Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Road to Amritsar

Way back over Labor Day weekend, Mr. ATK and I went to Amritsar in the Punjab (a state in northwestern India.) Of course, every time I hear the word "Punjab" (and I hear it quite a bit over here) I think of the Daddy Warbuck's valet from Annie. Do you remember the part where Tim Curry is chasing Annie and she ends up climbing, like, a railroad drawbridge that's raised? And Carol Burnett and Bernadette Peters are chasing him and yelling, "Oh, Tim Curry, stop!! She's just a child!" Even though it was their plan to extort money from Albert Finney, er, Daddy Warbucks? Then Annie gets to the top and has nowhere left to go and Tim Curry is getting closer and then Albert Finney's helicopter shows up and Punjab is, like, hanging out of the helicopter trying to save Annie and she is just screaming "Punjab! Punjab!" Then he unravels his turban and she grabs onto it and he saves her while Tim Curry falls to his death. Or maybe not. That seems kind of dark for a children's movie. I don't remember what happened to Tim Curry's character.

Anyways, I think of that scene a lot.*

So Mr. ATK and I decided we would spend the long weekend up in Amritsar. Notable things to see include the Golden Temple (the holiest gurdwara in Sikhism), the Wagah border closing, this crazy Hindu temple that is like a fun house maze (the name escapes me at the moment), and the memorial at Jallianwala Bagh.

We took the train up (our first train ride in India!) The station was chaotic, even at 6:45 on a Saturday morning. The Arrivals/Departures board only contained information for about six trips, not one of which was ours. This naturally led us to panic a bit (since we weren't outrageously early or anything--our train was scheduled to depart at 7:20) and think that perhaps we had gone to the wrong train station. We decided to get in line at the help desk when a random person came up and asked to see our tickets. There was no indication that he worked for/at the train station, so I was kind of wary, but we showed him the tickets and he seemed to know right where we were to go. So he starts leading us to the platform (which was up some stairs, over a bridges, way at the end of the station. We would have never found it without this guy. Of course, the suspicious traveler in me was thinking, He's probably leading us to a dark corner where a gang will be waiting to mug us. Happily, I was wrong.

The train arrives and we climb aboard, with the help of another random person who clearly recognized "clueless foreigners" when he saw them. He looked at our tickets and led us to the appropriate car and seats.  I'm fairly sure we could have figured out where our seats were, but this was much easier. So we just tipped him and thanked him for his help. Again, I am unsure if that person was employed by the train station or was just a guy who hangs out on the platforms and makes money showing people to their seats.

The first class car was not particularly fancy or nice, but it was serviceable. The steward came by fairly regularly with tea and food. It was certainly better service than I ever received on any 6 hour flight in America. The tracks out of Delhi pass through the not-so-nice areas of town that we rarely see. We saw a lot of tent cities, piles of garbage, pigs, and a lot of people pooping. Delhi is a major cosmopolitan city with all sorts of haute couture shops and expensive restaurants. It also has a lot of homeless people and people whose homes don't have indoor plumbing. It's a pretty stark dichotomy. Apparently for a lot of people, the place to poop is next to the railroad tracks.

Six relatively uneventful hours later, we arrive in Amritsar. Despite being north of Delhi, it was hotter and more humid than the city we had just left. We went to our hotel and then decided to go to a neighboring hotel to see if we could get in a tour that evening to see the border closing. Lucky for us we found a tour that took us not only to the border, but to the Golden Temple as well.

Here are some things I learned on this trip:

1) I really don't like taking my shoes off and walking around Indian streets and temples. Most holy sites in Hinduism and Sikhism require you take your shoes off before entering the temples. I get that and totally respect that. Apparently you can't even bring the shoes in, like in a backpack or anything. I tried to sneak my flip flops in and was scolded by the guard. Despite the giant pile of shoes outside, I keep being paranoid that someone is going to take my flip flops. (They are very nice flippy floppies). It's probably unnecessary paranoia, but I can't help it. I also dislike the length you have to walk barefoot from where you leave your shoes to the temple's entrance. This distance varies depending on the monument. For the Golden Temple, I found it a considerable distance. And you had to walk a ways on a major road to get to the temple from the shoe depository. Granted they put down a path of carpet, but that was as dirty as the road. Then you need to walk through water to clean your feet before entering. Again, I understand and respect the custom, but not only is the water dirty from the thousands of people walking through the water, the marble on the other side of the water is really slippery. I kept worrying that I was going to fall.
Not a very clear picture, but there was a fireworks show that was pretty neat. 

2) I don't handle giant crowds and heat well. We ended up going to the Golden Temple on Saturday, which is not only the weekend, it's the Sikh holy day, so it was super crowded. The temple itself is amazingly beautiful (though Mr. ATK was not a fan of the Christmas lights used to illuminate it at night. He felt that was tacky. I didn't mind it so much on the actual gold, but they have the "racing lights" and "waterfall lights" decorating the outer walls, which I thought was a bit odd.)

This is the massive crowd we were in in order to get into the changing of the  guard.  You can't tell from the picture, but it was a very pushy crowd. No personal space.

The real crowd, though, was at the India-Pakistan Patriotic Border Competition.** There had to have been several thousand people there at least. As you may remember from your high school world studies class, India and Pakistan have a contentious relationship. At this one area on the border which is in between Lahore, Pakistan and Amritsar, each side has constructed a mini-amphitheater to cheer their respective color guards as they stomp theatrically and bring down their country's flag at sunset. I honestly can't even explain it. There was a guy in a tracksuit warming up the crowd before the ceremony--like a homecoming pep rally. He kept yelling, "Hindustaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!! Hindustaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!!" And then everyone would cheer. There was a lot of running with the Indian flag and dancing before the actual ceremony started.

Seriously, you just need to see this for yourself.

The next day, while Mr. ATK went back to the Golden Temple (to see it without Christmas lights on it), I wandered around the market and found the Martyr's Well. Mr. ATK and I had been looking for it, but were unable to find it, even though we had walked by it about five times the night before.  Jallianwala Bagh is a public garden near the Golden Temple where, in 1919, British troops opened fire without warning on a peaceful crowd. In order to escape, many people jumped into a well and died. Many others were shot down. I think over 20,000 rounds were fired in fifteen minutes or so. The garden itself is closed off, with only a narrow walkway to enter and exit the garden, so the people had nowhere to run. You can read more about the massacre here.

Anyways, I was reading one of the informational historical plaques when an Indian man came up to me and in broken English asked, "England?" I assume he was asking me if I was from England and I could not protest my non-Englishness enough. "English? Me? Oh, no. Nope. I'm American. U-S-A! U-S-A!" Since this guy's English was no so good, I did a couple "U-S-A"s just to make sure he understood that I wasn't English. It's not like he was menacing or anything, in fact, he asked to have his picture taken with me.

We flew back to Delhi rather than taking the train, as the train left at five in the morning. The flight back was uneventful, though this guy totally cut right front of us as we were waiting to check in at the airport. It's like that yellow line on the ground means nothing here

* "Don't forget to drink your Ovaltine." Also, apparently the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" was "Hooverism in the funnies." Hated FDR.

** That's not the real name of the ceremony. I just made that up. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Hey there! Long time, no blog...

It has been two months and a day since my last entry. Usually I start off a post apologizing for not writing in a while before scapegoating some innocent technological device (*cough*PS3*cough*). For the sake of consistency, I'm just going to do the same thing now. This time the culprit is Airtel's shitty internet and even shittier customer service. We have not had consistent internet since June, but starting in July it just got really bad. It maybe worked for ten minutes every ten days or so. I would complain and they would come and change the cable. Then it still wouldn't work and I would call again and they would be all confused and say, "But we just changed the cable." I'm like, "I know you did. I'm thinking the cable's not the problem."

The worst thing about this whole no internet thing was that Mr. ATK and I bought an iPad and Slingbox so we could watch football (Go Pack Go!) and then our internet wasn't even fixed by opening day. So we missed the first two weeks. There was much rejoicing today however, when we woke up a 6 am and got to watch the first half of Thursday Night Football before leaving for work. Even if it was just the Giants and Panthers. No fake field goals in that game. Lame.

Also, before I continue with my witty observations on life in India, I feel I should go on the record and say, in case anyone was worried, Mr. ATK and I are okay. Of course, like everyone in the foreign service family, we are very saddened by the death of Ambassador Stevens (RPCV), Sean Smith, and the others who lost their lives in Libya. There have been a few protests in India, outside the U.S. Consulate in Chennai, and up in Srinagar in Kashmir (yes, like the Led Zepplin song.) Today, they are expecting protests in New Delhi, partially in response to the French newspaper publishing a cartoon of Mohammad. Our embassy is basically next door to the French Embassy and we were joking about how we should put up helpful directional signs:

"Protesting the cartoon? 
This way --->"

"Protesting the film?
<---- This way"

Anyways, in order to be on the safe side, Ambassador Powell closed the embassy at noon and sent all personnel home. So if you hear about protests at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, rest assured that Mr. ATK and I are safe and sound at home and nowhere near the protests.

I would also like to share an excerpt from Secretary Clinton's speech for Eid ul-Fitr (the holiday which marks the end of Ramadan) which I particularly liked:

"So tonight, we must come together and recommit ourselves to working toward a future marked by understanding and acceptance rather than distrust, hatred, and fear. We can pledge that whenever one person speaks out in ignorance and bigotry, ten voices will answer. They will answer resoundingly against the offense and the insult, answering darkness with light; that if one person commits a violent act in the name of religion, millions will stand up and condemn it out of strength.

"In times like these, it can be easy to despair that some differences are irreconcilable, some mountains too steep to climb; we will therefore never reach the level of understanding and peacefulness that we seek, and which I believe the great religions of the world call us to pursue. But that's not what I believe, and I don't think that's what you believe either here tonight. Part of what makes our country so special is we keep trying. We keep working. We keep investing in our future. We keep supporting the next generation, believing that young people can keep us moving forward in a positive direction."

You can read the whole speech here.

Anyways, I look forward to filling you all in on "This Indian Life" more regularly from now on, but I think I'm just going to leave well enough alone for right now.