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We left McLeod Ganj on a 5am bus, hoping that exhaustion would help dull the usual torture of an Indian bus ride, and the seven hour trip passed by pretty easily. Our destination was Amritsar, a northern city near the Pakistan border famous for its Golden Temple. It is the Sikh religion’s most sacred place, as Mecca is for Muslims, and is also fairly renowned on the Indian traveler’s circuit. Part of the allure stems from the hospitality of the Sikhs who, as a show of faith, feed and house anyone who comes to visit, for free.
We figured a free night or two inside the temple complex would be pretty cool, so we wandered around with our backpacks until some Sikhs noticed us and found us a room. It was one of many off a large courtyard with a shower complex in the middle; bathrooms were in another courtyard. The place teemed with people walking, napping on the concrete floors, praying, washing clothes, and just sitting around hanging out. Our room was small and had two twin beds with mattresses thinner than most blankets, an industrial strength ceiling fan, and two resident geckos on the wall. Well, we thought, you can’t beat the price. We dropped our packs to go have a look at the temple and grab some free food.
The multi floored dining complex was enormous, with each floor the size of several gymnasiums, and everyone grabbed a plate, spoon and bowl as they filed in to sit packed in long lines on straw mats on the floor. Sikhs would
than walk by dropping chapati (flat bread) into outstretched hands and slopping dahl (lentils) and a sweet grain mush onto plates. They moved fast and everyone had their food in an amazingly short amount of time, and they kept refilling plates until everyone was full. People ate fast also, and soon the crowd was filing out, followed by men with giant floor squeegees cleaning up behind them. This operation was run constantly, 24/7, and apparently can feed up to 40,000 people a day. The dahl was pretty good but the chapati was a bit like stale cardboard, and Denae had to hide a bit of it in her pocket after being scolded that she shouldn’t waste any food. Outside we dropped our tin dishes into the washing area, which was an incredibly loud place that sounded like a few thousand eight year olds let loose in a cymbal factory. We checked out the giant vats and woks where everything was cooked, and the volunteers sitting on the ground peeling vegetables. There was even an area to drink some free chai after the meal. Overall the whole operation was very impressive, and it was pretty cool to just walk up and a minute or two later be eating food, with no money changing hands (we did make a donation later).
The Golden Temple itself was in a huge square bordered by large buildings and sitting in the middle of a large man made pond, which a Sikh told us was hundreds of feet deep and had natural origins. No shoes were allowed in the temple area and all heads had to be covered, Denae’s with a scarf and mine with a bandanna that made me look piratesque. The Golden Temple gets its name from the 1650 pounds of gold covering most of the building. It’s really a beautiful sight, shimmering out in the middle of the water, and we enjoyed the long walk around the square, seeing the temple from different angles. We waited in the long line on the causeway to the temple, and eventually made it inside where many important looking long bearded men sat praying and chanting, and pilgrims prayed and jostled each other and threw coins into the central shrine area.
We’d been walking around for a long time and were ready for a nap, so we headed back to our room to be greeted by its unique musty odor. As we lay down, little did we know that soon we would both be facing some of our greatest fears. Denae’s fear, of course, is flesh eating, burrowing and parasitic insects, so after we’d been napping for an hour and she asked me, with forced casualness, what bedbugs looked like, I was a little guarded with my response. I went and looked, and our room was indeed home to a nice population of the nasty little guys, which Denae had been squishing as they marched across her bed.
Her worst fears confirmed, Denae was pretty upset and needed comforting. I played the the dutiful husband and calmed her down, all the while mentally rolling my eyes a little bit about her overreaction. We decided to move to a hotel, and just as we were finishing packing our bags it was my turn to confront my fear. It came in the form of a dark shape that I noticed out of the corner of my eye scuttling across the floor and under Denae’s backpack. I asked Denae to move it, and- horror!- there it was, a mouse. Deprived of its hiding spot the little bugger, no doubt sensing my terror, headed straight for my bare feet. Thinking fast, I used my catlike reflexes to leap onto the bed and scare the monster away with my shrieks. Denae was very impressed.
Just outside the temple complex we found a hotel room complete with bathroom, a decent bed, and a much less lively
insect scene. At 250 rupees ($5.50) it seemed like a worthwhile expenditure. Later we went out to sample some street fare; the sugar cane juice cart seemed popular and looked pretty tasty, so we stood in line and paid our five rupees. As they subjected the cane to what looked like some kind of medieval torture device the liquid squeezed out, looking pretty good except for the ice that we noticed at the last second. We chose to live dangerously and drank it anyway, and lived to tell the tale. And it was delicious. Denae also found a baked sweet potato cart that offered up some mean spuds, so good in fact that she still (as I write this a month later…) talks on and on about it.
We read about a Hindu temple in town devoted to a goddess named Mata and tried to negotiate with a cycle rickshaw driver to take us there. After much too short a ride, he told us we’d arrived and pointed the way to a temple that we knew wasn’t the one we’d had in mind, but it looked interesting so we went in. Along the way we were mobbed by some of the most aggressive child beggars we’d seen so far, who were for once actually begging
from the Indians also. In this city with its free food complex though we didn’t feel compelled to give anything. After leaving our shoes with the shoe tender, we stepped down into the temple, the floor of which was covered in a disgusting mush of crushed fruit, flies, strange liquids and who knows what else. We tried to step delicately. Seeing us wandering cluelessly around, a woman led us through the devotional circuit touching figures of Gods and ringing bells, giving offerings, and finally we were led up to a man who filled our hands with a milky liquid. The woman leading us drank her liquid; I pretended to. Denae drank enough to know it was saltwater, and I told her she was crazy, but I’m sure Mata likes her a lot better than me now.
Being in these temples can be a bewildering experience. We also sat around a fire with a circle of people throwing some kind of sawdust mixture into the flames on cue from the Sadhu leading the ceremony. At first we didn’t know what to throw, and I tried to pantomime a question to someone of whether I should throw the devotional popcorn I’d been given earlier. He nodded yes so I did, and roar of disapproval sounded from the crowd, who then gave us the correct greasy sawdust. In general though people were very happy to have us there, with lots of smiling and shaking of hands, and it seemed like a place that very few tourists make their way to. So thank you shifty rickshaw driver who brought us to the wrong Mata temple.
Later we made our way to the Jalianwala Bagh, a park devoted to the memory of the thousands of peaceful Indian
protesters who were killed or injured there by the British back in 1919. While sitting on a bench at the park we were once again reminded of an interesting phenomena that occurs in India: the giving of babies, to us, for photos. Indians love to take pictures of themselves with us (or more accurately with the men at least, with Denae), and a few times we’ve sat through marathon photo sessions where twenty or so people will cycle through to pose for the same exact shot, usually ending when we realize that the camera has drifted too far for me to be in the frame. After a while it starts to feel like the endless wedding photos we sat through. More tolerable and happening only slightly less often is the baby giving, where a parent thrusts a (often unwilling and squirming) baby into our arms and takes a picture. It’s hard to imagine that kind of thing happening in the States.