Some years ago, when I was not young but foolish, I spent a week on a houseboat on Dal Lake at the base of the Himalayas in Kashmir. It was January. Not exactly the height of the tourist season. Because of a lack of flat land, ten thousand people live on houseboats. There are schools, stores, post offices and medical facilities on barges. Everyone gets around on canoes chopped roughly out of logs with just a few inches of freeboard. Small children paddle their way to school. The lake gets a skim of ice most nights that the first paddles of the morning break open. In the harbor where my houseboat was moored two men came each morning to harvest the bulbs of lotus plants from the bottom with long poles. The hollow banging of their sticks to break the ice would wake me. When school let out, I saw teenage hotshots, kneeling on the front of their boats to paddle “drag racing” each other.
On shore, the city of Srinagar was snow covered but not festive. As a contested area between India and Pakistan, Kashmir exists in a perpetual state of almost war. On the highway into Srinagar on the Kashmiri side of the mountains ( a twelve-hour bus ride from New Delhi) every quarter of mile standing in the snow are some of the most solitary-looking human beings I have ever seen–soldiers doing sentry duty. Like dead trees on a grey and snowy landscape, they guard the highway. To stay warm, they bring with them “winter wives” (always with you, always warm) which are clay pots filled with ash and coals that hang under their long overcoats. Twice during the trip, we had to lay by so a mine sweeper could go ahead of us.
In the city of Srinagar there are machine gun nests made of sandbags and anti-grenade netting on every major street corner manned by one man scanning the streets and houses with binoculars and one behind the gun. Most residents pretend they do not exist but there is a Kashmir independence group that is violent. There is a seven P.M. year-round curfew. I made a habit of talking to the soldiers: “Hi there, how are you? I’m from America,” etc. They thought I was crazy but some spoke English: “Have American cigarettes?”
On my first night on the houseboat, sleeping under the weight of several quilts, I woke to a profound silence, the silence of a thousand years of Himalayan nights. Into this silence, from the Mosque a mile across the lake came the unamplified sound of the Call to Prayer. A compelling call even to me, a haphazardly raised Christian. For the next week, every night, I would wake from a deep sleep mere seconds before the Call to Prayer was sounded. I believe there is no rational explanation for this experience but perhaps it is just these unexplainable experiences that are at the heart of why we travel.
That Friday I visited the mosque with a guide. We went by taxi instead of canoe. The mosque rose from the disheveled city next to the lake. The courtyard had been swept clean of last night’s snow, the low clouds sailed away and the foothills of the Himalayas came out in silver and shadows in the early morning light. The grounds were surrounded by a high concrete wall except on the lakefront where dozens of boats were pulled onto the shore next to a guard house. My guide and I, like everyone else, were searched twice by Indian army soldiers with metal detectors. No matter, the mosque lay resplendent in the sun.
We took off our shoes, walked past a group of women in the outside courtyard who were not allowed to enter, and went inside. When traveling one has a connection with local residents through commerce but here in the inner sanctum of another religion, another culture as far removed from my New England upbringing as could be imagined- who was I and why was I here? Surprisingly I was ignored. Some distance away there was a call and response happening but curiously the responses were not uniform. The responses were passionate in a way similar to a Pentecostal church except the explosive individuals seemed unconcerned about their neighbors. Throughout the complex men with submachine guns circulated. They did not look bored. At one point two men talking quietly caught the attention of the guard nearest me and using the barrel of his gun to move people aside, he made his way towards them. They faded away.
I felt frightened. Not for my own safety but of the passion in the building. After all, I am a stoic, Lutheran Swede by heritage! My guide motioned me outside. He left me for a moment to retrieve our shoes. A man, in his late twenties perhaps, approached me. With a mixture of curiosity and demand, he asked me: “What are you?”
Without a thought, I answered: “A man of God.” He stopped and time seemed to slow down. We looked into each other’s eyes in search for some existence of truth between us. Then he smiled, embraced me, and walked away. I stood in a feeling of belonging, then somewhat self-consciously, and with a bit of sadness, I checked to make sure I still had my wallet.
Previously published in Northern Journeys