We arrived in Kashmir on 1 April 2005, also known as April Fool’s Day. Somehow that felt appropriate as we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into and in the coming weeks, months, and years ahead we would find ourselves often feeling quite foolish as outsiders trying to understand the new world around us.
A funny thing about this first month in Kashmir is that I have hardly any photos of it. I searched through my files and found 3 from a birthday party, 2 from riding a shikara on Dal Lake, and a handful more from a large religious festival that I went to with my business colleague. Nothing from the plane ride, the first scenes of our new city, where we were staying, the views of the mountains, the fascinating city streets and alleys, the nearby market, etc. At first I thought there must be more photos, but then I realized that back in 2005 people didn’t carry their cameras/phones everywhere with them like they do today. I also wasn’t a tourist so I didn’t want to look like one by bringing my camera along when I went around town. The more I thought about this the more I found it hard to imagine doing something like this today and not having hundreds of images to document the whole experience. And 2005 wasn’t that long ago, or at least to me it doesn’t seem like that.
Not only did I not have countless photos from my phone of this first month but I couldn’t remember how we communicated back to our family in America that we had arrived. I don’t remember calling or trying to email from the hotel in Delhi when we first arrived into India. We didn’t have internet access initially in the house where we first stayed in Kashmir. Back then you had to walk into the local market and go to one of the shops that had the letters STD and ISD. That meant it had pay phones for calling and ISD meant you could call internationally. I don’t think I called my parents soon after arriving. There wasn’t the expectation that they would hear from us immediately like it later turned into when we would just message them on WhatsApp or iMessage that we had arrived after traveling back from a visit to the US. I probably went to my colleague’s house that first week and connected to his dial-up connection to send a brief email that I had written offline and had queued up to send as soon it connected. My colleague had lived in India when there wasn’t internet access so at the time what we had seemed pretty good to him.
The rest of the month was filled with figuring out how to buy food and cook, starting language classes, searching for a house or flat to rent, learning the local public transport system and discovering where things were in town, beginning research on cultural heritage for a tourism business, and learning about the political instability and militancy affecting life in Kashmir.
Three of my main memories from this first month are:
- My wife being sick for about a week and barely able to get out of bed so I ate a lot of local bread from the bakery with jam and butter as I struggled figuring out how to cook from scratch.
- Seeing smoke rising from the city while we were looking at a possible rent house on the edge of the city and then learning later that militants had attacked and set fire to the TRC (Tourist Reception Center) where the bus was parked that would soon start the first cross LOC bus service to the Pakistan side of Kashmir.
- There was a 2-3 week strike by most shops due to a protest over the VAT tax being introduced. This meant my wife couldn’t go shopping for fabric to get new clothes made at the tailor. It was hard back then to find ready-made clothes for women and most ladies would buy material to get stitched by a tailor. She wore the same two outfits for a few weeks as she had planned on getting most of her clothes made in the local style after we arrived and didn’t pack much else!