The past two weeks I've offered garden tips on what to do as it becomes warmer in Mississippi. The heat that comes this way eventually brings back memories of the hottest I've ever been. I was finishing my junior year at Mississippi State and my self-proclaimed deadline to save up enough money to go to India for three months. I had enough money for airfare and $600 dollars saved from working at a garden center in Starkville.
Working at this great nursery helped me in other ways, it put me on a schedule and gave me some purpose besides the normal college tomfoolery. My grades got better and my focus became more clear.
This trip to India was exciting from day one and got better each day. The flight was 23 hours with a couple of stops, I think Frankfurt and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I arrived at the New Delhi airport at 5 a.m. I found a military bus that was free or real close to it that would take me into the city. As everything that comes cheap, there was a price to pay. It took what seemed like hours.
After 23 hours of flight, I was a bit dazed and confused, but excited. As the sun rose, I was able to see where I was. I felt like I was on a different planet. People walking were everywhere in the countryside along with cows and water buffalo hauling giant wagons full of different things. I was taking in the sights and smells when the bus I was on crashed into a little car. It didn't seem like much damage was done but neither the bus driver or the car would budge until the police arrived. After lots of hollering, which took two more hours, we finally lurched forward into the center of old Delhi where I needed to find a place to put my backpack and hopefully rest and it needed to cost less than $5, which is not a big challenge. The realization of where I had arrived sunk in on this search for a place. It was the beginning of the day that would reach 48°C which meant nothing to me until I figured out that meant around 118°F.
My $3 room came complete with a cot in the door. What more could I ask? The amenities did not include oxygen, that would have cost extra. Even though I hadn't slept in 30 hours I had to get out of that cubicle fast. I pad-locked my door and headed out to the streets to see this crazy scene. After walking an hour or two I realized I had no idea the name of the place where I was staying or the name of the street it was on so I couldn't exactly ask anyone. Panic set in as I begin to retrace my steps. Every street looked exactly the same to me. Rickshaws raced every whichway. Brahma cows wandering around everywhere, including in stores.
When I was there in 1988, the cows, considered sacred, ruled the streets. If a cow decided to stand in the middle of a busy intersection or sidewalk the cars had to wait until the cow decided it was time to unlock traffic and move on. I saw families of four on mopeds, rickshaws that were motor powered and more that were powered by sheer muscle.
I was so excited. It was more than I had hoped for in the weird and unusual department, but I needed to find my door and cot and more importantly my backpack. I found some street food which was absolutely the best thing I've ever tasted, no idea what it was, and some bottled water. Walking around in circles paid off, it eventually led me back to my place which now seemed like the Taj Mahal. I've never been so happy to lie down in squalor even though I was unable to fall asleep because of the noises and the intense heat. I couldn't stop smiling, I was in India!
I hung around Delhi for a couple weeks while figuring out how to get to Kashmir which would eventually lead me into the Himalaya. This was as close as I could get to Tibet. It would be much cooler up at 18,000 feet. I couldn't get there fast enough, but I had to be careful getting there on a military bus that would take me 20 hours through an area that was having some terrible and violent unrest.
I read the English newspaper every day waiting for the trend of violence to go down. I finally saw my chance to hop on a wild bus ride complete with wooden bench seats and filled to the brim with lots of people riding on the roof with mine and everyone else's belongings. Sometime during the night the bus was pulled over by some unsavory seeming fellows. I was the only non-Indian on board so I felt like I would be targeted. I scrunched down in my seat and tried to seem asleep so we wouldn't meet eyes. They ordered everyone off into the night. We stood around for about an hour while some shouting and confusion transpired and abated when the Indian military arrived. Everyone got back on the bus unharmed. It cranked up and lurched forward as I breathed a sigh of relief.
As the sun rose I could see I was entering the foothills of the Himalaya to finally end the segment of the trip in Srinagar, a beautiful city where I intended to acclimatize at around 8000 feet for 10 days before beginning my trek into the higher mountains. Srinagar is the jewel of Kashmir, and has for centuries been the place where Indians go to cool off during the summer months. I think it was one of the most beautiful places I've been, surrounded by snowcapped Himalayan mountains.
Lakes were everywhere that had houseboats instead of hotels to stay on. I found one with an Indian guy who lives on his boat, complete with a kitchen. He let me stay for $8 a night and said he would cook our meals if I would provide the food. That sounded perfect, because I didn't recognize most of the food in the markets much less how to prepare a meal with it. The guy went to the markets with me to help me pick out the produce to be prepared. I ate wonderful meals on the boat.
The gardens in Srinagar are centuries old and kept up with great care. I recognized most of the flowers. Since it was cooler up there they were ones that mostly do well here in the early months of spring. These gardens on the side of Dal Lake were built in the 1600s for all the same reason they're being used today: a peaceful, tranquil place to rest your mind and escape the heat of summer. Every bed, meticulously cared for, was planted with hollyhocks, lobelia, petunias, lots of marigolds and much more. The gardeners who tended the gardens seemed focused and happy for people to be they're enjoying their work.
One morning I woke up to a long, skinny boat called a Shikara approaching my house boat. The boat was headed to sell cut flowers at the market but we were stopping off at houseboats to offer beautiful cut gladiolas, tulips, lotus flowers and so many cut flowers I didn't recognize. I had to purchase some just to experience the transaction and fill a few vases around the boat. Of course since I made the purchase, the flower seller showed up every morning to see if I needed more. As tempting as it was, my budget wouldn't allow for too many splurges like that. I still had to find the coolest thing I could find for Mimi back home. We weren’t married yet but she was on my mind.
These gardens were my first time to experience and notice the lack of turfgrass like we do here in Mississippi. The gardeners there did away with any grass and swept the colorful soil with wooden branches that produced very neat and orderly walkways throughout. It was wonderful watching the couples and families basking in the cool Himalayan sunshine, relaxing and appreciating the gardens, kids playing in the water. I thought I had found a little piece of heaven.
I would love to go back with Mimi someday to experience with her the gardens and the houseboat. I could go with a bigger budget now and allow the jewelry craftsman on our boat. Garnet and rubies are the gemstones mined in Kashmir. The jewelry made with them has Mimi written all over it.
The area is in a dangerous unrest at the moment and we may never see it again. Pakistan claims the area while India claims it rightfully belongs to them. I would fight for it as well as it is a sliver of Heaven worth arguing about.
When Mimi and I go anywhere on vacation the first thing we seek out is the local botanical garden. Visiting botanical gardens is a great way to immerse yourself into the local climate and where we get inspiration for our next projects. My days in Kashmir were well spent and restful. I felt acclimatized to the altitude so I left a few things with my friend on the boat to lighten my load that I would pick up on my way back through. It was time to head into the Himalaya towards Tibet.
That's what I'll share with you the next time. Until then, I love seeing the changes that are happening here in the USA and the world. We can all be a part of this long-overdue change for the better just by changing our attitudes, helping one another and being patient with each other which will be enough to make our world a better place. Who could have imagined that what seems like such a negative event could provide such life-changing, positive direction we are now headed?
Allen Martinson and his wife Mimi are the owners of Garden Works.