Finding Freedom in a War Zone

Disclaimer: Whilst this story is true, with all the atrocities that happen in a war zone, this article is meant as entertainment only and not a way of down playing the reality of war.

“Would you go if you were me?” I asked the flight attendant checking me in at the Delhi airport, flight to Kashmir.


I only asked because the day before I had been conned (or so I felt) by a travel agent and sold a ‘dream vacation’ to Kashmir.

“Kashmir was the summer retreat of the British in the 50s when it got too hot in Delhi.” The tall Indian sales clerk had explained.

“It is one of the most beautiful places in India, you will see. The houseboats are set on Dhal lake overlooking the Himalayas. The boats were built by the British in such fine detail, and ever since Independence after the the British left, no one gets to appreciate them. It will be peaceful and serene up there.”

India was the first stop of my 3 months ‘soul-searching’ trip around Asia.

I liked the idea of peaceful and serene. That was the whole point of my trip, to escape the whirlwind of my life and take time to reflect.

Soul-searching trips are profound decisions usually born out of an unhappy situation. I was working in London, UK, in a press agency, with travel all around Europe, on the outside it was glamorous and fun but I was still seeking more from life.

I sat in my hotel room in Dehli and pondered. I had asked the rickshaw driver to take me to the train station because I needed a ticket to Simla to visit a family friend. He took me to a travel agent who had other plans for me.

I was 26 years old and honestly, clearly a little naive. I didn’t know when I bought the ticket, what I was about to find out when I turned on the TV that evening in my hotel room. 

I bought a ticket to a warzone.

Kashmir, ‘land of delights and beauty’, was in the heart of the Indian Pakistan conflict.

The Kashmir conflict is a territorial conflict primarily between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region. The conflict started after the partition of India in 1947 as a dispute over the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir and escalated into three wars between India and Pakistan.

The year I was there, 1999, armed conflict between India and Pakistan broke out again in the Kargil war over the Kargil district.

How had I been so foolish?

Well I marched myself back to the travel agent the next morning and demanded a refund.

This young gentleman was three steps ahead of me, he sat back in his chair, arms crossed behind his head.

“The problem is, if I refund you, I have to charge you the $100 cancellation fee (the same price as the tickets, I was back-packing I was trying to stay frugal), and I can only refund you for the house-boat accommodation, not the flights”

This kind of reasoning went on for a while, my cheeks got fired up, I battled hard until I realized, this was not my culture, I was out of my depth.

Stuck with the ticket, I decided to go.

By the time I got to the airport, my doubts were running high.

“Would you go if you were me?” I asked the flight attendant checking me in at the Delhi airport, flight to Kashmir.

She looked me deadpan in the eyes, bobbled her head a little: “only you can make that decision.”

I didn’t want to make that decision, I wanted someone to tell me it was ok.

Challenged with a decision most people would forfeit their money for, I decided to go.

As I went through security, I was only allowed my bottle of water & a book, both of which were scanned. The mirror in the plane had been taken down and when I asked why, they said it was for the passengers’ security.
Was I the only single female? I asked myself as I looked around the plane. I spotted another young traveling couple. I felt 10% reassured. I am wondering if I am not a little mad.

The little voice in my head whispers ‘this is the true call of adventure, enjoy the journey.’

When we land, the journey had hardly begun before I realize how deep I am getting myself into.

I am picked up by a taxi that takes me to a dock. I board the first boat, that takes me to another dock. I board a seconded boat…

These are how the thoughts go:
“Where the hell am I going? Who are these people who picked me up and whose language I can’t speak? What have I done?
Wow, it’s so beautiful, I love this gondola I am on, it reminds me of a gondola fit for a fairy-tale princess. I guess there won’t be any tourists, which may be a breath of fresh air.
Will I survive this crazy trip? I only have myself to blame.
How cool, there is life teaming on the water, families on their wooden boats, merchants on their boats, some waiving at me with smiles.”

When I get to the house boat, my nerves are frayed but I like what I see. The inside of the boat, which is mainly wood paneling, is intricately carved.
In that moment, I feel honoured to be here, to witness a reality of past long gone.
I walk to the front of the boat, called Khar Palace, as the sun is slowly setting, and I am smitten. I am alone on the boat and probably all the ones next to me. Hollywood Palace opposite me has a cheerful neon sign.

Such a contrast to Delhi, and to my life.

Life on Dhal lake is a water community. Merchants drive up to my deck trying to sell me fruit, or jewellery. I still have the gemstone momento ring I bought.

My strangest night was the first one.
I am  sitting on the deck and my cook joins me, sits on the opposing bench, he doesn’t speak much English but manages to says “you smoke hashish?”
“sometimes” I say not wanting to sound to keen.
“you give me cigarette, I give you hashish?”
He signals in sign language that we have to keep it quiet, but he will go get some.
2 hours later, after a delicious mutton and rice meal, I am reading on the sofa, he returns with my cigarette, clearly stoned.
“Not too much” he reassures me.
I sit on the edge of the opulent white sofa. He sits opposite me. I take a puff. I try to hand it to him and he says no.
It’s awkward to say the least. I try to make small talk. He doesn’t respond, mainly because we don’t speak the same language.
I am half way through the joint, when he gets up. He goes to the southern corner of the room, behind the armchair and grabs a roll-out mattress. He rolls it out on the floor in front of me. He then pivots, goes to the northern corner of the room and grabs a couple of pillows he places on the mattress. He walks behind me and from under the couch grabs a blanket.
Too awkward! That’s my queue to leave. I bow goodnight and walk my way down the long wooden corridor.
I enter my room, do I have a lock? I am convinced that people will try to get into my room, that the rebels will barge in to the houseboat in the middle of the night, and that I will be robbed before day light.
“What am I doing?” I ask myself still a little scared.
Then I laugh to myself.
“Relax, you are safe, enjoy the adventure” my inner voice guides me. A single female traveler experiencing the fears of so many before me.
I fall into a deep 10 hour sleep, only briefly disturbed at 5am by an intense cacophony of bird sounds, followed swiftly by the calling to Allah over some distant loud speaker.

The days that followed are peaceful, but still aware that I am in a war-zone and if I get caught in the cross fire I won’t come out alive.

I do manage to ventured out a couple of times to visit some local attractions, one including a visit to a Kashmir carpet maker were I learned a bit about this fine art.

For the most part I sit on the deck of the boat and write my heart out, trying to answer some of my most pressing questions: what is my purpose? My spiritual journey has begun.

Overriding the constant low level fear, frustrations, and unexpected twists and turns, of which there were many on this trip, was the thrill and exhilaration of doing my own thing. I feel free.


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“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta


all  pictures copyright @ melissa horrell

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