As much as any place I’ve experienced, Kashmir is a land of businessmen. They aren’t swindlers, however. Unlike the Vietnamese, they never give you the wrong change or alter a price once an agreement has been reached. But they speak excellent English and know exactly how to respond to every objection or excuse. Here’s a typical conversation we’d have sitting on the veranda of our houseboat. The merchant quietly paddles his shikara (similar to a broad, wood plank canoe) alongside our steps and bids us a good morning.

“Hello, my friends.”

“Salaam Alaykum,” I respond, touching my right hand to my chest.

“Walaykum salaam. You would like to see some of my beautiful things?”

“What you got with you, brother?”

“Oh, some beautiful things my friends, wonderful. All locally made, by hand. My family has a small workshop.”

Always locally made. Always by his family, which has a shop nearby. Perhaps we’d like to visit the shop? We’d have more than one shikara merchant try to sell us the same stuff, so either they are all in the same family, or they’re lying to us.

“You see my friends? Many beautiful shawls. All one hundred percent local Pashmina wool. Kashmir wool, you know? Very famous, very expensive except in Kashmir.”

“Oh, I’m not a big shawl guy, brother.”

“Yes, but your mother would like? Your girlfriend would be very happy with these yes?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend, brother.”

“Perhaps if you bought some shawls, you would then, yes?”

Soon he’s climbing aboard our boat, resisting our protests and assurances that we won’t be buying anything. It’s free to look, they all say. No effort to look, my friends. Once again, the Indian disregard of personal space is demonstrated in full. I was enjoying my Haruki Murakami book, but I guess I’ll put it down.

Now there are a few dozen wood carvings or paper mache jewel boxes or shawls or carpets or necklaces or uncut stones or small blocks of Kashmiri hash arranged on a white cloth on the floor of the veranda. One boatmen only sold baked goods: chocolate covered cashews and butter cake and peanut cookies. Two different men cruise about in boats piled high with everything you find in convenience stores: Coke, Lay’s, Marlboros, toilet paper. One guy started offering us opium and heroin.

Our attendant, Golam (goh-lahm, not Gollum), would come out on the porch and watch us bargain with the guys. We quickly learned that kickbacks went to houseboat owners when their tenants bought something. Golam would quietly encourage us to speak with certain boatmen rather than others. He’d assist in the sale. Once, when considering a carved chess set, Golam was an active participant.

“Nine hundred rupees for this one? Seems expensive, my friend.”

“No sir, not expensive. Look at the board, the pieces, hand carved walnut wood. Walnut very expensive wood, you understand?”

Golam scampered into the dining room adjoining the veranda, pulling back the table cloth.

“You see? This table also walnut wood. Insects do not go inside this wood.”

Thanks, Golam. As if my big worry with my little chess set was a termite infestation. I ended up buying it anyway, damn it. I bought a few things, in fact. I got a jeweler to make me a necklace with piece of Kashmiri jade the size of a quarter.

“Kashmiri jade? It is from Kashmir?”

“Yes, my young friend. It is local jade.”

Sure. I read an article in the Economist about how wines from Ontario and BC are allowed to claim they are a product of Canada even if the grapes were imported from Chile or Australia. So long as they are ‘cellared’ in Canada they can be sold on shelves alongside wines made from homegrown grapes. I  get the feeling that Kashmiri jade is a similar situation.

But, all the visits from paddling merchants aside, it was a peaceful place. A small, quiet lake full of birds. Kingfishers splashing into the water next to you, smacking the wriggling minnow against the porch railing before swallowing. Our houseboat owners provided us with a small shikara of our own, so I would paddle out beyond the weeds to the middle of the lake for my daily swim. At around 1000m, Srinigar is pleasantly warm and sunny. I read my Murakami, did some writing, took a shikara ride through lotus gardens. Calls to prayer echoed across the lake from mosques on the far shore. Chanting and singing in the pre-dawn and post sunset hours marked the feasting that is necessary during Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting.

After six days on the boat, however, we moved on. Ross and I rolled off to Dharamsala for a date with the Dalai Lama. From Hindu to Buddhist to Muslim and, now, back to Buddhist. Indeed, one of the spiritual hearts of Buddhism. Also, back to the monsoon rains of the Himalaya foothills.