“This feels a little like déjà vu.” It was Sunday afternoon, March 15th and a text had just arrived from our kids’ school district saying school would be closed next week. That kind of message was all too familiar during our years in Kashmir.

The next day someone at work asked me how our kids felt about the school closure. I answered,”Well, they’re kind of used to school being suddenly closed for unknown periods of time.”

During the time our kids went to school in Kashmir they had school closures mostly for anti-government/anti-India protests that could either be spontaneous one day closures, or possibly a few days in a week if it turned violent, or even almost 5 months long when the protests were really intense like the summer and fall of 2016. We also experienced school closings from a massive flood disaster that shut things down a couple months, and even a swine flu H1N1 outbreak that kept things closed for a week or two. One of the most common questions our kids would ask us at night was, “Is there school tomorrow?”

While the coronavirus and its risk to the community where we live in America is different from the risks that were around us in Kashmir, there are some things about it that remind us of life in Kashmir.

  • Checking the news much more frequently than usual for updates on what may be happening and what else might be getting closed
  • Sifting through the various news, rumors and stories on the street to determine how bad things really are and how bad they might get
  • Having to think ahead about shopping for essential supplies like groceries and household items and being uncertain if certain things will run out of supply
  • Wondering if it’s safe to go out to visit people or get some shopping done (virus spores on surfaces at Walmart or someone coughing on you now being in the category of a stone throwing mob or militant gun fight with the police)
  • Finding activities, chores, and hopefully school work for the kids to do at home when they get restless and want to be able to see their friends or complain of being terribly bored
  • Going to work and wondering how your business may be affected by all of this, what might be some worst case scenarios, and how can you keep operating in spite of all the challenges
  • Praying for wisdom for those in various levels of leadership as major, difficult decisions need to be made that can help or hurt many people

I feel like my experiences in Kashmir helped me enter this new uncertain situation without getting too stressed out. In some ways it feels familiar and our family knows how to adapt and adjust. However, I don’t think I expected to experience this type of societal uncertainty in America.

There are also differences with the coronavirus situation compared to what we experienced in Kashmir. I think two main differences are 1) normal, high speed internet access and 2) the whole world is going through the same thing.

Restrictions to school and life in Kashmir almost always meant restrictions with the internet as the government would either shut it down completely or slow it down greatly to prevent locals from using it spread information. That made things a little more difficult. There wasn’t always easy access to news and info online, or even streaming movies/TV/music/games to escape for a moment from the situation. Kids didn’t have the option to continue school online like so many are able to do here in America. Employees couldn’t so easily work from home and still be connected to their office.

While Kashmir was often locked down, the rest of world wasn’t affected or probably didn’t even know about it. You felt more isolated, more like no one knows or cares about the tough things going on. When Kashmir made international news it didn’t last for long even though the protests or crisis continued inside Kashmir.

A Kashmiri friend in Srinagar sent me a WhatsApp message saying things were getting bad there as they also are getting locked down due to coronavirus. I feel for him and many of my other friends and hope things don’t spiral out of control. Kashmiris have already had so much uncertainty and change since last August.

I pray for God’s provision and protection for my Kashmiri friends, for their jobs and businesses to not be completely lost, for their children to again enjoy learning at school, for wisdom for their community and government leaders to make good decisions, and for hope and peace to find its way into their hearts. This time my prayer is also the same for my American friends.

Thanks to a Google Photos memory today I was reminded of one of my favorite things from Kashmir – fresh morning bread from the bakery.

That’s what my family called it in English. The Kashmiri word for it was hard enough to pronounce so spelling it is even trickier. It would be something like tzot, czhot, or tchot.

Most neighborhoods had at least one nearby bakery where people would gather early in the morning to get their fresh, hot pieces of bread. The baker would be hard at work kneading out each new piece and then slapping it down on the side walls of a tandoor oven. Another helper would be sitting cross-legged near the opening of the oven holding a long rod with a small hooked end. He would use the rod to pull out the pieces once they were ready and then hand them off to whichever customer was next.

A Kashmiri baker kneading morning bread (tsot, tchot) next to the tandoor oven early in the morning

Some customers would only get 3-4 pieces while others would be buying for a large joint family with many members and would be getting 10 or more so the wait would take longer. I typically got 10 pieces on the days we would have it for breakfast. Our kids really liked it. Any leftover pieces my wife would have with chai later in the morning for her and our house helper.

After getting my piping hot 10 pieces I would bundle them up in a cloth bag, walk the 7 or so minutes back to our house and the bread would still be nice and warm when we served it for breakfast. We usually enjoyed it with an omelette that would we would place on top of the round bread or you could tear off pieces of bread and use that to pinch up some omelette. It was also tasty with a very American style topping of peanut butter and jam or honey.

A Kashmiri baker getting ready to stick a piece of morning bread (tsot, tchot) to the inside wall of his tandoor oven

During the month of Ramadan when all our Muslim neighbors would be fasting, the bakers would make this bread in the late afternoon rather than morning and people would buy it before the time of breaking the fast so they could enjoy it later in the evening. This Ramadan version of the bread was made a little different with extra ghee or something so it was softer and didn’t get as crisp. We would use occasionally this bread during Ramadan to make pizzas for dinner by adding tomato sauce, cheese, onions and bell peppers on top.

While Google Photos had the memory of one of my morning trips to the bakery two years ago, I didn’t take any photos that day specifically of just the bread. I’m sure I have an image somewhere among all my photos from life in Kashmir but that could take a while to find. If you’re curious I’m sure searching Google for Kashmiri bread would bring up plenty of images.

I miss those walks to the bazaar in the early mornings while it was still cold out. I miss enjoying the interactions between all the waiting customers. I miss the fresh taste of the bread with my omelette or peanut butter. Whenever the day comes that our family is able to visit Kashmir again I look forward to finding a nearby bakery to purchase some morning bread for breakfast.

Normally when I think of fall in Kashmir I think of:

  • Chinar tree leaves turning deep red
  • the apple, walnut and rice harvests
  • wedding season and enjoying wazwan feasts
  • saffron fields near Pampore covered in purple flowers
  • the final months (and exams) of the school year
  • people burning cut tree limbs to make charcoal for their kangris
  • cool, crisp mornings and evenings hinting that winter will eventually be on its way
Fall autumn colors on the Chinar trees at a garden in Srinagar, Kashmir

This year nothing is normal for Kashmir. As I remember the parts of fall I used to enjoy in Kashmir I find myself thinking about many other things instead:

  • how much longer will this internet and mobile phone blockade last in Kashmir?
  • how will people survive economically with so much losses, especially with the stories I’ve read about the apple harvests going to rot and businesses choosing to or being forced to stay closed in protest of India’s revocation of Article 370?
  • how many private businesses will have to close and let go of their employees?
  • how many weddings have been cancelled, postponed, or held in a very simple manner with no celebration?
  • when will kids be able to go to school again and how will they be able to finish this year?
  • why is there such sparse coverage of the lockdown, arrests, and restrictions in Kashmir by most news media?
  • will violent protests spread in a massive way once India lifts the phone/internet blockade and other restrictions?
  • how long can India continue this approach in Kashmir before other world leaders and international organizations put enough real pressure on them to open things up?
  • or will no one really care what happens in Kashmir regardless of how long this goes on?

Okay, I’m probably getting a bit pessimistic about what may happen in Kashmir. But it is hard seeing place so close to my heart and full of memories for my family be completely changed and put into a greater state of uncertainty then ever before when we lived there. Whenever I see new updates on Kashmir or grow frustrated at the lack of news I am reminded of real people I know in Kashmir who are affected by this. I wonder how they are doing, what they are doing, and what this might mean for them and their future. How are they experiencing the start of fall this year?

The bright red Chinar tree leaf seen in the fall autumn season in Srinagar, Kashmir

It is hard to know what to write about Kashmir. The communications blackout for mobile phones, internet, and most local news media has continued since my post two weeks ago. Most of the international news media has moved on to other stories so Kashmir isn’t making it into the headlines much. But Kashmir remains on my mind as I wonder how things are there, how my friends might be doing, and what may happen for the future.

I’ve found myself going back through my earliest pictures from Kashmir, from my first summer when I got to experience the mountains, streams and lakes that offer such scenic beauty for trekking. Back then that beauty still had plenty of reminders that all was not completely normal in Kashmir. There were lots of military checkpoints just to get to the trekking routes, military scout groups came through our camp, and we even had militants come into the camp too.

Kashmiris are very proud of the natural beauty of Kashmir. Some people say it is like the Switzerland of Asia. I don’t think comparisons are always helpful or necessary. Kashmir is majestically beautiful in its own way and I enjoyed that sense of awe and wonder you get when taking in the beauty of creation. Yet it is unfortunate that much of Kashmir’s beauty hasn’t always been able to be experienced or explored due to the instability that has plagued the region. And I don’t mean only by outside tourists, but also by the Kashmiris who enjoy hiking in the mountains but don’t want to get caught up in conflict between military and militants.

As I’ve looked through my photos from that first summer, these are some that brought back a smile and remembrance of enjoying the beauty of Kashmir.

I haven’t been able to keep my eyes from checking the Kashmir headlines the past three weeks after the Indian government ordered all tourists to leave Kashmir, then removed Article 370 from the Constitution and instituted a communications blackout that is still going on.

Watching this happen from afar has been an unusual experience. Previously it was our families and friends seeing Kashmir in the headlines and wondering how we’re doing whenever our internet was disabled. Now that my family and I are living back in the US we are the ones being concerned and attempting to contact friends in Kashmir.

I learned over the years in Kashmir that outside news was not usually accurate in painting a picture of what was going in Kashmir. The situation is always more complex and diverse than what can be conveyed in a brief news story. Large parts of Srinagar can be mostly peaceful and calm while specific neighborhoods in the old city might be filled with rocks and tear gas flying through the air. The opinions and ideas of Kashmiris toward the issues of freedom and independence, pro India or pro Pakistan, separatists, mainstream politicians, and militants can be diverse and not always hold to expectations or the main storylines presented by the news media.

Accurately portraying what is happening in Kashmir to people outside of Kashmir is tough. It’s hard enough inside Kashmir as the local news media also presents differing stories and viewpoints. The J&K police and government share their side of the story too and no one seems to believe them. In a place like Kashmir it is hard to know what is really true versus what is rumors and lies, what is a planned conspiracy versus an unfortunate series of unforeseen events. People will believe their relative’s message on WhatsApp about a news event more easily than what they see in the news. Skepticism and mistrust run rampant.

Taking all that into context it has been tough to be outside of Kashmir without a way to know what really is happening. A few days before all phones and internet were disconnected I exchanged some messages with friends on WhatsApp. They were okay but highly worried and unsure about what was going to happen. Kashmir is always an unpredictable place but this seemed to be at a new level. Kashmiri friends who normally don’t over-exaggerate or appear worried by previous instability seemed concerned by this.

After the communications blackout took effect I was able to get in touch with some Kashmiri friends who live in other cities in India. They were as clueless as me about what might be happening inside Kashmir and had no way to reach their families. Eventually I heard that some members of their families had managed to call from a government office or police station landline and briefly tell them they were okay but not much other news. Then there were conflicting accounts between India news media and international media about whether violent protests were happening or not. I lived too long in Kashmir to completely believe the Indian media’s side of the story, but I know international media can over sensationalize things too.

Something else I haven’t seen written about is that not only are communications being blocked in Kashmir, but local Kashmiri news media somehow isn’t allowed or able to share their news stories. While international and national media on the ground in Srinagar find ways to share updates despite the internet not working, local Kashmiri news sites aren’t updating at all. The popular Greater Kashmir website still looks like a time capsule from three weeks ago on the eve of the blackout and Article 370 announcement.

Greater Kashmir home page with their last updates from 3 weeks ago

This is strange to me because Kashmir often has had internet blackouts and phone communications temporarily disabled for security reasons during protests. In those times the local media almost always updated their sites and kept sharing news about whatever was happening. While local media has their own biases toward the Kashmir story, I usually found them the closest to being accurate in sharing what really was going on in Kashmir during times of unrest. Not being able to check their sites makes me feel even more in the dark.

This week will start the fourth week of the communications blackout. I hope phones and internet are able to be restored soon and local news media can again post their stories. I want to see blue checkmarks on my WhatsApp messages to Kashmiri friends or be able to call their mobile as most don’t have landlines which have partially been restored. I want to know they are okay.

As for Kashmir I don’t know what will happen there in this new uncertain future. I have my own opinions and thoughts, but what I really want to hear are the diverse opinions and thoughts from the people in Kashmir. What do they think about this change? What is their response? I want to listen and hear from them. I know the odds are slim, but I hope others in India and the world will also want to listen, and somehow a wise way forward can be found for the common good of all.

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.

Hazratbal mosque on Dal Lake in April 2005, Srinagar, Kashmir
Hazratbal mosque – one of my few photos from the first month

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 mean 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 about 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 tailors. 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 her clothes made there in the local style after we arrived.

A few months ago I had what felt like sudden inspiration to start this blog and make it about technology. I enjoy tech blogs, I enjoy using tech in various ways in my life, and I enjoy writing so I thought why not try a tech blog.

Well, that didn’t really work out. Apparently I’d rather read about and use tech than write about it, so nothing much happened after a few initial posts which I’ve since decided to un-publish.

But I still had this lingering idea and desire to write about something and couldn’t really figure out what that might be or whether I should just give it up and move on. Today I may have struck upon another bit of inspiration for the topic and content that I would enjoy writing continuously about. It all goes back to the name I originally picked for the site, noonchai.com, and how the place where I first tasted noon chai – Kashmir – has shaped and influenced my life in ways I’m still unpacking after moving back to the USA late last year.

I spent almost 14 years of my life in Kashmir helping to develop two small businesses and briefly experimented with a third one. I moved around a lot growing up so the next longest amount of time I’ve lived in one place is only six years. Kashmir is a place that always will be close to my heart and one of the places I consider “home.”

After being back in the USA for six months I’m continually processing and realizing how much those 14 years impacted me. They mark me and are an important part of who I am. This is not just true for me, but my family also. While I moved to Kashmir and had previous places I called home, for my kids Kashmir was their first home. The USA was a place they visited and enjoyed, but Kashmir was home. My wife and I are still understanding how that experience shaped our kids and affects their new life in this once foreign place called America.

So my idea for this blog is to write about my life in Kashmir. Not the business stuff so much, but the personal. What it was like to move and live there as an outsider. How much things changed in those 14 years. I’m thinking to start back in 2005 and go from there, highlighting moments as they happened. It will be a way for me to remember and process, as well as document for the sake of my kids this life changing period of time in my life and my family’s life. I wish I could write something weekly, but I don’t know what’s going to be realistic. I’m just going to start writing and see where it goes.