his feeling is all too familiar. I
experienced it earlier this year when I read that the volcano
Nyiragongo, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, erupted, killing
scores of people and leaving 12,000 homeless. It hit me again when
I read about Maoist groups slaughtering entire villages in Nepal.
The siege of Sarajevo, the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the
attack on tourists at the Valley of the Kings.
The World Trade Center.
I flip on the TV or turn the page of a newspaper and discover
that some place I have visited as a tourist, some place where I
connected with the people who make it their home, has experienced
As I write this, India and Pakistan stand poised to go to war
over Kashmir, a sparsely populated, mountainous portion of land in
the northwest corner of India.
I spent three memorable weeks in Kashmir about 18 years ago. The
region has few economic resources, but from the time of the British
Raj its most sustainable revenue source was tourism.
English bureaucrats used to escape the withering heat of Delhi
by taking their holidays in Srinagar, Kashmir's capital.
Permanently moored houseboats on the shores of the city's Dal Lake
provided floating castles with spectacular views of the Himalayas.
Travel books from the era often describe Kashmir as paradise.
The owner of the houseboat I stayed on was a gracious man who
always wore a peaked, lamb's wool hat over his silver hair. He, his
son and infant granddaughter had the clear, sky-blue eyes that are
a distinctive mark of the Kashmiri Moslem community.
It was a slow year for tourists, but unlike many of the
merchants I met, he wasn't upset. Things will get better, if God
wills it, he said.
David, a waiter at a restaurant I went to frequently, asked me
to take pictures of him to send to his girlfriend, who was in
He had a number of poses planned, designed to tell a story -- he
looked longingly out a window in her direction, contemplated a
flower, and put on gloves and pretended to shiver to show her how
cold it was (though it wasn't that cold).
I met Dilip Kumar, a Bollywood movie star who was vacationing in
Srinagar. He was swarmed by crowds every time he took a walk, and
shook every hand that was extended toward him.
During the treks I took, Gujar tribesmen made a few extra rupees
by offering me rides down snowy hills on their homemade sleds, and
then helped me -- gratis -- to keep my balance as I
crossed logs straddling high mountain streams.
In the Ladakh area, on the Tibetan plateau, I was invited to
share a dinner of lentils and rice by a group of young monks. They
were grateful, they said, to live where they were and not under
Communist rule, like in Tibet.
Kashmir was not without its political strife then, either. One
day, I found myself on a rural road about six miles from Srinagar
when a curfew was declared. As a tourist, I was in a state of
grace, stopping at army checkpoints every half-mile or so and being
permitted to pass along the road filled otherwise only with
It was a surreal scene, with helicopters flying low overhead and
Kashmiri faces behind the windows of every house I passed, staring
out at their changing world.
Travel agents take on a level of responsibility that's seldom
written about. When they send clients on their way, they unlock
dimension to names that are printed on flat maps.
There usually is an immediate reward for travelers who connect
with people from other lands and cultures, but there also is the
possibility that they will experience residual emotions for
establishing ties with people all over our inherently unstable and
The houseboat owner's infant granddaughter must be a young woman
now. I imagine that David the waiter married his girlfriend and is
raising a family in Srinagar.
The Gujars must see a lot more soldiers than tourists trekking
in the mountains these days. Are the monks, now grown men
approaching middle-age, still grateful to live in Kashmir? Is Dilip
Kumar concerned about his adoring fans in the Himalayas when he
watches the evening news?
I've been thinking about these people a lot lately. The phrase
"Things will get better, if God wills it," replays in my mind.
While I worry about the ones I met, I'm most haunted by the
Kashmiris I never spoke to -- the anonymous faces behind the
windows, staring at soldiers in paradise.