It has been an interesting couple of weeks. I’m sitting in a restaurant in MacLeodganj, a hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas. I say foothills because the mountains the town is situated on are dwarfed by the jagged snow capped peaks that jut out in the background when the clouds allow a view of them. Alone for the first time in nearly two weeks, I’m enjoying a quiet moment to myself. Yesterday I cut the umbilical cord and parted ways with my friends. This is where the adventure begins. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s get you caught up (and pardon the lengthy post, but a lot has happened in two weeks).
Two weeks ago I walked out of the airport and was hit with a wall of hot air in the New Delhi night. I was spotted right away by an all-too-friendly taxi driver. Thinking myself prepared to haggle over the price of the taxi, I slid into the back seat at the behest of the driver. Before I could begin to negotiate, he started moving. After half a mile and numerous requests to stop he pulled over in a place I was sure to not find another taxi. He told me the total to get to the hotel was going to be rs 2950. That’s nearly $60. I argued with him for a few minutes and got it down to $40 for a ride I was assured would be no more than $20. That was my first hard lesson.
Getting out of the cab at the hotel, I was disgusted when the cab driver held his hand out for a tip, but decided I’d unload my North American pocket change, to which he remarked “You do not have any Indian?”. Ignoring this, I turned and grabbed my weighty bag out to the back, paused to let the stress of the 15 minute ride slide off, and sauntered through the door of the Hyatt Regency New Delhi in search of Mr. Michael McSorley, my friend and the bar manager of the Polo Lounge. I found him in the bar and gave him a quick hug and begged to be shown to the room to shower. Having arrived at the hostel in Vancouver 2 hours late, I forfeited my opportunity clean up before the 21 hour plane ride.\
Malia, Mike’s girlfriend, was also to arrive that night, so after my shower Mike fed me a quick beer at the bar and I went back upstairs to sneak in a nap while he ran to the airport to retrieve her. I woke to them coming into the room and we gave each other a proper “Welcome to India!” Over the next week, the three of us would dip into the city on short jaunts to shop and sight see, then Malia and I would hole ourselves up in the comfortable confines of the (Indian) 5-star hotel at night. It was a very soft landing to get myself acclimated to the culture and the climate and to shake off the jet lag that hit me hard on day 3.
We visited the backpacker-centric, slum of a market, Paharganj, the medium-touristy Sarojini Nagar market, and the tourist trap of Dilli Haat. We saved the big landmarks for Sunday, Mike’s only day off. We hit the Red Fort, the Arch de Triomphe-like India Gate, and Hunayum’s Tomb, the latter being the favorite of the day with well manicured lawns and better maintained structures. The highlight for me, though, was a bicycle rickshaw ride through Chandni Chowk, a market that is, thankfully, closed on Sundays. We went down the main street in some of the craziest traffic imaginable, and on the return trip were taken down a narrow alley that would’ve been impassible had the market been open. People were all smiles and curiosity as we bumped along on our rickshaws, stopping here and there to let another rickshaw squeeze past or to allow some other obstacle to be cleared.
We had a few other locations on our list, but the heat wore us out around 4:00 and we retired to the hotel for our daily dip in the pool and a nap. Of the other sites we intended to visit, Malia and I managed to only see the beautiful and tranquil Lodhi Gardens, the make out capital of Delhi. Every twenty meters you’d see a couple snuggled up under a tree or in an alcove of a building (most of them tombs); no where else did I see the type of public displays of affection that I did in Lodhi Gardens. Men holding hands is extremely commonplace in India, but rarely do you see a man and a woman show affection for each other. Sadly, we never got around to seeing Qutb Minar or the Lotus Temple. I was not too upset over it, as I was pretty monumented-out for the week. Perhaps on another visit; in the North, all roads lead back to Delhi.
One of the most charming things about the people is how curious they are about westerners. A lot of the Indians visiting the tourist sights are in a city for the first time, and many have little or no interaction with white people. They stare unabashedly, and scores ask to have their picture taken with you or for just a quick handshake and a shy hello. Mike, Malia and myself have most likely entered at least 50 family photo albums, or the digital equivalent.
Mike finished up his tenure at the Hyatt at around midnight on the 15th, and at 2:00 am we drunkenly (well, at least Mike and I) piled into the van of Mr. Teji Singh, and headed off to Amritsar. We all dozed to some extent, but were all more or less awake by 7:00 am. Having freed ourselves of the city, we found we were in the plains outside of Delhi. Quite a change of pace, but I was surprised to see the smog had not lessened. A yellow haze permeated the view outside the van windows as I tried to take in the surroundings. Large swaths of generally undeveloped land were punctuated with small roadside towns with all the usual shops selling all the usual stuff. Smoke stacks dotted the horizons and steadily spewed plumes of thick black smoke. Besides factories, smallish temples were the next most frequent sight. Usually walled, you could see the spires prominently stretching up from the very flat terrain. I found the juxtaposition quite interesting.
A few hours and some roadside McDonald’s later (don’t you judge me!) we arrived in Amritsar. The feel was quite different from that of Delhi: much smaller, more manageable and relaxed (relatively). The main attraction, and our only reason for going to Amritsar, is the Golden Temple. After dropping our bags at the CJ International Hotel, Double M and I headed over to the temple while Teji caught up on his sleep. We stopped at the market so I could pick up the requisite head covering. My choice was a piece of dark green cloth a meter and a half long. We ambled over to the entrance to the temple grounds and ditched our flip flops. I clumsily started to wrap my head in the rough-cut bit of fabric I had acquired and was interrupted by an Indian man who took pity on me and helped me form a simple turban.
Shoeless and turbaned, we proceeded down a path and into the main area. The temple itself sits like an island in the middle of a rectangular pool. And it’s golden. Well, marble plated with gold, but still, it’s quite impressive. The pool is encircled by a marble walkway, which, at 2:00 pm, is hot enough to blister your feet if you stop walking for even just a moment. Fortunately, the outer edge of the walkway is an arcade that you can duck under to give your feet a reprieve. However, the arcaded area is littered with the bodies of pilgrims who have come to view the temple with varying degrees of piety.
We did a lap of the pool, alternating taking pictures and being photographed, then made our way to the dining hall. Mike had told Malia and I about this part, but I didn’t quite grasp what it was to be like. We were handed a large stainless steel plate, matching bowl, and a spoon. We were eventually herded into a large room with mats lining the floor and everyone started to snatch up real estate on the mats. The three of us found a spot and sat “Indian style” on the floor with our plates and bowls on the floor in front of us. A team of volunteers came around and systematically dished out water into the bowls and two types of dal, roti and some sort of cardamom-spiced rice porridge made their way sloppily onto our plates. I made a mess of myself as I attempted to eat, sat the way I was and leaning over my plate. People looked at me strangely as I used the water to clean my hands (and legs, as I had dropped some food on myself in the process of bringing spoon to mouth), but I dared not drink the water. As people finished it became apparent we needed to hurry as they had started to dump water on the floor to squeegee and prepare for the next round. Mike says that some 200,000 people get fed here every day, all donation based.
We headed outside and followed everyone to where the dirty dishes were being deposited and the man collecting the spoons struck up a conversation with me. He slyly guided the dirty spoon receptacle into my hands and I realized I had been stuck with the duty of collecting the spoons. He instructed me to call out chamutch (butchered anglicized spelling of spoon in Hindi) and bang on the edge of the bowl to get people’s attention. I was thoroughly amused by all of this, but we had to get back to the hotel and wake Teji. It was time to head to the Pakistan border for the flag ceremony.
As Teji was getting ready and putting on his turban we all watched in awe of the care that is taken in the process. When he finished with his, Mike and Malia decided I should try one out. Teji grabbed a nice bright yellow cloth and started folding and pleating it in preparation for wrapping my head. A few short minutes later I was magically transformed into Kevin Parisingh (nickname courtesy of the endlessly witty Mike McSorley) and we ventured out to find the car. We hopped into the van again and headed out of town.
After a quick pitstop for beer, we were on our way. We drank large cans of Fosters and rocked out to American top 40 garbage all the way to the gates. Once there, we marched into what can most closely be identified as a stadium and watched as Hindi music blared and people danced, cheered and jeered on our side, and 100 meters away could be seen the segregated bleachers of the stoic Pakistani onlookers. Finally, whistles were blown and everyone standing was instructed to sit and the military spectacle commenced. On both sides of the gate soldiers paraded back and forth doing elaborate maneuvers to show their might and their disdain for the other side. This went on for an hour, culminating in a simultaneous, side by side lowering of the flags of both India and Pakistan. And this happens every night. It was as bizarre as it was spectacular, and I wonder if there is any other border on earth that engages in such an ostentatious show.
We ramped up the dance party on the way home and were quite the attraction on the roadway as we danced in our seats, me in my turban, and sometimes repeating the rally cry we learned at the border: one shouts “Hindustan!” (alternate name for India), and the return cry is “Jindabad!” or “living forever.”
Back in Amritsar we found ourselves overdue for dinner and already well on our way to drunk. We grabbed a quick bite, sobered up a tad, and put Mike down for a nap and Teji guided us though the Golden Temple once more, this time at night so that we could view the temple glowing against the darkness. This time around, with Teji as our guide we got into the actual temple and he explained all the ceremonies, religious artifacts and details of the construction. I felt like a bit of a fraud as I wandered around amongst these most devout of worshipers. I tried to make myself a fly on the wall, but found it excessively difficult being a giant white person in a bright green shirt and sunflower yellow turban.
The following morning we cut out of Amritsar as soon as we woke and started the climb to Dharamsala. We came up to a vista and stopped to take pictures, surrounded by monkeys. We stayed the night at a place Mike had booked for us. It was a nice little resort in a tiny town, and it was a much needed break from the noise of the cities. Again, we started off first thing in the morning after breakfast and took a detour to a Shiva temple and accompanying spring. They had constructed a building over the spring funneled the water to spouts. These poured out into a pool that all the locals came to to splash around in and scoop water out to wash their cars and clothes.
After drying off and visiting yet another temple and making some offerings, we boarded into the van to cover the last stretch into Dharamsala, and it’s higher elevation counterpart MacLeodganj, home of the Tibetan Government in exile.
And that brings us full circle. I’ll try and do more frequent, and thus shorter posts, but internets are scarce and unreliable. Well, I’m off to meet some new friends for dinner. Until next time!