10 April 2006
Sonamarg was our first pit-stop in the lush-green Kashmir valley. There we met a typical dishonest salesman trying to get us to stay in his houseboat in Srinagar. His introduction went like this "Hi, Im Shaukat. People call me Shauk. They find Shaukat to be too long!"
He pushed his houseboat deal aggressively, using all kinds of lies known to salesmen. He painted this picture of something close to a moonlit dinner outside the Taj Mahal and called it his houseboat experience.
Joy was irked that Shauk was trying to compete with him for the crown of most-dishonest-deal-cutter, so he pulled out one out of his bag of tricks.
Joy said "I have a party of 6 coming down from Canada next month... I need to find a good houseboat to suggest to them..." and just to add some more fuel to the fire, " they know nothing about Srinagar, so they need to be guided fully (they can be taken for a big ride with no real effort)... also, they're high-end tourists (lots of meat to be devoured)... so I was just thinking.. " and Shauk couldn't hide his excitement... he started promising more goodies in his houseboat, I guess the Taj Mahal analogy is only meant for deprived Indian travellers like us. Respect for us ragged, budget travellers had never been so good. While Shauk was licking his lips at the potential gold mine, we got a good deal, and Shauk even went wrong with simple addition to charge us some 150 less, even as he joked about how math and shauk aren't the best of friends.
We joked that Joy would write a best-selling book in the future, titled "How to rip a guy off... and make him feel good about it!"
We rode to Srinagar and while we were looking out for Shauk's dad to receive us on the road leading to Nigeen Lake, we were approached by this gentleman who seemed a little too eager to guide us to our houseboat. He took us to this houseboat claiming that he was shauk's brother. Then he proposed some deal which didn't match the one we'd struck with shauk. Over the next 20 mins his relationship with shauk went like this - "My own dear little brother... he's a close cousin... uncle... distant relative... friend... dishonest guy... cheat... he's a liar! fraud! don't listen to him!! come to me, for the best houseboats in the whole of Srinagar..."
We screamed at him, and found our way to Shauk's houseboat... while it wasn't exactly Taj Mahal's floating cousin, I must say that it was beautiful. The intricate wood work inside the houseboat looked majestic, and the room itself was nice and spacious. I was impressed to find a bathtub there, but I realised later that it didn't have a plug to shut the hole, so it was merely an oversized wash-basin.
As we came out and sat on the wooden slats which form the pathway to the houseboat, we got our first glimpse of the beauty of Srinagar's waters. We were to explore them more later, but it was a stunning first sight. Things were so relaxed over there that it's hard to believe that Srinagar is the heart of a massive terrorist battlefield. So we sat there, with our feet dangling above the water, excited at the prospect of exploring Srinagar.