An Auspicious Arrival in Kashmir

ok, so after zigzagging and stop-going through almost an hour of hellish, 100-degree rush hour delhi traffic i arrive at airport 30 mins before departure to catch flight to srinagar on wednesday morn. bags were checked, double-checked and re-checked, as was my person, passport, ticket, and sanity, all in about a 30 square foot area -- imagine queuing up to the bar and getting gin poured in your glass, turning ninety degrees still in line to a little stand where two nice ladies drop in three ice cubes, strolling five feet in unison with endless others to get a shot of tonic, going through a curtain three feet ahead to win a slice of lime, before finally turning another 90 degrees to get a straw and you begin to imagine the bizarrely claustrophobic efficiencies of the indian airport system (as well as how much i could use agin and tonic right now).

after that i go out onto the tarmac, well it was actually a sort of giant tent set up on the tarmac, and point my luggage out to the Jet Airways workers so they could load them onto the plane. sweet,right? not our fault if you don't get your crap at the other end, no sir. finally, one last body and bag check as we board shuttle bus to take us to our plane roasting in the sun off in sector 73, board and we're off. two things come to mind while, flying over some himalayan foothills, lunch is served. firstly, why, after all this impressive, EL AL-style security, are they giving us actual metal silverware, including the butter knife? and secondly, dang, this curry is about the best flight eats i've ever had.

so then we land and the real fun starts. i fill out some foreigner registration forms, grab my bags and blissfully head outinto afternoon sun (i've made it, i've finally stinking arrived! look atthis place, friggin' srinagar is gorgeous. i'm a genius. this is going to be great. what the hell were all my friends and fam worried about? idiots.) to meet my co-workers, who'd promised to pick me up. you know that part whereyou exit the terminal pushing the cart after a long trip away and the doubledoors (ding!) whooosh open and there's all those family members andbeautiful girlfriend or boyfriend with anticipatory smiles leaning on therailing and staring hard into every face in the hopes of transforming itinto their one and only? and there's a few guys in white dress shirts anddark ties nonchalantly holding white placards that read "dennis needlebaum"or "sanjay gupta" on it, chatting with each other and generally not giving acrud? well so i walk into one of those, except it's outisde, on a dirt road, and with machine-gun toting military and police guard on either side, looking like they'd really like to have something to do, something involving a whitey perhaps -- and i've got nothing. no placard with my name on it. no friendly looking local stepping out of the crowd with a smile and proffered right hand. certainly not a comely lass. and so i push on through, assuming they're probably stationed a little further on, near their car, didn't want to leave it...or something. and nothing, still nothing materializes except for two tout taxi drivers who rapid-fire and competitively promise and guarantee to deliver me without delay to the world's most fantastic and astoundingly cheap houseboat, i cannot imagine the glories. but right now i'm trying to imagine what could've kept sajjad and farooq from showing up at the airport at the appointed hour at the appointed time at the stinking right airp...wait, there aren't two dang airports in teeny srinagar are there? a quick check with my new friend abdul the security guy reveals that no, there are not. so they should be here. i wait and chat with those two taxi drivers, who've now become friendly and heard about my plight and along with every other security chap asked if i had the phone numbers of my local contacts, to which i had to respond in the negative because sometimes, as most of my friends know, i am deeply idiotic. and so there i am, flies andbeggars buzzing about all of my earthly possessions sitting on a listing metal cart in front of me, surrounded by strange, bearded men, most of whom are brandishing high-powered weapons and looking askance, a bloody militantinsurgency all around and i don't know a single soul. and there i wait, thinking your average everyday thoughts (what could be keeping them? hmmm, i wonder where they are? why didn't i right down their phone number?....how do i know these guys even exist? i never talked to them on the phone -- all email! shoot oh shoot oh holy heck shooting dang it shoot i've fallen fortheir trap and these guys are terrorists and now here i am like a lamb to the slaughter, like a stupid american what the hell have i done.)

"why don't you just take a taxi to this address?" abdul asks, looking at me and holding the email paper i'd shown him with the only contact info in mypossession -- the address of the Kashmir Observer, the (non-existent?) newspaper for which i'd flown 7000 miles to work. and you know what, it sounded like a great idea.

so that's what we did and after a couple small twists and turns we found the place, nice blue banner on the outside of the building, and there was sajjad, scratching his head and saying hello and feeling bad and also a bit surprised. "i thought you were coming tomorrow," he said.

and of course that's what my last email had said.

Later, on the stairs of my hotel, I met Farooq Shah, who looked precisely as I’d envisioned: short, thin, bespectacled, and slightly hunched, with a leather-bound folder brief under his arm and a tendency to get excited and say British sounding words in the most delicate, sing-song manner. “Lovely,” for instance, had three syllables. We walked the block over to the Kashmir Observer offices, which were about the size of a shoe box and contained six or seven workers, whom I met.

Sipping lemon tea in a pleasantly verdant and secluded garden of the Tao café, Farooq said,

“We will put no limitations on you and your responsibilities at the Kashmir Observer. You can do whatever you want. View this paper as your baby.”

To which I was a bit dumbstruck.

As we paid, Farooq gave me some advice about my smoking.

“You should stop that if you want to live. Don’t you want to live a long life?” he asked me, dead serious and yet grinning. “You should stop smoking because we need good people like you a lot more than we need most other people.”

Which come to think of it was about the sweetest thing I'd heard in a while, and this from a man I'd known about an hour.

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