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  • My friend which country

    Posted on September 26th, 2009 Sheila Yair 3 comments

    srinagar1Our first night in Srinagar we spend in the center of town. It is noisy but we need to use the internet, get some information (since we are traveling with the soft guide) and replenish supplies. At night there are two mosquitoes that keep buzzing around and leave me with about 8 big bites. Now this is nothing to write home about but I am doing exactly that to set the stage for the real story. The real mosquitoes in Srinagar are day creatures, they are the size of humans and swarm around you all day buzzing in a steady low hum “house boat? Pashmina? Shikara?”. You go through huge efforts trying not to get bit. It is not blood they are after they just want to suck up your money till the last coin.

    srinagar2Kashmiris, or cash-miris as I like to call them, are known throughout India for their aggressive sale tactics. They have their stores all over the sub-continent. Make the mistake of even glimpsing at something in one of these stores and out of nowhere 3 Kashmiris jump all over you shooting 5 sentences a second “come here, more inside, very cheap, what you looking for, best quality, looking is free, just one minute, first customer of the day”. A lot of times the above scenario will take place without you even stopping to look. A Kashmiri road block where no tourist can pass. They will do anything to get you in the store. If you are actually interested in buying something and you do go in, you can kiss the next half hour goodbye. You can try and get out but it won’t happen until you see every single shawl, scarf and paper mache animal in every size and color. There is a constant game of excuse and answer, where you try to tell them it is too heavy (not heavy at all), you don’t have space in the bag (we can arrange for it to be sent) you are not interested (if not for you get it as a gift)… whatever you say they have an answer ready. They also always make a point of telling you how all these souvenir shops sell very cheap quality and only they have the real handmade top quality merchandise. They speak very good English but there are a few words they unanimously don’t understand, a few words that were erased from every English book in Kashmir, words like no, not interested, don’t want to buy. After the whole inventory has been shown you sigh in relief. Ahh, you figure, you are almost out, you strongly held your ground saying no to everything, the door is gleaming with the outside sunlight and you can almost taste your exit. But you are only half way there. The second round is about to begin. Now the questions start revolving around where you plan on going. Why not go to Kashmir? It is the most beautiful place on earth. My family has a houseboat. No sooner is the word emitted and you find yourself with a photo album in hand. Photos of the house boat, of tourists who stayed there, shikara (the local boat) tours and letters of recommendation. As the person goes on and on about the marvels of this house boat, how tourist love it and how he can give you a great deal you start reading the recommendations. None of them are up to date. Many photos are from the 70’s judging by the attire. Some letters date as far back as the 60’s, way before the seller was born. Jeese, do you have anything here about Woodstock? My girlfriend and I are contemplating buying some tickets. After a long description of the great times you can have stuck on a house boat and the great friend price you can receive (only 4 times the regular price) the jeep offer comes up. They always seem to have a cousin that is leaving to Srinagar in 2 days. They are always going with them and you only have to contribute for gas. Basically a regular jeep taxi. The amazing thing is that all the merchants always do the same routine. They carry it out like a well rehearsed performance. I am wondering if there is some Kashmiri selling university that they have all attended. We got the first show in Delhi and have seen reruns in almost every place we visited.

    In India they are among other sellers therefore diluted and a little easier to avoid. In a market you will have 20 regular sellers and only 4 Kashmiri shops. In a bazaar you can always find other little alleys to run to. But here in Kashmir they are all, well, Kashmiri. So every tomato you want to buy, every person you ask for directions, every bus you board, they all have a house boat, they all sell pashmina, they all have more colors, all have cheapest and best.

    srinagar3It starts on the bus before we even get to Srinagar. A person gets on and immediately spots us, we are the only tourist on the bus. He proceeds for the next half hour to offer us his house boat. No matter how many times we say no. when we get off the bus he still follows us but now is joined by many more people hovering over us all offering house boats. We run to a coffee shop to shake them off. This is worst than any bug attack in the jungles of Bolivia. After a coffee and making sure they are gone we get in a rickshaw, it is too dangerous to just walk. And out of nowhere a “friend” hopes in the rickshaw and starts offering his house boat. We get off the rickshaw, another swarm. So we run to safety in a hotel right in the center. No bites yet. We figure our bags are like big signs “no room yet please offer house boat”. We figure it will be better once we walk around without bags. But no, without bags they start offering you arts and crafts, shikara tours and even house boats. They follow you for long periods of time supplying an answer to any excuse. I told them we have a great hotel, wife hates water, we are leaving tonight… but nothing helps they still say come to house boat, just see, I give you great price. Even in our own guest house the family organizes special private previews of merchandise in the yard. All of a sudden we hear a knock on the door, when we open somebody we never saw before is out there saying he set up all his jewelry, scarves, pashmina for us to see. And you have to start with all the excuses and answers again. You have to watch every step. One of the guest house family kids is very enthusiastic about Islam. We talk for a long time about Muslim culture and mosques. As a gift I give him a picture of el aktza and tell him tomorrow I am heading off to the old city to see some of the famous Srinagar mosques. He says he would be glad to join me and explain some things. The next morning as I head out he catches me. I figure I will pay for this somehow but go with him. We go in a car with his cousin (they are all cousins here). After one tomb and a mosque the uncle jumps in. he says we should go see a hand loom and see how they hand make rugs and shawls. We go to a couple houses and see some people work. It is very interesting and I start feeling bad for being so harsh in my thoughts. After the looms we go to the uncle’s house where every single rug and shawl is presented to me. It is a very special collection of his grandfather he claims. Coming from nomads and Sheppard villages all over Kashmir they are all very unique and one of a kind rugs for “bargain” prices. They all look very new and factory made to me, probably china. He shows me item after item until I just say I have to go. It seems his grandfather went through great effort assembling this collected works I just can’t bring myself to spoil such a nice collection by taking one item. As I didn’t buy anything I get to take a rickshaw back to the guest house, the wife needs the car he says. Fare enough you took me way out of my way to something I really didn’t want to see so it is only fair I try to find the way back to the guest house on my own. He also joins his daughter and nice to me claiming their school is near the guest house and they can hitch a ride with me. Even on the water you are not safe. One evening I rented a boat just to go on the cannels and see the sun set. Sure enough the minute I was spotted, boats from every direction selling flowers, saffron, wood carvings and drinks attached themselves to our boat. No tranquility. You find yourself spending most of the time dodging sale pitches and insisting you are not interested and barely have time to enjoy the city which is quite a nice one.

    I will say in their defense that since the insurgency started in 1989 tourism has dropped dramatically in an area that relied heavily on it. But I have never ever, not in Morocco, not in Sinai nor in Cuba seen such pushy salespeople.

    I have gathered some popular Kashmiri terms and their meaning:

    Hello friend which country, this is the ever present southing opening line. After these short formalities friendship is struck and the ground is ready for the sale pitch.

    Looking is free, this means you can come in and spend a few hours seeing every single item in the store and explaining thoroughly why you don’t want to buy it.

    Have more colors inside, like the one above an invitation to see every single thing in stock.

    Cheapest and best, this means you will get the cheapest quality while paying the best price they can get from you.

    Have a cup of Kashmiri tea, they know westerners will feel obligated if they drink anything and probably less opt to haggle, do you take any sugar with your trap?

    First customer of the day, I have heard this as late as 7pm. Basically it means you should buy immediately because he will give you the first customer discount which won’t last. FYI there can be limitless first customers in any one day.

    Family business, everything you see in all the stores always is handmade and comes from the family business, please disregard the made in china tag.

    Pay me what you like, now this is the trickiest one. Many times you ask how much for a boat ride, tour, hotel even merchandise. Once the deal is done and service granted you pay your price which is always insulting and way too low. But now you already took the boat trip and are left with the awkward situation of trying not to get ripped off.

    But we did end our visit to Srinagar on a very good note. Zulfi, one of the guys from the computer institute in Leh where I did the website, grew up in Srinagar and his parents still live here. He has come to visit them and invites us over. We have an amazing meal, Kashmiri food in general is very good. The dinner includes rice, cooked greens with garlic and curry, lotus flower roots with potatoes in a sauce of cardamom, cinnamon and saffron and succulent lamb. All this is served with yogurt and a sauce made of cashew nuts and chilies. For desert we have some kind of pudding with fruits, raisins and nuts. We barely believe the assortments of great tastes. During dinner Zulfis father tells us the storey of his father. Zulfi’s grandfather was a Chinese Muslim. He went with his father on hajj, the trip to Mecca. On one of the mountain passes the father died but the son decided to keep with the hajj. He made it to Mecca and back but on arrival the indo-china war started and the border was closed so he stayed in Leh. He was only 16 years old and was never to see his family again. The grandmother is from Pakistan which is also probably an interesting story but we were there, unfortunately, only for one dinner.

    The next day we leave Srinagar.

    click here to see photos