By Scott Stevens in : Blog // Jul 11 2010
I woke at sunrise. I was sleeping in this beautiful old colonial house on an island in the middle of the lake in Srinagar, Kashmir, India. I had spent the previous evening playing cricket with the caretakers two sons. I was the only one staying here. The house was lovely, but had a sad air of degradation about it. Its glory days were past and now only the occasional tourist came through. 14 years of fighting, grenades in the streets, and the occasional kidnapping had put the brakes on that.
I walked down the carpeted stairs. There was just enough light to make my way down with falling. I walked slowly, feeling my way down the stairs, on my way down for a cup of chai tea. The caretaker was bent over a pot making a batch. He turned and smiled when he saw me. He was happy to have a job to do. He poured me some tea and we walked outside together to look out over the lake and watch the mist rise in the pre-dawn air. I was leaving today and he seemed sad to see me go. I was the only customer they had seen or would see for weeks. I’d like to think it was my winning personality he was going to miss. It’s more likely that his melancholy was a product of the wallet walking away.
“What time does Sheffi pick you up?” He asked.
“Now…I think,” I replied. Sheffi was a guide who had talked me into a trip by horseback up through the mountains on the Pakistani border. “Real stuff man.” He told me at the time. “You see the real life up there.” I was excited. I had thirsted for a bit of real adventure after bouncing around supposedly exotic locales in this part of the world, only to find a McDonald’s and 7-11 on every street corner. Although India had so far not disappointed.
We heard a boat motoring through the darkness and we both waited until it came through the mist, into our sight. It was Sheffi and an old driver. Sheffi sat in front like a little Napoleon, directing the driver through the lotus flowers looking ever the eager salesman. He reminded me of an energetic dachschund.
The boat docked and Sheffi bound ashore, his very presence shattering the tranquility of this morning. Greetings and salutations ensued and I was quickly packed into the boat and within minutes we were motoring through the little water passageways amongst the lotus flowers. The air was crisp this morning and I breathed deeply. This was one of the most beautiful spots I had ever been.
Onshore we packed into a jeep with a very fat jovial driver with a long mustache. He was as talkative and slippery as Sheffi and they both seemed to try to outdo each other in sliminess. We drove for hours through canyon roads and across bridges with rivers raging below as they tried to sell me carpets, land, leather goods, and anything else they could think of that can be bought and sold. They stopped just shy of their sisters. I issued the occasional, “mmmhmmmm,” as if I was listening to their BS and looked down at the river below in the deep valley. I thought it was a shame I wasn’t a fly fisherman because no one seemed to fish these waters and I’m pretty sure they were chock full of trout.
We arrived at the end of some dusty road at some village on the riverbank. The Mountains of Northern Pakistan loomed in the distance. This place was wild. All the villagers came out to see what had arrived. They don’t frequently see cars and much less, cars with a white guy in the passenger seat. The kids shyly hung behind their mothers legs and the men all stared at me as if I was an alien. The women, covered in burkhas, viewed me from the safety of these coverings.
I was introduced to my “guide” some guy about my age, whose name I forget. His teeth were black and red from chewing beetlenut and I could smell him from a distance. He was by far the dirtiest guy in the village and that’s probably why he was the one chosen to take the white guy around for a few days. It would be a relief just to not have him around smelling the place up. On his leg hung a massive knife in an intricate leather case.
After some long drawn-out, good byes from Sheffi and my fat friend (you would have thought they were dropping off their favorite son), the guide and I started walking through the village with the rest of the town in tow. We stopped at a stable where I was introduced to my horse, if it could be called that. It was about chest high and emaciated beyond belief. I thought the damn thing would keel over and die right there.
“You want me to ride that?” I asked, pointing to the horse. Of course, the guide only spoke Arabic so he didn’t understand, but he nodded enthusiastically, yes. You would have thought he had just busted out the “Black Stallion”, so vigorous was his nodding.
We left the stable, me now leading the dying horse, with the guide frantically gesticulating that I should mount the horse. I wouldn’t do it. We walked in silence up a mountain for about two hours until we came to the top where we were greeted to the sight of a flock of sheep with two old shepherds sitting on their haunches smoking a Hooka while watching the sheep do what sheep do, eat. These guys looked like two of the three wise men from biblical times and I got out my camera to shoot some video of this. They were as intrigued by me as I was by them and indicated I should sit with them. I squatted down near them.
“Al salam malekum,” one said.
“Al malekum salam,” I repeated, this being the only Arabic I understood, which means, peace by with you and the response, and peace with you too. They both smiled at this and then one tried to pass me the hooka to have a smoke. I indicated no, as politely as possible, because there was no way I was putting my mouth on that pipe. Both these guys were only working with a few teeth, and these teeth were black as midnight oil. We sat staring at each other for a while until I stood and took the lead rope from the guide again for my horse and we carried on down the opposite side of the mountain, headed down into a valley, I assumed for the night.
We reached the same river just before nightfall and sat about making camp in the dying light. After dark, we made a campfire and cooked some vegetables and some sort of meat the guide had in a pan. It was disgusting, but my hunger was so great that I ignored the flavor and ate. The guide was obviously frustrated that I couldn’t speak to him, but I was glad I didn’t have to make small talk. I just stared out into the darkness ignoring him and thinking about other things, one of which was the virtue of not speaking the local language at times like this. Shortly after eating, I indicated I was going to sleep and crawled inside my tent, zipping it closed. I got undressed and crawled into my sleep bag leaving it open as it wasn’t that cold. I immediately passed out.
In my dream I heard rustling and a zipping sound and then I realized that I was dreaming but that the sounds were real and my eyes popped open to see the shepherd boy crawling into the tent. The light from the fire still threw off enough light that I could make out his face and he could make out mine and I said to him, strongly, “What the fuck are you doing?!?!” Of course this made no sense to him, but I’m pretty sure the anger got across. He pointed at himself and then at me and continued crawling in! This shepherd was thinking some brokeback thoughts! I sat up and pushed him back and he then aggressively lunged forward catching me off-guard, knocking me back. Now he was fully in my tent, in my space, at night, in his country, and it was on. I grabbed his head and threw him on the tent floor. I then got my feet positioned up and began kicking him right out of the tent. I delivered a barrage of kicks until finally one caught him square in the chest and knocked his ass clear out into the moonlight. I jumped out and followed him as he scrambled quickly to his feet. He was small, but very strong and agile. I guess trekking up all these mountains every day made him a little powerhouse. He was built like a fire hydrant. I didn’t take him lightly. I also remembered his big knife and I looked around for it and then saw it sitting near the fire, safely out of his reach. He was red-faced and looked ready to fight and we stood there facing each other, in what I couldn’t help but think, must be a hilarious scene. Me, standing naked under the moonlight, this dirty shepherd boy staring back at me with venom in his eyes and a barrage of angry Arabic spewing from his mouth. I had no idea where I was and didn’t want to escalate this thing any further, so I just looked at him and said, “NO,” indicating from me to him. He now looked dejected and began to actually cry. I mean that red-faced blustering kind of crying and I really didn’t know what to do. I mean I could hardly go and give him a hug and tell him everything would be all right. Imagine, me, naked under the moonlight, by the rivers edge somewhere on the Pakistani border, comforting the young shepherd boy as he cries tears of rejection. How do I do it? How do I always end up in these situations? I thought to myself. The shepherd boy spun around and plopped down near the fire and I watched him for a while to make sure he was calming down. His fit seemed to be subsiding and I felt this moment was safely passed and I was getting cold in the night air and I retired again to my tent. I zipped it up tightly and then put my backpack on top of it and my feet on the backpack so that I could feel any movement, but of course I still couldn’t sleep. Instead, I lied there all night thinking I should have taken his damn knife and considered going out there to get it again, but didn’t because I didn’t want to re-ignite anything. I had to deal with this guy for the next 2 days as he led me through the mountains to our pick-up point somewhere out there.
The next day, I awoke very tired. I don’t think I ever really slept and I crawled from the tent with a stiff back and sore neck. The Shepherd boy was already boiling water for tea over the fire that still burned. We nodded at each other warily and I sat down next to him. Two more days Scott, only two more days, I thought as the wind picked up and carried his aroma my way again.