Dear family and friends,
It is India. For the last week, we have not had access to the iterbnet, hence our last letter was from a week ago.
In this world, we have come to expect the unexpected. For the last week, we were not disappointed. At last report, we were on our first day of "trekking." Embraced by the beauty of Kashmir. We hiked along this river over three days. We saw glacier after glacier, in a setting that recollects the beauty of Bamff, for me. So, you might know how much we loved it.
We also really connected with a guide who is a Gujari nomad. The Kashmiris call all of the people who move from home to ohm in tents of varying contours, "gypsies," but Omar speaks Gujari, distinct from other nomads, and there are distinct elements that define the Gujari people.
Omar is a good soul, who was there when Laurie needed him, as we crossed a river with a stone or two less, or in climbing down from a cliff. He showed us the bark of the Beechwood tree, that they make into paper. He told of his family; his father had seven wives; Omar's mother is the last, and just last year, he made pilgrimage to Mecca by jet, reflecing his level of wealth. Like other nomads in this area, the Gujari move from from Srinigar (a city they stay in for a season when it's too cold to the mountains in the summer and back to Jajmmu from where they they descend. It's about two hundred miles distance, and they take their herds and flocks of animals, walking with them along the road, and their famiies.
Omar's family is in transition. They have a house in a village near the valley we eplored. He invited us into this houise, to see his kitchen, which has gas burners, but no refrigeration. There is a fireplace with a clay structure, over which thye cook and make breads.
You know we have camped in the Candian Rockies since our honeymoon there. Our hike along the river, and up a mountain was no less beautiful than our favorite hikes in the Yoho Valley. We saw glacier after galcier. A river runs through one of the glaciers where we slpet. Of course, with global warming, these glaciers are receding, and will likely on day soon vanish.
Our drive to this trek was peppered wth signs proclaiming the importance of keeping the forests. "Forest are the mother of mother of laes and streams" No forests, no food." Even so, there re some significant houses being built by wealthy people from Shrinigar that are right next to the tent structures of nomads like the Gujari. They coexist, but it is not hard to imagine the time when these nbomads will be pushed out. Omar speaks about four languages. His English is pretty good. He does not read or write, but is clear that his three year old daughter will go to school and learn. He's even excited about it. We mentioned the Jewish tradition of putting honey on the letters of the book on the first day of school, and of baking cookies of the children's name and eating the, as Laurie did when uor ch8ildren were young. Omar liked hearing about these rituals.
The life of a nomad fascinated me. I have thought deeply about Judaism's choice to identify with the nomadic outlook, as a pivotal revolutionary perspective that has sustained Judaism throughout its development. It would be easy to look at the hovels of wooden stone strutures that they live in , open to the ements and say this is a poverty that cannot be transcended, but, you know when I think about where they live in the summer, in such beatufy, and of all the adaptations that they have made to weather, to diet, to utilizing their environment to living in community, and protecting privacy and living in alignment with the seasons, with food that they raise, is far beyond subsistence. Dimensions, I think, are to be envied. And yes, we saw some with cell phones that broad cast music into head phones, and a few other emblems of this modern world. Omar's family "owns" horses and other animals. They are not without resources. They do not have the intelletual tradition that Judaims stumbled into as part of its encounter with Hellenism (the greek word synagogue as a place of learning is partial evidence of this). This intellectual tradition insured the portability of culture despite the circumstances of mobility in history, but Omar's englsih was not good enough to tell me the ways in which his own people have preserved stories that are the purveyors of culture.
The nomads are not without technical innovation. Later in our journey, we had a chance encounter with a journalist who writes a magazine that identifies the wisdom of these traditions and mines their technical innovations and seks to establish patents and return the benefits to the people who is the source of these innovations. A treatment for hepatittus (proven) from dil and a tree climber tool tht is withut danger are among the many innovations for which patents are being procured and benefits are being extended. The Indian army has invested in mining some of the nomadic wisdom on survival and adapatations. Who knows what will become of this, buit it was a fascinating glimpse of the way in whch the revolution in thining abut democracy and the sharing of wisdom at all levels of class is gaining in universal dimensions.
Of course, there is no way to recount all of the encounters we had with these nomadic peoples, but one telling example is when a nomaic woman and her daughter approached Omar. She was experiencing a burning sensation after eating, and wondered if we might have something to help her with it. As it turned out, Laurie did have some medication that we thought might help and it was back at our tent. The woman appeared at our tent later in the day, and Laurie explained how to use it. It was a striking glimpse of how few medical resources these people have and could benefit from. The woman was very appreciative. Later that night, her young daughter hiked to us with two bottles of fresh goat milk, as a gift. Our guide sent back fresh vegetables, and later two bottles of yogurt made from fresh goat milk appeared. We boiled the goat milk and delighted in its warm , sweet freshness. We made lassis from the yogurt, but gained something more from this exchange, feeling a deep sense of sharing. We will never know how the woman fared with the medication , but we will always savor the fresh sweetness of the warm goat milk and the lassis.
Our hike up a mountain was to take three hours the final day. But our guide was concerned about the dogs of some "gypsies" as he called them, who were not good people. So, instead, we bivouacked straight up the mountain in less than two. At the top, a circle of snow capped mountains were revealed above the tree line. Amazing beauty mixed with our aching tiredness in a satisfying way. Our hike down on the four day of our trek returned us to the civilization of a warm shower and comfortable bed on the houseboat. It also returned us to the complexity of negotiating Indian life.
We encountered another dimension of India. The under side of an unscrupulous travel agent, who used our ignorance to his advantage. He justified every expense by making us afraid that we wouldn’t otherwise be protected. Because we had stayed on the houseboat, we could not make it to the government travel office to book reservations. So, we agreed to this unscrupulous travel agent's terms and information. By the end of our trek, we realized just how much we'd overpaid. It's a little embarrassing for us to admit this. As an example, this travel agent signed us up for a private driver from Srinagar to Leh that he charged six hundred dollars for. We discovered that a shared jeep coast little more than a hundred dollars for six people. When we discovered this, we reopened negotiations, because we had been promised we could. Of course, he already had our money, and after saying he was "a man of God" like me, he gave us back five of the six hundred. I had initially figured that we were paying things with about a twenty percent mark up. Now, that we know prices a little better, it’s more like a three hundred percent markup. It feels a little bit embarrassing to have been taken. The travel books warn about the houseboats being the scene for this. But it also seems a very small price among other prices for a little wisdom and perspective. It is all one fabric in exploring the depth and complexity of this world. Another India experience, we muse to ourselves many times a day, and smile.
After telling us that we’d never be able to get a driver and that the Prime Minister was coming to town (which truned out to be true) and we’d never get past security, we managed to hire a car and put together a motley crew of passengers, all bonded by the agreement that there would be no smoking.
The road to Leh moves from a Bamff like pine covered beauty to Japsper like muntains tht are even higher than Jasper in an even more arid climate. We passed thorugh the second coldest c inhabited town in the world. The first in in Siberia. Of course, not in the summer, thankfully. But the dearth of water has made for mountains and canyons that resemble the Grand Canyon near the river, and the Badlands nearer to Leh. Leh is a town surrounded by snow capped mountains that recollected Saas Fe in Switzerland. And no sooner had we said this to each other at breakfast, than did two young women from Switzerland appear at our breakfast table. Life here is filled with such coincidences.
A rug store owner from Srinigar owned a houseboat near the where we stayed. He let us know that the travel agent was so unscrupulous that he has been banned from being a travel agent. We could only shake our heads at the small world that India can be and smile. Another India experience.
The drive from Srinagar is like no other drive that we have taken. It is a road pockmarked with potholes that are so big that the are more like lakes at some point. We got to a mountain pass near the top and after about three different attempts to make it out of an untimely pothole, the driver told us to get out. Thank God, he made it out, because I had visions of his next request to have us either push it up the mountain or wait there a night for help. Shortly thereafter, we passed a sobering sight of a jeep newly stuck in a ditch.
On the heels of our negotiations, we had waked at five in the morning to make it to the gathering point of jeeps to Leh. We knew that one smoker in the car could make this trek impossibly long. We had the foresight to hire a jeep ourselves and then sell shares to non smokers. We managed to put together a motley crew of an aussie, who "rough necked” on an offshore drilling rig, a woman from Japan, who had learned to heal from her grandmother, and also wrote for a Japnese tour guide, a Korean woman, who had left home for the first time, a graduate from Taiwan, who ready shared his perspectives on Chinese politics and had an avid interest in our world as well Along the way, we ended up picking up a German man in his sixties who had traveled to 71 different countries, and the aforementioned journalist and his cohort, both Indians, well educated, articulate, idealistic, with added perspective on Kashmiri Independence and the need for a deeper understanding of interdependence in the world. This collage of people managed to fend off the hair pin turns, the dust and the need for air on this one lane highway with cars, jeeps, motorcycles going in two directions. Forget Disneyland comparisons, this was the ride of our lives! Laurie tied to sleep to avoid feeling anxious about the driver's attempts to straighten out the curves. I was fascinated at the number of times we passed slow trucks on the gravels edge of precipitous mountain roads. I was thankful that the driver on the right car gave the driver the best perpective on the outer edge and other than saying the Shema a few times, thinking it might be my last, the beauty and change of mountains and colors and rivers was just amaing. It was like no other drive we have ever taken. Laurie would have screamed at me, but thankfully, the driver of the second stage gave no hint of understanding english. The first driver was a man named Farouk. He was a kid thoughtful man, who knew Japanese, English, and god knows how many other languages. His sill at driving reflected his having driven this trek from Srinagar to Leh a most daily. He knew the crops of the field, the names of trees, and was more than willing to share stories of different famous people falling to their deaths in accidents on this road. He kindly suggested that driving to Leh at night would be hazardous and recommended that wwe stop in Cargill, about half way. I asked each of our travelers and Laurie's opnion that driving at night would be unfathomably dangerous prevailed. I ca't tell you how right she was. When we got to sedoned coldest town in the world, we encountered these two Indian journalists. They were stuck, because no one would give them a ride. I knew this was an opportunity to have an India experience. So, we reshuffled places in the jeep, and the four of us were squeezed knee to knee in the back. The conversation covered the bandwidth of Indian and Kashmiri politics, science and nomadic wisdom, caste and class, ecology and sustainability in a way that connected us all deeply. It turned out that this journalist was the nephew of a police commissioner in Srinagar. He invited us all to tea at the Police Commissioner's home, which turned out to be stronghold of the city with a picturesque view, The commissioner was not alerted by his nephew and clearly awakened from an afternoon nap, greeted us in his pajama bottoms and shirt. He asked his servants to bring tea and and gave us his wisdom about what we should see on our journey to Leh. Then he commanded one of his assistants to guide us in negotiating a fair price at a local hotel. This turned out to be a more difficult enterprise than innitially thought, because we had the wisest range of needs. It tuned out that the Aussie was the best negotiator, but he got nowhere, though landed in a comfortable enough room, and Laurie and I found a room that loooked into the surrounding snow capped mountains, but also overlooked a busy downtown street. We were serenaded by a variety of horns of massive trucks, and the call of the muzzerain in the middle of the night, and a very loud Indian family that took up three rooms, and the street sweeper in the early morning (a man with a broom sweeping the garbage togethrer) and the shoveling of garbage into the garbage truck at seven in the morning. Suffice it to say, it was not the best night's sleep.
Our drive, Farouk, had a call just before we found our hotel that his maternal uncle had died and had to go back for a funeral. He paid for another driver to take us, and assured us it would be the same car. It did occur to me that this could have been a preplanned rouse India style, but my gut told me otherwise. Laurie shared my perspective, and said that we could hnot have had a better foundation for negotiating the worse than our introduction to the local police commissioner.
The morning brought a new driver and a new car. One with a bald left tire and a broken windshield. Hmmmm. Another Indian experience. Thankfully, we lived to tell it. Made it across the terrain by nightfall and found our comfortable hotel that is beautifully placed in a circle of mountains subject to the three in the morning call of the muzzerain.
So, here we are. Enter Leh. A town of Tibetans, Buddhist, some Moslems, and a lot of Israelis.
Signs in Hebrew, there's so many. The treks from here are advertised in numerous tour shops. We will approach them cautiously. The hikes obviously are extraordinarily beautiful. Laurie is going to an afternoon yoga and meditation experience. We are at a cafe nearby, ready for a sumptuous, cheap Indian feast. It's not a bad life. In fact, it brings a lot of blessings, this India experience.
As always, Laurie has helped me edit this, and joins me in sendihng love to you all,
Gary, Abba, Rabbi Gary, or what you will...