Dear family and friends,
We are on a journey. We left our luxurious hotel and took the ride of our lives in a mortorized ricksaw. This one was driven by a boy, fifteen sixteen, he said. He could have been younger. The driving age in India is eighteen. On the way to the train station we were stuck in traffic, and this boy made moves in traffic that I'm still impressed by. We made it to the train station with time to spare, because the train was an hour late. The scene in the train station was not unlike Calcutta, with people lying everywhere, but there was more space per person. In fact, we joined them, lying against our backpacks. I did happen to notice, looking across the hall a bit, a sizable rat in the shadow of a wall. It made me feel at home, mom, recollecting the time that a rat went across your feet in the wee hours of the morning in our home many years ago.
Again, in a "first class cabin there was wonderful air conditioning and very amicable partners in our four bunk room. This time, a family with a very active three year old. There is something about the movement of the train that makes for great sleep.
So, here we were in Delhi going from one railroad station in New Delhi to another in Old Delhi. There is building everywhere in Delhi. They are preparing for the upcoming Commonwealth games in October. Judging by the amount unfinished, I'd say they are a little behind schedule. Maybe twenty years. Delhi does have a subway that's three years old and we negotiated the path, and set out to find a place to store our backpacks. We were led to a government tour office, where a travel agent pitched us a flight to Kashmir instead of a train ride to Daramshala. Laurie was very skeptical and we went to a coffee shop to talk it over. I knew Laurie's going to Daramshala was my priority. Laurie, on the other hand, struck up a conversation with a couple men, who were from Ladakh and the Kashmir, just by coincidence. The agent pitched us a very reasonable price on the flight and two nights in a houseboat, meals included. Laurie decided that I would be happier in the mountains, and surprised me by going back into the travel agent and signing us up for the flight to Kashmir. And so, instead of a twelve hour train and bus ride, we opted for a one hour flight into the mountains of Kashmir, landing in Srinagar. So, there you have it, we've put off Daramshala and the Dalei Llama, but still have plans to visit; it's just we are going to take a little detour.
The houseboat we are staying on looks out into this peaceful lake. At the moment, muzzerin call out across the valley. It's quite eery. It really fills this place with the call to prayer. In some sense, India is the Disneyland of spirituality.
This afternoon, we saw substantial numbers of eagles swooping down on the lake. To see them soar. To trace their flight, to see them swoop down, and then to glide again. As the sun set, as r watched from the roof of our house boat, muzzerin called out again. Moslems in the grass below, knelt in prayer, prostrating themselves. "Jews don't bow down," I heard some unaffiliated Jew once say, castigatingly. Well, that's not entirely true, I had to explain. I have to admire the fervor of this country. As we move between Hindi and Moslem and Buddhist worlds, there is one constant, fervor meets secular in every setting. In the morning, I had watched an eagle sitting on a nearby roof, waiting for it to take flight. I sat there watching, watching, admiring its strength. Until finally it spread its wing and took off. Later in the afternoon, we took a canoe, and paddled on the lake. This canoe is somewhat more primitive than our sleek plastic canoe, and the oars substantially heavier, but paddle we did. Past lotus root and flowers, among lilies, grasses, and yes, pumpkins growing in water that has flooded the gardens at the water's edge.
The Kashmir is lush, mountainous and, no doubt, valuable, because it's served as the center of a dispute between India and Pakistan before they were countries, over a hundred years. As to the Kashmiris themselves, now that India has helped them with infrastructure, they are ready, they say, to be independent, though we've seen no signs of a political movement. Like Varanassi, Srinegar hovers between village and city. The streets are substantially cleaner, though cows wander through traffic. There are over a million residents, though we haven't seen them all. We are staying at a protective distance from the din, with a beautiful view of the lake and the distant, dusty mountains. Dusty... smoggy, its hard to tell, but the mountains are both close and somewhat elusive like in Los Angeles. There are certainly enough motorized vehicles in this valley to create pollution, but I am grateful to say that air conditioning is for the first time, absolutely unnecessary. We also smell fires burning trash. After Varanasi, I think i will always ponder what is being burnt very, very carefully.
We will stay in this houseboat for another night, and then go on a four day trek, with horses carrying our packs. Very, very cushy. We hope to climb some and to see a glacier or two. These are the foothills of the Himalayas that I dreamed of. Four days is a taste.
Last night a man named Rami taught us a card game akin to gin rummy, only with five players. Laurie said that the Walder-Biesanzes play it, but all I could draw upon was my grandmother Honey's wisdom: don't pick for pairs. I had no choice, though, and it was fun to lose. Rami is interesting. He could track every card in the deck, yet he can neither read nor write. Never spent a day in school. He's clearly very bright, and I wonder if anyone knows a program for learning to read english for adults on the internet. He seems motivated to learn.
By the way, all the signs in Srinegar are in English. This is the first time we've seen this. When we asked, the explain we received was that no one knows how to read Urdu, the language of this area. They read english, if anything at all. At the same time, in this Moslem area, it's clear that they read the Koran and speak Arabic so I don't fully understand. The inscriptions on the gravestones in a local graveyard are written in Arabic. Maybe it's like Yiddish and Hebrew. once were for generations: you could speak Yiddish, curse in it, but never write literature in it. Hebrew, you could read it, write in it, but couldn't curse in it until modern Israel solved that problem. in addition to Urdu and Hindi, this man who can neither read nor write, speaks pretty good English. Go and figure.
The children of India yell out to us "hello" "or hello, Saba" (from Saheeb, meaning mister) from the side of the roads and banks of the river. Then they laugh. There is something of a substantial allure to Americans. We are rich, all of us. By Indian standards at least. There's also a lot of solicitous behavior that surrounds "rich Americans." There are cultural distances. Gestures are misunderstood. How much to tip; how much to give to beggars. Do we think in dollars or rupees. The indian economy is growing at a substantially better rate than Americans. It is over 8% this year. That's growth for such a big country. Change. It is evident. Yet how do you bring change to a billion people? I'll have to think about that for a while. You think about it too.
How does anyone think of India as a country. I mean how can a billion people be identified with any one thing? There should be a hundred Indias. Or maybe a billion?
Gary, Abba, Rabbi Gary, or what you will