Thursday, June 14, 2007

Guest Starring Yev Part Dva

On Wednesday night we flew to Delhi to begin our North Indian adventure, through Amritsar and Agra. In Delhi we saw a gorgeous Muslim tomb built by one of the rulers from the same family line that built the Taj Mahal, and due to the steamy temperature of 47 C (117 F), it was empty- Not one visitor. Now mind you it was a Thursday, possibly during Muslim prayers and the heat was around 117F. However, it was completely empty. Arguably one of the top three tourist destinations in Delhi, not to mention the city itself is 20 million people strong, and we were there all alone, except for the couple of “guides” that followed us around and attempted to tell the history of the place for a tip. I finally acquiesced to one and learned all about the place for a mere 20 rupees, or US 50c. Well worth it.

We capped off the day with a trip to Barista Coffee. Think Starbucks, but with coffee that isn’t burned and without the smell of trendy yuppie elitists emanating from the overpriced coffee. In fact it’s a very nice, very clean chain that sells coffee, smoothies, shakes, snacks and desserts. We had cold coffee drinks, made by adding ice cream not ice (since you can’t drink the water and the ice doesn’t have a manufacturer seal so it’s a bit dodgy), with some awesome chocolate cake. It was yummy and helped us forget that the outside temperature was hotter than any square inch of the US at any point during that week.

The next day we got up early to take a 7am train to Amritsar in Punjab by the Pakistan border, the home of the Sikh religion. Trains in India are a bit scary. Even the US newspapers report on accidents, terrorist acts and general mishaps that befall the Indian rail system. But it’s a hell of a lot cheaper that taking air, and is financially accessible to some more of the other 99% of the country’s population that cannot afford to fly. Except for the fact that the five hour train ride turned into almost seven, which should not be possible given there is no traffic, the train was pleasant and our first class air conditioned cabin was, indeed, air conditioned.

In Amritsar we stayed at the top rated hotel. It was $40 a night, had about half a dozen small lizards crawling around the walls of our room, had their own cattle for milking and the cold water was a frosty 95F. Needless to say, we weren’t in Kansas anymore. But our hotel also had air conditioning in the room, endless refrigerated bottles of water and pepsi and an attentive staff that was available all day and night.

We shared the car to the hotel with a couple from Israel, Naama(sp?) and Ibrahim, and their Turkish friend, Jack. Not sure whether they were Palestinian or Jewish and not wanting to cause another international incident at the India/Pakistan border, we hopped around the subject of Juddaism for a while, until it came out that all three of them, including the Turkish guy, were Jewish. They were nice enough and we spent the rest of the evening with them carpooling to the Pakistan border (where we joked that we really didn’t want to get lost and end up on the wrong side of the border, especially the Israelis, who are literally not allowed into Pakistan) dinner at the hotel and walking around the golden temple.

Amritsar is well known for two things, their nightly border ceremony with Pakistan, as seen on National Geographic and PBS, and the golden temple- the most sacred site in the Sikh faith.

The border crossing was cool for one reason, and one reason only; we were a stone’s throw away from Pakistan. Do you remember that episode of the Simpsons where Homer is in Australia at the US embassy, and he jumps from inside to outside of the gates, yelling “America, Australia, America, Australia…?” I kind of felt like that. There was this fence that split the land as far as the eye could see. There was no difference in the way the land looked, but just on the other side of that fence was Pakistan, a country that carries with it very negative connotation of safety, personal freedoms and general individual rights. Not to mention that our friend Osama probably lives somewhere within its borders, or possibly in Portland (it’s hard to tell). Anyway, I thought that it would be great fun to jump from one side to the other yelling “India, Pakistan, India, Pakistan…”, but just like Homer in that episode, I would have been punched in the face and dragged off. Another international incident averted by television.

The rest of the ceremony was quite frankly lame. Some crowd chants, some music playing, some marching, an eventual lowering of the flags as the border closed with the same importance as a convenience store, and that’s about it. Oh it was also hot, really hot, and the fact that we were sitting on concrete benches didn’t help. I tried starting the wave but no one else was into it. I should have jumped up and done a Bollywood dance routine, but alas I’m white and don’t have much of a groove.

The golden temple on the other hand was breathtaking. I never knew that Sikhs were tremendous showmen, but there you go. They built this temple shrine in the middle of a lake, now an aquamarine pool with giant goldfish swimming around and Sikhs bathing in the holy water. Then they coated the outside walls with gold and lit it up like a Christmas tree. Needless to say, at night it’s amazing. Also there is a ceremony where the sacred text is carried out of the temple into storage on a golden throne every night, so the place is pretty much packed with people from sunrise to well past sunset. Within five minutes of arriving I was approached by an Indian-English Sikh. Interesting fellow, he was there on a two-month externship at a local hospital. He is a medical student back home in Norwich, and recently went gung-ho into being Sikh. He spent the next hour fielding my questions (ranging from “how do you fly with that knife around your neck?” to “how did your parents react when you decided to do this?”) and in general praising the Sikh faith. It was like a walking Wikipedia entry, although without the benefit of others objecting to the level of bias. To summarize his opinion on the subject, Sikhs are good, Sikhism is good, and as any decent minority they have been persecuted in India for generations. He also showed me into the special queue to help carry the book on its thrown as it was carried out of the temple. And, I had my shirt wrapped around my head the whole time, since you have to cover your head in Sikh temples.

After jumping the train back to Delhi, our next destination was Agra and the Taj Mahal. We got a car to drive us from Delhi to the Oberoi hotel. The hotel was awesome. The room faced the Taj, the service was top notch, and they even got us an anniversary cake. The next day we actually went to the Taj Mahal. We got there at 5:45am, and waited in line until 6am when it opened. It was worth it. Our pictures were tourist-free and the Taj really is an amazing architectural achievement. We sat on the bench immediately in front of the Taj and watched tourists take ridiculous pictures for an hour, and put the “we’ll take your picture for $5” hawkers out of business by taking pictures of people for free (muahaha). Ashley had about 5000 pictures taken of her in her sari by Indians who were fascinated by the strange specimen of a white girl in a sari. Inside the lights were off and it seemed very bland and uninspiring, but from a distance it really is remarkable (see the pictures for yourself).

A ten-day adventure was capped by the crown jewel of Indian history and architectural splendor. I was ready to go home and away from garbage on the streets. I missed fresh fruits and vegetables, the ability to brush my teeth using tap water and driving down the street without fearing for my life. But overall, I now appreciate my modern conveniences and the easy flow of life in California more than ever.

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