The driver of the bus was a man who wore what was called a turban. It was a long length of cloth, wrapped and folded around his head to make a cap. He belonged to a different religion. He was a Sikh. Once, as we were riding high above a river and the road was cut into the side of the mountain, the driver gave us a scare. We had come to a sharp curve in the road. As we started around it he took his hands off the steering wheel, bowed his head and folded his hands in prayer. He had seen a temple of his religion off in the distance, so he said a little prayer to his god. He must have been a very religious man. We thought the bus was surely going to fall over the edge of the road and land in the river. Just in time he grabbed the steering wheel and turned the corner. My, how scared we were. We hoped that would not happen again.
We spent the night in a hotel among the trees on the side of a mountain. It was afternoon the next day when we arrived in Srinagar, the capital city of Kashmir. Although we were tired and our legs and backs ached from sitting so long, we all agreed the trip was worth it.
Srinagar is in the center of what is called the Valley of Kashmir. There is a ring of mountains around the valley. Right at the edge of the city was Dahl Lake, and on that lake were what are called houseboats. There were many of them tied up along the shore. We picked one named "Happiness" to live in. We took our suitcases and other things and got on the houseboat. It was much like our house back home except it was built on a boat. When we opened the front door, we stepped right into the parlor. We soon discovered that all the other rooms were strung out behind the parlor. There was the dining room, and behind it were four bedrooms and bathrooms. In one corner of the parlor was a narrow stairway. Betty Ann and Frank climbed the stairs. They stepped out on a flat roof. "See all those houseboats," Betty Ann said. Some were tied up along the shore and others were out in the lake. "Look at all the trees and flowers," Frank said excitedly. I had climbed up to see the sights too. I looked, and right behind our boat was a smaller one. "That must be where the people live who will keep our houseboat clean. They will cook our food in that boat, too," I told the children. In India such people are called servants. They not only cooked our food but served it to us at our table.
It wasn't long after we got on the houseboat two of the servants used long bamboo poles to move the boat away from shore. They lowered their poles in the water to the bottom of the lake. The lake was not deep. To make the boat move they pushed on the poles while they walked along the narrow walkways on either side of the boat. They took the boat out into the lake to a quiet spot where we spent the night.
While we were going, a little boat called a shikara, came alongside our boat. In it was a man who called out, "Buy something please." His boat was filled with all kinds of toys. We were too tired to look at them right then, so he went away. During the days that followed, many such little boats came alongside our houseboat. Each brought different things to sell: fruit, vegetables, beautiful cloth, things made out of wood, and other things. When we wanted to go to shore the servant who served as our boatmen, brought their own shikara around to the front of our boat. After we got in, they took us across the water to the shore. To make the shikara go they used paddles made in the shape of a heart.
In the city there were many shops with all kinds of beautiful things for sale. Most of them had been made by the people of Kashmir. Each shop had a name and the one that we liked best was called "suffering Moses," because the merchant was Mr. Moses. He had so many beautiful things made of wood we didn't know what to look at first. Finally we decided to get a set of little tables. Along the edges of the tables the workmen had carved beautiful things. One table had the Iris flower. It was a favorite flower that grew in many gardens in Kashmir. Another table had the leaves of the Chinar tree. Those leaves look much like our Maple leaves. The third one had a grape vine pattern with little grapes cut into the wood. The fourth was a whole series of little flowers. He said he would pack them up and send them to Jabalpur for us. Before we left his store we bought Betty Ann and Frank small paddles, just like our boatmen used. On the way back to our houseboat the children sat, one on each side of the shikara, and dipped their paddles in the water. They looked up at us and smiled. They thought they were making the boat go.
After a day or two the servants moved our houseboat further out into the lake. There were many interesting things to see. We passed what looked like little islands. They were actually floating gardens. Betty Ann would call out, "Come and see," and she would point to the tiny boats, each with just one person in it. The person was picking nuts or flowers or other things that grew in the floating gardens. There were also tourist boats, almost as big as our boat, but made to carry passengers. Men or boys used long poles to push those boats across the water, just like our boatmen moved ours.
We grew accustomed to hear Betty Ann call out, "Come, come quick." She was always finding something interesting to show us.
Once she looked down in the water and there were hundreds of tiny fish swimming close to the boat. Another time it was a large bird that was standing on the front of our boat. Once it was to show us a frog that had jumped right into our bedroom through the open window. And once we found her with her four dolls lined up against the wall. She was saying, "Come! You come Molly!" Often she would stamp her foot and say "Come!" even to a chair or a stool. Then she would shake her head in disgust when it didn't come, and move it herself.
So our days went. Sunset was always beautiful on the lake as it gradually grew dark. And off in the distance the ring of mountains turned a purple haze. It looked as if the clouds almost touched the tops of the mountains. Gradually they changed color, from pink to red, and then faded out of sight. It was beautiful, especially when the lights in the other houseboats and the lights of the city shone out over the water. They sparkled and danced as the water moved. In our houseboat we did not have electric lights, because we were away from shore. We used kerosene lamps. Altogether we felt we were in a fairy-land because there was so much to see and do.
There are other stories of what we did in Kashmir that you may want to read. They are right here in this book. [by James E. McEldowney, Spring 1997]
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