Published: April 14th 2011April 14th 2011
The Sikh people are my favorite people of anywhere I have been on my trip. The men are huge, many look like they could have played pro football. They never shave, and sport huge thick beards. They carry knives and wear big turbans. They are the friendliest people I've met. As where at the Taj Mahal or Pyramids I was constantly bombarded by aggressive touts that made it very hard to enjoy either experience, at the golden dome when people came up to me it was to welcome me and say they were praying for me and my family. One day I was approached by a large Sikh man who came over and started talking very fast in Hindi or Punjabi. He took my hand and we walked hand in hand around the complex for over an hour, he never stopped talking though I couldn't understand a word.
Next to the Golden Temple of Amritsar is a large dormitory for pilgrims where I slept for two nights. There is an open courtyard lined with rooms on each side. Each room is a tangle of beds and mats, with one specifically reserved for foreigners. It was full both nights so I
had to sleep on a mat on the floor. In the central courtyard were thousands of pilgrims sleeping on mats in a colorful massed heap of bodies. The dormitory and the temple are the cleanest places I have been in India. I had no problem going barefoot (which is required). Even the bathrooms, which serve tens of thousands of people per day, were constantly being cleaned, modern and immaculate.
The temple complex itself is a massive square set of buildings. In the center is a large square lake, lined on each side with ornate walkways about 100m long. In the center of this is a large pure gold temple, connected by a narrow walkway to the surrounding structure. It is open 24 hours a day, and even when I arrived early to catch the sunrise is was packed with tens of thousands of pilgrims.
An hour away is the Pakistani border. Each evening there is an intricate border closing ceremony. I don't know what I expected. I guess I thought it would be solemn, not too crowded, a ceremony befitting two bitter enemies poised on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The whole area was packed with tens of
thousands of people. There were large cement stands off to the side that were supposed to be separated by gender. At first the men's side was not overly crowded. Then I felt a push from behind as the women's side overflowed into the men's section. Thousands of women were jostling from behind to try and get a view. Because they were generally shorter they kept pushing to get in front, only to find another tall man ahead. It led to a crush of people. In front of me a baby in a mother's arms was elbowed and the mother became a raging demon. It was extremely hot, they hadn't allowed anyone to bring water in. People kept trying to sit but each time we would sit there wouldn't be enough room so some people would stay standing which would block the view. This would cause everyone to stand again, leading to a constant up and down.
The ceremony itself was pretty wild. People were screaming and waving flags. There was an announcer with a microphone who led the crowd in cheers and chants. The guards were dressed in ridiculous uniforms with huge red peacock looking headgear. They pulled about
a hundred women from the crowd and gave them flags to run to the border and back. Then they put on Hindi music and hundreds of women gathered on the road immediately in front of the border and started a huge dance party. They Hindi music was blasting so not only were the women in the road rocking out but all the men in the stands were dancing and grinding on one another as well.
The actual ceremony consisted of the guards yelling, stomping, high kicking, and marching. They were very good during the ceremony but when they were standing to the side waiting their turn they were fidgety and moving, constantly looking around, itching, and adjusting their uniforms. Very undisciplined when compared with similar ceremonies in the west. They were "nasty creatures," to use one of my favorite marine sayings.
My last day in Amritsar I ate lunch at the large dining complex. We waited outside closed doors while the previous group finished and left through a separate exit. Then they opened the doors and there was a huge mass of bodies plowing through. I am constantly amazed that there are not daily deaths as the elderly
or children are crushed to death under the crush of these stampedes. Everyone formed long narrow lines, cross legged on the floor. Men came by and dumped hand-fulls of rice, chapatti, and lentils onto the plates. Everyone shoveled the food into their mouths amidst an absolute chaos of movement and noise. As soon as people began to leave the cleaners came in with mops and did a scrubdown before the next group poured in. Outside there were bins to throw all the plates into, and then long lines of hundreds of volunteers scrubbing each plate down. They had us in and out in twenty minutes, I have read that the kitchen feeds up to 100,000 pilgrims each day.
My last few days I tried to pay attention to the little things that have formed the dominant impression of my six months in the developing world: groups of bearded men in robes smoking beedies; women in saris with henna tattooed up both arms; babies wearing makeup; groups bathing using the water pipes that run along the train tracks; an old grandfather pouring water into a child's mouth; a man with no legs shuffling through the train station with sandals on
his hands; groups of impoverished sitting under an overpass; bright eyed well dressed students marching off to school; cows meandering down the sidewalk; street sweepers piling up trash before setting in alight. I savored my last Dosa, Paneer, Chapatti, and the sweet taste of milk chai. I breathed in the Indian air, that delectable mix of urine, spices, fuel, and burning trash which has been my oxygen source since October.
After two nights on the dormitory floor in Amritsar, a night on a train, and a night on the floor of the Delhi airport, I finally began my 20 hour flight home to the United States. At Heathrow I was "randomly" searched. Then at BWI I was asked to please follow a guard into a side room. I waited behind a Swedish man who was being questioned as to why he kept taking extended vacations in the US (answer: he had taken a mistress in PA), and a Nigerian who had a permanent work permit but had only spent 6 weeks of the past year in the US and was being told if he left again his work permit would be revoked. For me they wanted to know what
I had been doing abroad, where I had gone, who I knew there, how I paid for the trip. One of the interrogators was a Marine from my battalion who had been in the company at Fort Detrick. We knew many of the same people since several marines from that unit had deployed with me. Somehow this didn't get me off the hook. In fact it may have made things worse since I look like like such a hooligan, I could feel him judging my very un-Marine like appearance. We went out and found my bags, which were then thoroughly searched. Everything was spread out on a table, and two men went through every pocket. Then they opened the journals I have filled over the last six months and began scanning each page by page. This was when it really started getting frustrating since I wrote those with the expectation I would be the only person to ever read them. At one point they stopped and the man asked me if I could explain some extensive negative comments I had written about the Afghan government. Studying the war in Afghanistan is one of my obsessions, and I have read and
written a lot about it. It is true that being critical of the Afghan government is something I share with the Taliban. It's also something I share with everyone else on earth that has an opinion on the matter. Finally they went through all of my photos, both on my computer and my camera. It was very late, after 10pm by this time and we were the only people there. I don't know if they were still trying to find out relevant information about me or if they just wanted to see the photos. Finally, exhausted, starving, sick, and frustrated nearly to the point of tears I opened the door and was welcomed home by the loving embrace of my family and girlfriend.
Though this trip is over, I will be traveling to Spain at the end of May, so I may write about that as well. I will be attending law school at the University of Michigan in the fall.
Thank you for reading!
There are more photos below