My North Indian tour has brought me from the home of the Sikhs to the land of the Hindus and I was able to catch a glimpse of Pakistan along the way. I was reluctant to leave the Golden Temple, with its friendly people and free food, but the road (or railway) beckons.
I was able to meet and get to know many Indians during my time in Amritsar thanks to the Golden Temple being a hassle-free zone, and one man, Paran, made a particular impression on me. After he finished with the usual round of "questioning the foreigner", I turned the table and interrogated him. After a little prying I learned that he was unemployed, has lived in Amritsar his entire life, and eats at the Temple every day because he has no money for food. I asked him where he learned to speak English, since it is usually a sign of high caste or education, and he told me that he graduated from a university with a computing degree, but it is very difficult to find work right now. He was obviously embarrassed by his financial position, but he brightened up when he said that he was planning to become a tour guide, using his English to show foreigners around the city. As he stood up to leave, I realized that 1) he was not a scam artist 2) he needed help and money 3) I needed a guide to get to the Pakistani border. So I made a proposition; I would pay him 150 Rupees ($3) to accompany me to the border with Pakistan as my guide. Most tourists hire a taxi to take them to the border and then back to Amritsar, which costs 600 Rupees. The public bus system in rural India is very cheap, only 50 Rupees to the border and back, but it is not easy for a foreigner to navigate because the signs are in Punjabi and Hindi and the drivers don't speak English. So my guide would be make more than the average day's wage in one afternoon and I would save some cash and get to see more of the Indian country-side.
This raises a legitimate and pertinent question; why was I so intent on getting to the Pakistani border? I have no interest in visiting Pakistan at this time, and I can't since I don't have a visa. So why go to the border only to turn around and go back? To join the border closing ceremony/party/nationalistic pep-rally, of course. The border crossing near Amritsar is the only open point between the two giant nations of India and Pakistan, who have perennially bad relations and a disputed border in Kashmir. Each evening both nations put on a big nationalistic show to crowds of people on each side as they ceremonially close the border. There are bleachers, food vendors, speakers blaring Hindi pop music, and even a charismatic MC to rally the crowd. All in all it is one of the most bizarre gatherings I have ever seen. Luckily I had my guide, Paran, to translate and explain some of the happenings, but such things defy a rational explanation. Maybe my photos will illustrate the scene better, but they are distant and vague. I have some videos that I will try to post, if I can figure out how.
It was fascinating to see the crowds of cheering spectators shouting "Long Live India!" while another large crowd on the other side of the fence yelled "Long Live Pakistan!". The border guards had an elaborate succession of marches, which amounted to a hyper-masculine display of nationalism and power. Finally, the flags were lowered, the gate was closed, and the crowd dispersed. Weird, but an interesting insight into how these two countries, which were originally one under the British, now deal with each other. I also was able to help out Paran, who was more enthusiastic than ever about become a tour guide, but I know he helped me out more because I would have probably ended up stranded in some remote village had he not been there to lead the way.
Now I am in Rishikesh; a Hindu holy city on the Ganges river in the foothills of the Himalayas where cows, white hippies with dreadlocks, wild monkeys, and Hindu swamis roam the streets. This is the place where the Beatles came to study meditation and yoga with the Maharishi in the '60s and now it is the "yoga capital of the world".
The setting is beautiful; the Ganges is clear and fast flowing between the lush green mountains. Also the air is relatively free of India's ubiquitous pollution and the streets are more pedestrian friendly. I can't say I'm smitten with the place, it wreaks too much of "spiritual commercialism". By this I mean a lot of rich kids and retirees come here to pay people to "enlighten" them, or they at least buy enough cool Indian clothes and trinkets to convince their friends back home that they have become enlightened. Regardless, it is a nice place to hang out and relax for a few days. Today I had a nice hike to a waterfall with many encounters with curious monkeys. I'm sure I would enjoy this place much more if I were staying in one of the many ashrams or taking a yoga course, but I must keep moving.
I am leaving tomorrow for Haridware and then Jaipur where I will join a ten day meditation retreat. Afterwards I will visit Varanasi, which is one of Hinduisms holiest cities. But in the meantime, I will try to avoid terrorists and their deadly antics.