I didn’t know what to expect. I am 19-years-old and it was my first time traveling to Kashmir. Kashmir is a province in the Himalayas, north of India, which borders Pakistan. I am 95% Kashmiri. Growing up, I’d heard scary stories about that region. I’d read even worse stories about it in the news. My parents are divorced and my dad mainly lives in Kashmir. As a child, my mom was terrified of me going to Kashmir because of the terrorism. She would tell me about the militancy, the unrest that was occurring; I never really understood it until I was older.
Kashmir has been at the heart of political uncertainty for years now. India and Pakistan have been fighting over the province, ever since the two countries were newly formed, after freedom from British rule in 1947. There were still 650 states between the two countries, run by princes, that had the option of deciding which country to join. Because Kashmir is located on the border of both, it was hard for the ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, to choose either country. In the end, he felt more comfortable choosing India. This eventually led to major conflict.
The journey to Kashmir was a long one. My mother and I took a 24-hour-flight to Delhi and landed at Indira Gandhi International airport. We had a four-hour layover after which we switched terminals within the airport. While I waited, I observed the people, the culture, and my surroundings. The last time I visited the country I was eight-years-old, and I don’t remember much. I reminded myself, regardless of being an all-American cheerleader, having a Marine boyfriend (back then), being dressed in jeans and a University of Connecticut sweatshirt, India is my birthplace. It’s my culture, my history, and my heritage. I was willing to completely immerse myself in the culture and learn more about what the country had to offer me.
After a quick but turbulent one-hour plane ride over the Himalayas, we approached the landing overlooking a very guarded airport. Military personnel were everywhere. I grabbed my belongings and walked towards baggage claim. I was intimidated. Soldiers were staring and I was scared. The security was intense. It was all so real now. The unrest started to make sense immediately. My father was at the gate to greet me and many people surrounded him—to finally meet me as well. They all knew who I was but I no idea who they were and I didn’t expect such a homecoming welcome.
As I drove to the family house for the first time, I observed the military trucks that were everywhere—behind us and in front of us. They were in a rush to get somewhere and were honking at people to move out of the way. I remembered my mother telling me that there have sadly been unexpected militant attacks in the country. There were cases of bombs and explosives going off randomly. I read an article, before my trip, talking about how Kashmir was a nuclear threat to the world. Both Pakistan and India have chemical weapons. At any point, the unrest can get worse and if they decide to use the weapons, I was potentially standing on soil of one of the most dangerous regions in the world.
Keeping this in mind, I looked up and was taken in by the beauty. The mountainous terrains were nothing short of breathtaking. I passed by Kashmir’s famous Dal Lake, and saw the biggest, most clean lake I had ever seen. I wanted to swim in it. I had seen people jumping in, off a dock, and I wanted to join them. Swimming in such a beautiful lake, surrounded by beautiful mountains, seemed so serene.
I passed the street markets and saw beautiful cashmere shawls the vendors were selling. The cloth and pashmina in Kashmir is 100% genuine and authentic. There is nothing else in the world like Kashmiri hand-stitched embroidery.
When I finally arrived at my family house, I took a deep breath and observed the household that had three generations of my family’s history instilled in it.
My dad introduced me to our cook, Aamir, and our gardener, Nura—he was an old man who had been working for my family since he was a teenager. In India it is common to have household help. As much as I was used to making my own bed and cooking my own food, I decided it would be okay to spoil myself for my stay there and have some good Indian food. Some Kashmiri foods you will have a hard time finding in New York are Tabak-Maaz and Rista. Aamir made excellent Tabak Maaz.
At times I felt a little awkward being waited on every minute. I wasn’t used to it. Since old family friends were staying at the house as well, I would help Amir and Nura as much as I could. I think they appreciated my treating them as equal. It wasn’t something they were used to. Sadly, in India there is still class discrimination.
The following days I went on shikara rides as much as possible. A shakira is like a Venetian gondola, but in my opinion prettier and nicer. You can kick back and relax as someone paddles you around Dal Lake. It can make you fall asleep. If you ever get to visit Kashmir, you must ride a shikara and admire the beauty around you as you float through beautiful lily pads. Read a book along the way, it’ll be the most relaxing thing ever.
In later days, I visited Gulmarg, which is literally a bubble. There, I went on a gondola ride, which over there is like a ski-slope lift that took me up the mountains at an enormous altitude. The view was serene. There really isn’t another word to describe the calm I felt, despite the silent war that had been going on within the country. I went horseback riding and it made me feel like I was in New York for a while. I go horseback riding a lot in New York.
If you visit Ladakh your eyes won’t blink. There are a lot of Buddhist monks there and it’s bordering China. If I could imagine what heaven looks like, I hope it’s just like Ladakh. I also went hiking in the hills. You haven’t been hiking until you trek the hills of Pehalgam. It makes you feel like you’re on top of the world.
I quickly came to realize I was becoming attached to the country. I had felt a connection with Kashmir being my homeland. I was confused. My parents took me around to places they grew up in. I went to the university my mother’s father taught at when she was younger, and I listened to professors still rave about his intelligence and kindness to this day.
I finally met family members I had been longing to see since I was a baby and immediately felt the unconditional love from them. Not to mention, it was scary how prominent the family resemblance was between my cousins and me.
It continued to upset me how violrnce in such a beautiful country has put the lives of everyone at risk. It felt even more real when I ran into a violent protest, which my family quickly diverted me from by driving in a different direction. People were throwing rocks and waving guns. It was surreal and one of the most terrifying moments of my life. There was such chaos surrounded by beauty and it’s something that I wish never happens anywhere.
The trip taught me so much about my culture and values. It made me want to make a difference. I realized what I was seeing in Kashmir isn’t given much attention in the media or news. It taught me that as an aspiring journalist, I should go where the silence is and report on stories and news worthy content, like the unrest in Kashmir, and other places from around the world. Kashmir has changed me and I fell in love with the region. Kashmir is my homeland. It’s the home that raised my family and on its soil made them the people they have them become today. Despite all the gunfire and unrest, it’s the most beautiful country in the world. I hope one day soon, it get’s the peace it deserves. As long as I’m in New York, I feel like I will never be completely at home again. It’s the price I pay for knowing too many people in more than one place.