Going through old writings on India, I realized I may have never hit the publish button on this one. But it includes a recap of the India-Pakistan border ceremony, and other crucial moments to the India experience, so here it is, sixty days late, for (maybe?) the first time.
Lisa and I don't get settled until nearly 6AM, and she's obviously jetlagged, so we sleep late and rise slowly and tuk-tuk into the city center. We don't plan to stay in Delhi long, but a day of recovery sounds like a smart measure. We search for some grass to sit on.
The center of New Delhi feels very European, which makes sense, as it was constructed by the colonial British in the European style: wide boulevards, grand buildings, big concentric circles of road with Delhi's Central Park in the middle, and in the middle of that, a massive Flag of India flapping proudly.
We get some street food and sit down and are almost immediately hounded by the wallahs, vendors selling their wares on foot. There are chaiwallahs and chipwallahs and rotiwallahs and waterwallahs and, oddly enough, q-tipwallahs, Muslim men with cotton sticks tucked into their caps who will come over, take a nosy peek into your ear, and inform you that, oh my, you simply must have your ears cleaned by yours truly. They'll pull out photographs of said cleaning, nervous-looking white people in that very park, q-tips jabbed in their ears, and if that isn't enough to convince you, they'll withdraw a small notebook from a front pocket and open to the page of your chosen nationality, where other Americans or Italians or whomever offer testimonials of the wondrous powers of the wax conjurers. Curiously, all the scribblers have the exact same handwriting.
We challo our way through an hour or so of the capitalist chaos, these every-other-minute interruptions, and then admit defeat of our silly idea to have a quiet afternoon in the park. Lisa has made the very unrecommended choice of bringing a duffel bag, so we set out in search of a hostel at which to stow it.
On the way we pass the train station, and thinking it'd be better to book our tickets for tomorrow now, we start for the inside. We're stopped along the way by a Sheikh with a badge, something generic like Railway Operator. "Ah, foreign tourist office not here. Let me help you."
He does help us, giving us the little forms we need to fill out by hand to request a ticket, which will later be given to a man behind a computer who will type everything on the form into said computer with one finger. It isn't the most efficient system, but it's the system.
We finish the forms and the Sheikh explains that the foreign tourist office is back at Connaught Place, right from where we'd come. It seems odd, but these foreign tourist office are a thing in India: foreigners and freedom fighters are eligible for a set-aside stock of Indian rail tickets, and they usually have to be claimed at the "Foreigners and Freedom Fighters" desk. The desk is usually in the train station, though.
We actually trust the Sheikh completely, but he's oddly paranoid that we don't trust him. "You don't believe me?" he asks, repeatedly. "No, really, we believe you. Just show us the way."
He puts us in a tuk-tuk and barks the address to the driver and we take off, a little confused, but arrive at a fairly official-looking building a few minutes later. We head inside, give the man our slips, and he punches the information into his computer, one finger at a time. "I'm sorry, we don't have availability."
That's not good. We ask what we should do. "Well, you can check another travel agency. They may have different availability."
Another travel agency?
"Yes, this is travel agency."
"We thought we were sent to the tourist office."
"No, this is travel agency." The man looks just as confused as we are. None of us can seem to figure why the Sheikh sent us here, for to get a commission the man at the agency would actually have to be in on the touting, and he definitely isn't. We thank him, leave the office, and take the tuk-tuk back to the railway station, just a little further up this time. We walk down the road and stop at the "Foreign Booking Office" building, all blue government signage. We enter.
A friendly man greets us, offers us a seat, offers us tea. He asks where we're going. We say Agra. He says very good. He asks some more questions, where we're from and how long we'll be in India and where else we'll be going, and when we say we don't know, he offers some recommendations. Out comes the pad, out comes the pen, out comes the itinerary. Agra. Varanasi. Kama Sutra Palace. And all of a sudden, the walls of the office shift and the "Incredible India" posters on the wall become wildly familiar and I'm back in Mumbai, back in that little room with the elephant safaris and the ninety-thousand rupees and the sorry-cash-only.
"Wait," I interrupt, "just to be clear, are you an official tourist office?"
"We book official tourist tickets for transportation through ..." I cut him off.
"Are you an official tourist office?"
"We are officially recognized by the government of ..."
We grab our things and rush out of the fake tourist office and finally, fifteen minutes later, make it to the real one, which is right where it should have been the whole time: directly in the train station. We sit and wait and as we wait my mind drifts back to a poster of Amritsar's Golden Temple on the wall of the travel-agency-in-disguise. "Hey Lisa, what if we go to Amritsar tomorrow?"
"Works for me," Lisa says. Cool.
We book tickets to Amritsar. We spend the evening walking around the ancient bazaars of Delhi, and early the next morning, we depart for the northwest.
It's a long train ride. We watch the sun climb from the horizon to the zenith from the windows of our crowded traincar; we're stuffed in tight, elbows all up in strangers' business. The train ride is unremarkable: it just happens. For eight hours, it just happens.
Eventually we screech our way into Amritsar, the Sheikh holy land. It's here where Sheikh separatists blockaded themselves in the Golden Temple in a bold declaration of independence, here where Indira Gandhi, afraid of appearing weak in the lead-up to the next election, decided to storm the Temple rather than negotiate. Here where the repercussions of that decision rippled back all the way to Delhi, from where we had just come, when her two Sheikh bodyguards shot her to death for attacking their people. And before all this, there was the Golden Temple itself, a masterwork of design and pilgrimage site for the Sheikh community.
We visit, spiritual pilgrims from the West. We walk across the marble-tiled courtyard before its exterior walls; we check our shoes, and dip our feet in a small water trench, and step barefoot through the archway into one of the most glorious buildings I've yet seen.
The temple isn't very big. Most of the large walled square is a sacred pool, clear tranquil water for pilgrims to walk the perimeter of, to bathe in. On the other side of the pool, a narrow walkway extends out toward the center of the compound, a little peninsula on which the temple sits, at the very center of the whole thing. It's capped in intricate goldwork, a great shining dome and precise spires and latticing all about. All around, Sheikh chants waft beautifully through the speakers.
We walk very slowly around the large pool, heads covered and feet bare. We join the queue on the isthmus waiting to pay their respects inside the temple; slowly, we move forward. We're all huddled together tightly, and everyone around us chants along with the haunting hymns. We sit, we stand, we sit again, a thousand bodies unified in prayer. It's a beautiful moment, a surrender of the individual to the collective.
Or not. After some time the line is permitted to move forward, and I feel jabs and shoves from all-too-eager pilgrims fighting their way to the front. The peace of only a moment ago has been replaced by all the bustle of Walmart on Black Friday, and I do my best to resist the shoves and just move respectfully forward.
Another stop, another sit, another wait. And then we're allowed to enter, and it's a nightmare, dozens of bodies cramming at once through the doorway, stepping over others who have chosen to prostrate themselves at the entrance, as Sheikh custom encourages before entering a temple. The scene once inside is even more carnal: photographs snapped on iPhones, a few seated men playing instruments, and countless rupees tossed in their direction as tribute, while men on their knees push about collecting the rupees, like the men who gather the cash for strippers. Nothing about it is peaceful or spiritual or pleasant; inside the temple it's all me and money.
We exit and are immediately brought back into the warm, soothing rhythm of the compound: its chanting, its walking, its quiet waters. We spend a little more time by the pool, just sitting, and then head to bed.
We sleep a long time. When we wake, we talk plans. Let's go to Kathmandu. I book tickets while Lisa gets coffee. We're going to Kathmandu.
But not until tomorrow. We wander out of the hostel and into Jallianwalla Bagh, a massive courtyard where, in the days of the colonialism, the Brits mercilessly massacred thousands of peaceful protestors, firing for ten straight minutes into the gathered crowd, actually directing that gunfire toward the few alleyways in which the unarmed masses could escape. It was a terrible thing; so much unnecessary violence in this city's past.
The courtyard has been turned into a peace park of sorts, and is solemn but beautiful. Bullet holes still cry out in the brick walls. Shrubs are shaped into men with guns from the exact places where the British fired, and silent mourners trickle by with grim expressions. We spend a little time in that heavy place, and then head west of Amritsar for a whole different vestige of India's journey toward independence: the Indian-Pakistani border.
Wagah, about twenty kilometers outside of the city, splits what was once Punjab into Indian Pubjab and Pakistani Punjab, Hindu Punjab and Muslim Punjab (though not quite), East Pubjab and West Punjab. Every day, the border crossing station at Wagah has a closing ceremony, and we're told it is not to be missed. We're up for a look.
We book a shared taxi for a few hundred rupees and stand around awkwardly for its 2:15PM departure. 2:15 rolls around, and then 2:25, and a sulky man with the biggest frown you've ever seen lumbers over. He looks at us with extreme displeasure and then over to the guy in the prepaid taxi booth. "Do?" he spits. Only two? The guy shrugs.
Our driver, with a face like he's just been made to take out the garbage and the recycling and he really doesn't want to grunts a guttural noise that we interpret to mean follow me, and we follow him a few blocks to a quiet alley with a van. We climb inside. "Ten minutes," he says, and begins walking away.
"What? No, now. Ceremony starts soon."
"Ten minutes." He grunts again.
"No! Challo!" Let's go! He walks away.
Lisa and I wait inside for ten minutes until he returns with a few more riders. They pile in, and he leaves again.
Five minutes later, and he's back. Another three cram into the front; we're now at about ten people in a seven-person van. The girl behind the driver, something of a diva, hits the back of his seat. "Challo!"
We begin to move. We bounce along the pavement for a few blocks in silence, the driver making no effort to drive like an Indian, which is to say, doing any maneuvering to actually get us anywhere. We crawl along as the mutterings of the woman grow louder. Lisa and I smile.
After some ungodly amount of time, we arrive right back where we started, at that prepaid taxi stand. It's nearly forty-five minutes after we should have left, and just as we're preparing to peel out of the city ... dude gets out.
He opens his door and just walks out, leaving the door and our mouths ajar. The girl yells something that can only be Hindi for "what the fuck?" and we watch the guy lumber on over to the booth and, if his body language is any giveaway, start complaining. We speak no Hindi, but we understand every word: I don't wanna drive to Wagah! I just don't feel like it! I'm not going to do it, and you can't make me. The guy behind the counter is irate. This goes on for a few minutes, and another driver hops in, flashes us a smile, and takes the wheel. He begins to fight our way through traffic, and we feel like we're finally making progress.
Progress is slow, and so two minutes later we're only a hundred feet away. Which is just close enough for the first driver, who has clearly been told that he will be fired if he does not drive us to Wagah, to actually return to the vehicle, open the door, and nearly pry the replacement driver from the seat. Again, the girl behind him smacks the headrest and hurls obscenities.
We all sit in awkward, stupefied, unhappy silence as we exit Amritsar and get on the highway and trot along the outskirts of Punjab. We're finally picking up speed, making up for lost time, when once more, we stop. The driver pulls into a gas station, clicks off the engine, and turns around. Hindi dribbles from his downward-cast lips.
The passengers in the row behind him look outraged, and discussion ensues, and one of the guys pulls out a five-hundred-rupee note and hands it to the driver. Dude needs gas money.
I half expect him to ask us to pump the gas too, but in a surprising turn of events, he gets out and actually does it himself.
And then he walks away.
He turns a corner and disappears from sight and the girl in the row ahead of us shrieks. We all sit there, waiting for the return that may or may not come.
It comes, thankfully. He walks back with a wad of paan that he pops in his mouth, paid for with the gas change from the man in row two. He spits, gets in, turns the key. We get back on the road.
Another six kilometers of silence. He swerves all over the road and drives half the speed of everyone else and picks up his phone and doesn't break eye contact for way too long. And then, he taps something and Bollywood music floods the small van.
Only in India.
Eventually we arrive. We're quickly separated from the pack and sent down the foreigners' queue, where we walk about a kilometer along a wide, empty road (Indians on one side, foreigners on the other) decorated by towering billboards suggesting you join India's Border Security Force, "largest border security force in the world." Translation: we trust nobody. I question if it's a superlative worth being proud of.
But the Indians sure are proud of it. We see dozens of them along the road, stopping us at checkpoints every few hundred meters to get the same thorough patdown: ass grab, inner thigh grope, crotch pat. It feels really nice. Lisa, who gets groped by female guards behind a privacy curtain, agrees.
Finally, we make it to the actual border, which is something like giant bleachers and a street on the Indian side, and half a stadium on the Pakistani side, a stadium just cleaved straight down the middle. Interestingly, the Indian bleachers are positively bursting with spectators, and the Pakistani stadium is completely empty.
In Pakistan it's a ghost town; in India it's a block party. It's 4PM on a weekday, and hundreds of students are just dancing in the street as "Jai Ho" rings out over the loudspeakers. It's a Bollywood flashmob, it's a carnival, it's a little slice of territorial ridiculousness.
As foreigners, we're given front row seats at the base of the bleachers. I look back and Indians are standing in their seats, writhing about, dancing and yelling and shouting and chanting. The atmosphere is beyond festive; it's World-Cup-celebratory. A man to my left taps my shoulder. "You are here!" he says with ecstatic eyes.
Why yes, I am here!
The dancing carries on for a few more Bollywood numbers, and then the celebrants are told to take their seats. It's time to get the real party started.
The party, if I haven't been clear about this, is the daily closing of the Indian-Pakistani road border. This little song and dance (no, this massive song and dance) has been happening since almost 1950, and it has been happening daily. To celebrate closing up shop for the day. No, it's not really supposed to make sense.
But oh, it's starting. A roar erupts from the speakers, the kind of baritone roar you might hear before a wrestling match or a rock concert, and a mustached man in a white track suit bursts through the doors of the customs office and into the middle of the street. He bellows in deep Hindi, welcoming the crowds to the 18,438th border closing ceremony, or something like that. He stretches out his arms and soaks in the crowd's cheers.
Then the fascism starts. "Ya ya Hindustan!" he shouts. The crowd repeats the refrain. His fist pumps high in the air, and the tension grows, and again he roars, "HINDUSTAN!" He punches at nothing, the spectators go wild. "Hindustan!" they shout back, the proposed name for a Hindu-only India at the first days of India's independence, a name and concept Gandhi fought against (and was killed, by a Hindu, for). Yet the face of Gandhiji smiles out from right above the gate, where the mustached fascist rallies the crowd. This continues for some time. A drummer on the roof of the visa office matches the bellows with his bass. Next to me, a baby starts crying. I know, I say to myself, looking at its young, innocent face. I don't like fascism either.
When the crowd is good and primed, the real ceremony begins. A dozen members of the Border Security Force march out into the street, stern faces and strong arms gripping steel rifles. The masses go berserk.
The first two guards, the token women, march toward the gates separating the two nations, a little Checkpoint Charlie of sorts. They meet their counterparts, Pakistani border guards, in the space between, and the four salute and file out. Then the men begin.
In pairs of twos, the soldiers rip down the street, knees nearly smacking their puffed-out chests as they high-step their way to the borderline. The Pakistanis do the same, and when the four men come face-to-face, they have what can only possibly be described as, well, a dance-off.
It's a high-stepping dance-off, and the sole aim seems to be who can high-step the highest. From the bleachers, they look like small marionettes, exaggerated prances in elaborate waltzes across the dance floor, a few dazzling moves before the final kill, a great big leaping high-step and a beating of the chest and the adoring love of the Indian crowd.
More high-stepping, more cries of Hindustan, more organic chants from the bleachers. When the last Indians and the last Pakistanis have stepped their last high-steps, the soldiers each grab the rope of each other's flag pole and pull at it with all their might. The poles shudder in the distance, resisting the wish to topple. The pulling stops; the flags will stand for another day. The Indians and Pakistanis turns their backs to one another, they close their gates. The border is secure. Fear not, India.
And with that, the most bizarre ceremony I've ever witnessed draws to a close. Spectators run to the gates to get photographs with their favorite Border Security Force guard. Wallahs hawk souvenirs of Indian flags and instant photographs. Lisa and I look at each other, speechless.
For almost seventy years, India and Pakistan haven't been able to agree on even simple things like where one country begins and one country ends. Right now, ten-thousand men live on a glacier ten-thousand feet high, melting the very thing with their heat and waste and use, just to make sure that the men on one side of the glacier don't cross over to the other side. The countries have atomic bombs, but not the ability to draw lines on a map. And this is how they spend their time: not figuring out how to get along, but developing an intricate choreography of a forty-five-minute international dance that would make Broadway proud.
Or maybe, I reconsider, this is them getting along. Maybe high-stepping contact is better than no contact, friendly competition better than icy isolation. They may not be able to resolve Kashmir, but at least they can dance together.
It's evening, it's night, it's morning. We tuk-tuk to the airport and board a little plane and fly to Nepal. An hour later, we're descending into the Kathmandu Valley. Lisa and I cram against the skinny window of the plane. Below us is a cottony field of clouds, and poking clean through those clouds are the snowy peaks of the tallest mountains in the world. We've reached the Himalayas.