At first, they all look alike. Men, dozens of them, every size and shape and color, covered in ski jackets and pants and five o’clock shadows, wearing hats and sunglasses or goggles. I’m too self-conscious to look at them closely. They’re all men and I’m a woman, the only woman. In my Catholic elementary school forty years ago the boys’ playground was separated from the girls’ by a chain link fence. I feel as if I’ve just scaled that fence.
Now I’m in dangerous territory. Not just because this is Kashmir, with its tragic history of political violence, but also because I’m the only possible action in town: According to the locals, I’m the first woman to travel alone to this Indian ski village of Gulmarg. Every day I receive hand-written calling cards—complete with the names of my suitors’ parents and their villages—at my hotel, where men sit in the lobby, patiently waiting to speak to me. In my younger years I might have been game, but I’ve been warned that Indian men think all American women behave like porn stars. So when the men stop me on the slopes with invitations for après ski, I make it clear I’m here for the powder. Period. I feel relieved when Arif, who is eighteen and asks if I know any twenty-year old American girls who might want to marry him, declares it’s his duty to watch out for me.
On my first night, as I leave to meet a group of Swedes for dinner, the manager of my hotel asks where I’m going. “No,” he says. It’s too far.”
I explain that I’ve traveled ten thousand miles on my own, so I’m comfortable venturing an extra fifty meters. But the manager insists I sit down. He picks up the phone. Ten minutes later Arif strolls into the lobby to escort me to the restaurant. He takes a table, alone, next to the one I share with the Swedish guys, who bend my ear about President Kennedy and the Green Hilton Agreement and how on earth could I have allowed my country to elect George W. Bush president. Obama’s no better, they add. Hanging my head, I sigh, explaining I’m not singlehandedly responsible for U.S. politics, that they are preaching to the converted—people who voted for George W. Bush don’t, generally, travel to the Indian border of Pakistan. Nearly two hours pass when Arif stands up and tells me it’s time for me to go back to my hotel. I’ve never been more grateful for an interruption.
After tailing me on the bunny slopes all day, Arif, whose father Yaseen owns Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop, which arranged my trip here, shows up at my hotel with new skis for me. Tomorrow I’m taking on the thirteen thousand-foot slopes accessible by the world’s highest gondola. Unlike the other men who have come to call on me, Arif doesn’t wait in the lobby or bring along a chaperone. He swaggers into my room, shutting the door behind him, lighting a cigarette. Earlier that day outside the ski shop where I sat gazing at the 15,500-foot massif called Sunrise Peak, surrounded by men, Arif explained how friends help each other out. And since he and I are now friends, he would like me to help him relocate to the United States. A discussion ensues—Utah versus Colorado, and visas. I’m indebted to Arif’s father for quite a few rupees and also I’m afraid to say anything that might detract from my current, never-before-experienced popularity, so I agree to do whatever I can, which I know damn well is nothing.
Arif sits down and lights another cigarette. After six hours on the slopes I’m famished, looking forward to a long hot bath and climbing into bed with my John Irving novel, Son of a Circus, but feel obliged to behave hospitably. I ask the waiter stationed on my floor to bring us tea and vegetable chow mein. The waiter, a young man who wants me to give him my headlamp—an indispensable tool for the daily electrical blackouts that occur in the Indian Himalaya, where I am traveling for three months—scowls at me. “What is this boy doing in your room?” he says.
As a woman, an American, who regularly travels alone through South Asia, I wear invisible armor. It’s a delicate balancing act, this kind of travel. I depend on locals to help me out when I get myself into situations I can’t navigate on my own, just as they depend on people like me for their livelihoods. In a world where everything is negotiable, straightforwardness is not Kashmiris’ forte. Not only do I not know what anything costs or how I will pay for it, no one can tell me what time the gondola opens tomorrow morning. Or if it will be closed the next day, which falls on one of the nearly three hundred national and/or religious holidays India celebrates.
On the slopes Arif looks like the elite skier he claims to be. Here in my room, he seems like someone who dropped in from another century. Dressed in traditional Kashmiri garb, a drab brown wool coat draped over wide-legged pants with a boat-shaped cap on his head, it’s easy to overlook how alarmingly handsome he is. I’m guessing he’s about six feet tall, a hundred and seventy pounds. Eyelashes I’d kill for frame his enormous dark eyes. I think of his father who, at fifty, smokes copious amounts of tobacco from a hookah, is missing half his teeth and looks like he’s lived his whole life in a war zone. I feel a mixture of melancholy for Arif and his fate and annoyance that he’s here in my room, trying to make his problems mine.
As one hour passes and the next, Arif lights cigarette after cigarette. He brags about his skiing—he placed seventh in an international ski competition held in Japan last year and he plans to ski for India in Canada at the Winter Olympics. Why then, I want to know, would he want to leave here?
“For money,” he says. “Kashmir is totally safe. But the tourists are only starting to come slowly, slowly. The last fifteen years have been very hard for the people here, for my father. If I earn myself money, I can give it to my father.”
Contrary to Arif’s claim, Kashmir continues to be one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Pakistan and India regularly threaten to blow each other and themselves off the planet, fighting over land roughly the size of Utah. Kashmiri liberation groups, rebelling against both countries, periodically blow up cars and hotels, ensuring embassy warnings against travel there never lift. That this area is not known for peace is more obvious in Srinagar, a winding, two-hour descent down the mountain. Airport security, notoriously lax in most of India, is so tight in Srinagar it borders on farcical. Barbed wire fences surround downtown hotels. Streets, eerily bare except for the pungent military presence, starkly contrast the typical Indian city that teems with every form of life and vehicle. The feeling that hangs in the air so heavily I can almost touch it is not terror, though; it’s sadness.
I’m lying on my bed bundled in fleece, listening to my favorite Led Zeppelin song, Kashmir, on my iPod when Arif shows up at my hotel room the next night. He forgets why he’s here the second he sees my iPod, so I place the Bose headphones over his ears and tell him to kick back and enjoy. After a few minutes, he fixes his big brown eyes on me with a look I imagine gets him mostly everything he wants. He wants my iPod. I feel anxiety swirling through my chest. How can I spend another two months in India, alone, without my music, my guided meditations, my only form of company on long bus and jeep rides? Arif explains I can buy another one. Yes, I agree, but not until I return to the States and I need this iPod now. He begs. I promise I’ll send him one. He counters that it will never arrive. He tells me that training with music would help make him a world champion skier. I suggest that quitting smoking would be even more helpful. He promises me tickets to watch him ski in the Sochi Olympics. But, wait, I say. Won’t you be living in Lake Tahoe by then?
It’s my last night in Gulmarg. Arif drops by to say goodbye. He has a present for me—a traditional Kashmiri dress, wool maroon, with intricate embroidery. Grudgingly, I hand Arif my iPod. I would have preferred to part with a kidney or a lung, but I know I’m obligated to Arif. I’m also cynical. I don’t believe anyone gives without expecting something in return. Besides I know I can’t deliver what he really wants—entrée to the U.S.
Arif plops down for one last conversation. I tell him about the Indian army battalion toting rifles that whooshed by me on the slopes. He sighs heavily and takes a long drag on his cigarette. “In Kashmir, we just want to be free,” he says. “Why do India and Pakistan bother us? Pakistan wants space and thinks that because we are Muslim we should be part of their country. And India wants Kashmir because it’s a really beautiful place.”
He asks for my email address. He mentions again he will write to find out how our plans to bring him to America are progressing. As he leaves, he says, “I’m a first child, a first-born son. Everybody loves me.” He pulls the iPod out of his pocket, strokes it gently, looks at me. “You love me,” he says. “They will love me in America too. Even though I’m Muslim.”