Saturday, July 30, 2005

Amritsar, Pakistan, and the ride to Dharamsala (Day 21)

We exited our sleeper cab into the soft light of a 6am sun in Amritsar. Almost immediately after stepping onto the platform, a man was asking to be our driver. Little did we know, we would be getting to know this man very well over the next few days. We discussed it for a while, and decided we just wanted to be taken to the Golden Temple, and then maybe to the bus station, for now. And off we went...

When we arrived at the Golden temple, we had to remove our shoes and cover our heads. Upon walking through the entry arch, we were confronted by a magnificent, radiant structure. Made of white marble and plated with gold (though I don't think it's gold anymore), the structure floats on a pond that is surrounded by a walkway and a building. We stood and stared for a while, then began to circumambulate. Many people were bathing in the water (which wasn't exactly clean, but oh well). At two corners, they were giving out water in metal bowls. We stopped for a drink, talked to some people (Sikhs are so open and friendly), and continued to the bridge. Before crossing, however, we made a donation and got leaf-bowls of prasad. Tony was absolutely loving the Sikhs at that point, because although they asked for a Rs 10 donation, he gave Rs 100 and refused change. He got a HUGE bowl of prasad, which is basically sweet dough. So then we headed to the bridge. We weren't allowed to cross until we had eaten some of our prasad for some reason, so we started chowing down. It wasn't bad, but I don't like breakfast, and especially not a bowl of sweet raw dough. But anyway, we then crossed the bridge, and went into the ornately decorated temple. It has two floors and the roof, and we explored all of it. On both floors men were reading "the book" as others sat and listened. It was a bit crowded, but I bet it gets worse at other times of the day and year. Finally, we left the structure. We weren't allowed to make an offering of our prasad because we had eaten from it (but they made us eat from it, so I'm still quite confused about all this), so Lee started throwing his into the water. Almost immediately, big goldfish came up and ate it. Soon enough, Tony and Maria and I were doing it as well. When we got to the end of the bridge, there were a lot of goldfish, and little kids were watching. It was fun,. but I think it might have been disrespectful. Then again, a few Sikhs had joined in as well. From there, we went into the buildings at the front of the complex. In one they had a book sitting, and a donation box. In the basement of another, there was a small group of instrumentalists chanting, with people listening. We stayed there for about 15 minutes. Finally we regrouped (Maria has wondered off to take pictures), and headed outside. We went to retrieve our shoes, and the attendant asked if we had seen the museum. We hadn't, so we recovered our heads and went back in.

Our second trip into the Golden Temple was thus to the museum. It was filled with paintings of the gurus and other important Sikhs, as well as mighty battles and important historical scenes. Also, they had a number of artifacts and weapons on display. A number of them started talking to me, and took a lot of interest in me. I ended up talking to a group of guys my age for about 10 minutes, twice. After spending about an hour in the museum, we regrouped and headed back out. This time, the attendant asked if we had langar while inside. Langar is the free meal, in which everyone sits in the order in which the entered. We rcovered our heads, and went to get Langar. Volunteers serve out daal and pani to people, and the dining experience is supposed to indicate equality and community. The food was actually pretty good, especially considering that they were pouring it out of buckets. After we finished, we headed out to return our plates. Then we went back, and this time, we were given our shoes. There was nothing more to see. Still, the Golden Temple is a very impressive site, and we ended up there for about 5 well-spent hours.

When we returned to where our driver had been, we were relieved to find that he was still there, and had not just gone through our stuff and ditched us. We got into the cramped vehicle, and asked him to take us to the Pakistani border. He said he lived near there (though we came to find that him saying he lived somewhere, owned something, or was related to someone was pretty much just banter), and that it would be no problem at all. So off we went.

Because of our driver's "connections," he was able to get us into the customs zone between India and Pakistan. At the gate, we were refused entry. We met a teacher from a women's college there, and also an actress and a producer (who had passport stamps from about 20 countries). We started having a good conversation, and in the meanwhile, our driver was able to work out a little deal. One of the guards took us around the side of the gate, and we were able to walk to the actual ceremony area where, every night, soldiers from both countries do a demonstration, then families are allowed to cross (even without Visas). We even got to go right up to the line of Pakistan, and take pictures with the guard. We even got to step over that line, so I count it as having entered Pakistan.

We then returned to our driver's "boss's" restaaurant, just on India side of the border. We had more Limcas (we'd had some upon our arrival), and then Lee and I requested beer. Unfortunately, they were not allowed to serve us beer, so they....took us around back of their shop and did so anyway. It was thunderbolt, which is terrible, but it was hot enough that we enjoyed it. Afterward, we returned to our friends. Soon enough, however, they ended up heading back to where we were, so we could negotiate the possibility of a ride up to Amritsar and back. The deal we ended up striking was for transport two ways, a driver to go anywhere we wanted while there, and that it had to be Rintu, our driver before (because he spoke a moderate amount of English). (This would turn out to have been a dumb decision later, but $100 for 4 days and 400 miles of traveling IS a good deal). So we moved our stuff to an even more cramped 4-door AC car. Soon after, we were on our way North to Dharamsala.

One of the first things I noticed was a little picture of Deep Singh on the dashboard. Deep Singh is famous because, after being decapitated in battle, he reportedly kept fighting for several minutes, headless. I thought this strange since I knew that Yovindar was Hindu, but whatever. His real name was Yovindar, but he went by Rintu. However, since he decided that he should call me "Jonny boy," I would only refer to him as Yovindar for the rest of the trip. Also, he decided that Lee looked like Dirty Harry (he didn't, and I doubt Yovindar has even seen that film), so he called Lee Harry for the entire trip. Lee never actually informed him that his name wasn't Harry though, on the other hand...

The ride was not fun. It had been sweltering in Amritsar, and for quite a while the temperature kept up. The AC didn't do anything; it was a useless and expensive amenity. We listened to his collection of Bonghra music (about 8 songs, total), on a loop all the way up. He claimed to be friends with every artist, stating that he "parties with them" (a blatant lie). Lee and I ended up sharing my iPod earphones, in a vain attempt to drown it out. Luckily, after we had gotten North by quite a bit, it started to get noticeably cooler. Moreover, he turned the music down and spent the majority of the trip talking to Maria (much to her dismay - but the front seat comes at a price!) Once we got into the rolling, tree-covered hills, it started to actually feel comfortable. The mountain air, once we got farther North, was more refreshing still. Through the course of our ride, we passed several temples, many of them dedicated to the monkey God, Humayun.

Eventually, we stopped to eat. The place we stopped at sat across a small stream (that normally wasn't there, but for the monsoon rains) from a Shiva temple. I went to explore, and found out it was cute into a cave. It was pretty cool. In the mean time, Lee climbed out onto the rocks between the temple and the restaurant, which was pretty dangerous, but ah well. Eventually, we took our seats and had a decent meal (Yovindar ate off us; this would come to be a regular thing). The owner came and talked to us a while, and said he intends to move to New York very soon. He was a very nice guy, and we talked to him for a while. At dusk, we headed out to make the rest of our trip.

Though I might have mentioned it before, driving at night in India is dangerous. Many of the truck drivers drink excessively, plus driving in India is always a little scary. The road is delineated by lines painted on trees on either side of the road, since there are no reflective lines to follow. People still pass, often, at night. So, with all that in mind, imagine our frustration and worries as we started heading up the steepest part of the mountain, and our car started having transmission trouble. After about 30 minutes of worrying, and Lee at one point climbing out of the window and onto the roof of a moving car, we made it to Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj.

It was late, so we unpakced. Lee and I decided to go for a walk just to check things out, nonetheless. My immediate impression - so many white people, so many hippies. We stopped into a STD/ISD/PCO shop to call family, and afterward ended up having a conversation with the owner about that very topic. He had a very cynical view of the Tibetan Buddhists, and of the white girls and boys that come to Dharamsala. He was very open with us, and while some of what he said hit me off as non-sense, it was interesting nonsense. Our conversation actually started when a larger white woman started addressing a dog outside of the shop, telling it that it was a "friendly dog, who loved friends," and gently tapping it in the face with her umbrella. The guy told us that people here were nice to white people because they knew there was money in it. He also said that white girls come to Dharamsala to have sex with Tibetan boys, and that he knew of a number of instances in which this had happened. Unrelated, he told us that English is now compulsory in most schools, thus his seeming mastery of the language.

We then headed back to our hotel. At the narrow shop next door, we found our driver conversing with the shopkeeper. We started chatting with them, but were soon interrupted by a fight in the alley right behind us. A bunch of asian guys were driving by, and right as they did an Indian guy punched this dude RIGHT in the face. The guy got out of the car, and started trying to fight back (understandably). They eventually moved down the alley, and guy picked up a large rock and THREW it at the other guy. Fighting broke out again, and soon the group of Indian guys can walking back our way. Lee and I were just kind of looking, and one guy turned to us and sai "Fuck you, and fuck your country." Of course, he couldn't differentiate us from any of the other white people, and probably didn't know which country we were from...but whatever.

When we got back to the room, I decided to do some laundry. I soaked and washed things in a bucket, and hung them out to dry. Hindsight is everything: if I'd have known that these clothes would not be clean and dry until I got back to America, I would have saved myself the trouble.

Finally, after a brief allergy attack, I feel into a land of dreams...

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