tea or finish some chores or put babies to bed and from that point on, I was able to deal with family members individually, or in groups of 2 or 3 instead of all nine at once. Despite the initial discomfort, my unexpected stay with that family was wonderful and they were all incredibly kind. They had a beautiful home and surrounding farm that I'll post pictures of later. I'm sure that my last 24 hours spent in Bandipore with them were much better than they would have been had I stayed with Pushkar.

But Pushkar embodies a lesson of travelling. You can't always be with people that you like or want to be around, but sometimes you need to deal with unsavory characters to access unique opportunities. He was just a stupid, insecure kid trying to be a man the Indian way which, unfortunately, is very similar to being a man the 15 year old way in the US. I think it's more important to know how to deal with these kinds of people rather than to dismiss them entirely. Part of the fun of travelling is being exposed to new people, and you can bet that you aren't going to like all of those people.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Brief Vacation from Travelling

I arrived in India one week ago today, flying from Seoul, South Korea to New Delhi. This, obviously, broke my vow to never fly yet again. Opposed to the past flights, when my only option for pushing further east was to fly, I had other options to get to India. I could have taken the ferry from South Korea to China, taken trains across China and then taken a jeep over the Himalayas to India. It was actually a leg of the journey that I was very excited about before I began, but 6 months of travelling had caught up with me and I was feeling very fatigued. Also, I wanted maximum time in India. Taking the land route there would have cut at least 2 weeks into my allotted time for India.

I was greeted in New Delhi with news that a bomb had killed 11 people outside the High Court in the capital. Great. About an hour after I arrived in New Delhi, I felt the building I was in shake violently for about 3 seconds. I was convinced that another high powered bomb had gone off in my vicinity, but I later found out that it was "only" an earthquake. 4.2 on the richter scale. That was actually the first earthquake I'd ever experienced, so it was a little exciting. It didn't cause any significant damage or injuries, which is the perfect kind of earthquake to experience. 
View from my balcony in New Delhi the morning after the quake

The next day I took the train 20 hours south to Pune, where my friends from Austin, Rohit and Caroline live. They moved here a few months ago after living and working in Austin for 4 years. Rohit has been the perfect host here. He's an indulgent person and he's been a welcome addition to my relatively austere lifestyle the past 6 months. Compared to past locales that I've visited, I've done precious little in Pune but man, it's been so great. I've read the newspaper everyday, getting back in tune with what's going on in the world and India. Did you know that Pune has the highest murder rate of old ladies in all of India? 
The Duronto Express, 20 hours from New Delhi to Pune

I have also made up for 6 months of practically zero shopping by going on a few shopping sprees here in Pune. I've bought myself clothes to replace the now monotonous wardrobe of 5 shirts and 3 pairs of pants that I've been carrying around. It's amazing how a new t-shirt or a new pair of underwear can lift your spirits. It's also made me realize that shopping can be educational, too. Going to the bazaars and haggling over $2 scarves and $5 t-shirts has exposed me to an integral side of India: commerce. 

I was shocked to find that India's neighbors to the north (specifically Kazakhstan) do not haggle. From my experience, they give you a price (usually exorbitantly high because you're a foreigner) and then don't come down. Even if you walk away, they just watch you go to the next stall until you inevitably find someone who will sell it for the right price. Not so in India. The sellers here have INVITED me to haggle with them. They really enjoy it and laugh and pat you on the back at the end. I've gone with locals on most of my shopping excursions to get a feel for it, and I don't think I've gotten ripped off yet. 

Napping rickshaw driver
The casual life of Pune will end tomorrow morning though when I board a flight to Jammu, up in the north. Then, on Friday, I'll get in a jeep and drive 5-6 hours north through the Himalayas to Srinagar, the main city of the Kashmir Valley. This will probably be my most adventurous journey yet, as Kashmir can be a bit dicey. But I've done my research and am staying with a trustworthy host so I feel comfortable with it. It'll be a good experience to see and experience life in an area as unstable as Kashmir.

I have a feeling that internet will be limited there, as it was in China, so I'll probably not be able to update again until the week after.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Video Blog from the Tien Shan mountains

I recorded this back on August 14th but haven't had the opportunity to post it yet. This summit was only about 3 hour bus ride and hike from my host's apartment in Urumqi. Probably the most amazing day hike I've ever had. It started hailing about 5 minutes after I recorded this.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Entering the home stretch

Well, here it is, September and I'm in South Korea. Technically, I've made it across Eurasia, which was my original goal. When I saw the Pacific Ocean (or Sea of Japan, close enough) I felt finished. My original plan was to go back to China from South Korea and head down south to Laos, Thailand, etc. on to Jakarta. But I've changed plans.

Instead, I'll be flying straight from South Korea to India. I know, this breaks my key rule of "no flying". If there's anything I've learned on this trip, it's that sticking to principles in the face of overwhelming logic to the contrary is dumb. Travelling through China by myself was exhausting. Achieving the smallest thing like finding the right bus was a monumental task. I want to resume my travels through China at some point, but not next week. I want to learn a little Chinese first and then do it.

Meanwhile, in India, I've got friends waiting and an entire sub-continent of craziness to explore. It will be so good to see some familiar faces after two months on my own (Bryn's was the last familiar face I saw back in June).

India will also be my last country before returning home, so that makes it the homestretch. Even though I'll be there for a while, so don't start baking welcome-cakes and grilling welcome-steaks quite yet.

This past week has been very busy. The Jeju swing camp was a success, even if the best night by FAR was not even a sanctioned event, but just a weekly dance held by the local Jeju club. I had some pretty late nights with those dancers, eating more dried squid, drinking rice wine and mocking my chop stick skills. Tuesday I arrived back on South Korea mainland in Busan and then took a train up to Daegu where I am right now. But later this afternoon I'm taking a train on to Gangneung up in the northeast. Hopefully I'll get to go see the border with North Korea some point this weekend.

I'm sorry for not posting more pictures - I really do have lots of good ones. Computer access is much more convenient in South Korea, but I've just been busy since I got here and haven't had time to sit down and load/label all my pictures. They'll come though, just be patient.