Thursday, May 31, 2007

throwing tomatoes at pakistani soldiers

Every night, on the Indian-Pakistani border, thousands of people gather on each side to wave flags and see who has more spirit. I was there only once, on Tuesday night, but based on that I would have to say that Indians are more colorful but Pakistanis have more spirit.

The border in western Punjab is about 30 km from Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple, one of Sikhism's holiest sites. I came to Punjab in a private jeep with seven other Israelis, and while the whole trip lasted only two days, it was an intense experience.

The actual changing of the guards at the border is nice, but not so intense. Our driver, an Indian named Mohammed Azar, drove us straight to the border from Dharamsala, after a stop at a gas station and at an empty garage doubling as a restaurant. Considering my recent stomach illness, I decided not to eat there, just to be safe. We arrived at the border at around 3:30, three hours before the ceremony was scheduled to begin. That was our driver's idea, and though everyone I'd spoken to before the trip told me not to arive before 5, it's hard to convince a group of Israelis to listen to you and not to the tired driver.

We plowed our way through the swarms of kids trying to sell us flags and paper visors and postcards and CDs and DVDs and waited for about an hour at a restaurant in the "food court". Our waiter, who also tried to sell us DVDs and postcards, had a disconcerting bandage over his nose. On closer inspection, I realized he had no nose. Or at least no cartiledge. The restaurant, a nice and spacious air-conditioned room, had barely any food. The waiter offered us chai and instant noodles. "Do you have anything else?" we asked. Samosas, he offered us. Samosas it was.

At about 5 we headed out of the restaurant and toward the border. We were seven among hundreds, walking toward the stadium like fans toward a soccer match. A guard checked our bags, and as we continued on we saw a number of Indian soldiers in uniform with white stirrups and a hat shaped like a turkey crown. The guards, some of India's tallest citizens, were trying to separate the swarms of people into male and female lines. I moved over to the women's line, and convinced my other female friends (who originally tried to stay in the men's line) to join me. They had no objections, in the end, having just been dragged into a photo op with a couple of Indian men who took the liberty of grabbing their breasts.

On the women's side, nobody grabbed our breasts, and the line moved very quickly to the stadium, past the famous border gate. A guard with a turkey hat and stirrups sat us in the nearly empty VIP section, with the other white people, while the Indians scrambled and stuffed into crowded rows. One of the girls I was traveling with, said, "I know the battery on my camera is going to die at the worst time." Damn those self-fulfilling prophecies! As soon as she said it, I knew mine was going to also. I turned on my camera, and lo and behold, the empty battery sign popped cheerfuly onto the screen. So I photographed, but not as much as I would have liked.

Eventually, every section was filled to capacity, including the VIP section. We met a young Israeli woman with her two kids, a couple of older Indian women who had come to Amritsar for a national Christian conference, and two girls from Chattisgar on vacation in the north. On the Pakistani side, hundreds of white-clad Muslims sat cheering. There seemed to be fewer of them than Indians, and they sat in a much more orderly fashion, but they definitely knew how to scream. On our side, two boys ran by with Indian flags, and then back again, and then two girls, and back again, and then groups of kids started dancing to Indian music. One kid started breakdancing and everyone cheered him to stay on. Meanwhile, in the VIP section, all of the Indians tried to get the two little blond Israeli kids to pose for photographs with their kids. All of the kids were embarassed.

Then out came the guards, some standing by the gate others on a platform, screaming to each other in Hindi army talk. Then a loud voice said something in Hindi, which I can't remember, and the crowd went wild. The voice said it again. The crowd screamed in response. Then the voice said, "Hindustan!" To which everyone responded something sounding like "Zindaman." Then the voice said something sounding like "Qantas!" To which everyone responded, "madram!"

The two girls from Chattisgar laughed at us. "You don't know what we are saying?" they asked. "No, we don't speak Hindi," we answered. They told us that the chanting was basically "I salute India. India is beautiful." "Don't say that about Pakistan," they said, laughing. We promised we wouldn't.

About five guards came out and stood at attention in the middle of the path. The gate opened, and one by one they walked over to shake hands with the orderly Pakistani guards. Then the ceremony was over, and the thousands of would-be soccer fans walked back out to the "food court," swarmed again by postcard hawkers and water salesboys.


I wanted to go see the Golden Temple right after, having heard that it is an unbelievable sight at night. I pictured a giant temple made entirely of gold glimmering in the sunset. The rest of the group wanted to go eat first, and before that wanted to go find a guest house with a shower. I personally had no poblem eating and sleeping at the temple, which many travelers do, but I was the only one who wanted to.

Traveling with a big group was difficult, not just because we couldn't agree on where and when all the time, but because sometimes Israelis have a tendency of being too Israeli. I like everyone on an individual level, but together it was too loud. Singing and talking loudly in places where it just wasn't acceptable, shouting "what the fuck" in front of the Indians, who just weren't used to that kind of thing, and making fun of a man's mustache to his face, in English. One of the guys wanted to throw tomatoes at the Pakistani soldiers during the changing of the guards. When I asked him if he was serious he said, "yes. That's the tradition here." He actually tried to cross the gate. One of the girls, wearing a thin white tank top, wanted to join the Indian kids and dance in front of everyone during the ceremony.

By the time we started looking for a guest house, I was tired of traveling in such a huge group (this was by far the biggest group I had been with). We finally found a guest house, ate a nice dinner, and got to the Golden Temple by midnight.

It really was an incredible sight. Before going in we stored our shoes and covered our heads, and then entered the sacred Sikh space. The temple, which I think may be gold-plated marble rather than completely gold, is a stunning building set on a concerete penninsula in the middle of a giant fish-filled pool surrounded by a long rectangle compound. There were people sleeping everywhere, others sitting in groups or alone, praying, others waiting for the temple itself to open at 2 a.m.

The space had such a great energy. In a way, it reminded me of the western wall, a holy temple where devout people come to be close to their history and to a clear presence of God.

Chen and Nurit and I decided to go back to the guest house, after about an hour, so that we could get up early and watch the sun rise over the temple. Despite my dying camera battery, I took a bunch of photos, which I'll post as soon as I can.

Back at the guest house I showered, then collapsed on my bed. After what felt like a few minutes, but was really a few hours of deep sleep, I woke up to Chen and Nurit knocking. It was 5:30 a.m. We made it to the temple in time for the sun rise. When we arrived hundreds of people were standing still on the banks of the pool responding to the chanting. We walked around the compound in sacred silence, sat for a while and watched the people moving, and then filed into a long line to walk into the temple, the origin of the chanting. Once we entered we saw hundreds more people sitting on the floor, some standing, all listening, some following along in prayer books.

We stayed for about an hour and a half and then walked out through the market, into the already boiling dusty day. We stopped into a modest little dhaba for chai and aloo chapati, and then bought the best bananas I have ever tasted. By the time we got back to the guest house it was already 9 a.m., and I was locked out of my room. So the three of us laid down on their bed and slept for a couple more hours. At one point the driver knocked on the door and asked for 1,000 rupees advance, so he could go to the market. 1,000 rupees at the market, I wondered in my sleep, as thoughts of him driving off into the sunset waving the bills gleefully in his hands filtered into my brain.

When we woke up, the driver was still there. I guess he had done some shopping at the market. About five of us went for breakfast/lunch, and arranged to meet the others at 2 p.m. Well, 2 P.M. came and went, and the others never showed, though while we waited we had a nice conversation with the turban-clad guest house manager and his beautiful wife. Both are well educated, their children doctors and engineers, and they seemed very interested in what my parents do. "So your parents are not married?" they asked, me confused, after I told them my parents live in different countries.

The missing three showed up after 3, and we piled into the jeep to head home. First, of course, a car passed by one of the open doors and jammed it, before driving off.

We made it back to Dharamkot by 9:30, dropped our stuff off, and went to eat labne for dinner at one of the restaurants on the main street. We'd all kept our rooms in Dharamsala, so coming back was like coming home.