Before we prejudice everyone forever against the Kashmiris, let’s give a little background. The Indians sometimes joke that the Kashmiris are the Lost Tribe of Israel as they’re very adept in money matters and run their businesses successfully. Naturally, this is partly rooted in jealousy and, before the civil war made life hell in Kashmir, it was the premier resort for both Indian and foreign tourists. It’s a rich and beautiful province with mountains, lakes and forests and the Kashmiris were so utterly charming that everyone who went there fell in love with the place.
Then the troubles started with the militants and the Indian army and tourism dropped like a lead bullet. Four backpackers were kidnapped in 1995 and never recovered. One of them, at least, was executed. Incidentally, this started the rise of tourism in the Manali valley as a safer alternative.
The Kashmiris were faced with terrible conflict at home and a complete drop off of tourism and had to spread out through India to other tourist locations. Facing prejudice and extortion from the local police and mafia, they opened up travel agencies and boutiques up and down the country, using their superior language abilities and business sense to send money back home.
Unfortunately, many of them have no scruples whatsoever how they do this and the worst of them are to be found in Delhi.
“Hello, my friend! Come to stay on my house boat in Srinigar!” They cry, failing to mention that it’s a day and a half journey by bus and denying that there’s any such things as a civil war in Kashmir. They’re adept at picking travelers fresh off the plane, many of whom don’t have any idea where Kashmir is, let alone what’s going on there.
A house boat can still be a great experience as the prices have fallen and you can stay in luxury on the enormous Dal Lake and not break your budget. We heard of two Swiss girls though who accepted the offer to stay on a house boat and got fleeced for all they had; no sooner had they floated out on the Lake but there came news that there were riots in Srinigar and that people had been shot in the street.
“It’s too dangerous for you to go on land now,” they were told by their Kashmiri hosts with a very grave expression, “You might get kidnapped or shot.”
Worried sick, the girls were assured they would be taken good care of aboard the boat. Unfortunately, due to the difficulties of getting food in these difficult times, the prices would have to be raised by three or four times.
Oddly enough, the ‘riots’ lasted just as long as the Swiss backpackers had the cash to pay the extortionate prices. Once they ran out of money they were dropped back on shore to catch a bus to Delhi and then the airport. Their 6 month trip around India was over in 3 weeks.
Another fantastic scam and a candidate for the best travel scam we’ve heard of happened to a Canadian guy and his Swiss girlfriend. He was an old India head and knew the score but he’d been away for a couple of years. His girlfriend was seeing India for the first time.
They arrived at the airport and took a taxi into Delhi. It was early in the morning and as it got light they realised that the driver kept staring at them nervously.
“What’s up, ji?” The Canadian asked. The driver shrugged.
“What are you doing in Delhi?”
“Oh, just traveling, you know.”
The Canadian just smiled. Whilst he knew that such atrocities do happen in India, he also knew the Indian capacity for fantasy. Still, the streets did seem very empty, a fact that the driver was quick to mention. The doubt began to grow in his mind and when they rounded the corner and saw a squadron of army in the street he began to get nervous. He was supposed to be looking after his German girlfriend, after all.
“You see?” the driver sniffed, “Only the army is in the street. Everyone else is too scared to go out.”
“Well, what can we do?” his passengers asked, genuinely alarmed now. The driver thought for a moment.
“I know one man who can help you. Shall we go to see him?”
They readily agreed and were taken across the city to a quiet street and ushered up a staircase to an office where a Kashmiri man sat behind a desk. On seeing them he stood up in shock and cried:
“But what are you doing in Delhi?”
“We didn’t know!” they pleaded, “What can we do now?”
The Kashmiri invited them to sit whilst he furrowed his brow and finally declared:
“I know of one safe place you can go. I have a houseboat in Kashmir…”
And with that the spell broke and the Canadian remembered how it all worked. The streets were empty because it was early in the morning. The army were on the street, they later learned, because it was a national holiday. Add to that the theatrical performances and a couple of jet-lagged travelers and they could hardly be blamed for almost falling for the scam…