All the names in this article have been changed.
Ahmed sat three bottles of whiskey down on the table next to me and started working at his hash. It wasn't even 6am yet. Ahmed was the friend of a guy that I met on the street while looking for a ride to Kashmir. By riding with this guy that I'd never met, I would hopefully save myself a day of travel and a lot of frustration. I was told to meet Ahmed at 5am at a hotel not far from where I was staying. When I arrived at the hotel just after five, the gate was closed and no lights were on. I let myself in and started wandering around. A tiny glowing mouth-level red dot called through the darkness "come". I made my way to it. Ahmed told me to put down my bag and have a seat.
He turned on a light and asked me if I wanted a cup of chai. Ahmed had graying stubble of the kind you get after a three-day weekend of hard drinking. The bags under his eyes weren't overly noticeable on his dark skin. He was dressed well, wearing a black leather jacket and a turtleneck sweater. "I told my nephew that I didn't think you'd come." He said. He was obviously in no rush to get going. After I had drunk two cups of chai and Ahmed has smoked his first hash cigarette, Ahmed told me to leave my bag and come with him to get the car. I wasn't sure why I was needed to fetch the car, and still now I'm not sure why.
Ahmed drove a black Hyundai with a shiny black leather interior. He started the car and reggae came on the stereo. We drove back to the hotel and collected our things, then set off for Kashmir. "This fucking road." He said as we were descending out of town. His exclamation surprised me since I'm not used to hearing Asians swear. When we hit the first large road, Ahmed said to me "If anyone asks, like a police, just say we're friends and you're coming to visit my family." "Ok" I told him. He spoke with the volume of someone loosing their hearing. When we got on the highway he said "I have three bottles of whiskey in the trunk. If anyone asks, like a police, just say they're for us to drink." I knew there were three bottles of whiskey in the car, they were sitting next to me all morning while I waited for him to get ready. "Fucking police" he threw in.
We weren't on the highway long before we pulled off to get gas. At the gas station Ahmed got the emissions on his car checked. From what I could tell, all that meant was that he paid a guy at the gas station about 1USD for a document which would save him $9USD in bribes if we got stopped. Then we got some chai and Ahmed smoked some more hash. We made several stops for chai and hash throughout the journey. We pulled off on a mountain pass where he said it would be a nice place to smoke, and got out of the car. Ahmed started rolling a joint, then as monkeys surrounded us we got back in the car. We watched as large trucks slowly went by. "My dream is to drive a truck like that." He told me. "In the morning you're here, at night you're there." I've never met an adult that told me they dreamed of being a trucker. "If I had a truck like that, I would put 100kg of hash in it and drive down India. Yeah man, full power. You do that once and you're rich. But if you get caught... fucking police. The first time it's not so bad." He was fond of the phrase "full power" and when he said it a reminiscent smile of good days in the past was discretely visible on his face.
Ahmed drove fast and took chances when passing, especially around blind curves on the edges of cliffs. Most of the drive was blind curves on the edges of cliffs. Many people in Asia drive like that and it doesn't phase me anymore, but Ahmed's reaction time was getting slower with each additional splif. As we approached the Kashmiri boarder, Ahmed suggested I put on my hat. "You look like a little Kashmiri. Maybe they won't stop us." A jeep in front of us slammed on their brakes and we screeched and swerved and just barely missed them. There were a couple more close calls. You put your life in jeopardy any time you step into a vehicle in most places in Asia. I knew this. I recently told a friend planning to go to Asia for nine months that the most dangerous situation they're likely to be in during their entire trip will involve a vehicle. About 30km from our destination it finally happened: someone stopped short and we rear-ended them.
I saw it coming and had time to brace myself but not to stop it from happening. We weren't moving too fast by the time we hit them so the damage wasn't too bad an no one was hurt. The car we hit flew forward, then stopped, then four guys got out, one carrying a cricket bat. Ahmed got out to meet them. The accident happened in an unlit dusty village, and when the car lights turned themselves off I could barely see what was happening. Ahmed came back to the car. "Do you have any money with you?" he asked. "Yes, a little" I said apprehensively. He went back to the men and I saw him offer them some money. The driver of the other car didn't seem to think it was a fair price and they started arguing. Ahmed returned to the car. "I'm in big trouble." I waited a minute to see if he'd continue, then bit: "What kinda big trouble?" I asked uneasily. "I have to get my bumper fixed." He said. That's it!?! I thought the guy we hit was like the mayors son or something. Apparently the other driver had accepted the bribe and we were free to go.
"If my family asks about the accident, tell them you didn't see what happened. Only if they ask, otherwise, shanti shanti." He was also quite fond of the word "shanti" which I took to mean everything from "take it easy" to "smoke some hash" to "keep your mouth shut". On the way to Kashmir Ahmed had asked me if I had a place to stay and I told him that I didn't. He had told me that I could come stay with his family and I'm glad chose to take him up on the offer. We arrived late at night and I doubt I could have found a decent place on my own. Also, it was fucking cold and I didn't have the warm cloths to be wandering around. It was winter in Kashmir and I had light fall cloths at best.
Ahmed's brother, Omar, owned a houseboat called the HB Woodrose. In the summer Omar rents his boat out to tourists, but in the winter there's literally no tourists so it was vacant when we arrived. Ahmed stayed with his family on their group of houseboats, and I had Omar's boat all to myself. Omar invited me to come eat dinner on their boat. We sat on the floor of the one room with a TV and a space heater, and even then you could still see your breath. The temperature was well below freezing. There was no form of space heating on my uninsulated houseboat, but my bed had an electric blanket. That night I curled up in a ball under the blankets, my head the only thing exposed to the air. Sheets of cold pierced down on my face—probably my breath crystallizing and stinging my skin.
I woke to an early morning call for prayer, then waited for the sun to come heat things up. It never came. That day was as cold as the previous night. If you've ever had your hair stand at frigged attention while taking a hot shower, you know the type of general, penetrating cold I'm talking about. Before bed I met Ahmed in the kitchen of my boat; he had come on board to sneak some whiskey. When I was leaving in the morning I noticed the bottle of whiskey that Ahmed had been drinking from was half empty. "Where's Ahmed?" I asked Omar. "He went to get his papers from the police station." Omar replied. I knew Ahmed wasn't at the police station and I didn't let on, but I couldn't help but wondering where he was. Gambling? I let it drop from my mind. Omar took me to shore and showed me where the bazaar was. I bought some local walnuts and almonds then started walking for the old city.
Everywhere I looked—around trees, besides buildings, along fences—the streets were ornamented with dead leaves and concertina wire. Is this a war zone? When was it last a war zone? When will it be a war zone again? The air smelled like the smoke given off by a brown oak leaf under the flaming stare of the sun through a magnifying glass. Kashmir is known for handicrafts, not the least of which is wood carving. The ancient houses of Srinagar's old city were made of slumping brick and intricately carved walnut wood, both faded to the color of soil that's lost all nutrients. It was too cold for street cows in Srinagar and the dogs were all huddled up for warmth. Hawks ruled the barren city. As evening yielded to night, I hurried back to my houseboat.
There's no word to describe the weather the next day but gloom. A haze that was neither fog nor dust nor pollution hung around. Ahmed had told me that an old friend of his was a boatman and would take me on a full-day tour of the city and lakes if I wanted. In summer, Kashmir is India's escape from the heat, and Srinagar is packed with tourists being rowed around with heart shaped paddles in long wooden boats with padded beds and shade awnings. In the heart of winter, the main lake is frozen and channels are made through the ice for residents to get around. I wasn't particularly interested in a boat ride, but since I had nothing better to do and it was usually "the thing" to do in Srinagar, I grabbed a blanket and my warm booties that I bought in Nepal when it was too cold to go barefoot and my socks were too dirty to safely wear, and hopped in Ahmed's friends boat.
Our first stop of the day was at the first floating post office that I'd ever been to. I had some things to mail that I had painstakingly written in the cold of the night. While writing I had to pass my pen under the flame of a lighter every sentence or two to keep it from freezing. Then we glided off into the calm. An island with four naked trees came on through the haze as the sound of reverberating prayers murmurously closed in all around. There was an empty boat docked at the island and I was startled not to find an undead old woman haunting around the trees. The day got less creepy as we started following the shore. The driver of the boat made frequent stops to smoke some hash. "Shanti. Shanti." We were taking it easy.
That night I talked with Ahmed on his family's boat house and came to understand him better. "When there was trouble in Kashmir, I left." He told me. They were showing religious stories on TV. "All this fucking shit. You don't know if you're supposed to come or go." Ahmed just wanted to live a simple, indulgent life. "Pakistan, India. All this fucking war. Shanti. Shanti." He wasn't untrustworthy, in fact he was very kind. The following day he drove me around to Srinagar's famous gardens, which had a certain decaying charm to them that time of year. I got to talking to Omar that night. Life in Kashmir is tough, and not just because of the conflict. The winters are brutal and there's little to do or eat. Tourist season is the only of year they make any money, and business is still slow due to the history. Omar told me that I was the first American he'd seen in 20 years. I lived with Omar and Ahmed for four days on their houseboats and they treated me like family. There's a lot of hash and handicrafts and praying in Kashmir, and a very interesting history, but the people are hearty and honest. Kashmiri's want independence, but they don't want war: they just want to keep things shanti.Soundtrack: Kashmir (Led Zeppelin)