Srinagar: Hospitals and Houseboats

Dal Lake
Dal Lake

When I open the shutter next to the bed I can almost touch the water. Pink lotus flowers sprout from layers of green lilies directly below and for the first time, Srinagar smells fresh, fragrant even.

Until now, I have spent most of my time curled up in a dark room, trying to block out the sounds of blaring Bollywood music next door. I arrived in the city with a nasty stomach infection that led to being bed-ridden for 32 hours and a trip to the hospital through the unforgiving cacophony of traffic. Things seemed desolate at the time. But the image of lonely, uncovered bodies shivering on bare hospital beds without so much a curtain for privacy, quickly put things into perspective.

The Kashmiri nurses who treated me have smiling faces and a bubbly nature. “I have never been out of Srinagar” one of the ladies announces. She asks about our lives back in England: What do you study? How long have you been travelling? What countries have you been to? “You have such a nice life” she decides, her eyes faintly glimmering with envy.

India comes at you with extremes. When I am sick, it is the weakest I have ever felt in my life and I want nothing more than to fly back to England and drink tea. Yet, as I walk out onto the balcony of the houseboat on Dal Lake, I am enchanted by its peaceful mossy waters and never want to leave.

Dal Gate, Dal Lake
Dal Gate, Dal Lake
View from 'The Little Mona Lisa' of Dal Lake
View from ‘The Little Mona Lisa’ of Dal Lake

Our houseboat is called The Little Mona Lisa. Its quaint features look like a seaside cottage in Cornwall grew tired of the English coastline and decided to sail to India. Remarkably, the colourfully carpeted living room provides enough space for the two of us to practice Yoga. When the sun sets, our hosts take it in turns to bring us chai and dhal on little trays while we watch the water turn orange.

Dal Lake, sunset
Dal Lake, sunset

We are isolated in the middle of the lake. The only way to land involves getting the owner or ‘houseboy’ to oar us in a shikara to one of the nearby bank gates. We balance ourselves in the rickety little boat and voyage to land to see some word-of-mouth dance performers. The water is inches away from the rim of the shikara. Droplets of rain begin to spit but we persevere, knowing it will only be another ten minutes to get to shore. Only when my clothes are soaked through my raincoat, in what is now a full-blown monsoon, do we decide to turn back. The lake is completely clear. Others who were in shikaras are either sheltering under the ridges of nearby houseboats or were smart enough to get off the lake as soon as the first drop hit. But instead of doing either of these things, our oarsman boldly steers us through the storm and momentarily into the entertainment industry. From the comfort of their dry, cosy balconies, people laugh, point and take photos of the two ridiculous English girls helplessly stuck in the monsoon.

When we finally make it back to the sanctuary of The Little Mona Lisa I have to wring out everything I’m wearing before stepping foot inside. “Boat capsize? You okay?” I am sure it was beautiful to look at the monsoon from the comfort of your finely lavished houseboat dining table, but I certainly will not be getting in a shikara next time Dal Lake decides to fall from the sky.

Dal Gate, Dal Lake
Shikaras, Dal Gate, Dal Lake

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