Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Srinagar and beautiful Dal Lake

Ahhh! to be back on Dal Lake is truly peaceful, relaxed, happy. Anna, Ondie and I are staying on the HB Mashal (Nightbird) houseboat. It was recommended by one of Ondie’s friends who has stayed here one month for 10 years (1990-2000) and, thus, is like a family member. Therefore, we are also like family and they’re letting us stay here for 700 rs a day (he says it’s 3500 rs a day by government standards). Last night we were talking to the father -- Nabi -- and said we’d like to come back next year. He said we can stay in the “small boat” in back for the 700 rs (we visited it yesterday and it is the old family boat parked in back... reminds me of an old camper that someone has up on blocks in their backyard... no furnishings --they’ll put mattresses and a mosquito net up for us).

The family is really great, besides Nabi, there’s Helema, the mother, and Ayub, the son (as well as Javid, the slightly simply cousin that has been “adopted” by the family because his dad died...he helps serve, clean and paddle the boats...more about him later). Last night the father told us an incredible tale about the history of Kashmir...the battles, the change of rulers, the conflicts, the killings. He concluded by saying that the fighting over who “gets” Kashmir has gone on so long that nobody cares anymore WHO gets it, they just want SOMEONE to get it and LEAVE THEM ALONE to live in peace and tranquility.

Having 700,000 soldiers patrolling Kashmir does not do anything good for tourism and Lake Dal’s boatpeople are totally dependent on tourism.

This morning we got up at 5:30 am, climbed on a small boat with Ayub and his friend and paddled to the vegetable market on the water. Fifty or so local boatpeople with their boats filled with produce -- spinach, carrots, greens, radishes, flowers, etc -- converged in one area to buy and sell. The bartering was very friendly -- more like a gathering of friends... a lot of hugging, chattering, and smoking together as they emptied or filled their boats with fresh vegetables. It’s primarily a wholesale market; they take the produce and sell it to the shops in town after breakfast.

Yesterday Anna and I worked on our water project by talking to people about the water (see attached stories). This has got to be the best place in the world to talk about water... they live on the water, are dependent on the water and love the water. However, there are all sorts of political and social problems surrounding the lake. My favorite story is about the trees that grow on the islands and wetlands that pepper the lake. It seems that a few years ago someone came up with the “wise” idea that the water level on the lake was going down due to the trees absorbing too much of the water. Sooooo, the government officials sent in guys with axes and police guards to chop down EVERY SINGLE tree on the lake. The boatpeople didn’t even have any trees to which to tie their boats! Insanity. Ironically the guy that came up with this harebrained idea died before it was finished (Kharma, I say).

(Oh, just for informational purposes, we have abandoned the Art Karavan for these three days even though I must say that the current group of artists is a terrific group. It’s just that I get so tired of the “group” thing... so much waiting... waiting for a meeting, waiting for a cab or bus... waiting for someone to get ready... waiting for dinner... waiting for tea... waiting, waiting....) We’re hoping that everyone comes out and visits us at the houseboat.

Next day:

To continue the insane stories about governmental officials “saving” Lake Dal. A woman official came to Srinagar and determined that the reason the lake was going down was because the lake farmers were harvesting the weeds and vegetation and mud out of the lake (which they do to stabilize/mulch/fertilize the floating gardens before planting their crops). So, she banned the practice in the main lake despite the protests of the lake people. This really made gardening more difficult because they could only collect the vegetation from the canals that ran through the river “villages”.

The third stupid idea involved the theory that the waterlilies (which are treated as a crop from which they get lotus root and nuts to eat and sell at the market) were making the water level go down. They sent in machines and people to clear them out of the lake. This, of course, not only put a real damper on waterlily produce but also, I would bet, mess up some ecosystems on the lake. This project was ended, however, when the waterlilies reappeared the following year.

As an aside, a foreign lady came up with a way to kill the “bad” weeds in the lake. However, the weed killer was also a lotus killer and its use was banned pronto.

Life on the Lake

So after the market and a delicious breakfast on instant Starbucks coffee (thanks to Joni’s going away present!), we hired a shikara (lake luxury boat) and went on a 2 hour journey to the water filtration facility. Ayub helped paddle or else we’d probably still be on our way there.

We got out of the boat where the water supply line for the entire Srinagar area crosses the lake. We walked the waterline putting up our Save Water (Panni Bachao!) posters on the pipeline and poles of all sorts. When we got to the plant, there were soldiers bunkered just outside. At first the commander told us we were not allowed to take pictures, but by the time Anna finished interviewing the workers about water, posting posters on the walls and just charming them in general, the soldier asked us to hang some posters on their sand-bagged bunker and then proudly posed with the poster (guns and all).

The following day we went (by rickshaw, this time) to the water treatment facility. Really interesting. They get the main water supply from the mountain runoff, but treat water from the lake (which is spring fed) as a reserve. Once again we cut through the bureaucracy by getting permission to tour the plant, hang posters and take photos and do interviews by the head official of the plant. Turns out that one of the workers at the plant is a good friend of Ayubs so he was a happy host and did an interview with Anna.

A funny note: Ayub is a COMPLETELY ENTHUSIASTIC helper on the Pani Bachao! project and the rickshaw driver got into the spirit, too, hanging posters and participating in the water conversations.

The guys also took us to one of the (underused) water gates on the lake. They don’t flush the lake enough, according to some, and this causes the lake to build up pollution. The area around the gate was completely polluted and garbage was everywhere. However, we met some nice people who told us stories about the lake and water.

We also visited a floating village on the lake (where Javid lives). We were MOBBED when we arrived by the women and children of the village (some of them actually punched me in the butt and arm... as a sign of affection? curiosity? not sure) They wanted EVERYTHING on our bodies -- rings, bracelets, watches, necklaces, earrings, clothes... and they were VERY insistent! I had to protect my necklace under my sweater!

We gave them our Pani Bachao! posters and they hung them around their houses and yards. I gave out yarn bracelets... what an experience! They were literally fighting with each other to get a bracelet (although I gave one to anyone who wanted many cases, two). I was ensnarled in thrusting wrists.

We had tea with Javid’s family and then put up another round of posters before leaving. It was an intense hour! (We’re invited to stay for a night the next time we come... that’d be a trip... I’m leaving my jewelry, watch and anything else that I want to keep at the houseboat!)

One of the highlights of our houseboat stay was definitely the food. Helema served the most delicious food I’ve tasted in India. The spinach.... ah! the spinach. She says the recipe is this:

Boil spinach well and then chop it up until it’s mush
Sautee with onions (maybe carmelized first??) and a little oil
Pepper with black pepper

Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the best spinach I’ve ever tasted! (We insisted on having it every day!) We decided that the incredible flavor must come from the spinach itself. This spinach is grown on the floating gardens which are fertilized with lake plants and mud... must give it a uniquely delicious flavor (although I AM going to try this at home and see how it tastes)

Also had a lake green called haag (sp?) which was boiled, chopped, flavored and sauteed, carrots and peas, lamb sausage, chicken and lamb in sauce. Every dinner was a delicious surprise. The spices the Kashmiris use are subtle and yummy -- cinnamon, cardamon, ?? Sometimes in curd sauce, other times dry, but all the time very, very tasty.

Nabi, the dad, is quite a (flirty) character and is glad to collect hugs at every turn. He told us a lot of stories about life on the lake -- how it came about (long story, read Anna’s interview), how it is to live on the lake and raise kids on the lake (not good, they get stigmatized for living on the lake and don’t get to participate in cricket, etc...horrors!), how the politics and relationships are with others (Lake people and land people do not mingle or mix.... although some lake people also have houses on the land, they cannot marry a land person unless that person has is a lake person by heritage. The lake people were created by a God during an event that sounds very much like Noah and the Ark’s event...... Muslims don’t get along with Hindus although they did in times past... the hostilities and fighting in Kashmir has damaged their relationship ....and no one gets along with the Indian Army (who number 700,000 in Kashmir...largest concentration anywhere)).

The lake people blame the land people for the Lake’s problems and the land people blame the lake people. We interviewed people on both sides but it’d be nice to have about a month here to really stir up interest in Pani Pachow!

The beauty of the lake and the surrounding mountains is amazing. Each day at around 4:30 pm, the lake goes still and the sun brightens before setting and the reflections of the houseboats and vegetation and life as usual on the lake are dazzling. We probably took a couple thousand photos between the three of us and hundreds of them are National Geographic quality.

A trip to Kashmir and Dal Lake is one not to miss (despite the military presence.... just don’t go around alone outside the tourist district or stay on the lake and everything will be fine).

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