The buddy system is essential to your survival; it gives the enemy someone else to shoot at.–Murphy’s Law
Statistically people are better off in pairs or in groups. Married couples tend to live longer and groups of hikers in the woods are less inclined to be eaten by bears. Originally I had planned to venture off into the world alone, but after conferring with some outside sources the general consensus led me to believe that India is 85% horrible and 15% interesting. With numbers like these India seemed like it could be a bust. Clearly, I needed a companion.
I decided to persuade my long-time friend Melissa into accompanying me for the first leg of the trip. She had been anxious for another adventure since her stint in Cambodia and repeatedly told me how we should travel together sometime in the future. Lucky for me, she only had Bollywood movies to shape her impression of India so it was an easy sell. She could hardly wait to sing and dance in the streets. I was just relieved to have someone along to help boost my survival rate. The singing and dancing would come later I assumed.
There were many things we brought to India to ensure success — water purifier, pepto bismol tablets, soap for body lice, mosquito net, sleeping bag and a couple of guidebooks. We figured anything else we might need we could find in India for cheap. As for a plan — we’d feel it out when we got there and then decide. She had 9 days with Amristar and the Taj Mahal on her radar while I had two nights booked at a hotel in Delhi with a six month Indian visa. We were off to a good start.
Before I left the states there were many tips people offered to help my travel endeavors. Advice on par with things like, “don’t go to jail” and “don’t be gullible.” Great tips, thanks. One piece of advice I wish I had listened to more carefully was about having a plan. My friend told me before I left Jackson, “it’s great to travel without a plan. It leaves you more open to meeting people and seeing places you’d never had gone to otherwise. But you should have a plan for the first week. At least until you get your bearings for the place.” Funny how I remember this tidbit now.
Within an hour of arrival in Delhi, Melissa and I ended up at a tourist information office not far from our hotel. We listed off some of the places we were interested in and from that they developed an entire itinerary for Melissa’s nine days in India. How convenient. The plan sounded good enough to me. All except the last three days in Kashmir. Last time I had checked, everything I had read said, “Don’t go to Kashmir.” In fact, according to the U.S. Department of State:
The Department of State strongly recommends that you avoid travel to the state of Jammu & Kashmir (with the exception of visits to the eastern Ladakh region and its capital, Leh) because of the potential for terrorist incidents, as well as violent public unrest. U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling to Jammu & Kashmir (except for Ladakh) without permission, which is only granted by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi in exceptional circumstances. A number of terrorist groups operate in the state, targeting security forces in the region, particularly along the Line of Control (LOC) separating Indian and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, and those stationed in primary tourist destinations in the Kashmir Valley: Srinagar, Gulmarg, and Pahalgam. Since 1989, as many as 60,000 people (terrorists, security forces, and civilians) have been killed in the Kashmir conflict. Foreigners are particularly visible, vulnerable,and at risk. In the past, serious communal violence left the state mostly paralyzed due to massive strikes and business shut downs, and U.S. citizens have had to be evacuated by local police.
Concerned, I asked our agent about the situation in Kashmir and if it was safe for us to go there. He admitted that there had been problems there in the past, but now there’s “no problem” (a common phrase at the tourist office). He went on and on about how beautiful and peaceful Srinagar is and the magic of staying on a houseboat etc. etc. He said it wouldn’t be good to go alone but because there were two of us that there would be “no problem.” According to him, one plus one doesn’t equal two in Kashmir, but eleven.
All the employees at the tourist office were Kashmiri and chimed in making quite a convincing case for visiting Srinagar. Melissa agreed that it would be nice to relax on a houseboat before having to return to the big bad city of New York and I figured, why not? The first nine days are about Melissa and then I can do whatever I want. If the locals say it’s good, than it’s good. One plus one is eleven. Sign me up. We handed over our credit cards and thus began our trip.
Our itinerary/package trip went something like this:
Day 1: Hotel pickup 6am. Drive 5 hours to Agra to tour the Taj Mahal followed by a 5 hour drive to Jaipur. Hotel arranged in Jaipur.
Day 2: Tour Jaipur.
Day 3: Drive 5 hours back to Delhi, take a 10 hour night train to Amristar.
Day 4: Arrive in Amristar 6 am, tour the Golden Temple and go to the border closing ceremony (between Pakistan and India) at sunset. Catch the 1am night train to Jammu.
Day 5: Arrive in Jammu at 6:30 am and catch our 11am flight to Srinagar with taxi ride to houseboat.
Day 6: Stay in houseboat, all meals included.
Day 7: Stay in houseboat, all meals included.
Day 8: Melissa flies back to Delhi with airport pickup and hotel arrangement.
Day 9: Melissa flies back to U.S. and Jennifer makes friends and stays in Srinagar forever.
I guess you can’t call it an adventure until something goes wrong, so there we were, doing exactly what our guidebooks warned us against — booking a package trip out of Delhi. In our defense, neither one of us were in the right mindset to make these kind of big decisions. After spending twenty hours on an airplane and experiencing the madness of Delhi, the neurons in our brains were not firing properly. If only I hadn’t scoffed at my mother’s advice about not being gullible! Oh well. In America they say two heads are better than one and in Kashmir one plus one makes eleven. I’m no mathematician but it seemed as if the odds were in our favor — one could only hope.