More Dal

"I'm neither loitering nor trespassing, Fletch. I've merely chosen an advisable location from which to pull myself through this gunk."

Hmm, let's see. Left through the algae...or right, through the algae.
I really shouldn't have been, but I was pretty surprised to see this woman washing her clothes in Dal Lake, the most polluted body of water in the world. Well, polluted may not be the right word. The lake is mostly sewage.
This pic was on front page of KO the other day.
This old dude's trying to figger me out. Posted by Picasa
Need anything, just pull your boat up at Gooda and get some provisions.

This is the father of some of those rascals we saw earlier (actually below, with the dumb way this blog posts), and these are the houses they live in.

These are the lives they lead, or at least one moment in their lives.

And these two loved me and my camera to death. Posted by Picasa


Through the Backwaters of Dal

There is the Dal Lake that tourists see, with shikaras and gorgeous wood-carved houseboats along the Boulevard, the open expanse leading up the Pir Panjal range. The hotels along the waterfront, Dal Gate, seaweed, and all the rest. And then, slip in between two houseboats and go deeper, there is an entire city, populated by Hanji and other mixed peoples, more beautiful and expressive than their urban brethren and still tied to the waters because the majority cultivate the famous floating gardens of Dal, which are much debated but rarely seen. These are their homes and their lives.

And these are three kids who NEEDED me to snap their pic.

Brother, sister, and -- you may have to click and enlarge -- hooded baby sister, scared to death, peaking out window.

Arrgh. This young girl had such an extraordinary face, fierce and full of intent as she bailed water out of a little boat, but I swivelled around in m shikara to catch her very nearly too late -- we were already passing her by, and she was so close that when I snapped the pic there was movement, and the result is not in perfect focus. You can still get some sense of her ferocity, which was just awesome, but it really doesn't do her justice.

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Zero Bridge and Cloud Swept Mountains

Because they named all of the new, 20th-century road bridges by number, from 1 to 7 going east to west through town, the residents of Srinagar had a slight problem when they turned to see that one of the old wooden walking and cartpath bridges was still spanning the Jhelum, all the way back at eastern end of town. What to do? They dubbed it Zero Bridge, and so it has been ever since, even though it is vastly superior to the others, and knows it.

Anyway, we were zipping across One Bridge on way to cover flooding story on 5th consecutive day of rain when I turned and saw this, the still brown river, deep brown wet wood of Zero, the houses lining the water cheek by jowl, and in the distance whispy white clouds creeping over the foothills. Not sure this smallish image does it justice (I think you can click to make larger, no?), but it was gorgeous. Posted by Picasa

Life at Paradise Gardens

So, yeah, this is my crib. It's modest, sure, but what foreign correspondent can't rough it in a centuries-old three story stone and wood gathering hall? No, just kidding, my house is a teeny little stone thingie Next to this behemoth, over looking this garden, which is pretty stinking great.

Here's Hussain and I just chillin in my great room. He's the manservant/gardener/cook of the estate, and pretty much just an all around good and chipper chap of 19. Also needed to show folks the beard, which you can sort of but not really get a good feel for here, and also show Mom that I'm wearing necklace she gave me. =)

View of garden from my computer window as dusk approaches.

And this is our landlord, Iftikhar Jalali, a jovial, retired chap who does little more than stroll the grounds and take lengthy naps. Always in the best of moods, greeting me on the phone or in person as if he has never had a greater pleasure. And of course little Azuf, his grandson, every grounds must have a terror. He is ours. Darling boy, but why did I ever give him those squirt guns (Chaunce, you remember when we bought them in....what was that town called? A bunch ended up in little Kashmiri hands.)
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Independence Day in Leh

So the following few posts all took place on August 15th, but I just wanted to get them up for all to see. Also, the progression of pics below should be shifted -- the one two down should actually be before the next post. I still haven't figgered out exactly how to use this darn thing.

This is a pic of the market in Leh, I passed it on my way to the polo grounds and wanted to include.

The 59th anniversary of India's independence from Britain began wet and cold in Leh, but by 9am the rain had stopped and hundreds of soldiers, students, and performers stood at attention on the khaki turf of the Polo Grounds, all set for the Ladakhi celebrations.

Governmental and regional authority figures, their guests, and a selection of local VIP's were seated in readied silence in a covered grandstand. Owing to unspecified terror threats pegged to Independence Day, security forces arrayed impressively inside and outside the grounds rigorously scanned bags, faces, and the sheltering mountains and sky in search of anything out of the ordinary. Multi-colored flags, a reminder of Ladakh's Buddhist majority, fluttered in a light breeze across the field from the Indian colors, which sagged under the grandstand.
After words of welcome from the master of ceremonies, the assembled crowd of some ten to fifteen thousand – crammed onto bleachers, climbing up stone walls, pressed against security cordons, hanging over nearby balconies, and sprinkled with international tourists – was first treated to the sight of Lakruck Singh, Chief Executive Counselor of Ladakh, standing despot-like in a convertible and waving while being driven slowly around the periphery of the dusty field. Security forces now went about their duties with redoubled vitality, employing walkie-talkies, hard stares, and all the vigilance at their disposal to keep the audience frozen. Tour completed, Singh ascended to the rostrum and proceeded to give a speech in a language unfamiliar to anyone sitting near me.

Then the good times began. And before detailing the fun I should state that mid-morning independence celebrations are not my usual cup of tea, involving as they often do a certain degree of regimentation, discipline, and seriousness – what the hell would we all be doing here, at this ungodly our, if not for pomp and circumstance? – and a glaring lack of grilled foods and alcoholic beverages. Not to mention me getting up and motivated and across town beforehand. However, embracing cultural diversity and that sort of thing, I had steeled myself and hoped for the best.

A shout rang out after Singh's final words, and the battalions nearest the grandstand turned smartly to their left and began to march in the most exaggerated manner, with legs reaching near-perpendicularity and arms swinging above shoulders. Watching grown men "walk" in such a manner is inherently ludicrous, no matter the setting, and watching hundreds of stern-faced soldiers do so with great sincerity doubled my glee. I confess that I laughed out loud several times as these displays were repeated throughout the event, greatly enjoying this holdover from the British Raj still breathing deeply here in the Himalayan high desert. I wondered if such showy, overwrought stomping is the norm for formal gatherings across the country.

Regardless, the soldiers turned at the edge of the field and came around in front of Singh and the other assembled military and civilian guests of honor, swiveling their heads as they arrived directly in front. And now the students had turned and begun to walk in their footsteps, swinging and stomping their way along the turf, hundreds of boys and girls in packs of thirty to sixty, each representing a different school. They were aged six to about twelve and dressed in all variety of school outfits – classic Christian school plaid skirts and ties, blue button-down shirts with navy corduroys and berets, gorgeous, form-fitting green silk dresses accented with white, brilliant red and white checkered skirts paired with white blouses and colorful scarves, and, in honor of the occasion, Muslim schoolgirls bedecked in orange, green, and white clothing from head to toe. The whole lot went parading by, arms swinging up to their heads and heels kicking high, some smiling, others stern, but every darling one of them kick-stomping their way across a sandy pitch on a chilly Tuesday morn and not wondering:

"Why in god's name do we have to walk like this? This is really really dumb, and – ooph! – not terribly easy, either. And while I'm at it, Why me? I must look ridiculous."

These and other less subtle thoughts might have been coursing through my head were I one of these children. But these students, much like the soldiers before them, with their combination of great intent and unbridled delight, their melting-pot range of skill level, size, and coordination, made the marching something to behold.

"We do this because we are proud," their movements conveyed, "and we are especially proud today. This is our day. Look at us. Look at India. Aren't we something?"

And as what seemed every Ladakhi youth high-kicked her way past, I realized that these chorus girl kicks weren't ludicrous at all, or if they were ludicrous they were also something much more meaningful, because India had more reason to embrace and celebrate its Independence Day than most, mainly for two reasons. First, there is that unprecedented force of will that spearheaded the independence movement, that matchless moral and political authority, that skinny savior in a diaper, one of the great human beings of the twentieth century, Bapu, Mahatma, Ghandiji – a man who is an undeniable inspiration to students learning of his exploits, some of whom marched on Leh's Polo Grounds today. Second, the eviction of the British occurred less than 60 years ago, which means that there are hundreds of faces in this crowd who were alive to see it, to tell their children about it, and who, whether their lives were affected or not, were at the time able to appreciate the great historical moment and to feel a part of it. If they could, they would undoubtedly be out there kicking to the sky and swinging their arms with gusto. Some of that has seeped into their progeny.

The grand marches were followed by a series of singing, dancing, musical performances. Not one, or two, or ten even. There were seventeen in all. Seventeen very different, fantastic little shows of talent and movement – now that's an independence day celebration that puts the little-attended parades of the Western world to shame.

Some scenes:

"Hum Hindustani," (famous patriotic song, this might not be exact name) was the third number, a joyous tune of secular nationalist pride. If the message was distorted in the long-disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Buddhist girls doing the singing and dancing did not notice.

A yellow lab trotted out onto the pitch during that song, and ran back and forth in front of the performers, audience, and soldiers for a few numbers, seeming to enjoy his all access pass. Having had his fill, he slipped out an opening near the back.

A little skit of young Ladakhi girls embracing all variety of professions – engineer, doctor, pilot, scientist, soldier – finished with a shaved-headed, bespectacled and rail-thin local boy wearing only a dhoti leading the multitudes to the future, and to freedom.

A man wearing an Afghani Muslim hat (what is name for this??) sang a beautiful a capella song in Urdu.

They were all excellent displays of local customs, dress, and talent, but my favorite was the seventh, in which little girls – about six to ten years old – in black dresses with white shoes and sashes, wearing makeup and earrings, began by first standing stock still, then bowing gracefully towards each other and the guest of honor, Singh, before sliding back upright. Then – bang! bang! – two sharp drumbeats and they broke into what I affectionately call "the Indian dance." A part of almost every Bollywood routine, performed solely by women, and articulating some deep-rooted expression of India's endless grace and mystery, the dance involves swaying of one's hips broadly, then reaching bended arms out towards one side and twisting wrist and hand at precisely the right speed and timing, and repeating in opposite direction. The movements are incredibly simple, yet they are also deeply subtle, and when done right, and joyously, the way some of these Ladakhi girls performed Tuesday, the dance is sublime. A flick of wrist, a flared hip, a flash of smile, and you've been seduced.

The locals were mesmerized, jockeying for better seats and staring intently towards the canvas on which the performances took place. Caught up in the moment, soldiers relaxed their restrictions, letting small children and some elderly through the security lines for a closer view. One security guard with his own compact camera took snapshots on the sly.

As the ceremonies concluded awards were given for best performance and for best presentation, and all – marching band, soldiers, dancers, singers, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus – received a consolation prize of one sort or another. And as each and everyone one of them high-stepped to claim their award, awash in jubilant applause, I couldn't help thinking that India had been the real winner. Posted by Picasa

More Independence Day Pics

...the misfits

The preppy boys....

And finally, the jocks. Actually, a group of Canadians came to Ladakh like four years ago and made a documentary about making an ice hockey team in Leh. Here they are... Posted by Picasa
And I just love this march of the high school archetypes -- first come the goodie-goodie religious girls.

Then a shot of the crowd, riveted.

Then the bookish, nerdy types.
Then the hotties -- and these girls were certainly the darlings of the bunch.

(continuing...) Posted by Picasa

Independence Day in Leh

Just love these pics and this day, wanted to post them for all to enjoy.

This kid sat next to me and is clearly a mad genius, although he didn't speak a word.

Notice the camera behind his back.

Nice colored fans, boys. Posted by Picasa

A Pleasant Drive with Abid

Imagine, if you are able, the following: Srinagar, a city of one million inhabitants and about half as many motorized vehicles, does not have a stoplight. Nowhere in this maze of miles of paved and gravelly roads do timed, colored lights regulate the to and froing, the come and going. Oh, wait, that’s not completely true. They do actually have a few of them, on M.A. Road and at Jehangir Chowk, for example, but they stand sheathed and unblinking, commissioned and built but never used, having apparently offended some circulatory sensitivity just prior to their debut. Nor are there curbs, per se, or shoulders, barriers, lane markings, speed limits, or traffic signs of any sort. Nor, finally, do policeman keep an eye out for traffic violators; with an insurgency going on, they have bigger concerns. So it is that the pedestrians, stray animals, motorcycles, bikes, trucks, army convoys, cars, and narrow streets present a seething, chaotic mass of danger and mayhem, right?

Perhaps, yet there is little in my rather hermetic life here in Kashmir that I enjoy as much as the nightly ride home with Abid, my editor Sajjad’s driver, weaving through the untold moving and immobile obstacles, buoyant Bollywood songs bouncing from the stereo in rhyme with the scenery whizzing past. Bus in the way? Just lean on the horn and it will slide subtly to the left to give us room to pass. Sheep at 1 o’clock? Whip right and the coast is clear, for a second.

Abid is leaning on the horn again as we zip around a corner at about 60 kms/hr and there is a dog smack dab in the middle of the street, which is hemmed in by pedestrians on our left. We neither slow down nor budge from our path and at the last moment the dog lurches a foot or so to the left and we miss him by inches. Further along, on a relatively straight part of a boulevard divided by a two-foot wide median, a jawan – Indian security officer – is loading or unloading something from a large white truck on the left hand side of our lane. A black and white cow is standing on the median but leaning his great girth some three feet over the short railing and out into the street. Between the officer and the bovine there is less than a meter, yet we barrel onward, undaunted, joyous music spurring us on as a damsel gleefully hits those high notes, up and away she goes, urging us on, within twenty yards now as Abid leans on the horn again. Without looking at our fast-closing vehicle, the jawan presses his body up against the truck and the cow swings his head, neck, and body back over the median – the two synchronized movements providing the necessary additional three feet and we zoom through unimpeded. Similar seemingly choreographed moments happen every few seconds, and I would often see my life rushing before my eyes if they weren’t so effortlessly beautiful, as if all the people, horses, goats, sheep, dogs, chickens and cows had from birth been inscribed with the movements of this dance, knew exactly when a vehicle of a precisely defined width was approaching, and at what speed, and knew the minimal adjustments to make without breaking from their conversation or duty at hand. Or as if precisely the opposite, that all subcontinenters are astounding physical improvisationalists, capable of shifting up, down, left, right, contortioning and manipulating vehicles and carts and children into impossible positions in a fraction of a second at the slightest alarm and whilst continuing about their task. I imagine the hundred similar instances of near mayhem occurring at the same time at any one moment throughout the city, throughout all of India, even, and sense that this inexplicable, impossible dance of the dodge is another Indian wonder to behold.

Sure, occasionally someone misses a beat, but accidents just might be more impressive. Years ago in Jammu I was on a bus that nudged a parked car’s bumper as it was coming to a stop at a tea shop. As we passengers unloaded a small crowd of men gathered and began to take the matter in hand. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but I got the gist. At first the car owner was upset, his car being visibly damaged, but the subdued tones of the discussion soon calmed him down. Then the men who had witnessed the accident began speaking in turn, pointing at the car, the bumper of the bus, and the other available spaces of the mostly empty lot, as the bus driver and car owner listened, nodding occasionally. Soon enough a settlement, in which the car owner clearly got his due, had been reached, the bus driver and car owner shook hands, and all went into the tiny cafĂ©. Not fifteen minutes after the accident occurred, justice (and chai) had been served, and so resumed the great improvisation.

A few days after I arrived in India I had just gotten into the car with Sajjad, my editor, and told him that I would like to get my own transportation.

“But you don’t need it – Abid can give you rides.”

“Yes, but I like to be able to go where and when I need to, to cover a breaking story, for example, or visit a friend.”

“Yeah, yeah, I see,” he responded, as he often did when trying to think of a good counter-argument. “Well perhaps you should have a bike.”

“A bicycle, well I guess that wouldn’t be terrib…”

“No, no, a motorcycle,” he corrected. “Something like that,” and he pointed out the window to a chap riding a Honda next to us.

“Oh, right, well maybe I could do that. Wonder if I could get a used one.”

“Perhaps, but the bigger issue would be learning how to drive on these roads,” he said, turning to me and smiling.

“Yeah,” I laughed, “there are not many rules.”

“Not many?” he looked at me. “There aren’t any.”

And as we zoomed the wrong way down Residency Road, a main downtown artery analogous to Sixth Avenue in New York, and co-mingled with all variety of pedestrians and honking vehicles around a traffic circle and onto Polo View, I could only agree. Posted by Picasa


OK, so after a hard day of pedalling I'm relaxing in this alleyway with Billy and an old lady when all of a sudden I feel the earth move beneath my feet. I turn to my right and -- holy crap! -- a two-ton bull on some urgent errand is barreling down this five foot wide path. The thing was ginormous, with shoulders a man wide, coming within about a foot of pedestrians on either side, but nobody blinked. Not this guy across the way, not the old lady, and definitely not Billy.

Here's Billy. Ever seen that cartoon -- perhaps it was a tom and jerry that didn't include tom and jerry -- where the skinny, haggard, hick, upright-standing wolf loses all his possessions because of a goat he calls Billy? The goat eats everything and does nothing he asks except follow when he says, drawling, "here, Billy, Billy." so i spy this goat penned in a sunken cage, he's working on some grass about fifty yards yonder and i say "here, billy. here, billy, billy," not expecting much. But lo and behold he saunters over and climbs up a 70 degree vertical rock face until we are face to face. But the claim that mountain goats will eat anything is a myth -- he turned up his nose at a piece of my banana. Posted by Picasa
Check it out -- the monk turns inward, while the tourists look out into the world.

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Last Day in Leh -- 8-16

Rented a bike on my last full day in Leh and cruised around surrounding mountains and villages. Here's a shot of a gorgeous stupa (Buddhist temple) at about 12,000 feet -- takes a lot puff to get up that high on two wheels.

Monk has chosen an advisable vantage point at which to do the wash.

This old monk LOVES to sweep the street. Ours is not to reason why. Posted by Picasa