Published: January 7th 2010June 6th 2009
Portal To A Different Life
After a two hour jeep ride loaded up with clothes, tents, food, live chickens (fresh dinner meat) from Srinigar through winding Himalayan roadways Bashir, Mohammed, Conxita and I made it to the small village of Naranag. As we pulled up to the entry point of this small village filled with scenery of melting glaciers, lush green landscapes and streams little did I know that this would be one of the most memorable experiences in India. We were greeted by several local people who were trying to get us to use their services of horses and mules to trek into the mountains. This also included children who were asking us for a "school pen." I guess this is what they needed instead of asking for a few rupees. It seemed like Bashir grabbed two brothers who would be spending quite a bit of time with us over the next few days to help us with things like cooking and finding fire wood not to mention finding Bashir bottles of rum every night.
We walked a few kilometers to find a good site to set up our living quarters for the next few days. We set
up our tents and dined on curry, rice and chai all cooked by our chef Mohammed. After dinner I decided to go for a walk and explore the village area before it became dark. I have to say I was very impressed with the natural scenery this place provided and as I strolled around in the pine tree cladded forests I saw huge footprints from the various animals that dwell in the surrounding areas of this remote Kashmiri village. I got lost a bit as the night fell and didnt want to lose my way after hearing numerous stories of the bears, cheetahs and monkeys that lurk along the same terrain I was traversing. Our New Neighbors
Upon finding my way back to our campsite I decided to go introduce myself to our neighbors who set up camp a few hundred feet away from us. As I approached their tent they invited me in and it was really intriguing because it seemed like they had never came into contact with anyone from the developed world or outside of the village. There were three children with two women taking care of them. We had trouble communicating with each other
as they only knew a few words of English- good, mother, brother. I was showing them the things that were in my bag- a compass, a Learning Hindi book, the notebook that I was recording my experiences in India on, my flashlight and some Korean Ginseng Tea. Later the husband came and joined us and I tried to introduce myself using my Hindi phrase book to no avail as they speak Urdu. Next we were playing with the things in my bag. They were so surprised and impressed by my flashlight and kept on playing with it. Then I pulled out my camera and we started taking pictures of one another. They were very amused and started cooking up some chai for everyone. Next I reached into my bag and grabbed a bag of the Korean Ginseng Tea I had been carrying with me. As I pointed to the tea bag and said "chai" and "water" their eyes lit up and could tell they knew exactly what I was trying to communicate. I handed them the bag so they could look at it and then the husband ripped it open and poured the ginseng tea into his palms. I tried
to communicate that you need to have some fresh water to make it separately from the chai that was being prepared. Then he put a bit of the grinded ginseng tea powder into his mouth for a quick taste before throwing the entire handful into the chai pot. I laughed to myself as they served me a combination of Kashmiri chai and Korean Ginseng- which turned out to be a very delicious fusion haha.
As we sipped on our Indian/Korean fusion tea, the husband attempted to tell me stories of the mountains in the village he lived in. The husband communicated to me that he was the owner of 200 sheep, 5 horses, a cow and three dogs. In the small Kashmiri villages, the animals one owns is often one's most valuable possession. He said one time while walking through the mountains he ran into a black tiger and it killed some of his sheep. Then his three dogs attacked the black tiger and left it for dead! Incredible! Hanging With My Man Mond
I spent many of the days going on hikes with the man Bashir would often refer to as "the horse boy" - Mond
Akthar Jagel, who was quickly becoming a good friend of mine. Mond showed me the most incredible scenic place in his village and told me many stories about his way of life in this Kashmiri village that seemed like such a beautiful paradise. I learned that people in Naranag Village have essentially no concept of age. For example, at first Mond said he was 27 years old until later I discovered that was just a rough estimate. He explained that he only thinks he might be 27 because his mother told him, but he is not for sure. Mond's brother said he is 18 years old but Mond said he doesnt think that is right- Mond said his guess is 25. I thought to myself that he looks much older- although it might be harder for me to estimate- my guess would be that Mond was about 33-38 years old. Perhaps it is better this way- as I have always thought that age is just a number and one should act and do things according to what they feel is right inside- not dictated by the year one is born.
While Mond finished this third month of formal schooling,
his father passed away. During this time he had no other options than to go out and work with his younger brother. Ever since, Mond has been taking tourists around the mountains and most of his possessions were gifts from people he guided along treks. Despite his lack of formal education Mond still can speak five languages- Hindi, English, Kashmiri, Urdu and another local dialect.
As we walked through the beautiful scenery, Mond told me stories of how when he used to work for the Indian military he carried 25 kilogram bags of food through the snow to earn a bit of money. However, he had to quit that job because it was too physically demanding. Mond's most prized possessions was his horse- he used this as a tool to carry things into the mountains and take tourists around. Thus it helps him earn the majority of his income. He said one time during the winter season while trekking through the Kashmiri mountains, his horse fell on some ice and tumbled along the slopes to its death and he was crying because he thought he didnt have any way to earn money. Mond said he had to work for
six years to save the equivalent to $400 USD to buy another. One time after showing a Spanish tourist around a few years ago the man promised to buy Mond another horse the next time he returned to Naranag. Mond still eagerly awaits his return.
Mond said winters in his Kashmiri village are very hard. He said he cant work during this time because no travelers ever come due to the six foot pileups of snow. All of the crops are frozen over so there is very little food and he must store food for the rough winter months. He said he often goes days without eating and sometimes he has to walk for two days at a time in his beat up sneakers just to go and buy food in the city for his family. I told Mond I would be happy to send him some hiking boots in the mail and his eyes lit up and a huge smile spread across his face as if he had been waiting for this his whole life. He said unfortunately he had no address to send things to. I really felt bad for him hearing about how difficult things are
for him and was trying to share my food with him- the food that Bashir packed for me never mind him- after all he was only getting paid about 150 rupees per day ($3USD) for spending all day and night with us. He also had a very swollen and infected thumb that he said he hurt cleaning a fish. Unfortunately there are no doctors he can see and I gave him some antiseptic and bandages out of my first aid kit. He was so happy and started calling me "my brother" and told me to come back here and I can stay with him and his family for one or two month without paying any money. Very warm gesture indeed considering his situation.
After hiking, Mond took me to meet his wife and kids and we had some Chapati and salted Kashmiri tea. He has one son and a daughter that were only a few years old. He said if god is good to him he will be able to send his kids to school for $10USD per month at the local school in the village.
One day when we were out hiking in the mountains, Mond and
I took a break to eat the packed lunch Bashir gave me- two boiled eggs, baked potato, and several tomatoes. As we were about to eat our lunch I pulled out the Leatherman knife that my best friend in the states Tony gave me right before my last trip to Central America. He originally gave it to me for protection but thus far I only put it to use when fruit needed to be sliced. Throughout my stay at Naranag I could see that Mond was really eyeing my knife and would always say "wow that is a really nice knife" whenever I put it to use. I knew the only knife he had was really dull and old since he cut his thumb open with it cleaning a fish. I was thinking to myself that he could put the knife to much more use than I ever could seeing as he was skinning chickens for us by the river in the mornings and figured it would make a great gift for him. I gave him the knife and told him it was a gift for him his eyes lit up and he said "wow you know I could really
use this- it will help me cut ropes on my horse so quickly and there are also pliers that I can use!" It made me feel really good giving such a small gift that I knew he would appreciate and find so important. How To Get An Injured Cow Up a Mountain
One day I decided to go on a trek along the steep mountain slopes surrounding Naranag by myself because Mond had been working really hard going walking with me and working around the campsite. As I was slowly climbing the mountain for two or three hours, I could see in the distance two boys, a girl that looked about 13 years old and two cows. As I was climbing one of the boys asked me- "you are only one man?" I told him I was by myself and then the group waited for me to catch up to him. Together we climbed the mountain a bit and at one point one of the cows, which turned out to be injured, could not make it up the mountain any longer. "We have been walking for more than 30 kilometers today from our town and now are so
close to the top so we can give our cows fresh grass and give it to a man who will take care of them for us." As he was explaining that one of the cows was very old and had an injured knee it sat down to take a rest. After a few minutes the boys decided it was time to continue up the mountain as we only had about 30 minutes more until we were at the top. However, the cow thought it was still time to rest his injured knee and would not budge as the two boys started whipping it with sticks to get it to move. They were trying everything- even getting behind it and physically trying to lift it off the ground to stand up. The cow finally started moving again for about 30 seconds and then sat down again- this time right behind a very steep slope. At this point the boys were SO frustrated as we were getting ever so close to the top of the mountain- our final destination and the pasture of green grass. The boys immediately started whipping the cow with their sticks and pulled it by the rope leash
that was tightly tied around its neck. Another problem arose quickly, the cow was now slowly sliding off the slope of the mountain and now the boys were running behind it trying to push it up to prevent it from falling down the steep mountain slope.
"Here you hold this rope," they said as they handed me the leash.
As I desperately tried to hang onto this huge, several hundred kilogram cow with this taught leash that was now functioning as a noose around its neck, I had no other options but to attempt to pull with more and more force so it didnt plummet down the slopes to an even worse fate. As the boys pushed from behind and I hung on and pulled with all my might, the cow looked like it was in severe pain as its eyes were wide and sad. As I tried to hang on for dear life I was slowly sliding down the mountain myself and at one point had to reason with myself that one of us here is going to get severely injured- myself or this cow. Needless to say, I didnt want it to be me.
cant hold on any longer! This cow is way too heavy!" I said as the rope began to slip from my hands.
"Here you take the rope," I yelled as I knew I couldnt hold on any longer and didnt want to be responsible for the fate of the boy's cow. The boy held on a bit longer and then let the cow go. Together we watched the cow tumble about fifteen feet down the steep mountain slope. Much to our surprise, the cow stood up and started walking a few feet after taking the fall and then resumed its normal position of sitting on the ground.
The boys immediately looked at each other and I knew exactly what they were thinking as they looked for the sticks they had previously beaten the cow with. "Hold on!" I exclaimed. "Lets let this cow rest for 15 minutes and then see how it feels. We are so close, maybe after a short rest it will be able to make it up the mountain. Maybe it just needs to rest its injured knee." The boys decided to give my idea a try as I am sure the cow had taken
quite a beating on the way up and was in pain.
Fifteen minutes later the cow magically stood up and started to make its way up the mountain again. At a slower pace we all trekked up to the top where a 90 year old man warmly greeted us. He invited us into his house to have some chai and bread with his family, where he lived with a separate room for his cows in the back. Bashir The Houseboat Owner
I have to admit that my opinion of Bashir, the houseboat owner from Srinigar gradually soured after hearing numerous accounts of his deception of others. At first, he appeared to be a very charismatic guy just operating his houseboat and taking travelers around for a good time. However, this began to change after hearing about his treatment of Mond and his brother. Throughout the course of our 10 days trek in Naranag, I could easily observe without understanding the discussions that were happening in Kashmiri that Bashir was definitely mistreating and taking advantage of Mond and his brother. From things as simple as asking them to go get him some water from a bucket located only
a few feet away to making him pick up garbage that he could easily pick up on his own after throwing several feet in front of him. Besides fetching a bottle of rum every night for Bashir to drink- which is a very very bad thing for a Muslim to do- Mond repeatedly said that anyone with a drinking habit like Bashir's should not be considered a Muslim. "My wife would kill me if she ever found me drinking," Mond said.
Bashir continued to take advantage of the two poor village men by refusing to pay them their salary of $22USD each for ten days of hard work unless they came back to Srinigar with him and work on his boat.
"Bashir says he doesnt have money here but his family keeps coming out here by jeep dropping off food and supplies. Why cant they just drop off some money for me too?" Mond would ask.
I told Mond that Bashir's servant on the houseboat could not work that week because his wife was in the hospital. So Mond was essentially being conned into coming back to the boat in Srinigar (a three hour jeep ride away)
to take the place of Bashir's servant.
"I don't want to go to Srinigar with that rich houseboat man" Mond would say repeatedly.
"I have my family here and my son is sick," Mond would tell me. "If I go to Srinigar I will not stay on that man's boat" he proudly voiced.
Of course, Mond came back with us to Srinigar and took Bashir's servant's place for a day doing chores around the boat in order to get his modest sum of 1300 rupees ($22USD) for chopping wood, fishing, cooking and sleeping at our campsite every night for the past ten days.
Upon seeing Bashir's houseboat it was as if Mond stepped into a different world. When I asked him what he thought of the boat Mond's eyes gleamed and he said "big."
The following morning Mond took off back to Naranag and left with a smile on his face even though he had been hustled by the rich houseboat owner. I guess Mond was applying what he told me around a campfire one night "some people sit at home and worry about their problems, others just keep on smiling." Confirmation of Dirty Business
"I want a bus ticket to Leh for tomorrow, please take me to the bus stand. I want to take the lowest class bus to Leh" I said as I was ready to move on after spending nearly two weeks in Kashmir.
Bashir continued to badger and make last attempts to make some money from his customer "Ok ok I will have my son get you a bus ticket for tomorrow. Are you sure you don't want to come by jeep? I can take you to Leh and it will be much safer than going on the public bus."
I made it perfectly clear to him once again that I want to go on my own and could not afford his prices to be trucked around India by jeep. Finally he gave up and sent his son to get a bus ticket down at the terminal. However, Bashir's son came back with a bus ticket for three days later than expected. "Isn't that the day you want to leave?"
It was more than obvious Bashir was trying to set me up to stay at his place for several more nights and pay to stay
on his boat. "Get me a ticket for tomorrow. I can't pay you anymore to stay on this boat. If you don't get my ticket for tomorrow I will leave tonight and find another place to stay and won't give you any money for the ticket your son bought me."
My final night on Bashir's boat was supposed to be a festive one with a special dinner, but instead I got my initial thoughts confirmed and now was one hundred percent certain he was a con man. At dinner that night after Bashir consumed his daily dosage of rum he started to get right down to business, "lets talk about money. We went trekking for six extra days and you are staying here for two extra days."
"Wait a minute, when we were on the trek and you asked me to stay for more time because we were having 'so much fun' you said 'don't worry about money' repeatedly when I told you I can't afford to pay you anything else. To me that means that I DO NOT have to pay. If I would have known you were going to ask for more money now then I
would have suggested that we leave and not extend our time trekking" I said sternly.
"I have to pay for food, transportation, the horse boys and the cook. You know that costs money, especially since we stayed out there longer" Bashir claimed.
I continued to argue "It does not matter. I made myself perfectly clear that I can't pay you anything else and you said that was okay. I hope you will keep your word on that!"
Finally he agreed after realizing I was getting angry. Bashir and his family always said that the best marketing for them was word of mouth from his customers. I am sure he did not want me to put any bad publicity into the heads of the many travelers on their way to Kashmir while I was in Leh.
Bashir liked to talk about life as he sees it over dinner and at night. As we finished dinner, this time Bashir's nightly armchair philosophy discorse (aided of course by Kashmiri rum) was conveniently on the topic of money. He repeatedly said that everyone else is always interested in making a few extra rupees in India but he is different. "Did
I charge you for those extra days of trekking? Bashir is different. Money is a source of corruption ect ect," he said as he kept making references to the Koran and Allah.
Later that night I was on my way to the ATM to pay Bashir for the extra days I stayed on his boat when I ran into his servant on the street who told me about his experience with Bashir. "I hope Bashir is not giving you a hard time. He always tries to get more money out of his customers. He does not even give me a fair salary. If you want to give me a tip for my services, please give it to me now while he is not here because Bashir will not give me my fair share. Then when we are on the boat just give a little bit for my tip in front of him. Oh and another thing, Bashir will ask you to tip his cook for houseboat food but the cook is his wife. So just give a very small amount for this. Bashir will try to get all of the money he can out of you. Bashir always argues
Koreans are all over the world!
with his brother Hanif about this because Hanif is an honest guy and travelers always have fun with him. However, Bashir repeatedly tries to cheat his customers and it does not make them want to come back and stay with him" he explained.
I felt bad for his servant as he said he is always trying to look for another job but can't find anything. I have been working on his boat ever since I was a child and it is so hard to find other opportunities. My wife is in the hospital and I have to pay for her bills somehow" he continued.
The next morning I left the boat with a mixture of emotions and was ready to go on independently to explore the Indian subcontinent. I said goodbye to Kashmir as it gave me many experiences that I will never forget.
There are more photos below