Gotta Get Away? Good Luck

(The following is a slightly edited version of an article I recently wrote for a Kashmiri magazine.)
One would think Thailand would be far enough. That taking a well-deserved vacation nearly 4000 kilometers away would put the conflict-ridden, militant-infested, paranoia-instigating environment of Kashmir in the rear-view mirror. One would be dead wrong.

First, a little background. I arrived in Srinagar last July to report for a local daily newspaper, and, although I had never been in any grave danger, six months in Kashmir had succeeded in setting my teeth on edge. Don’t get me wrong. My time here has been deeply memorable, invaluable even; I have made many great friends and had countless wonderful experiences, even found some time to relish Kashmir’s gorgeous alpine scenery. But I am an American, and have lived a life of relative ease and peaceful comfort. Sure, in New York City one might hear the occasional gunshot or witness a quickie mugging, but such are the sights and sounds of the city, and since one knows a welcoming pub or a convivial dinner party will soon follow they do not unhinge to the extent of life in a disputed state. Indeed, Kashmiris should be admired for their savoir faire in the face of constant danger and rife uncertainty, never quite sure where to lay their loyalties or when a grenade might destroy their lunch, their day, their life. Forged in peace-time in the developed world, I was made of lesser stuff, and the combined impact of the following were enough to send me scurrying towards the airport, if not the mental ward at SMH: militants paying a late night visit to my Zadibal home, luckily while I was out; daily reports of killings and shoot-outs and kidnappings and explosions and ambushes, all taking place within the surrounding fifty kilometers; constant power and Internet connectivity failures; a militant’s rifle bullet piercing an armored vehicle a few meters from where I was standing in Lal Chowk; the unrelenting, mind-numbing cold of a wintry world without indoor heating; the endless vigil of some six lakh armed soldiers; a dearth of alcoholic beverages. So it was that by mid-December I had made plans to meet Marla, my lady friend, somewhere warm, safe, and tranquil, to while away two weeks and, with any luck, unfurl my brow.

I arrived in Bangkok on December 29th and, after meeting Marla’s plane the following evening, the two of us were all geared up for a fun-filled and danger-free New Year’s Eve celebration in one of the party capitals of the world. We stepped out of our hotel and into one of Bangkok’s famously peppy tuk-tuks around 10pm, on the way to a New Year’s Eve temple festival at Sanam Luang, a great grassy expanse in the old part of the city and Bangkok’s main public gathering space.

“Why are the streets so empty?” Marla asked as we zipped along.

Indeed, Bangkok’s infamous traffic was nowhere to be found, bizarre on this, the night of all party nights. The sidewalks and storefronts, too, were still.

“I’ve no idea,” I answered. “Maybe everyone’s at the festival, or over at the countdown.”

At Central World Plaza a grand New Year’s countdown was being held; celebrities and bands were scheduled to perform and a million revelers had been predicted to attend. We thought about going but decided against it; I had seen enough of such cramped revelry in New York’s Times Square.

We were dropped at Sanam Luang only to find the park empty, quiet, and dark. A few sellers of necklaces and trinkets hawked their wares along the sidewalk. Some youngsters chatted near a banyan tree on the park’s edge. We scratched our heads and strolled over to nearby Khao San Road, traveller’s mecca and Bangkok party central, and ultimately found ourselves a raucous club full of lively locals at which to ring in 2007. We forgot the silent streets and lost ourselves in the night.

Reading the newspaper at breakfast the following morning, however, I learned that six bombs had gone off across the city, including two at Central World Plaza several hours before the countdown. Three had been killed and over 60 injured, including seven foreigners. Fearing additional attacks, the police had immediately cancelled all events and ordered everyone off the streets. An icy cold shiver ran down my spine, a remnant from Kashmir.

“This is why the streets were empty,” I said to Marla, showing her the front-page story. “This is why the park was dead.”

“Oh, wow,” she said, taking it in. “Everything was cancelled.”

“Yeah,” I responded. “At least we’re alright, eh?”

“I bet my mom is freaked,” she said, instinctively thinking of her family.

“Yeah,” I agreed, but to myself I thought: “Same old same old for my loved ones.”

By now my family and friends have most likely gotten used to, or at least become familiar with, explosions and surprise attacks occurring within my vicinity. But I haven’t. I don’t mean to say that the serial bombings in Bangkok were a shock, or that I was suddenly struck by an immobilizing fear, but it did get me thinking. And these thoughts were underscored a week later.

We were spending a few days on a gorgeous, beach-ringed island in southern Thailand when rebels killed three teachers in a gruesome highway attack not forty miles from our resort. The attackers were part of a Malay Muslim separatist movement that has been fighting for independence for Thailand’s three most southerly provinces for nearly seventy years, but with greater intensity post-2001.

And what I had wondered was this: is normality the relatively stable and peaceful Western world in which I grew up, or the unsettled, constantly-being-born rest of the planet? The easy answer is both, because normality is subjective, or neither, because people are frail and faulty. But a more serious examination brings to light a sobering truth: that I am one of the lucky few, that my sedate, serene upbringing was highly unusual, and that for most of humanity life is not about having a good time or buying the latest gadget or downloading the hippest ring-tone. It is about survival, holding onto traditions and territory, expressing belief and learning how to use a gun at 12 years old. In Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands of local Muslims and foreign soldiers die every month. Great swaths of Africa seethe with violence while others simmer with unpredictable tensions and hundreds of millions struggle for their daily bread. But these were never tourist destinations; be wary in Karbala and Kabul and Kinshasa, sure, but nowadays New York and Madrid, London and Istanbul, too. Riots in Paris. Culture clash murder in Amsterdam. Bombs in Bali. A gruesome death after a football match in Italy. Red Sea resort bombings in Egypt and Israel. Muslim jihadists kidnap American vacationers from their southern Philippine resort. Radiation found in a British Airways jet and in dozens of workers in a London Hotel. Freedom struggles festering in the Phillipines, Indonesia, China, Russia, Bangladesh, Colombia, Sri Lanka, several in India, and of course, Thailand. And the beat goes on…

In general, the post-9/11 world is rather insecure, and getting away from it all in the 21st century is a tall order. Who’s to blame? I could say George W. Bush. Or I could finger Osama bin Laden. I could point to Allah, aliens, or global warming. But really, the answer is right there in the mirror. It’s us. People. Earthlings are to blame. After all, we live here. Welcome to the neighborhood.

For the moment, perhaps we need to accept vacations with violence, bombs on the beach, or, as Jello Biafra put it not so long ago, a holiday in Cambodia. Maybe it’ll wake us up and shake us out of this stupor, make people realize that the world won’t become peaceful on its own. Maybe we need to lose our sense of security to change our ways and do something about it. It’s depressing news, this, but on the bright side, Kashmiris -- not to mention war correspondents --undoubtedly have a leg up.