Once across the Indian border, I doubled back to observe the gate closing ceremony that is held here daily, around sunset. This ceremony was really quite absurd. On either side of the border, both India and Pakistan have built up small stadiums where thousands of patriots can gather to support their country throughout the event. Since the two countries haven’t always been the best of friends, during this ceremony, it becomes a contest about who can cheer the loudest, all while their soldiers romp around with precise high stepping – culminating in a stare down at the border. I couldn’t understand at all what they were saying, but they were undoubtedly patriotic cheers. I’ve never seen such pomp and saber-rattling, especially by people pouring in to a relative nowhere by the busload to wave flags and exhaust their voice. There was a special section for foreigners that gave a better view, but things were still a bit difficult to see. After about an hour of this, the gates were secured and it was time to move on.
Here are a few clips of the event.
A 30km taxi ride brought me to the historic city of Amritsar, located north of Delhi. The main draw of this city is the Hari Mandir, also known as the Golden Temple. This is the holiest site among in the Sihk religion, with one visit equivalent to a 68 monument pilgrimage of ‘normal’ sites. I had really wanted to see this place, and was the primary reason for abandoning my return flight from Pakistan to stay here for a night. Something about seeing people passionate about different religions is fascinating to me, and seeing it in such a devout form is best. The taxi dropped me off near the temple, where I was able to take free lodging in the pilgrim’s quarters. There was a special nook for foreigners so I was among my own kind, but were still in the midst of the thousands of people who had come. That evening, before going to the temple I joined two other travelers for dinner, one named Amy, and a deaf/mute guy named Peter. I can’t imagine how he would travel alone without those two senses, but with gestures and a notebook we could communicate well enough. It was during this meal that I realized I’m not crazy about Indian food, and could scarcely convert my hunger into the ability to finish even half of what I ordered. Following dinner, Amy and I went to the Golden Temple to see the evening prayer and ceremonial transfer of the holy book. Sikhism is a religion that is accepting of all other religions as a basic human right, even if they differ on doctrine. As such, we were more than welcome to make our way into this holy place. Since I couldn’t understand any of what they were really doing, I can only comment on the ambiance. This lavish temple is in fact coated with gold plating, not gold leaf. I cannot fathom the value of the gold used in the construction. The inside was no less opulent, with every possible surface covered in beautiful painting and ornate decoration. While I was admiring the interior, there were hundreds of people cycling though the temple, with many reading their daily prayers along with the head priest, a thrice daily mandate among the devout. They were ominously and monotonously recited, while accompanied by some simple instruments. At the end of the day, the enormous book he was reading from was wrapped in countless sheets of cloth, placed in a litter, and then carried somewhere for safekeeping till it would be read from again at 3am the next day. After that, we walked on back to the sleeping quarters where I without a bed slept on the floor.
The next morning, I awoke early to take in as much as possible before my early afternoon flight to meet Kanako. The first part of my day was a return to the temple, to enjoy it in the light. The morning sun striking the gold was beautiful. I walked around, observing pilgrims bathing in the holy water and praying, and also took time to look at the museum of Sikh history. This museum primarily housed paintings of famous people and events from the Sikh timeline, none of which I recognized. Odd were the gruesome depictions of seemingly every person martyred for the faith. There were a few people there as well, who laughingly drew the comparison to me and some white people executing Indians in a painting. Then, I motioned towards artillery shells and reminded them of the three wars they have already fought with Pakistan. Generally though, I didn’t understand any of what I was looking at, or why I should care about it. My last stop was to the mess hall, where food is provided free of charge to anyone. So, I sat on the floor, surrounded by brown and turbaned peers, and had my steel compartmental plate filled with different colors and consistencies of gruel. I was tentative to dig in, but it actually was probably the best Indian meal that I had the whole trip. Sated and happy, I gathered my things from my room and made one last stop before heading to the airport. At a nearby park named Jalianwala Bagh, I was able to retrace where in 1919 the British forces opened fire on a crowd of Indians without warning, killing hundreds. I saw the remaining bullet marks, and the well into which many jumped to their death in hopes of avoiding the gunfire. It wasn’t such a somber place for me, but I knew it gave great impetus to the independence movement in the following years. Finally, I took a rickshaw to the airport, from which I would go back to Delhi. The original plan was for Kanako to meet me at that point, but she had some issues getting there, so I was only met by my host Ollie.
For my time in Delhi, the two of us would be staying with the Starbuck family. Ollie is one of the new crop of teachers who came to Kagawa this year. While originally from Britain, his family had been living in Delhi for the last 11 years due to his dad’s work with the World Bank. It was immediately clear to me that having a Western salary in India made for a good life, and numerous servants. It was my first time to experience hired help, and it was certainly something I could get used to. After some introductions, I took my first shower in a few days. Since Kanako wouldn’t be coming around till late that night, we had the afternoon to do some shopping and sightseeing. We didn’t get too in-depth with either, but we saw some government buildings and India Gate. Our first shopping stop was Khan Market, where we were walked around some stores aimed at Westerners, and ate some of the most amazing Kebabs I have ever had. Also, we explored an underground market loaded with stolen, ‘lost’ and counterfeit goods, all at expectantly reasonable prices. We each got something or another and headed back for dinner. Prepared for us by the cooking wonder Manisha was a spaghetti dish, garlic bread, salad and apple pie for desert. Rather than wasting our time cleaning and cooking, we spent it actually talking over and after dinner; the benefits of cheap labor have never been more apparent to me. After a while, it was time to fetch Kanako, so the driver brought us back to the airport around midnight where I found her. Sleep followed shortly, she being dead from the flight and I from the previous night’s concrete floor.
The next day, we had the driver for a few hours to show us around some of the sites in Delhi. We didn’t have too much time, but the weather was perfect and we saw a couple picturesque tombs. First was Safdarjung’s Tomb, which while nice was undergoing some sort of reconstruction. Also, we never intended to go there in the first place, it just looked similar to a picture we showed the driver. We got it right the second time, where we saw the grandly built Tomb of Hamayun. This was a UNESCO site and bore all the red sandstone and white marble representative of the Mughal Emperor who commissioned it. After that, Kanako was itching to shop so the driver took us to a market. Here, they could smell how green we were to the country and nearly extorted us out of a lot of money. Fortunately I had a mind to call Ollie to run the prices past him. I learned we were about to pay more than three times a normal price for inferior quality goods. From there, it was back to home before going to the Dilli Hat Market with Mrs. Starbuck, where Kanako bought a gorgeous blue sari and I found some handsome pashminas. Then to home for a chicken pie before getting settled for bed. Because we had arranged to go to Jaipur at 6am the next day, we hit the sack just a bit earlier.
The next day, we woke bright and early to ride a cab to the station. But, as foreigners we were directed to a special kiosk, one that was closed for another two hours. So after navigating the corpses all strewn about the station floor, we had to go to an office at a separate location, only to be told that the train tickets had been sold out. Fantastic. We were still able to book a taxi to make the trip to Jaipur, one of the three cities comprising the ‘Golden Triangle’ (Delhi, Jaipur & Agra). We were in a pinch, having already booked our return flight, were left with no other options. It was alright though, we really did want to go there. So, we loaded up and set out on a four hour drive, down to the ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur. Along the way, the taxi driver stopped at an extremely overpriced restaurant, relative to the quality of the food. Then, when we wanted him to take us to a cheap hotel, he opts for much more expensive one, justifying it by claiming it was conveniently located. Wrong, it was on the outskirts of town, so I’m sure he got some kickback for that referral. Then of course, he was asking for some gratuity for his services.
The hotel was decent, and did have a nice view of the desert, but was located inconveniently far from most of the famous sites. We boarded a rickshaw towards the city, only stopping to photograph the Jal Mahal – a palace built out in the middle of a lake. In the city there were a number of places to go, so we started at the City Palace. There was some nice architecture here, but since we couldn’t really go inside and do anything, it remained rather uninteresting. Next, we went to the Jantar Mantar, the largest of five astrological observatories build in the 1700s. I didn’t understand any of the contraptions, nor did I care enough to hire a guide to make it more digestible, so instead we just walked around and posed for pictures in front of the odd geometric instruments. Next was the Hawa Mahal, or the Palace of the Breeze. From here, women were able to look down at people on the street, hidden from view by the latticed windows. Not that they were stalkers, but back in the day women couldn’t be walking the streets and this served as their window to the outside world. We spent the rest of the afternoon fending off the viciously persistent peddlers, and perusing some wares.
The Palace of the Breeze, for obvious reasons.
Around 6:00pm, we lined up at a the Raj Mandir, a famous movie theater where we watched a Bollywood movie. They only had one screen so the selection was an easy one. Together, we would be enjoying Don 2, an action movie about a bank heist. It was 99% in Hindi, but it had all the elements of a classic action movie so filling in the blanks wasn’t too difficult. Most notable about Bollywood are the singing and dancing scenes that are always included, and also the audience reactions to the film. Humor was met with wild laughter, the appearance of the protagonist or one of his action scenes with raucous applause, anything that propagated the love story got a ‘WoooOOOOooo!’, and lastly any foes were met with hissing. It was a much more vibrant movie experience than the Western version of complete silence. After the movie, we finished the day at a nice restaurant called Niros. I wasn’t hungry or anything, but Kanako was fiending for their Tandoori Chicken. On the way, some guy started talking to us about how he was a puppeteer and his dad had been to Japan to promote the craft. After a while, he gave us each one of his dolls as a gift, though he kept lingering while we were waiting to be seated. He started saying that though it was a gift, it would be nice if we could spare something. He claimed them as being about 20 dollars each. I didn’t really want them that bad at all, so I decided I could spare 2 dollars for the cause. A little later, some guy came up trying to sell us the exact same thing for about 3 dollars each. Kanako was getting really superstitious about them, thinking they would bring back luck and such, so I hunted down our friend and reversed the transaction. I felt stupid for letting him con me, even with my low-balling, but at least I got things back to normal. The dinner that followed was alright, I only nibbled at her food though. Finally we took the long and icy cold rickshaw ride to the hotel before some sweet, sweet sleep.
The next morning, we had a continental breakfast. I knew that if I ate enough, I wouldn’t have to waste my money on lunch, so I ate about 8 pieces of toast and jam. Then we took off to the Amber fort, easily the highlight of the city. It is a massive fort and castle complex situated on a mountain with scenic views in every direction. Generally tourists ride elephants up to the top, but we arrived a little late and had to settle for some black market pachyderm action. The price was the same, just a little shorter and less scenic, but we did at least get to ride it and take pictures with it, which is usually banned. Most importantly Kanako was really happy with the chance to ride the sway of this lumbering beast.
Elephants are incredibly large yet gentle creatures.
Once up at the fort, we just walked around and took some photos, did some shopping and just enjoyed the scene. Eventually time got away from us and we realized that we needed to leave to the airport right away. We were able to convey the urgency to the rickshaw driver, which translated into the most insane ride I’ve ever taken on a motorized vehicle. We made it just fine, on time and alive, and arrived back in Delhi on New Year’s Eve just in time to sit down to another nice meal, this time lasagna.
With the Amber Fort in the background.
While there were initially great hopes and expectations for celebrating the New Year in Delhi, I was informed there was no central gathering such as in Times Square. Also, going to a club would cost a minimum of 80 dollars a head – a bit prohibitive. Most problematic though was Kanako, who had decided to fall ill and ruin everything… We did manage some fireworks on the front lawn, and then went to one Ollie’s mate’s house. He had a name I couldn’t hope to remember, but was always called Hamster. Basically, this kid had the most incredible house I have ever seen, adequately showing the wealth of India’s super elite and the size of the gap between the upper and middle classes. The house was massive by worldly standards, and as well decorated & outfitted as any I’ve ever seen. Also, to address the changing privacy needs of their oldest son and his family, they simply added an additional 2 floor penthouse on top of the existing structure! We made it through New Year’s, drank our champagne, and then I escorted the lady home.
The next day was our trip to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. I had already breached my budget threshold, but to go to India and not see the Taj Mahal would be considered madness by all of my peers. Not only that, but reports on the structural integrity of the Taj suggests that it may not stand for another 5 years due to a rotting foundation; it’s best to take the chance while I’ve got it. So, we had another early cab ride, this time about 5 hours long, before we finally reached Agra. We only had about 4 hours to see everything we could, which should be good enough. First of course was the Taj Mahal, where we as foreigners had to pay 750 Rupees compared to the Indian rate of 20 Rupees. This to me is racist, and completely unnecessary. The cost of us enjoying the monument is no different than that of an Indian; it seems more more like theft. Besides, foreigners only comprise about 10% of all visitors. After a hassle getting into the complex, Kanako wanted to wear the sari she bought. We were able to find someone kind enough to help her into it, and then it was picture time. Problem was that everyone wanted a picture with her simply because she was a foreigner, who was with another blonde foreigner, while wearing Indian traditional clothing. So, we wasted literally an hour of taking ‘just one more’ picture with each of India’s 1 billion+ citizens. Meanwhile, she hadn’t quite gotten the shot she was looking for, so she didn’t want to take it off yet, so the requests wouldn’t stop either. I started getting really annoyed, as our time was just washing away. Finally, we called it good, she removed it, and we went on into the main room of the Taj.
The result of our endless photoshoot
Inside, it was supposed to be some quiet point of reverence, but everyone was talking and taking photos. After that, it was a race for the exit. Time was ticking and the rest of the buildings on site didn’t really interest us any. From there, we hopped over to the Agra Fort. This UNESCO site too was a fort and castle complex, and also built out of fantastic, towering sandstone walls. From one of the ramparts, was a wonderful view of the Taj Mahal. We walked around for a bit before finally heading back to the cab and going home. This time, there was a lot of traffic on the road, and we didn’t reach our destination until 11pm. Still, it was a very worthwhile outing.
One of the outer walls of Agra Fort
The next morning was intended as our last, with our flights departing at around midnight. So for out last day we chose to sleep in for once, and then go shopping in Old Delhi. These are the oldest parts of the city where we could find a lot of specialized markets. I especially wanted to go to the spice market, to see piles and piles of India’s various spices. We sampled a few, and I walked out with some cloves, vanilla beans, Masala tea and cinnamon bark.
We also strolled through clothing and jewelry streets. Silver was reasonably priced but I was running too low on cash to front for the bracelet I liked. After a bit more walking, we stopped at a food market to get some of the souvenirs that is essentially expected of us back home. Back at the homestead, we ate our last meal with the family. Some amazing fried chicken, chips (french fries) and profiteroles for dessert. Then we had to pack up all of our new toys and head to the airport.
The family, Pintu (dog) and us.
As usual, air travel can’t go without a hitch for me and I had a 23 hour 20 minute delay. I was put up in a nice hotel and such, but I missed a day of work for which I don’t have any remaining vacation days. Without a buffer, I had to take a direct blow to the paycheck, despite that I was only going to sit at my desk and write as I am now. Finally they got us to Beijing, where I had to wait about 6 hours before they could get me on a connecting flight. I just stood the whole time at one of the free internet terminals and played solitaire. When I had finally gone through the gate, and was standing on the shuttle bus that would take me to the plane, I realized I forgot a bag in a bathroom. Despite Last Call having come and gone, they let me run to the opposite side of the airport to retrieve it. I made it back in time, but I was so physically dead. In my flurry, I left my passport at the gate too, but that eventually met me at the airplane. It was really just a big amateur moment that fortunately panned out without any major problems. After a lot of sleeping, and talking to interesting people on the flight, I was really quite pleased to be back in my own icy cold bed. Makita Sensei was kind enough to pick me up when I arrived in Takamatsu after midnight, lest I have no way to my home in the wilderness.
Thoughts and Impressions:
India is a country that I am glad I could have the chance to go to and experience, but I can honestly say I have no desire to return any time soon. I’ve spent enough time in developing countries to know that the touts see [white] tourists as walking dollar signs and aim to capitalize on that. But, nowhere else were the people so frustratingly persistent. Just navigating the voids between tourist attractions could be a stressful endeavor. ”No, I’m not interested” was never interpreted as such and only compiled frustration. Add on top of this the fact that India maintains a tipping system where everyone you pass through feels that they are entitled to one. They will remind you that they deserve one for the most menial tasks performed. Finally, I have never felt so labeled in my life. If the crapmongers couldn’t identify your origin by appearances alone, that would be the first thing they asked of you. Then, they would cater to the prices to that country’s relative purchasing power. Kanako being Japanese immediately placed us in the highest bracket. All these things mixed with the institutionalized extortion at every ticket gate left a very sour taste in my mouth. People tried to explain to me that it’s because they are poor. Well, as I said, I’ve been to several other developing Asia states and in none of them has the greed and deception been so rampant, nor has appreciation for what I atually do buy ever been so low. It wasn’t that I can’t be thick skinned or maintain my wits about me, but needing to stay on my toes at all times was draining. This might sting a little bit to hear, but I can honestly say that the average Pakistani was significantly warmer and kinder than the Indians I came across – despite similar origins. If I had to pick between the two, I would much prefer a return to Pakistan.
Despite what I would call shortcomings to the people part of the experience, I did really enjoy what I was able to see. Not only that, but I was very lucky to be the recipient of the Starbucks’ hospitality; my accessibility to Delhi was heightened dramatically by their advice and assistance. Also, the incredible monuments built during the Mughal Empire were well worth my time and resources to see. Due to its vast size I don’t have a sense of completion for this country; I know that I was able to see and experience a lot – certainly everything I had hoped for – but of course the amount that remains is daunting. Plenty of what I saw taught me more about the world and expanded my horizons. I’ve seen new religions at work, new people, and new ways of life. More than that though, it was Kanako and I’s first international adventure together, and to that extent it was a runaway success. India was somewhere we had both wanted to go to together, it was great, and now will start plotting what’s next.
Some clips from Pakistan and India