Sunday, March 14, 2010

Agra to Amritsar

Well it’s another action packed travel day as I make the most of my last few days in India. I'm off to Amritsar, deep in Punjab state, and the holiest place for Sikhs. It's also close to the border with Pakistan so I hope to catch the changing of the guard ceremony there that I've been told is a must-see.

With just a few days left in India, I’m also beginning to reflect upon my time here and I’m already missing it. It’s not just the entertainment value- like the hilarious signs that deserve their own blog (“ACCIDENTAL HELP LINE”, “RETAIL AND HOLE SALE”, “PANICKER'S TRAVEL” and my favourite, seen in a menu- "SNAKES" (“Snacks”)), it’s the people- the endless supply of entertainment from talking to locals or just people watching on any street at any time of day or night (with 1.3 billion people, there’s someone almost everywhere at any given time).

The extreme spread between poverty and affluence is impressive but here more than anyhere it's what lies outside material wealth that makes people rich.

There's so much diversity and richness in the culture. I’ve been to 7 states on this trip (Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab) and each one has been a unique experience- from the languages to the food to just the way people look and dress- there is not just one India- there are a lot of Indias to explore.

People here often feel like the west is just fake and packaged. I'm beginning to see their point- India is real, people are more often than not fighting to survive and there is no sugar coating on things like we see in the west. "When a waitress in America asks you how you are, she's not really prepared for an answer other than, 'fine'" someone once told me here.

For me, India has set the bar on what a rewarding travel experience can offer. I'm blessed to know so many great friends here; I know this is one place I'll be returning to soon- I can't wait another 9 years!

So back to my travels- the train from Delhi to Amritsar is another Shatabdi Express, and at Rs850 ($20), I'm calling it an almost free train ride, thanks to the value of goodies I got on board. Firstly, a bottle of water, a newspaper, an evening tea service and then an amazing 3 course dinner! All in all the 6 hour trip was over in a flash.

My hotel is the Country Inn and Suites by Carlson; one of the nicest and best value hotels I've stayed in so far, with a free breakfast to boot. The late arrival didn't leave time for anything but the morning got started with a trip to the Golden Temple.

Now I'm not very religious but to be in this hallowed building is a moving experience- it's beautiful to start with- a gold plated marble structure in a moat of glistening water that is home to many Coy fish. A short wait in line and one can go in and view the magnificent craftsmanship of the Harminder Sahib. There are stairs that lead up to a rooftop level area too- with a chance to look more closely at the gold embellishments and details that abound in every feature of the building.

Now Amritsar is also known for it's 'heartland of the Punjab' cuisine, so I was keen to try out some Dhaba food. I headed to Mohan's Fish stall to try the famous Amritsari fish fry and I was not dissapointed. Later I had some of 'Surjit's' famous tandoori chicken too. I'm giving up on a healthy eating for a while- after all they say I shouldn't eat salads in India, so who am I to argue?!

Later that evening I headed to the border with Pakistan for an amazing spectacle- the 'Retreat of the Guards' ceremony. There's a lot of stomping and parading and the crowds just love the nationalist rally cries- they duly respond in unison. Then a crowd of women from the audience are assembled onto the street by the ushers and Bollywood music is blared (In the direction of Pakistan I'm sure) prompting the women to break out into a spontaneous street party.

Clapping, singing, dancing, shouting and a totally overcrowded seating area creates mayhem and excitement. Meanwhile one can peek over to the Pakistan side to see a more sober setting- white robed males chanting back to recordings of more religious style patriotic chants; no music or colourful anything in Pakistan. The Indian crowdes are no doubt secretly even happier that theirs is the better country to be in.

The whole symbolic showdown is fun no more- I quickly lose interest in the stomping and the partying as I realize I can't relate to this 'hype for hype's sake'. I considered for a moment a similar ceremony at the Germany/Holland border. Nobody would show up!

With 'Golden Temple, Dhaba food and Wagha border' checked off the list, my work here was done. I spent a brief amount of time walking through the old city but frankly Amritsar is just too dusty and polluted to be walking around aimlessly.

The next day it was time to go back to Delhi for the last night before my flight onwards to Singapore. There I meet up with a good friend, Shuchi, for dinner- she takes me to the DLF Promenade mall in Visant Kunj where I am blown away at seeing for the first time a world-class mall in India. Taman Gang, TGIF, and dozens more good to great restaurants, a cinema, and a whole section for designer stores. This is no place for the average person in India- only the elite can shop here.

I told my friend that this is great for India to have, but I need to have dinner in a less sterile environment. Ironically the sterile ambience was probably more sterile literally, but I needed to be in the real India, the one I was in love with. I was quite happy to put my stomach at a small risk to enjoy this. What was happening to me?!

Shuchi obliged and we headed to Khan Market where we had drinks and eventually dinner at Chona's, a Chinese Indian restaurant that was delicious! India is famous for its Indian style Chinese food and this was the last remaining cullinary delight on my list.

My cousin Baltej gets a huge shout out at this point for letting me stay at his place despite being on a 6 month job posting in New York. His housekeeper, Bheem and cook Bapu took care of me like I was their long lost cousin- making me Nimboo pani (freshly squeezed lemon water), breakfast and a drive to the airport for my 8am flight the next morning.

After a delicious omlette rustled up without complaint at 5:30am, we headed through the dusty and still moonlit streets of Delhi to IGI, Indira Gandhi International Airport where Singapore Airlines' SQ405 was waiting to take me out of India. I accepted that my month long soujourn in India was now officially over. There was actually no time for sadness or nostalgia; that was all stored away in 16 Gigabytes of SD card for review later.

Now there was only time for more excitment- a new high for the new adventure that awaited- part 2 of my 3 month trip now started: SE ASIA.

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