Dire situations make food taste better. Hunger and altitude make food taste better too, but there is just something soothing about eating simple fare, hearty and satisfying (and usually greasy or salty or both) when a bunch of other things seem to be going to shit.
And so there I was, sat on a plastic stool at seven-o-clock in the morning in chilly, smoky air, at what could be called a café, but was actually just a room with plastic stools and sticky wooden tables and a wet concrete floor and a makeshift, gas-canister fired kitchen of steaming cauldrons. I was in Kargil on the Muslim side of that thoroughly fought over bit of far north India that pushes up against Pakistan and China and is generally claimed by all three. I had slept (or tried to sleep) for a few shifty, cramped hours in a bouncy hired-jeep that had pounded through much of the dark night up the twisting road that leads from the impossibly high desert of Ley Ladakh, to mild, nearly-tropical Srinagar, Kashmir.
Rides like this are the same the world over, where no one tells you when you leave, who you’re picking up, where you’re going, why you stop, or when you might start again. I’ve watched enough busses and jeeps drive away with my belongings lashed to the top to know that in such circumstances it is ill advised to exit the vehicle even at the most innocuous of stops and to never- ever let the vehicle or driver out of your sight.
But we had been stopped here, pulled to the side of the one road, against a decaying mud brick guesthouse since about midnight. We had been making good progress, and the myth of snow at the top of the Zojila seemed improbable given the blue skies in Leh and the promise of tropical climes in Srinagar. But snow there apparently was, and in a way that can only be comprehended by seeing it first hand, the massive, impossibly-colourful lories and fuel tankers that continuously wormed their way up and over the pass during the two month window that weather permitted such passage, were now – according to scattered reports – at a face-off standstill atop the one-lane 15,000-foot peak. And so here, in a tundric, truck-stop town, there was a man with a long stick and a sort of military type jacket that stood stern in front of a tangle of barbed wire impeding the departure of any more vehicles. I was told that this was a version of order with a strategy and an end game. The immediate result however, was the town – which was not so much a town, but rather a string of mud brick tea-stalls lining the pot-holed dirt highway – backing up with a cacophonic clot of lorries and other hired jeeps transporting other tourists across the pass from Ladakh to Kashmir.
At dawn – after five unexplained, stationary hours – the jeep driver disappearing and reappearing through the night, I decided it was safe to exit the hired jeep (keeping it in my sight!) and seek out some sort of daybreak breakfast (and a bathroom).
Groggy, stiff, and without a clue as to how the day was meant to unfold, I tucked into the most well-peopled joint and pointed to whatever flat, fried bread thing they had going. The fried bread thing was a hot, fluffy paratha stuffed with potato and onion. It was salty and had a sheen of melted butter brushed over it. It had those small charred spots that come from being cooked over coals and it smelled of smoke and was served with a tiny glass of wickedly-sweet, spiced tea. The first one and then then second went down so good… so soul satisfyingly hearty and mind-numbingly nourishing, that for a moment, as I chewed and breathe out steam, I bobbed my head in pleasure at the imaginary prospect of a paralyzed day and another sleepless night in the frozen town if it meant I could continue to stuff myself with the pillow-y, potatoey flatbreads.
Over the fourth and fifth paratha, I met a doctor from Mumbai traveling with his family of five, I met a Kashmiri on holiday who worked at the Pottery Barn at the mall in Dubai. Over the sixth, I watched tempers flare as the road remained closed, and I listened intently as chattering lorry drivers lofted updates as to when the road would re-open.
The moment itself was befitting a cattle-drive western movie, with the military type guy waving his stick high and a cheer going up and caps thrown up into the air and drivers and passengers running for their vehicles and the vehicles tearing off in a cloud of honking, swerving, overtaking dust mixed with thick diesel exhaust.
We made the top of the Zojila and saw the carcass of a burnt out oil tanker and the hulk of a lorry perched on boulders as the tiny driver worked furiously underneath the thing to reconnect a solid steel transaxle as thick as his thigh.
I smiled for the rest of that journey, mostly because we were moving, fast, furiously, chaotically ever upward and then sharply down. But my smile also came from a belly full of parathas that surely redefine comfort food: food so comforting because it is the only certainty in a shitty situation; the only thing in the chaos that seems to care about you and talk to you.
Cargil, Kashmir India 2013