Oh Travel...

The thing about travel is that it can't always be that amazing, fun, and surreal experience. Part of the adventure is the chaos, confusion, pure terror, and frustration. You have to take these circumstances in stride, not allowing them to effect your mood, and the more you travel the easier this gets. There is one thing, however, that I don't think I will ever get used to...the Indian stares. You can read all about it before you embark on an adventure to India and as it's happening you can remind yourself that it's just a cultural norm that is different from our own, but it's still such an uneasy feeling as you feel completely naked and vulnerable in those dark brown eyes! Our journey to Kashmir was the epitome of the "adventure" aspect of traveling that I speak about. harassment, broke down busses, broke down cars, language barriers, and complete terror, but the beauty and the culture here makes it all worth while. I knew that Kashmir would be a different world, different from India, but it took arriving here to get the full understanding.The people of Kashmir do not consider themselves Indian, they are Kashmiri, people of their own kind. The culture here is much more like what I consider Pakistani than what I see in the rest of India and there's a mix of Arabic, along with some Indian attributes. There's still such political dispute regarding Kashmir between Pakistan and India and with traveling through the border towns, you are reminded of this by the heavy military presence. The people, however, are absolutely wonderful. It's so great being here, but the journey is quite the story...

It was 9:44am (five days ago) when the bus pulled away from the peaceful, quiet town of Dharmasala. It was only four minutes past its scheduled departure time, so I took it as a sign that we were smooth sailing the rest of the day. The bus was crowded and chaotic, with men jumping on board every few bus stops to sell coconuts or cucumbers or spiced garbanzo beans, but this was no problem as I feel immune to the bus chaos in India. Three hours into the trip, however, when we all heard a crash from under the bus, we knew that we were no longer going to be on schedule to arrive at our destination. I think it was the transmission that failed us on this journey and it left us stranded on the side of the road. Not only was it in the heat of the day, but we conveniently crashed near the large piles of trash that seem so very uncontrollable in India. The flies, the heat, the trash. Great. How long is this going to take?? After patiently waiting for about an hour to see if the bus could be fixed, we found that they were sending another bus to transport us all, but that it would be about a two-hour wait, which in India could mean five. We had made friends with an Argentinian hippie, who actually lived in Eugene in the nineties. We talked about Oregon, crystals, traveling, and his life as an Argentinian/Italian man who lives in Mexico but comes to India every year to buy gems from Rajastan. The three of us decided it would be in our best interest to share a taxi the remaining hundred kilometers but couldn't have imagined the ordeal it was going to cause. It's still unclear to me why it took approximately twelve men to determine whether or not the taxi driver would take us  but we bargained with them all, begging for someone to take us the rest of the way. Finally, we shook hands and smiled as we were loading our bags into the car. We were off...or so we thought. It wasn't far up the road that the taxi driver pulled over trying to explain why he couldn't take us to Jammu, but the language barrier made it damn near impossible to get any answers. After the four of us sat in the car having the ultimate communication breakdown, we were informed that he didn't actually have his driver's license with him or the permit he needed to transport us in his taxi, and he was nervous of the multiple police wallas we had to drive through to get to the city. The three of us, eager to get to our destination, were able to persuade him that it would be okay and if any police officers pulled him over, we would tell them that we were friends and weren't actually paying for the taxi ride, to excuse his concerns with the permit. Now we were off! The roads in India are absolutely nuts, with minimal traffic laws, speed limits, or any rhythm whatsoever, so my stomach wasn't settled until we got to Jammu. Seeing the multiple horrific car accidents along the way certainly didn't ease the terror ether. It would be nice if I could say that Jammu was our final destination, but Hannah and I actually had to catch another bus from Jammu to Katra (in order to go to Patnitop, in order to go to Srinigar, our final destination), adding an additional hour to our already eight-hour day.

The bus ride to Katra was the first major scary drive on this Indian adventure, with the driver radically hauling this bus through the narrow mountain roads. I tried my best to keep the image of the bus rolling off the cliff out of my mind, but as the driver accelerated, the breaks screeched and we could feel the loose gravel under the tires. He was actually in such a hurry that when a man tried to get off the bus, he drove off before the man actually set both feet to the ground. It knocked this poor man to the concrete and I let out a loud gasp as I was sure the back tires were going to run him over. The bus never stopped to see if the man was alright, so watching him spring to his feet was certainly a relief. I was surprised when we made it to Katra alive, but immediately wanted to die when we were bombarded by men wanting us to stay at their hotels. There was one man in particular who was incredibly overbearing, shoving his brochure in my face. I exclaimed how 600 rs ($9) was out of our budget for a room, but he followed and continued to harass us anyway with the other men. A sweet old Kashmiri man dressed in white was standing outside his tourist office and pulled us girls inside, understanding that we were overwhelmed by the group of men pulling us every which way. After gathering some information from the man, we assumed we were safe to step back out to the street but as we left his office, the crazy man with the brochure was still outside waiting. He promised us the room for 400rs, so we figured maybe we should check it out, considering it was originally 600rs (meaning much nicer than our usual accommodation). He had us walk far outside the main stretch of town, through some sketchy alleyways, and into his "luxury" hotel. Within the same second that it took me to walk into the room, I was ready to walk out. The sheets and the walls were stained, there were bugs fluttering through the room, and the man himself didn't make us feel all that comfortable either. He chased after us as we left the building, trying to pull us into other hotels, explaining that we weren't going to find anything better or anything cheaper. I finally shouted at him to leave us alone, hoping that it would catch the attention of the other locals but because it seemed no one in Katra spoke much English, the man continued to follow us, harassing us along the way. I told him we were going to the tourist police hub up the road so he better leave us be, but he didn't budge. We finally stepped into a quaint guesthouse, trying to get away from this man, explaining what chaos he has caused us, but no one spoke english. We viewed the rooms and although they were also dirty and expensive, we took one to get away from that man, and as we gave the host our passports and our 500 rupees, he stood outside the hotel window with his arms crossed, glaring at us for not staying at his. To be honest, we never really ended up exploring Katra because of that man and the next morning got into a tourist van with five Indian tourists to Patnitop, which was just another stop along our way to Srinigar. We were told this ride would only be about two hours, but seven hours later we were finally able to settle into a guesthouse for the night. Ahhh India....

Patnitop was beautiful and we knew we would be stuck there for a couple of days before we could continue onward to Srinigar, because they alternate one-way traffic on the mountain roads every other day. Since the traffic was heading north the day we arrived, it would head south the next day. We figured this would give us plenty of time to figure out how to get to Srinigar because, again, the language barrier was extremely challenging. Patnitop was forested with pine trees, with cool weather that reminded me so much of home. It was so peaceful spending a couple days there, exploring the wilderness.  We walked up to a tea stall where we assumed the busses would pass the next day and asked if they could help us. We could only understand about every third word each other was speaking but the brother of the stall explained that he would arrange a van to pick us up the next morning and get us to Srinigar for approximately 300 or 400 ruppes ($5-$7) for the ten-hour ride. The next morning, when the road was opened for north-bound traffic, we headed to the tea stall to catch this van he "arranged". What we very quickly realized is that what he meant by arranging a van was that he was going to hitch-hike for us. He flagged down cars as they drove by to see if there was room for two, and we laughed when a taxi driver told us we could join the van he was driving that was already overcrowded with people. We laughed, but we still agreed to be a part of this Kashmiri can of sardines, and climbed on in. There weren't enough seats, so I was propped on a wooden crate that sat between the driver and passenger seats, bracing my body as we twisted through the mountain passes. The taxi driver spoke more english than anyone we had encountered in a number of days, so I felt at ease with him getting us to where we needed to go. The problem, however, was that his taxi kept breaking down, so every few kilometers we were pulling over to look under the hood of the car. By pulling over, I really mean just blocking traffic because the road was too narrow and the 500 foot cliff on the other side didn't give many other drivers the courage to pass. My time on the wooden crate was only a couple of hours. I suppose I lucked out that the little boy in the back of the van was car sick so him and his Dad needed to sit up front so the boy could puke out the window. We exchanged seats as the car was fixed and we were onward to Srinigar. The drive was long (10 hours) and uncomfortable, but the snowy Himalayas we were winding through was all that I needed to help the time pass.

We made it. We finally made it. It's a completely different world here and I love learning about the history of Kashmir and it's people, and learning their point of view on India and Pakistan. Our new friends here, who treat us as nothing less than family, have been so accommodating and so willing to share their stories. There was a terrible flood here in September last year and we continue to hear of the devastation that it caused, people losing their homes and their family members. We get to see the reconstruction of this town as they try to rebuild their already simple lives from such devastation. It's a blessing to be here and to learn so much of their trials, troubles, culture, and love they share for their homeland. Everyone we have met is so thrilled to share their lives with us. I love it here