One of the benefits of working in a war zone was regular R&R. During our tenure in Mozambique, which was one tough posting, we decided to use our R&R to travel to Northern India (similar in cost to a return home, to which we were entitled, so we convinced the Red Cross to pay for it!). We added some unused holiday time, and though the trip was neither restful or relaxing, it was unforgettable.
The convoluted, multi-leg, flight from Maputo to Delhi had a connection in Nairobi. When clearing customs we were informed we needed to show proof of yellow fever vaccine (a likely outcome of our current pandemic). Regrettably, Claire’s health record booklet didn’t show the yellow fever vaccine though she certainly had it due to her past work-related travels. No worries, a helpful, but shady character managed to produce the needed paperwork for $15 (he was asking $50), and we got on our flight to Delhi in the nick of time.
I had been to India in 1980 so was keen to show Claire my favourite haunts in and around Delhi. Of course, we also did the obligatory trip down to Agra to see the Taj. Though accustomed to the heat, India was in the midst of the pre-monsoon heatwave, which is truly insufferable, so we soon opted (primarily due to security concerns for overland travel in the Punjab) to fly north to the state of Jammu Kashmir and the cooler, high mountain environment. We spent a week in the beautiful Vale of Kashmir, in and around the city of Srinagar, then made our way over the mountains to, another disputed but fascinating, territory of Ladakh (often referred to as ‘Little Tibet’). It was a trip of enormous social, cultural, geographic and climactic variety leaving lasting memories. Hopefully, our photos do it justice.
From Srinigar our intention was to visit Ladakh, but the infamous road into the region, over the Zoji La (‘mountain pass of blizzards‘ is 3,528 M high) was still closed with winter snows. We heard it was to open soon so, counting on our good luck, we decided to do a hike across the mountains from Pahalgam to Sonamarg, the last ‘town’ on the road before the climb to the Zoji La, hoping that by the time we got to Sonamarg the pass would be open. It was a real shot in the dark and despite various challenges, we eventually made it to Leh, the ‘capital’ of Ladakh in 7 days.
Pahalgam is a hill town in the mountains to the east of Srinagar, famous as the starting point of the annual Amarnath Yatra (pilgrimage). The 5 day walk to a cave, one of the holiest sites of Hinduism, high in the mountains (3,888 M) now attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually. The attraction, the Shiva Linga, a giant phallus of ice, is said to wax and wane with the phases of the moon and is believed to be the place where Lord Shiva explained the secret of life and eternity to his divine consort, Parvati. Beginning in the 1990s, the pilgrimage has been the site of numerous massacres of predominantly Hindus by Kashmiri militants. When we were there (June, 1986) the pilgrimage hadn’t started for the season. In those days, the numbers of pilgrims was much smaller but tourism services to support the pilgrims were an increasingly important part of the local economy, so when we got off the bus in Pahalgam, we were immediately surrounded by touts offering us various services. Completely unaware of the religious significance of the place, we were taken aback by this apparent support for a couple of foreign tourists planning an obscure hike to Sonamarg. As usual, little did we know.
We had a scheduled flight out of Leh direct to Delhi for June 23 giving us a few days in the city before returning to Africa on the 27th, and a buffer, in case our flight got cancelled, apparently a common occurrence. We got to the airport early in the morning and five hours later we were informed that both flights that day to Delhi had, indeed, been cancelled. We were told we could try to get on a flight to Srinagar the following day or wait for the next flight to Delhi on the 26th, both completely unpredictable scenarios. Air India, though exhibiting the patience of Job in dealing with hundreds of irate passengers, was useless. There was no communication with Delhi and only periodic communication with Srinagar. What to do? What ensued was right out of the movie Rat Race. A bunch of us foreigners, joined forces, hired whatever vehicles and drivers we could find and proceeded to race across the Zoji La, all to be first in line at Air India’s offices in Srinagar. The following two days were exhausting (another 4 hours of broken sleep in Kargil), at times scary, often exhilarating and sometimes frustrating (six hours to clear the pass of broken down vehicles) but I loved every interminable hour of it. To transition from the stark, arid high plateau to the lush green of the Vale of Kashmir, as the rich panoply of life unfolded before us, was breathtaking.
The next morning, we were at the Air India office at the airport early in the morning but still, we were the 25th & 26th on the priority list of passengers from Leh trying to get one of the few remaining seats on flights to Delhi. The following five hours was an insane scramble to get on a flight. Anarchy reigned and graft was the surest way of getting a boarding pass. After almost strangling a ticket agent (I’m sure he was on the take), an action I’m not particularly proud of, we finally got our passes on a flight to Delhi, with a stopover in Amritsar, the capital of the much troubled state of Punjab. At Amritsar, we had to temporarily disembark and go through security which for me, involved a far too intimate body search by a big, burly, bearded Sikh (clearly a ‘bear’!) in a small, privacy space, who tells me “Enjoy”, inches from my face, as he starts to pat me down. It was….how should I put this, disturbing!
Our few remaining days in India were spent, in a frenzy, trying to buy gifts for friends and co-workers in Maputo, visiting ICRC and trying to buy new glass frames for Claire. It was too much for fresh-off-the-plane, invigorated tourists let alone two worn out zombies like us. On top of it all, Claire had come down with a GI infection. I will never forget the look in Claire’s eyes at the optician’s, doubled over in cramps, as she desperately sought out the nearest toilet.
We spent our final six days on the beach in Mombasa, Kenya, recovering, eating well, learning how to windsurf and finally, just relaxing, before returning to Mozambique. As they say, a change is as good as a rest!