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Two days later it had been arranged that we would meet in the hotel lobby, sort out the payment, and the trip would commence immediately. The first stop would be Jodhpur, as it was approaching the tail end of tourist season in Rajasthan, and temperatures there would soon skyrocket to the low fourties. Raj calmly withdrew an EFTPOS machine from his bag; I inserted my card, and handed over the vast bulk of my available funds. It seemed like a somewhat steep price, but I'd been promised it would cover everything. Once the transaction went through, Raj sat me down to talk about a 'change of plans'. Oh man, that was some seriously bad hoodoo. He informed me that there'd been an outbreak of swine flu in Jodhpur, and that I'd have to postpone my visit there for a week or so. Before I could question this absurd turn of events, I was informed that there was nothing to worry about. Fortunately, Raj had been kind enough to book me a flight to Srinagar, up in Kashmir - it was departing in one hour. With no time to calculate the sudden insanity of my predicament, I virtually ran to the car waiting outside, and we sped off to the airport.
After blitzing my way through the domestic terminal, I managed to reach the gate with a couple of minutes to spare. Soon enough, the tiny IndiGo plane had lifted off, and I was on my way. Still breathing heavily, I settled back into my seat and looked out the window. The teeming mass of Delhi sprawled immensely below, endless streets filled with endless crowds. I was glad to be out of it. Looking around the cabin I noticed dimly that I was still the only westerner present, in fact I hadn't encountered any others during the entirety of my stay thus far. Maybe I was the only one in India; everyone else had received some memo warning them to keep clear of a menacing tropical madness brewing on the subcontinent. The flight from Delhi up to the Himalayas is a surprisingly short one – a little over an hour – and I was astonished to soon see snowcapped peaks rising up below me. We landed on a near-empty runway, and walked across the windswept tarmac to the terminal. After collecting my bag, I had to pass through three separate security checkpoints, and then fill out a form to explain exactly why I had decided to come to Kashmir. The natural beauty, the clean mountain air… the unprecedented outbreak of swine flu further south…
Outside the terminal, I was greeted by my 'guide', who gave me the same, wild smile that I was sure would end up haunting my dreams before much longer. He had a gold hoop through one ear, a faded sports jacket, and seemed very excited by the fact that I was Australian. Following him through the parking lot, we came to his car – which was in fact a small, decommissioned fire truck. Well, I assumed it was de-commissioned; it was not hard to imagine a notice board somewhere in Srinagar, offering a reward for any information regarding a stolen emergency services vehicle, the primary suspect being a grinning lunatic last seen freewheeling it towards the airport. We rolled down streets lined with tin-roofed buildings of wood and mountain stone, many people going about their business in the chill, alpine air. Some of them were dressed in more contemporary, western styles – jackets and jeans – that seemed surreal given our setting, while others wore more traditional, hand-woven garments. Dotted amongst the civilian population were khaki soldiers, their rifles hanging from leather straps over their shoulders. I looked at them with interest, having never really been anywhere that required such an overt display of force to keep things in check. The political landscape here was as dramatic as the physical one, the site of long running tensions and border disputes between India, Pakistan, and even a sect of the local population that felt no allegiance to either. My guide saw the direction of my gaze, and gave me a wink – quite the show, huh?