It was time to say goodbye to the fantastic Himalayas and the brief serenity of life on a houseboat in Kashmir. Goodbye to the five a.m. amplified chanting of Muslims that carried across the lake - goodbye to the glorious morning sun peaking over the mountains at six a.m. while I sipped my steaming Kashmir Tea and ate cookies - goodbye to the hundreds of eagles that soared high above the lake during the long hours of dusk - goodbye to my enormous Indian meals that were cooked with care for me, three times a day - goodbye to gawking at beautiful Indian woman dressed in vibrant sari's as they were slowly carried in water taxi's past the porch of my floating hotel.... Back to congested, muggy, dusty streets of Delhi.
Abraham, my personal guide, host, and water-craft navigator, drove me to the airport in his huge white sport utility vehicle. Our conversation was booming - all the time trying to hear each other over the blaring horn that he stubbornly never abandoned. Attempting to disperse the tiny three-wheeled taxi's from our path was fruitless. Everyone here with a license is deaf, or just as stubborn as the horn-blower behind them.
Srinigar airport had the most intense security I've experienced on my journey around the world so far. We had to stop at a roadside checkpoint just outside the tiny airport to have all my luggage x-rayed and the contents questioned. My camera rechargers are big black boxes, and are always given a second uncertain glance. Army personnel meticulously inspected the underside of the truck with mirrored poles searching for explosives. Again at the entrance to the terminal, my bags went through more x-rays, as my identification was rigorously scrutinized. I was becoming a tiny bit nervous and uneasy at my progression through this airport. My ticket was issued at the check-in counter and again my bags were opened and x-rayed for a third time. My one checked backpack was carted to the gate and waited for me to identify it before it was loaded into the plane. I stepped into line for the metal detector - women on the right, men on the left. My carry-on bag, filled with real expensive cameras and equipment, was emptied out onto the inspection table once I passed the metal detector wand test. The highly-decorated security officer who groped all my precious lenses started to bombard me with a battery of questions about cameras, if I was a journalist, why I was in Kashmir, and finally, what I thought of the Muslim faith. He asked me if I thought the Muslim people I had encountered on my travels in Kashmir were loving to their children and what my general opinion of Muslim people was. I was calm on the exterior, but a whirlwind of terror was quickly building inside. Since all my experiences in Kashmir were great, I had nothing but good things to say, and that proved to be the right answer. But he still wouldn't let me through security, I stood there patiently with my equipment still spread out on the table in front of me. The security officer looked me in the eye, smirked and said, "you can't get on the plane until you take a picture of me". "Uhhh..." I said aloud, as my vision was diverted towards the rather large sign of a camera with a big red cross through it hanging just behind and to the left of his head. I slowly pointed to the brightly lit and obvious 'NO PHOTOS' sign taped to the wall, and he said "don't you worry, I am in charge here". He sat down, crossed his legs, gave me a 'Glamour-shots' pose, and repeated the request for me to pick up my camera and capture this tense moment on the digital sensors in the back of my SLR. Surely, at the very second my finger depresses the shiny silver shutter release, fifty automatic weapons will have twitchy fingers on the triggers and my beloved head in their crosshairs! But soon after the simulated film advance noises of my digital point-and-shoot were completed, every clenched muscle in my body that waited for bullet penetration became relaxed again. My fear subsided as he ordered me to take another frame of his fellow gun-toting co-workers that sat at the table beside him. He grabbed a piece of scrap paper and scribbled his name and address across it. As he thrust the paper into my hand, he had me promise to send him the photos before I was allowed to board the plane. I took his address, said my goodbyes, and walked through the gate to identify my checked bag and waited for the plane to be ready for boarding. Whew! I was finally on my way back to Delhi! - but not before one more baggage and passport check in the middle of the tarmac as I walked to the steps leading up to the open door on the side of the plane.