Three Days in Northern India

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Thankfully Arriving in India

After such a long arduous process getting my visa, sitting down in my seat on the Indigo plane bound for Delhi elicited a huge sigh of relief. IndiGo is a no-frills airline. No food provided other than that offered for sale, which caught me a little off guard on the 3-hour flight. Thankfully I had some snacks with me. Arriving at the Indira Ghandi International Airport, I made my way through immigration. For each slow second the immigration officer held my passport, I’m sure I started to hold my breath lest something be wrong. After telling me I stole his heart, he let me in to India.

Mr. Joseph, a very dark skinned, rotund, soft-spoken Indian gentleman was waiting for me holding a green sign with M.J. in very large letters. Not easy to miss and very welcoming. From that moment on I began taking in all the sights and sounds, and trying not to get overwhelmed. Driving to the diplomatic enclave from the international terminal of the airport is just a short trip and doesn’t really expose one to the realities of Delhi life beyond the traffic.

Arriving at my friend’s house, I was greeted warmly by Pravati (the housekeeper) and the amazing smell of a turkey roasting. Rebecca had planned a full-fledged Thanksgiving dinner, complete with all the fixings and the company of friends. Joining us for dinner was 4 of their friends. The engaging and interesting conversation, shared over glasses of wine and terrific food, lasted well into the evening.

I was truly thankful to at last be in India with my friends!

One Day in Amritsar

Traveling to Amritsar was a nice way to ease into India culture. Amritsar is a small town near the India-Pakistan border in Punjab. The main offering for tourists is the Golden Temple and the proximity to the border to attend the nightly border closing ceremony at Wagha.

Rakesh, our driver for the day, cheerfully met us at the airport and piled us into the car. Diving into traffic that more closely resembled the images I had in my head of India traffic, Rakesh skillfully made his way to Mrs. Bhandari’s Guest House. Built as an estate in 1953 by Mr. Bhandari, the grounds exudes the feel of what was once an exquisite residence. A main building of brick covered in Ivy was the main house. Several smaller buildings have been converted into bungalows for visitors. All of this surrounded by lush green and separated from the bustling traffic by a thick brick wall.

Hard to say if the decor of the guest rooms is maintained in such a way that is meant to evoke the feeling of faded elegance or if it just hasn’t been upgraded since it was built. The green paint, pale on the top and dark on the bottom, looks as though it has been privy to the conversations of past. The beds were solid but cozy. The pink bathroom adorned with ancient-looking tiles and a dark pink claw foot tub with a basic shower fed by a small water heater. An oil-filled heater provided the only source of heat, replacing the now defunct fireplace.

The immaculately kept grounds boasted some swings and other playground type equipment, made out of wood and painted green and white, meticulous gardens that I am sure are stunning during the warm season when the flowers are in bloom, a swimming pool filled with very cold water and a huge vegetable garden. We took our breakfast on the large patio area, the muffled sounds of traffic and sunlight filtering through the light haze of morning fog accompanying us.

After our breakfast we headed off to the Golden Temple, the first stop of our whirlwind trip to Amritsar. Sitting in the front seat I was able to take it all in. The cars, cows, horse-drawn carts, bicycles and electric tuk tuks filling the streets. From the parking area to the Golden Temple was a short walk through a market. Heading into the temple were the hockers offering to sell the head scarves required by all visitors to the temple, across the street were hockers selling postcards to those leaving the temple. Shop keepers along the way attempting to draw people into their shops.

Shoes checked in at the entrance and heads covered with our newly acquired blue Golden Temple scarves, we walked through the shallow and surprising warm pool of water to cleanse our feet and entered the temple. The Golden Temple is at the center of an artificial lake large (Amrit Sarovar) representing the Pool of Immortality-Giving Nectar. Surrounding the pool are white buildings on three sides and a red brick building at the east end, the Ramgarhia Minars. Devout visitors descended the stairs and immediately prostrated themselves saying their prayers. At the edge of the pool, more devout visitors would descend one or two of the three steps to splash themselves with water, ending with a handful poured over their head in a symbolic cleansing. More devout worshipers opted to take a holy dip in the lake after stripping down to their skivies. Women had the choice of two shelters in which to take their holy dip and the men had a screen to change behind. The loud speakers playing the constant reading of the Adi Granth, the Sikh holy text as visitors circumambulate the temple.

The Golden Temple is a beautiful spectacle. The gold shining in the bright sun, reflecting into the still blue waters of the pool surrounding it such that it looks like it is floating on the water. Joining the devout and other tourists, we began our circumambulating going clockwise, as is the custom, stopping to take pictures and watch the people. We skipped the trip into the temple building itself, as the incredibly long line was such that only the devout worshipers would take the 2 or more hours that it would probably require to reach the building. Much more moving and interesting than the temple was our tour of the Guru-ka-Langar’s cooking operations.

All Sikh temples have a Guru-ka-Langar (large communal canteen) designed to serve all that want to eat. Meals are simple: dahl, chipatis and chai tea; served on metal trays and taken sitting on the floor in a large communal room to remind that all people are equal. The meals are free (donations are appreciated). The kitchen at the Golden Temple feeds an estimated 60,000-80,000 people each day. The constant sound of metal plates clanging together greeted us as we entered the eating area. Also greeting us was a kindly old gentleman that led us on a behind the scenes tour of the kitchen. Which was really quite amazing and was worth the 500 rupee “tip” that Mark payed him at the conclusion of the tour.

The tour started in the main room where the chipatis are made by machine. A large mixer stirs the flour and water to form a simple dough which is then poured into a machine where the continuous stream of chipati are cut and cooked, 24-hours a day. The large rollers flatten the dough into a solid sheet about 0.5 centimeters thick. The dough is passed under the ever rotating cutting wheel with perfectly round circles to make consistently shaped chipati. At the end of the first part of the machine sit two volunteers charged with making sure the dough circles separate from the whole sheet and are fed perfectly flat onto the conveyor belt leading to the cooking part of the machine and the scrap dough is fed back up to the start of the machine to travel through again and again. The chipati pass through the machine three times on metal grates over an open gas flame. At the end, the chipati are gathered and taken to women that flatten and stack them.

Next it was on to kitchen where the dahl and tea is made. On the way, we passed by the flour storehouses, where the bulk flour is sifted into bags that is then taken to the kitchens. The dahl kitchen has an area where more chipati are cooked using a more manual process. Women roll out perfectly shaped dough balls into perfectly round shapes using a brick stone and rolling pin. These circles of dough are then taken to smaller ovens where they are cooked. Our target was the large vats of dahl. Each metal vat, measuring approximately 5′ in diameter, had its own mixing paddle. We took turns attempting to stir the delicious smelling very thick mixture. Definitely a good way to build arm muscles as I could barely move the mixture.

Claiming our shoes and leaving the temple, we braved the onslaught of hawkers offering us postcards and plastic trinkets. Passing by these people, we took a meal at a local restaurant and braved some of the established shops. Finally, desiring a break from the heat and constant honking and yelling, we took a short stop.

The other claim to fame of Amritsar is Jllianwalla Bagh, the site of a massacre that was the catalyst of Mahatma Ghandi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. In 1919, despite a ban on public assemblies, a mass demonstration was called by Mahatm Ghandi. An estimated 20,000 people attended the demonstration, gathering on small area of land surrounded by high brick walls with only a few small alleyways providing access. Major Dyer, a British officer, ordered his troops to opened fire on the unarmed crowd. Firing over 1,650 rounds, an estimated 2,000 were killed either by bullets or by diving into the well. The park has been established as a memorial for the victims of this atrocity. The walls still bear the scars of bullet holes. The park itself provides a peaceful and solemn respite from the crowds and traffic of Amritsar.

Off again into Amritsar traffic, we headed for the border at Wagha approximately 40 km outside of town for the border crossing ceremony. This daily spectacle of pomp and circumstance is attended by thousands on each side of the border. The fervor is that of a football (soccer) match between two rival teams. Outside the grandstands, kids offer to paint the India flag on your cheeks to show your spirit. Other hawkers abound offering DVDs of the ceremony or water. Inside the grandstands, the attendees on each side of the border attempt to out cheer, out dance and generally show their patriotic spirit for their country, all set to loud music blaring on the speakers. The India side spectacle included running up and down the streets with flags and groups of people filling the street between the large grandstands to dance to Bollywood tunes.

As the sun is starting to sink behind the Pakistan grandstands, the true pomp and circumstance of the the ceremony begins. The guards in their khaki and red uniforms, complete with white spats and hats with bright red fans atop, are the central part of the ceremony. The ceremony itself is a combination of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace crossed with Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks skit (look it up on YouTube if you have no idea what I am talking about). Flashy, synchronized goose-stepping and posturing punctuate the ceremony. Guards in precisely timed fashion march to the gate, their foot reaching their head on each step in a demonstration of agility and flexibility. Squaring off with their Pakistani counterpart, shoulders are squared and hats adjusted in theatrical antics. Once the gates are flung open, the process of lowering the flags begins. Flag bearers and a bugler march forward and take their places. The flags are lowered the same amount in a precisely synchronized manner to the playing of a bugle. Once the flags are lowered all the way, the flags are folded and paraded down the street as the gates are slammed shut.

The service at Mrs. Bhandari’s Guest House was impeccable. Well attended to by our very own employee, we wanted for nothing. From the big details of adapting to our request to sit outside despite the chill in the morning air and making sure our breakfast was ready at 7 so we could depart for Dharamsala by 8, to the little details of putting hot water bottles in our beds while we were out site seeing. Climbing into the warm bed with the thick comforter made for a very peaceful and solid night’s sleep after such a long full day.

Village of Happiness

We started out for Dharamsala, specifically McLeod Ganj, early in the morning. The driver that picked us up had half the personality of Rakesh, polite and austere with his clean van and its grass-emulating indoor-outdoor carpet. After 6 hours of traveling on narrow often bumpy roads through flat countryside and up mountains, we arrived at McLeod Ganj. Strangely, of all the driving in India that could bother me, it was only the passing on blind curves as we made the ascent to McLeod Ganj that made me wince.

McLeod Ganj is a picturesque little village nestled against the mountain offering great views of the Trans-Himalayan mountains, the little brothers of the Himalaya range that lie to the east. Several of the 18,000 foot peaks are visible from the town, including the highest mountain, Hanuman Ka Tibba, standing majestically at 18,500 feet (5639 meters). Waking up both mornings to the view of the magnificent peak from my bed was incredible and peaceful.

At an elevation of 6,831 feet (2082 meters) the air is thin and clear, offering a lovely respite from the smoggy Delhi air. Perhaps it is because McLeod Ganj is home to the Dali Lama and many refugees, or because it is a small mountain town, the general feel of the town is much different. Most significantly, the general spirit of the village is one of happiness. The essence of happiness pervades the town, visible on the faces of young and old as they visit and joke and live life and the smiles that could be easily elicited by nodding the head in a greeting and smiling. The best line that sums this sentiment up was a statement made by John, the owner of a rock shop, at the end of bartering over a piece of lapis lazuli I had found: “Money is not important. It comes and goes. Happiness is what is most important.”

Our time in McLeod Ganj was spent split between walking up and down the steep hill to the shops, going on several longer walks and just enjoying the company of good friends. Our hotel, 8 Auspicious Him View Hotel, was a lovely hotel with an amazing view. The owner was a lovely and kind, gentle spoken woman. We were greeted with hot Ginger-Honey-Lemon tea and welcomed to our comfortable rooms. The only drawback was where it was situated on the hill relative to the town. The first half of the climb up to town was extremely steep, putting significant strain on our leg muscles. At least it was good exercise, an excuse that could be believable the first 3 times during a day but became less consoling with each additional ascent. Going down the hill was not much better, as the strain put on the knees and legs during a descent is actually worse. By the end of our last day there, my knee (the good one) locked up twice on our way back to the hotel.

In addition to climbing up and down the hill into town, our legs got their workout by going on a couple of small hikes. The first was to the waterfall just outside of Bagshua, about a 5 km walk round trip. The pleasant walk was along paved roads and pathways, making it an easy climb. At the waterfall, I was the only one that ventured out onto the rocks to take a better view. Being dry season, the water was light in volume but it was still pretty. Above the top of the waterfall, several prayer flags were strung. Just looking at the geology of the area was very cool, emphasizing the reality of how the Himalaya were formed when the two tectonic plates slammed into each other. The second walk was to a church about 1 km out of town. As the sun was quickly setting we almost gave up hope of finding it. As we rounded the last curve (before we were going to turn around since the prospect of walking back on the curvy mountain road with cars and motorbikes passing by at high speeds in the dark was one we didn’t relish), we found it. While the church itself was closed up, we did spend some time looking at the moss covered, long forgotten gravestones.

After two days of shopping in McLeod Ganj, I decided that Mark is a bad influence on my spending money. Bartering is not my strong suit, although this trip I managed to do pretty well. Sometimes it is worth it, other times it feels ridiculous that I am haggling over $0.50-1.00 (although over time that does add up). Ultimately, I was happy with what I spent on not 1, but 2 new singing bowls and a few rocks. All items that will elicit great memories of the time spent with my friends in this quaint mountain town.

On our departure, each of us was given a blessing scarf by the hotel owner and sent on our way to the airport for our trip back to the smog and hustle and bustle that is Delhi.

My Very Own Paparazzi

Blonde-red hair and light skin draw significant attention in a country of dark hair, dark skinned people. For some reason that I haven’t quite yet figured out, people are fascinated to have their picture taken with strangers that are Caucasians. Some people attempt to sneak a picture, most often just walking by with their phone cameras up or taking a picture of something near where I am standing. Others just came up and asked for “just one photo ma’am”. I never turned down a request, as the joy it brings them to have their picture taken with me is contagious and always leaves me wearing a broad smile with a happy heart.

Photo taking sessions were never “just one photo”. Often it was 2 or 3 or 10, just depending on how many people were in the group. Each person wanted their turn to stand next to me, so cameras were handed off to friends so the original photographer could take their place next to me. School groups became a whole tangle of giggling girls and shy boys vying for their spot. Families wanted photos with various iterations of their family including successively more generations with each photo.

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