I did not have a lot of good impressions about India in my summer trip of 1988.
As I was walking out of the airport, child labour was the first thing that caught my eyes. While a couple of very young boys were working laboriously on a building site, several male grown ups just stood by, watching and maybe supervising. They seemed to be apathetic, perhaps they were similarly exploited when they were young.
While driving to town, you could see carcass of cows lying on the side of dusty roads. There were vultures busily pecking away the dead bodies and no body seem to care.
We bought a first class long distance train ticket and thought we could escape from this harsh world for a moment. All we had for lunch was just a small bun which to me was almost unpalatable after trying a mouthful. Arriving at our destination, I was eager to get out from the train. Walking onto the station platform I was greeted by a super slim bare footed Indian with white beard, who only wore turban and diaper. With a cane in his hand, he asked whether he could carry my luggage for me. How could I trust him with my luggage?
The hustle and bustle of old Delhi was even more unforgettable. The slums were an eye-opening experience too. Everything was just so chaotic!
Then came the more pleasant part of the trip. . . . . the Taj Mahal. The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, as a love tribute built Taj Mahal ( one of the Seven Wonders of the World) in white marble to his wife. My guide said that after they built the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan cut off the hands of all the workers who had worked on it so they would not try to build something as beautiful as Taj Mahal. Did the emperor not intend to build another one in black marble afterwards ? My guide was a bit crossed when I asked him about this and the (low) literacy rate in India at the time, he thought I was just trying to embarrass him (and his beloved country).
Kashmir is situated at the border with Pakistan and conflicts had already started when I was there. We headed for Srinagar in Kashmir.
Flying to Kashmir was another memorable experience. Going through the security at the airport, my body was groped all over by a soldier to make sure that I was not bringing anything dangerous on board of the plane. They even took away the small batteries inside my camera which were only returned to me before I alight the plane.
As I stepped out of the airport, I noticed there were several very old taxis waiting for travellers. I thought for a while we had gone back in time for approximately 30 years.
The scenery at Dal Lake was almost surreal. There were house boats on the edge of the lake against a backdrop of distant mountains and blue sky dotted with white clouds which formed a perfect mirror image on the placid lake. The view was just heavenly!
I could never forget the face of this smily little girl who rowed her small sampan towards me in our house boat, trying to “exchange” a small water lily for some money.
Early next morning, we went for a rowing trip to the water market along the waterways. The market was full of colours, sounds and activities; I like trips which brought me so close to real people.
We spent a couple of nights on the boat house which we were told had very good security. While on the boat house, my classmate who travelled with me lost his wallet, his ID and credit cards. Only when I threatened to report this to the police, the wallet suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the common living room of the boat house where we have never been to. What a miracle!
I am tempted to have another tour to India to see how this part of the world has changed. Of course, to stay at Dal Lake for a few more nights. However, Kashmir is still on the travel warning list of many government bodies. Some travel warnings simply say: Don’t Go.
After more than 20 years, I am keen to see how this country, which claims to be the largest democracy, compares with PRC. In the meantime, maybe, I can only wait.