February 03, 2010 GMT
India - First day in Amritsar

One thing led to another and I'm now in the ridiculous position of having to catch up on a whole month of events in India... how am I ever going to do that?

Last time I had to do this (in Pakistan, catching up on the events of Iran and Pakistan in one go) I resorted to letting the pictures tell the story. I think this is the only way to remain sane and actually get the job done, so here goes.

I entered India on the 1st of January 2010, three and a half months into the journey. As usual, I had not researched the country I was about to visit, to have the purest, most spontaneous experience. I wanted to be as little preoccupied as possible about the countries I visited.

Right after crossing the land border between Pakistan and India I had a strong sense of accomplishment. I was there. The UK2India trip had reached its final destination, I had done it, there were to be no difficulties now. I was out of theocratic police states and spontaneous violence-ridden areas. No censorship, no machine guns, no mandatory routes. This was India, I was standing on the very tip of the iceberg and I couldn't wait to dig deeper.

But border crossing takes time and by the time I was in India proper it was noon. Lunchtime! I stopped at the first roadside restaurant I noticed, parked the bike and took a seat, savouring the moment and smiling to myself for just being there on that lovely, sunny day.

The bike attracted a lot of attention as usual (I have come to terms with the fact it's the bike, and not me, people are fascinated about) and a small crowd started gathering around it...

P1020181

The difference with the usual treatment in the other countries I visited (silent awe) is that people here were all too ready to jump on the bike for some pictures. Thankfully, they asked for permission before doing so, which I happily granted. I was in such a good mood at that point, with a little bit of diplomacy I might have even taken the lads for a spin.

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I had a tasty platter of rice with vegetables which looked the simplest thing on the menu but still had many spices and was very yummy indeed.

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A conversation ensued with one of the more daring patrons and I was told that "I must" go see the border ceremony later on that evening. I must have been in really good spirits because I would not usually backtrack without a very good reason and the border was already 20K behind me, but I thought "what the heck, when will I ever be here again?" - so I went.

The ceremony itself is like a football match, but instead of sheer hooliganism you get a healthy (over)dose of nationalism, showing off, flag-waving, our-penises-are-longer-than-yours routines etc. All very adult and civilised stuff that I really enjoyed. After being pushed, squashed and trod on on our way to the "stage" right next to the border line

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I chose a spot, trying to optimise for least possible constant pressure (read: shoving) from all directions.

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Don't you love it when the young generation is corrupted into nationalism from early on?

Anyway, to stay sane I focused on this guy that looked so much like Eddie Murphy it was actually funny seeing him play the all-too-serious border guard.

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At this point, I had a blatant demonstration of the difference between a "tourist" and a "traveler". I feel vaguely insulted when people call me a "tourist" in this trip, and here is why.

This is how the tourists experience the ceremony:

tourists

Removed from the real event, treated specially, standing out like sore thumbs, just quickly showing up, taking plenty of pictures with camera equipment worth ridiculous amounts of money and then disappearing in a minivan driven by a local.

On the other hand the traveler (yes, I am blatantly beating my own drum here) is *IN* the events. Tries to become part of the real deal, to experience this brave new world to the fullest, truest extent.

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The traveler also knows how to act diplomatically because he/she inevitably has to deal with all social/cultural differences. Being blatantly shoved around by people for more than an hour is a challenge for someone who does not enjoy sardinisation. One must learn to adapt quickly to the utter lack of any respect for your personal space. After having people use me as a platform to just jump higher to see the ceremony better, I noticed this and realised it was good to be stoically diplomatic and just smile about the whole thing.

P1020219

Not my cup of tea by any stretch of this imagination, but luckily entering India had automatically given me an excellent mood and I was able to deal with the boneheadedness blended with blind nationalism and hooliganism I was witnessing all around me.

Some more lunacy:

Does wonders for love and understanding between people of different cultures, that!

After this madness was over I was very relieved to get the hell out of there... and onto Amritsar, which would be my first stop in India and is also the main pilgrimage site for the Sikhs. When I got to the Golden Temple it was already dark and quite chaotic - I had heard one can stay in the temple grounds but it took me more than an hour to locate the exact spot (which is right opposite the rear walkway to the temple, very close to an Internet cafe)

This is the closest I got to the temple itself.

Golden Temple, holy site of Sikhs, Amritsar, India

Lovely, innit? That was a safe distance. I'm not too keen on temples, especially when one has to walk barefoot on dirty marble on a cold evening along with a few thousands kneeling and praying along the way. That's a bit too much religion, lack of hygiene and inconvenience at the same time. Sorry, but no.

So interestingly the people running the show there appear to be offering free meals to everyone (even though I did not try - I couldn't find where anything was and it was very chaotic and overcrowded around the temple, no signs in English etc), which meant that this impressively fast, massive and noisy washing gig was going on all the time:

After being beckoned by a long-bearded fellow, asking "are you sure?" and being beckoned again, I rode the bike along with a sea of people through a narrow passageway that led me to a large atrium where people were sleeping on blankets on the floor, while others were talking, eating, going to the communal bathrooms (very posh, quite clean, very impressive) and there was generally a lot of hustle and bustle. Turns out the bearded fellow was some sort of temple guard and he commanded some authority around there, so when he pointed at a corner of the atrium where I could park my bike and started gently kicking people to get them to stand up so that I could ride over their sleeping grounds, all I had to do was feel guilty, apologise to them in a foreign language and comply as quickly and discreetly as possible. I parked the bike, got a couple of basics I would need for the dorm and went in.

The foreigners dormitory had beds (good, not sleeping on the ground), lockers (good, no need to leave your stuff lying around) and pretty much nothing else. Everyone was using their own sleeping bags on the beds and we had to walk over the atrium to go to the loo or wash. But it was free of charge and it was a sanctuary of peace and quiet in a sea of people "out there". There was a temple guard by the door to the foreigners dorm that didn't allow anyone not looking foreign/rich enough to enter.

So I dumped my stuff, earmarked a bed for later and went out to explore Amritsar on foot. No change of clothes of course - I was still wearing riding boots, trousers etc. It was too much of a hassle to take out my "civilian" clothing (as it would attract only more attention to the bike) and anyway it was cold enough to make walking around in bike gear comfortable. Walking past a parking lot with the world's supply of motorcycles (all pretty much identical 125-200cc models) I noticed this funny piece of advice on the wall (which, surprisingly, was also in English):

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Then, being the hardened adventurer that I am, I spotted this shop and completely descended upon it... chocolate ice-cream with hot chocolate and then some Ritter Sport chocolates for the way home.

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I was very hungry as I hadn't had anything to eat since that rice for lunch and Amritsar was too chaotic for me to muster the strength to find food. So I just dosed up on chocolate, grabbed a couple of biscuit packs from a shop in the back streets around the temple (that were impressively marked on my GPS map - wow!) and went back to the temple compound.

This is the atrium where most people slept. Can you spot the bike?

where pilgrims sleep

...and this is the vigilant guard that held the foreigners' fortress:

guarding the foreigners

I read a few pages of Eat, Pray, Love before we agreed with everyone else in the dorm to switch the lights off.

A bit too many people for my first day in India. If this is the norm around here, I'm going to be in trouble. Tomorrow I'll make my way to Delhi. Goodnight!

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at February 03, 2010 06:27 AM GMT
 


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