Koop – “In a heart beat”
This is the story I thought I would tell:
I stepped on the plane, had a long flight to India, arrived in Srinagar, was hustled by the taxi drivers, checked in a hostel, had some minor inconveniences due to some funny cultural misunderstandings, bargained for a trip to Leh, had an exhausting trip to Leh, met W., went trekking, saw some awesome views, the end. But this is not how the story goes. Instead I stumble right into the biggest flood in Kashmir since 60 years. So here are the last 14 days:
I almost don’t get to India at all. Arriving at the gate in Vienna my pouch with the credit card is gone. I carried it dangling around my middle finger after the security check. Now its gone. Chasing back and forth between security check and gate my shirt gets increasingly soaked in sweat. The only thing keeping me from freaking out is the pure and utter disbelieve this is actually happening. Without credit card I don’t have to step on the plane. Just when I’m about to give up I see the right kind of color out of the corner of my eye. Its my pouch. If the plane was on time it would have been gone by now. But its delayed.
Touch down Dehli. The flight was relaxed. Every passenger had 3 seats for themselves. Not sure why. Luck? Off-season? Because its a Boeing dreamliner? Connecting flight to Srinagar is two hours delayed. I can’t get Internet cause I might be an antisocial element. So I sleep. Just before getting on the plane I see that while I was sleeping a flood warning has been put in effect for Srinagar. Ah well it’s just a warning and my luggage is already on the plane… In Srinagar I end up bouncing around on the backseat of a minibus with Gulzar as my guide and “beautiful Mustar” as my driver. I get to know some facts. Among many others:
- it has bee raining 4 days continuously
- it shouldn’t rain that much right now
- all roads to Ladakh (Leh) are closed due to the rain
Gulzar shows me the housboats he runs with his family. It’s to expensive for my budget. We bargain and agree on a deal for two nights. The price still hurts my budget but I am tired and need a base to explore other options. Transfer to land is included. I make landfall withdraw some cash, buy a charger and get back to the boat. Jetlag is a bitch and packs a punch.
Today the rain should stop. Or so they say. The water level in Dal Lake is high. But not more than a minor inconvenience. Strawing through the city my skin complexion is a neon sign that says “Talk to me!”. Early afternoon it stops raining. I gain hope the roads to Ladakh will open soon. In the evening it starts raining again – heavily. I tell Gulzar I’ll be leaving tomorrow. Budget reasons. We re-negotiate. I stay.
It has been raining all through the night. While the tourist live in the deluxe and semi-deluxe houseboat the Gulzar’s family lives in a small shelter build on the fixed landing stage. Gulzar tells me that the family will join me on the semi-deluxe houseboat if the water rises further. There’s not much to do. I climb a steep pathway to a hindu temple on the top of a mountain. The mountain is surrounded by clouds. Back down I hitch a ride in a Tuktuk down the other side of the mountain. Little landslides and a 5 ton boulder slid out of the side of the slope partly block the way. I start to understand why the roads to Ladakh are closed. Back at Dal Lake I enter a bakery. While munching on some pastry I watch the news. Pictures from Jammu flicker by. Water in the streets, People running for their lives. Its weird. Here at Dal Lake everything is calm. In the news they call it the biggest flood in 60 years. And as the rain has just been waiting for this cue it is picking up the pace. Streams of water rund down the streets. So much water. It seems to be every where. Back at the houseboat the family has moved in with me.
At noon it stops raining and the sun comes out. Around there is a sense of relieve. People start cleaning, hanging out stuff to dry and making repairs. I go to the tourist information center. To sum it up: Rain stopped, everythings fine now, roads probably open in two days. Great. Unfortunately wrong.
It is mildly warm. The sun occasionally peeks through a thin layer of clouds. The houseboat owners chat while they go their daily business. I am hoping to go to Leh tomorrow. Suddenly the tone changes, movements become hectic. I ask whats going on. Water is coming in from the river. Dal Lake is a peaceful lake. If you would throw a ball in the water it would drift in the same spot for hours. Now there is a current. Half an hour later the water gets muddy. The water level rises – and fast. I help where I can with as high point saving the rice barrel from the muddy tide. Later I make landfall. Well kinda. The Boulevard along Dal Lake is 15 centimeter under water. Dal Gate is a flood control gate regulating the water level in Dal Lake. Brown water is flowing over and around it, sprawling into the lake. The water smells of kerosine and paint. To get to the tourist information center I have to wade 200 meters through the knee deep brown soup. The information center is not flooded but closed. In the backyard some men preparing a raft. I talk to them. Tourist information is closed (No shit!). Come back in 2 days. It’s all I get. Back on the Boulevard I try to get a plane ticket to Leh or Delhi. But the AirIndia office is closed (come back in 2 days) as well as every internet caffee. No ticket, no information. In the evening the current in the lake has slowed down. Maybe it will stop soon. It won’t.
The current in the lake is back to its old speed. Later I will find out why it slowed down last evening. As the water rose above Boulevard level the water started to flood this part of the city. Gulzar has to relocate the family car to higher ground. As we paddle through streets under water and along sunken trucks he sighs: “Incredible India”1.
In the hotels along the boulevard there are still tourists trapped. The staff has fled and the stocks are in the now flooded groundfloor. From the window they ask and bargain for water and supplies.
In the afternoon Gulzars father and a neighbour and I venture out to get some food. We try two landing points. The situation is tense. Shikaras have been stolen. People are yelling on the land and on the water. We drop Gulzars father. He ask me if I need anything. Well mosquito repellent. But it seem so trivial in the face of the situation. On the why back we paddle through low hanging branches (well technically they are not low hanging but the water is so high), circardas are singing and every once in a while you hear the distant whole of a starving dog. Its a morbid idyll.
The water is still rising. Not much to do but waiting. We get some “clean” tap water. It is offcourse much better than the brown soup around us but my stomach still has complaints. I try to build a solar driven water purifier from plastic bottles but fail cause I can’t get the water seal water tight. In the evening Gulzar takes me on a cruise in a shikara around “the block” with his friends. We get some drinking water for me. I even make landfall. The streets are covered in ash. People digging through garbage or just walking around. I feel that I am very lucky with my spot on the houseboat. Although my instinct tells me Gulzar is keeping information from me.
Not much to do but sitting around. Watching the many helicopters fly by. I start sketching up design for an emergency droppod. A drop pod that functions as floating shelter or water purifier after you removed the supplies contained in it. Kind of like a “childrens surprise” with the chocolate on the inside. The water is slowly leveling out at about 2.5 meters higher than when I arrived.
Still sitting around. I got really good at the puzzle game 2048. My current record is 66908 points. I try to get the attention of the helicopters but without success.
Gulzar tells me of dead people in the water and other stuff. But over the past days the feeling that he is not honest to me has getting stronger. There are irrefutable signs that he is trying to hide certain information from me. Or at least distract me from getting to know it. The problem is I am isolated. He and his father are the only people who speak proper english so they are my only source of information. The things is I am running low on cash. A couple of more days and I owe them money I can’t pay and then I am stuck here for a very long time because without electricity I could have all the riches in the world but I can’t access it.
We are low on gas. Cooking might be suspended soon.
Its a slow day. Akil the 8 year old cousin of Gulzar has been teaching me some Kashmiri. And he is a persistent teacher. Every time he sees me I have to recite all I have learned so far. Because we are both bored they send us on a shikara ride. And here is the changing point. By coincident I get to talk to a local who speaks english and he confirms what my instinct has been telling me for days. All this helicopters were part of a tourist extraction program. It has been going on for days. It has been on the news. No the airport was never flooded. And so on. As last proof of what I was suspecting he asks me not to mention his name cause he told me the truth. He hadn’t even told me his name.
I’m angry I tell Gulzar I wnat to leave. His first reaction makes me doubt my anger. “Okay if you feel so.” Later in the evening the bullshitting starts. I have been watching the news with them. They try to interpret what I’ve seen for me. Basic message is always the same. Stay a little longer just wait. Suddenly they now where the taxis to Leh might leave. Just wait a few more days. Lets go trekking tomorrow. 4 days, 3 nights. And so on. I fall still. They tell me not to think to much. I half-heartedly smile. I am not thinking I need all my concentration to contain my anger. If I escalate the situation I might not get out here at all.
Gulzar brings me to the five star hotel which serves as extraction point for the tourists. The extraction program has been shut down. There are no more tourists here. They send us to the military post nearby. A soldier with whistle in his mouth asks me something in Hindi. I don’t understand. He clothes the gate. “The gate is closed”. In the end Gulzar gets me a ride to an transition point from where I can get a taxi to the airport. I leave him with mixed feelings. They took good care of me but they also tried to milk the situation. I could have been out of here 5 days ago. And now I don’t even get a free helicopter flight
At the airport AirIndia tells me there are no more free tickets for extraction. Tickets to Delhi cost 2800 Roepie. I have 1500 left. There creditcard system is down. The atm doesn’t process my request. I talk to AirIdia again and agian and again. Finally the at least get me into the airport building (because of the security level you are only allowed in the airport building if you have a flight ticket). The station manager bumps me off and sends me to GoIndigo. I explain my situation. At first they misunderstand. You have not been aware there is a flood in Srinagar? I go blank. They think I just arrived and want to get out. I have been very well aware of it because I have been stuck in it for 2 weeks!!! From there its downhill. They get me a free ticket. I have to wait in the staff room until my request is processed. They offer my airplane food for lunch. I get cigarette which I enjoy like no other cigarette before. A baggage handler gives me his apple and cookies. And then before I know it I am on the plane and in Delhi. A stewardess lets me use her phone to inform my family. (Imagine that. Hey there is a bit of a flood here but I am fine. After that 10 days no message.). After getting some directions I make my way to the center. Check in a hotel and finally crash on the bed.
I want to thank the ground staff of GoIndiGo for getting me out!!!
All photos in this blog are my own and are not allowed to be used without my explicit permission.