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It is possible that I am a terrible person but I’m just gonna have a go at Kashmir. Like a bitchy one. I mean, it is picture perfect with a mystical lake, snow capped mountains, fairy tale castles, ancient mosques, fields of saffron, cardamom tea, romantic houseboats, all that stuff, blah blah beautiful.
But I’m gonna bitch about it anyway.
Because everyone you meet in Kashmir has a sob story.
And sob stories get tiresome.
Kashmir is a controlled state. India owns it. Pakistan wants it. And Kashmir would kinda like to keep it for themselves. It’s a state in limbo. And still at war.
And with war comes disdain.
Bloody Indians, say the Kashmiris.
Bloody Kashmiris, say the Indians.
And I don’t know what the Pakistanis say because they are not really allowed inside. Also, everyone calls them Paks.
As South Africans, we were kind of stuck in the middle.
And yet the Kashmiris were fabulous hosts. And there were several times when we almost tripped over yaks and fell headfirst into the lake because of the beauty. And the gorgeous men. Their beards, stature, strong hands, dark eyes, delicious sexiness and did I mention – strong hands?
But also very bloody manipulative.
As Salam Alaykom, good morning, hello, they would say.
And then, without waiting for an answer…
My son missed out on school. I really need to get him an education.
My daughter had to marry at sixteen. I want very much to help her.
I work three jobs and only sleep two hours a night.
Buy this ring, it’s the only way I can bless my wife.
My own carpets are threadbare…
I had to let go of my goat…
It felt like everything was about money. You almost had to pay for a hello. Or for directions. And if you buy one thing, it isn’t enough. You have to buy two. Three. Four.
Just one more Miss. Please. My child…
When you don’t buy anything, ooh Allah Yufaquk Yufaquk, shoulders slump and faces get sulky.
We felt a bit bullied. And bullshitted. And we’re both good travellers and know when to say no or fuck off, but the Kashmiris are master trader bullshitters.
We had been warned. But I gotta say, it kinda spoils the beauty. And the beauty is a little – OH GOD ALLAH SORRY STRIKE ME DOWN NOW – chocolate box beauty. The painted shikaras, the very quaint overly carpeted houseboats. It’s all gorgeous, but kinda, contrived.
Except for the macaroons!!! And the French pastry shop. The flower sellers weren’t bad either. And some of the moustaches were just perfect. There are gems that, when you do manage to wander around alone without being hassled, surprise and astonish. The rose gardens are magnificent, the early morning calls to prayer echo through the whole town and over the lake, and I loved the wild barking of dogs as they prepare for their nightly roaming.
I did love it. I’m cynical and just a little unfair, I know that. And we were so well cared for. We were brought tea in bed, treated like queens and also offered marijuana and most importantly, husbands.
Maybe we were too spoiled.
But maybe we were also just a little bit too controlled.
Whatever it was, Kashmir didn’t quite do it for me.
Dal Lake, old city of Srinagar, Khanqha Shah Hamdam Mosque, Kashmiri tea, Kashmiri moustaches, macaroons, honey, The Himalayas, shikaras and houseboys oops sorry I meant houseboats.
Six security checks on arrival. Seven checks on departure. Phones blocked from arrival until departure. One million heavily armed Indian soldiers dressed in camouflage with branches still hanging from their heads. Baksheesh.
And where, oh where, are all the women? Because we saw very very few.
G’nite, I would call out sleepily. See you in the morning.
G’nite, my insomniac travel friend would reply. Sweet dreams.
And she would switch off the light.
We’d both be quiet for maybe two minutes and then our evening ritual would begin.
Throw off the covers because it was too hot. Take off our pyjamas because it was too hot. Make tea. Admire our shopping. Moisturise. Sit outside a little. Climb back into bed. Stretch, yawn, go to sleep and then –
Not really go to sleep.
Because she’s an insomniac and so am I and we’d just have to talk some more. And laugh and giggle and go over all the amazing things that we’d seen. The gorgeous men. The smooth men. The salesmen. And the colours, smells, spices, everything that was just astonishing.
Because astonishing things happen every day in India. Overwhelming magnificent extraordinary astonishing things.
One night, while we were not sleeping, my friend lay on her bed reading while I lay on mine looking at photographs.
Men with turbans lazing on rickshaws. Colourful women sweeping colourful courtyards. A young girl peering out a train window. A monk carrying an umbrella. Five people and a monkey on a motorbike. Giant buddhas. Kids playing cricket. Bodies burning on the River Ganges. Overloaded trucks. Decorated trucks. Truck drivers. Holy men. Limbless men. Gorgeous men.
And two magnificent women.
Us. In action. Hiking in the foothills of the Himalayas. Cruising in a shikara. Riding on motorbikes. And doing yoga.
Each one very beautiful.
Until I noticed my neck.
OH MY GOD MY NECK.
‘Jesus Christ, I said, leaping out of bed. I had no idea I had so many wrinkles.’
Luckily, insomniacs always says the right thing.
‘Your neck is really not bad. But still, try this App. Everyone uses it. It smoothes out the teeny lines.’
I downloaded the App. I learned what I could do with it. I became obsessed. I never slept again.
I could make myself smoother. Younger. Prettier. Slimmer. Taller. More bright eyed. More blue eyed. Blonder.
And very very beautiful.
I beauty-apped myself. I looked good. I posted a pic. I waited for the comments to fly in.
Wow, India really agrees with you.
Love your hair.
You look fab.
How do you stay looking so young?
And I felt instantly guilty.
Because I was smooth, but really, not.
India is anything but smooth. It is the most chaotic, overwhelming, dramatic, uncontrolled, colourful and unrelenting country.
There is no photoshopping. There are no touch ups.
And there is no beauty app.
What you see is what you get.
Wild and natural.
And very very real.
And as I reflect on my travels, I realise that is one of the many things I got out of India.
That to be real is the prize.
Sorry then for my neck, my bra straps and my sheen from the forty degree heat, but I gotta reveal everything.
And I’m not really sorry at all.
Here we are. The Insomniac. And Ms Violet Online.
N.B. You can ask Kate Carlysle to help with bookings. She is in Cape Town and knows all these gorgeous extraordinary hotels / ashrams / galleries / dogs / people and oh my god Indian boutiques!
good morning from my couch
where I am feeling
happy to be home
uttering vague sexual noises
at all the stories I have to share
and tales to tell
but also feeling
And thank you India for an astonishing experience.
My toes, on a rooftop in Delhi.
A blog post a day?
Nope sorry, India calls
I write again in June.