Friday, November 5, 2010

Diwali, Amritsar

I had been hearing for months that I should spend Diwali, the festival of lights, in Amritsar.  So I booked my plans a while back and when the day finally came, I hesitated about whether to go.  Why, I don't know.  Maybe because I had thought I would be going with a few others; when I learned otherwise, I was not feeling so adventurous.  In the end, I boarded the 19:30 efficiently at 20:42 and arrived in Amritsar feeling fresh as a day-old doughnut at approximately 23 hundred hours - a plump three hours late.  As a woman traveling alone late at night in an unknown city, you lose some bargaining power when it comes time to haggle with the rickshaw drivers. Nonetheless, I managed to get the price down to about $0.70.  But while winding our way through recently rain-slicked streets, I received payback for my obdurateness, as my hypochondriac, mildly paranoid brain played out the potential scenarios that might unfold in the dark and quiet, and therefore, suspicious roads and bypasses of Amritsar.

In spite of (I'm inclined to say 'because of', but ever since mostly curing myself of my fear of flying I have realized that I cannot control situations my conjuring up every possible bad thing that could happen to me and then justifying that fear because it was clearly the reason why nothing bad transpired.) all this, I arrived safely at the scariest looking hotel I have seen in a while.  Scary mostly because it was situated under the ominous Grand Truck Road (nothing ever good happens under a bypass) and every garage door around it was shuttered for the night.  But as I entered the establishment, which was set back from the road a few dozen meters, I became more comfortable with the place.  Ah, but the room.  Tis another story.  If you know me at all, you know that I am....frugal.  So when I saw in Lonely Planet this "beloved by backpackers" spot where you can "pay pennies" for a room, I booked it straight away.  It may be difficult to believe, but this spot was too cheap for even me, for the mattress was thinner than a prison pillow and a large circular cut-out in the bathroom floor ensured that I would need to shower in positions unimaginable.  I think the last straw came when I was awoken at four in the morning by the strangest wailing sound I have ever heard.  If I believed in ghosts, this is what they would sound like.  As I strained through the tiniest crack in the door that my hypochondriac, mildly paranoid brain would allow, I could see little that would contribute such an operatic wail to the otherwise quiet morning.  I swiftly checked out in the morning and found myself in a hotel for over three times the cost (still only $15/night), with a firm, but comfortable round (round!) bed.

Diwali did not disappoint.  I saw people from all walks of life enjoying the festival of lights, watching the crackers (fire works) from the historic Golden Temple.  I left some of the revelry late in the afternoon to witness one of the stranger events I have seen in some time: the border closing ceremony at the Wagah border of India and Pakistan.  Both countries had set up stadium seating for the festive occasion.  Upon arrival we were greeted by pumping Indian club music, dancing Indian women and children and throngs of Indian men crammed into the men's section of the stadium and successfully held back in a hog-pen-like manner by a rope.

It seemed unnecessary, but much like before a taping of a Sally Jesse Raphael drug-addicts-and-their-lovers show, the crowd received a pumping up by the warm-up guy.  As nationalistic shouts of Hindustan and Pakistan were volleyed between the two nuclear countries, I could do little but chuckle at this site.  Might Canada and U.S. some day be engaged in "border bravado?"

Shortly after leaving behind the pageantry of the Indian and Pakistani army corps, we hustled into our shared taxi only to have the small van promptly break down.  Every five minutes our driver assured us all that the van would be fixed in five minutes (You see, we had all only paid him half of the amount for the trip, so he was understandably eager to get us back on the road to collect the remainder of his fair.).  When he gallantly exclaimed that the problem was resolved, I had not expected to see him tying a rope to a van that was planning to pull us the 25 km to Amritsar.  Tomoko, the Japanese girl I had befriended on the drive to the border, and I hopped out and hailed an auto rather than risk being towed all the way back.  This is the third time a car has broken down on me in India. Is this a lot?  It has been a while since I have been in cars with such frequency, that I am not really sure.

The following day I spent engaged in more site seeing and a fruitless expedition trying to track down the fried fish I fell in love with on my previous trip to Amritsar.

The enormous feeding operation at the Golden Temple.
They feed approximately 100,000 people a day during festivals!

Some of the masses being fed

Perhaps the most gigantic pots I have ever laid eyes on

Pilgrims sleeping at the Golden Temple

Stadium at the border

Getting asked for the dozenth time to have my picture taken

Attempting to fix the broken down van

Golden Temple at Diwali

Amritsari kulcha at the famous Bharawan (Brothers) Da Dhaba

Accept no imitators!  Next door was Brothers' (written in English to
fool the tourists) Dhaba, a clear imposter.

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre - in 1919, 5,000 Indians were holding a
peaceful protest against the British when the British opened fire without
announcement and killed around 400 Indians. 

Bullet holes

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