The monsoon reached the Andaman Islands this week, and India let out a collective sigh of relief.

In Delhi, however, it remains 'too much' hot. The evenings are bearable, however, and the cry of the peacock from neighborhood parks is a nice touch. It's going to be difficult to leave.

But that's what we're doing tonite. Taking off after 6 months of India for the USA. We'll make a token stopover in Amsterdam this week. Then back to Texas.

As I think the preceding notes attest, it's been a good trip. I'm pretty sad to be leaving. Later.


I’d been roughed up by whitewater and mugged by the unbelievable Delhi heat, so it seemed provisionally like a good idea to try for a houseboat in Kashmir. In the past two years, despite ongoing violence, this Himalayan border state has seen a tenfold increase in tourism. Peace talks between India and Pakistan have helped ease political tensions, while recent flare-ups have been attributed alternately to the Indian Army, Pakistani troublemakers, homegrown Muslim militants and Kashmir’s very own, heavily armed police force.It's no wonder, when I arrived in the state’s ill-fated capital Srinagar, I found a city suffering from extreme schizophrenia.

The shifting Himalayan light, refracted off the surface of Dal Lake, reflected the many moods of the Vale of Kashmir – peaceful, foreboding, meditative, dangerous. I wondered: Had we escaped to a land of legendary beauty and cool climate, or a war-torn Hell?

The answer was neither here nor there. For, like so much of India, Kashmir defies easy dissection; in fact, despite 50-year-old national boundaries that say so, most residents don’t even consider themselves to be a part of India. Still, it’s the national Army that crouches in the levies on the edges of town and maintains the street-level bunkers found throughout Srinagar – and those with a sense of history rightfully note that while these Indian faces represent an occupying force, they are a force invited by Kashmir. The question of who’s to blame is one that even the locals have not sorted out.

But it was easy enough to lose sight (quite literally) of these divisional factors when on board our houseboat(s). These floating properties, numbering some 150-200 locally, represent a leftover from the British era, when non-Kashmiris were forbidden from owning property in the state. In a city constructed around a series of canal-connected lakes, the British built their domiciles on the water itself, turning the city of Srinagar into South Asia’s answer to Venice.

With elaborated, Kashmiri-style carved woodwork on the walls, ceilings and doors and thick Oriental carpets coating the floors, the places we stayed – The New Crystal Palace and New Gulistan – were close to the lap of luxury. Cheerful servants were de rigueur, arranging water taxis, providing tea and Kashmiri kawa, a local beverage brewed from cinnamon, saffron, almonds and bark. In other words, Hell for the most part seemed a long way off.

During our first and last days, we cruised the lake shore by car to see Srinagar’s famed Mughal Gardens, where the pansies and peonies were in full bloom beneath the immense branches of maple-like Chinar trees. We enjoyed shikara rides in a Kashmiri-type gondola or canoe, taking in floating gardens and out-of-season beds of lotus flowers. Bird life was abundant, including herons, a multitude of kingfishers, the prettiest flashing neon blue, grebes, parakeets and plenty of domestic ducks, rumored to be tasty but never sampled.

Our estimable host on New Gulistan, Mr. M.R. Guru, sprightly at 70, greeted us unbidden at the airport, and made sure all needs were met. “Don’t worry,” he would say. “I’ll profit, but I am straight with you. You are like Guru. You must sometimes trust.” In turn, I had to convince Guru that my stay in Kashmir would not be complete without an attempt to seek out Himalayan trout. He remained concerned about militants, which made me concerned about militants, but the strength of my desire was abundantly clear.

So, after two days of touring Srinagar we headed for Pahalgam, a small town, altitude 8,000 feet, on the pilgrimage route to the Amarnath Cave, where an ice Shiva lingam, draws Hindu faithful by the thousands each year – militancy notwithstanding. The fisheries officer met us with a big grin, and let me know that I was among the first 30 international trout “addicts” (his term) to ply the Lidder River since the season opened in April.

The rough green water swirled like a question mark around boulders, dipping into deep pools, where hefty browns of 15-plus inches and up to 2-pounds lurked. I plied the water with Coachmen and bead-head nymphs, using a dropper, and weights to reach the hungry fish. A local guide put me right on the trout, which have been aggressively reintroduced to the Lidder in the past couple of years (they’re not native, of course, having first been introduced by Europeans maybe 150 years ago) with the hope that a world-class fishery will develop. The main obstacle for the time being remains poaching, both by locals and by the Indian Army, which prefers to use hand-grenades over hook, line and sinker.

Still, even in the downpour that met me on the second day, the fishing felt a lot like Heaven as I reached my bag limit of 6 trout, releasing more than three times that amount in the end.

One’s appreciation of Heaven, however, increases directly in proportion to how close to Hell one must pass along the way there. For while Guru had warned that the trout trip might not be 100 percent safe, it was easy to forget where I was when faced with the splash of the waves, the run of the riffle and the constant tightening of the line. And so I was shocked and dismayed when we arrived back in Delhi to learn that a bridge just South of Pahalgam had been blown up just after our departure from Kashmir.

Officially, militants have been blamed, but I can imagine Guru blames the Army for its dirty tricks. This violence carries a message for the Hindu pilgrims who might think the road to Amarnath is otherwise safe. Nonetheless, what the repercussions will be in the region are yet to be seen, but as there were no fatalities, the story barely rated two column inches. There’s obviously a lesson for trout bums and footloose travelers, too.

Yet, I would be hard pressed to reconsider my choice. Kashmir may still suffer the bane of violence, but it’s as peaceful there as it’s been in a generation. And I don’t know when my next chance to visit will come.


Down from the snowy peaks, and into the river valleys, I’ve crossed the subcontinent once again. Left Sikkim with a grand smile after our big trek, spending a couple of days checking out Buddhist monasteries and lounging in the capital city of Gangtok, dining on Tibetan specialties and soaking up the atmosphere. Even managed to catch a speech by his Holiness the Dalai Lama before coming back to North India proper; although I’m not actually sure what the DL said in his talk (in Tibetan) about relaxing the mind, I did find something soothing about the whole affair even with a crowd of thousands attending.

Having been invited to participate in the first Indian descent of the Tons River, I followed up Sikkim with raging whitewater on this remote tributary to the holy Yamuna. One of the seven sacred streams of Hindustan, the Yamuna emerges as a dirty ditch in Delhi and is reputed to be incapable of supporting life when it passes the Taj Mahal downstream in Agra. But the famed river does get its start in the high mountains of Uttaranchal, covered this year with historic snow levels, and the Tons, flowing down from Bunderpanch (‘Monkey’s Tail’) Glacier, is one of the Yamuna’s main sources.

The expedition kicked off at the tail end of April with a refresher course for out-of-practice paddlers on the upper reaches of the Tons. The mountain scenery of the Aquaterra Lunagad Camp (Aquaterra being the sponsoring company for this outing) was all pines and ridge lines. At the outset, the river appeared impervious to the snow pack as the upper reaches were bony and boulder-strewn. A mostly Indian crew arrived, ready for action (the trip coincides with a forthcoming article I’ll pen for Paddler magazine in the US). A year had passed since my last Himalayan raft trip. Lungs conditioned by trekking to Goecha La, my arms and back – not to mention my reflexes – still needed work.

Nonetheless, it seemed an auspicious time to tackle the Tons. The sun was shining. The hills were alive with the sound of nomadic Gujjar tribesmen and their families moving herds of cattle, sheep and buffalo to the cool higher altitudes of Uttaranchal. Kingfishers – both the black-and-white Crested variety (called the zebras of the river) and common White-chinned, their fluorescent blue backs flashing in the sun – were commonplace.

The challenge got to me right away, as on the first day of practice I found myself swimming a rough stretch of water called the Horns of the Tons. Ironically, this continuous Class III/III+ stretch includes a sweep of boiling whitewater known as Longhorn Rapid; in another lifetime, I might have felt right at home. But with rocks looming and waves piling up, this erstwhile Texan was profoundly relieved when the guides pulled me back on board. That quick dip left me wide awake, ready to paddle.

I managed to avoid swimming for the rest of the trip, as we covered about 70 miles of river – including many sections of beefy Class IV rapids – in 5 days. Our raft, one of two, managed to do pretty well, losing just one other swimmer, getting surfed hard just one time, pounding down various slots and drops with a reasonable facsimile of military precision. For safety, we also had two kayaks and two pontoon boats. Along the banks, villagers came to cheer and stare in great number as the regatta passed out of the alpine zone through steep-walled canyons, eventually finding ourselves in a tropical clime with palms and fern-bedazzled seeps. At take-out, we rejoined the wandering Gujjars, their skullcaps and long beards reminiscent of Saudi Imams, still migrating upward.

So, between Sikkim and the Tons, it’s been back-to-back adventures. But as with any good travel, the memories are fueled by more than adrenaline. From local specialties prepared in Sikkimese style to the beef momos served in Gangtok’s Tibetan cafes, the food marks a change of pace from the rest of North India, marking a cultural shift. The relaxed Buddhist vibe and friendly Nepali faces (Sikkim was once part of Nepal, and with the political troubles in that Himalayan kingdom many Nepalis have come over the border) adding to the charm of this land of mountains and monasteries. New friends from my latest whitewater encounter hopefully will also remain pals well into the future.

(More details on the river trip should be forthcoming this fall in Paddler. Loyal fans, I’ll let you know. Just now, however, I’m not sure what India holds next.…)

Epilogue: With the whitewater bug still flowing through my veins, I managed to get C, who missed the river trip and has not been in a raft in a decade or more, to hop on a raft in Rishikesh. We were splashed by some big waves on the rolling, holy Ganga. For the weekend, our lullaby was the sound of temple bells. Then we came back down to Delhi, where the mercury has been hovering around 100 degrees. We hope not to stay too long.