January 24, 2013

Pure Punjabi (Amritsar, Punjab, India)

I had literally never heard of Amritsar (in the state of Punjab) until we were in India. In truth, we really hadn't researched much about north India at all until we got here. When we left SF, it seemed so far away (in both time and distance), that we didn't really read much. But, as we neared the 2 month mark in India, we had heard tons of backpackers recommending Amritsar, so we started reading about it.

Amritsar is the center of Sikhism, a religion unfamiliar to most Westerners. I had once heard it described as a combination of Islam and HInduism and, while there may be some truth to that, it's probably unfair to the religion to compare it to other religions when describing it. It is, of course, its own thing and, while I still don't know much about the religion, know that it's a very peaceful community and that we enjoyed the Sikh people in Amritsar a great deal.

There are really only 2 reasons why tourists visit Amritsar; 1-to visit the Golden Temple, an important pilgrimage site for all Sikhs, and 2-to visit the India/Pakistan border at Wagah and see the daily ceremony there with guards, military, and spectators on both sides putting on an elaborate show. So, as we wrapped up our time in McLeod Ganj (read here and here), we started making plans for a visit to Amritsar.

Amritsar Sneak Peek

Unfortunately, they were no trains between McLeod Ganj and Amritsar, so we booked a bus from nearby Dharamsala at 5am, which meant we needed to catch the 4am bus from McLeod Ganj to Dharamsala. After a night out with our friends, I decided to take a quick "power nap" between 1:30 and 3am, and Tom decided not to sleep at all, thinking we would both be able to sleep on the 8 hour bus ride. We were wrong. Here's the day: Leave hotel at 3:30am, Arrive at bus station, There's no bus….there's still no bus…..there's no one else around, Finally some more tourists, Still no bus, Then a few locals who tell us that the bus isn't coming, GREAT….We wake up a cab driver sleeping in his car to rush us to Dharamsala and arrive just in time to get on the bus to Amritsar which is not, as we were told it would be, a "semi-deluxe" tourist bus. It was a crappy local bus with giant gaps in the windows (it was FREEZING), rattling window panes, bug-infested seats, and very noisy locals, some riding on the roof of the bus. I slept for seconds at a time, but only at moments when I was too exhausted to hold my head up. It was rough. We arrived in Amritsar and headed to our pre-booked accommodation, Sharma Guest House and, after a quick meal, slept for hours. We were planning on only spending 2 nights in Amritsar so, after wasting an entire day sleeping, we knew we had to spend the next day visiting the temple and going to the border, so we made plans for a full day.

The next day, we headed to the Golden Temple, just 100 meters from our guest house. After donning scarf and temple-provided bandana to cover our heads, checking our shoes with the attendant, and washing our hands and feet (as required before visiting this holy site, we got our first glimpse of the temple and were in awe of the Sikhs who dropped to their knees and lowered their heads to the ground upon seeing it.

We spent a few hours walking around the temple and its surrounding buildings and, while being a center of attention at other sites in India wore on our nerves a little bit, we appreciated all the hand shakes and smiles we got from visitors there. Everyone was so genuinely nice and interested in us, that there was no way to be offended by it. We didn't take a lot of photos of the activities around the temple, as people were bathing in the waters and praying and it didn't feel appropriate. We weren't hungry, so we decided to skip the free meal that the temple provides to the public every day, but we visited the dining area where thousands ate and were absolutely humbled by the efforts of the Sikhs to feed the devout, the curious, and the community's hungry. The Golden Temple is also free to visit and you can stay at the temple for free as well - they will not turn anyone away.  It was incredible.

After we left the temple, we grabbed lunch and then piled into a van to drive the 20 kilometers to the Pakistan border. (Side note on that, while legally the passenger in a vehicle must fasten their seat belts, it's perfectly acceptable for Tom to ride in the trunk and for me to ride on a box between the 2 front seats with my face about 18 inches from the windshield. Sigh - if you try to apply logic and reasoning to most of your experiences in India, your head will EXPLODE. So I just shut down my mouth and my brain and go with it.)

We had no idea the border ceremony would have so much pomp and circumstance, but it was really festive. We had been told ahead of time to bring our passport to the security gate in order to get VIP seating, so we watched the high kicks, yelling competition, synchronized infantry moves and show of masculinity from these seats and cheered along with the announcer when he shouted, "HINDUSTAN!" The Punjabis and Pakistanis used to be all part of the same state/country, so there is little difference, culturally between the two groups, and the ceremony is done in good spirits. On the other side of the border (just feet away from us), Pakistanis cheered loudly for their own military and shouted "PAKISTAN!" with pride. It was, honestly, one of the more bizarre things I've ever witnessed - and probably unlike anything I'll ever see again.

Here's a great video mash-up that someone did to "Hollaback Girl."

After dinner, we had plan for an early night and some rest before we took the 17 hour train ride to Jaipur the next day. That night however, Tom started getting some Delhi Belly symptoms and, after a rough night, I convinced him that we should postpone our trip to Jaipur and, instead, get him to a doctor and spend another day in Amritsar. While he was sick, I made my best purchase of the trip so far. I look Punjabi, right? Can't wait to wear this at home!

If you read the blog, you might know where this story goes. Letting Tom rest for a day ultimately led to The Least Luxurious Night of My Life.

Check out all of our pics from Amritsar here. Below are a few more of our favorites.

Pilgrim bathing in the waters around the Golden Temple

Ironic to have a photo of Gandhi flanked by 2 men with machine guns?

Just a glimpse at the crowds at the border ceremony

Apparently, they are gallant

Wow - never thought I'd be so close to Pakistan

Right there! That's Pakistan!

We were celebrities...I love the look the little boy is giving me
Check out all of our pics from Amritsar here

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