Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Dec 31 2008
I had met Yasmin and Merry on the packed bus ride from Gilgit to Sost. They sat on the seat behind me with Razia, a young Chinese girl on her way back home.
Both friendly 22 year old boarders at the girls college in Gilgit, they were going back home to Gulmit for winter break.
On the way, we stopped for lunch at Aliabad..they know all the ropes. Dumpy old 'restaurant' with a back room for the ladies. Razia (the Chinese woman) and i followed along. Was cold as hell and dingy to boot - so decided to get back to the bus and wait for every one in my comfy seat.. instead ended up talking to the young boys out front, all college kids going back home to one village or another. Pleasantly surprising was Merry and Yasmin's interactions with them. Laughing, talking, like any urban youngsters, totally comfortable and at ease. The girls neither shy nor awkward, the boys neither lewd nor cheezy. They all knew each other and mingled with ease.
Yasmin had invited me to stay with them that night, so i dont freeze in Sost. I scribbled her name and her fathers name down, but declined- thought if i stayed id get tempted to simply hang around in Gulmit and surely miss the next bus out to China as well. But i promised to visit another year. So now, on the way back, i thought, I have a standing invitation and whats the rush anyway!
Got off the bus right where wed dropped the girls off 5 days back..asked around and someone led me to her brother. He runs a general store right on the main road. Didnt bat an eyelid when i announced im a friend of Yasmins, and have come to stay the night! sure! big hand shake and broad handsome smile. Give me a minute, let me wrap things up in the store. its really busy being that its new years eve. Do you want everything from your duffle - no - then take what you need - leave the duffel here. Lets go surprise Yasmin, her friend has arrived after all.
1.30pm - sitting around the bukhari at Yasmins home with all her family gathered. Another older brother isn't feeling too well - buried under a heavy quilt, tires to ignore all the excitement and talk around him. Except for his mother, no one pays too much attention to him. He's got a splitting headache. I offer him some tylenol, which he gladly takes. I find out much later, hes suffering from a nasty hunza water hangover!
Yasmins telling me about what they do for new years eve - March 31 is a bigger day than Jan 01 for them. That's their new year. They celebrate 'Nourooz'. On both occasions they cook chicken biryani, maleeda (bread pieces in lassi) Garaal a type of bread, Baat made in milk (milk, wheat flour, sugar and butter) all day they visit each other, wear new clothes, put mehendi, get eidi - then at 5pm go to the Jamaat Khana for programs and duas, and shows the children put up. Two hours later they're back home eating together. Nourooz is considered a religious festival and therefore of much greater significance than Jan 01. Qurban Ali, Yasmins dad, joins us - they're all friendly and welcoming, not at all perturbed by my dropping in unannounced. An older sister comes by, as does another, who is furiously using the hand operated sewing machine..churning out shalwar kamizes at such speed i wondered how she kept a straight line going. Makes her money this way, and new years eve is big money making day! While all the rest of us chatted and socialized she kept at the machine, well into the evening.
Dads curious and asks me what im writing.
Merry is here as well, with her younger sister Nazia. Quiet and little dour faced, compared to her bubbly outgoing sister. Im to visit their home next. For now, im waiting for the family to finish lunch and wash the dishes, so we can head out shopping - to buy some music and seabuckthorn jam. Yes shopping is possible on Dec 31 even on the rooftops of the world.
Im told Wazir Aman, of Ghulkin, is the authority on Seabuckthorn. I had eaten the jam at Gilgit Serena a couple of years back and loved the sour, a little bitter taste. Have been craving for it since.
Wazir makes and sells the jam and juice. Been at it for 6 years. Lives in a small cabin right off the KKh in the next village - Ghulkin. Ofcourse i want to go visit. The girls will take me once the cleaning up etc is i wait for an hour or so, then decide ill go myself, why drag them from their chores on new years eve, when they have stuff to do - get organized for the evening.. whatever that might be. I walk out in the late afternoon. Find my music store and buy a load of Wakhi and Gojali music. Then follow my nose to Wazir Amans place, down the road towards Ghulkin. I find the cabin, scruffy looking - stuffed with all sorts of things, a few chairs and a sitting around chatting. Shelves behind them with rows of empty glass jam bottles and orange looking juice in one liter plastic bottles - small gas stove on another counter.. tins of sugar and oil and who knows what else under the counter. the whole place messy as hell..a -D L.A. county rating!!! but then this aint L.A. county!
He introduces himself. Im surprised to find Wazir Aman to be a strapping young 33 year old handsome fellow..but then whos not handsome or beautiful in these parts???? duh!
Ghulam Nabi Shigri sells him the berries he tells me. Abundantly found in Baltistan and Shimshal, the juice of this berry is great for lowering sugar and cholesterol. He gives me some crushed dry berries to taste - a little bitter, nothing great, orange in color.
Wazir is a sculptor, graduated in 1995 from Karachi's North city school of Arts in KDA - ran out of money so came back to work as a cook at PC Burbhan for 1 1/4 years - then spent 8 years in tourism as cook and guide. Hes been to ghondoghoro la, chitral, rakaposhi, batura, passu glaciers etc. Now its 3 years since he started his jam and juice business. He tells me crows eat the berry and live a long life - that research lead to it being used for humans. He not only has a fascination with the healing qualities of seabuckthorn but a wealth of knowledge about it. Selling jams and juices hes been paying off a 4 lakh loan. Has a lakh and a half left. A son was born to him yesterday, even so hes promised to make me three fresh bottles of jam and one litre of juice, and deliver it to Gulmit before the nights out. I promise to hook him up with fellows at Hashoo Foundation who encourage this kind of unique home grown industry.
One of the men chatting in Wazir Amans cabin/kitchen with me is Mehraban Karim, brother of Nigehban Shah who died on K2 in Aug. We met this brother at our campsite in Arbabpurin when we were coming back from Shimshal Pass. He recognized me - all the rest of these guys also recognized me - they had seen all of us, Tahir, Nafeesah, Mohi and myself in Passu when we got here on Dec 12- they remember the shinny tokras we were carrying for the wedding. What a small world.
I walked back at sunset from Ghulkin, the crescent moon shining in the dusk sky, the pristine white expanse of the semi frozen Hunza river running along the KKH. I walked slowly, pulling my phone/song book and glasses out, in the dusk of Dec 31, singing 'tum ayey ho na shabe intezaar guzri' as loud as i wanted, no one around, not a soul. By the time i got to Gulmit it was dark. I stopped to buy 5 plates of the famous Gulmit biryani - from the Gulmit Biryani House - a must stop lunch break on all our previous trips up here - pulled a few gifts for the girls, out of my duffle (from Arman Alis shop, which was still buzzing with customers buying sugar and butter and sevian for the evenings fare) and walked back to Yasmins home for dinner. She and Merry by now extremely worried for me - id dissapeared for 3 hours. There were a few other visitors, we all had dinner together and then on to Merrys for a taste of Baat which shed cooked herself. From there, along with Merry's two sisters, we joined a bunch of young boy scouts in another home nearby. All drinking tea, singing and dancing Wakhi song and dance, having a grand new years eve stag party of their own. 8 to 18 year old boys all making merry. We had broken tradition and gate crashed.. though i dont think any of them minded the 20 to 50 something female company. It was pitch dark outside, freezing cold and crystal clear sky.. a million stars.. the moon just having finished its eclipse. Inside warm and friendly, the little boys as curious as the older ones.. who are you? how do you speak such good urdu? what are you doing here? learning chinese? going to a wedding? in SHIMSHAL?all the way from L.A. USA? yes yes yes..and who are you? what are your names? what grades? why only boys? why dont the girls join you? where are the parents? tell me -----we interview each other, all dance, me and the boys, slowly Merry, Yasmin and the sisters join. The two curious mothers who'd followed us and stayed out, peer from the window for the longest time. They've frozen themselves solid, eventually they decide to join the fun...forget tradition..its bloody cold, what stag party....theyre bachaas.

Last Dec i would'nt have dreamed of celebrating new years eve with complete strangers in Gulmit! but here i am, after some good old fashioned song and dance, now sitting with a family of Gojalis, as they chat amongst themselves and with me, Geo tv on in the background, patiently waiting for the momentous new year. They brought a plate of sevian, we are all sharing for the occasion and another large plate of apples from their orchard, washed in hot water so they thaw a little.
Its almost midnight and Im so sleepy, all i want to do is crawl into bed - there will be communal sleeping tonight in one large family room around the wood burning bukhari. Ma and Pa have slipped under their heavy lahafs and called it a night - sometimes peering form under to see if its midnight yet. So have the 4 youngest children. The brother with the hangover is finally up and chatting..heads cleared.
Midnight at last - Arman says a short dua - blesses all in the room, and the new year. we smile and wish each other. i finally crawl into the welcome warm bed. no fire crackers and kissing everyone in the room, no confetti and other paraphanelia to make a total mess of the place. no loud noises, forced or induced cheer...just simple affection and good wishes for each other.
A quiet acceptance of one end and another beginning; a prayer to the almighty.

i wonder what everyone is doing? Nargis, i know shes in SFO with her school friends probably having a good time, Syed Karachi or Edmonton or Dubai or Doha even Islamabad..what is everyone doing at this moment....i drift into a tired sleep under three lahafs and my down coat on top!

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