I’d just like to take a moment here to recognize the utter deliciousness of Indian cuisine. We’ve been big fans of Indian fare for years, and one of the big draws of visiting India was eating the food. And I must say, we were anything but disappointed. While we never fully knew what we were getting, it was nearly always delicious. Our favorite dish was the Thali, which is tray of different curries – kind of like a sampler platter. Each thali would be different, featuring the restaurant’s curries of the day.
Thali from Rajasthan
Our last meal in India - a Varanasi Thali
Other favorites include dosas (super thin pancakes wrapped in a tube and filled with curry), malai kofta, and butter chicken.
Masala Dosa in Delhi
In an effort to learn how to recreate this deliciousness at home, we even took a cooking class. We’ll give it a try when we get back, but I have a feeling we won’t quite be able to capture the rich flavors that burst out of ever bite here.
Yep, that’s right. EVERYDAY at the sole India-Pakistan land border crossing, an amazing ceremony of sorts occurs. The word ceremony suggests something subdued and official however, this presentation was anything but. The closest thing I can equate this spectacle to is a sporting event. There are so many people and so much energy and such ridiculous competitive antics that it was nothing short of spectacular.
As mentioned in my cricket post, India and Pakistan are bitter enemies, and this border closing event is an opportunity to literally shut the door in the face of the other every night. The evening we went to watch this thing was just a couple short weeks after India won the World Cup of Cricket (a HUGE deal which included beating Pakistan in the semi-finals) so I think we experienced a particularly patriotic crowd. I am not going to do this ceremony the justice it deserves but I will mention some of my favorite parts and see if I can’t paint a picture.
Whistle-happy guard seating us in the VIP section
Thousands gather to witness the ceremony nightly
Just as in a sporting event, there were bleachers filled with thousands of excited Indians, waving flags on one side of the border and hundreds of Pakistanis doing the same on their side of the border. The Indians won in overall attendance hands-down.
Ted and I were quickly directed to the VIP section which, for some reason, all the foreigners are assigned to sit. We sat in a section of bleachers with great seats that we shared with hundreds of our Indian VIP friends.
Before the actual ceremony began, there was a whole production to create excitement and drum up intense national pride. This is achieved by a master of ceremonies, if you will, who is dressed in a white, nylon-y track suit, who uses his microphone to lead cheers, encourage flag waving and organize the festivities.
The MC/cheerleader struts his stuff
What festivities, you may ask? Well, young women and children take turns carrying a rather large Indian flag and running up to the border gate with it, waving it toward the sad, sorry Pakistanis and then running back. This is in front of a crowd of people who shout and cheer them on.
Two of dozens of women and girls running the flag to the border and back
There is also dance music blaring that leads to a large, informal dance party in the middle of the street. Think Bollywood movie dancing – hands twisting and pumping; heads bobbing and bobbling. It was amazing. Meanwhile music and such was happening on the Pakistani side as well but it was nothing in comparison and we really couldn’t see what was going on over there that well.
Impromptu Dance Party
Just when Ted and I though it couldn’t get any better – the ceremony began. The emcee’s job now becomes quite important as he introduces the very serious soldiers who will be partaking in this evening’s festivities. Out they come with the most high-kicking, elaborate, and dramatic marches we have ever witnessed.
Gotta look closely, but check out this guy's kick!
Once lined up, for no reason we could determine whatsoever, a soldier from the Indian side and a soldier from the Pakistani side had a yell-off. That is, they each yelled into a microphone on their respective sides of the border to see who could yell longer. They did this about 5 times and each time the Pakistani guy won. The Pakistanis were very excited about this, but it is the only thing they had going for them as far as we could tell. The Indians were having much more fun.
Once the yell-off concluded, the soldiers took turns doing their elaborate marches to the border (this is being mirrored by Pakistani soldiers on the other side). Finally the head honchos from each country march fabulously up to one another, stopping just inches apart, exchange a brief but hardy handshake, lower the flag, and turn around and close the border gate behind them.
Lowering of the flag, at exactly the same speed, so as not to let your country's flag come down first
So concludes the border closing ceremony for another night. Just when you think that everyone will start filing out of their seats and head home, the music blasts back up and the dance party resumes. As we make our way back to the rickshaw, we noticed that the emcee was shaking hands and signing autographs. Are you kidding me? This was just too hilarious! As I type this I am again laughing out loud. You seriously could not make this stuff up. Ten out of ten!
Sikh pilgrims from across the globe converge on the Golden Temple at a rate of thousands per day. For many, this is the trip of a lifetime. For others, it’s an annual visit. For all, it is a welcoming experience of unparalleled hospitality.
Every visitor to the Golden Temple, Sikh or not, is invited to free meals, served throughout the day, to up to 40,000 people daily. At first I was hesitant to accept – after all, I’m not a believer of their religion, and the complimentary food program was not designed for free-loading backpackers. But after being encouraged by a number of Indians to join in, I left a donation and gave it a go.
What an experience. The Golden Temple meal program might just be the most efficient restaurant on the planet. Hundreds of people are led into a large room and sat in rows on the floor. As others continue to file in, the first row is handed a plate, bowl, and cup, followed quickly by men with large ladles and buckets full of curries, dal, and rice. The chipati lady is close behind, followed by a little girl pouring water into everyone’s cup. The eating commences immediately, and Indians eat fast. No need for silverware, it’s all scoop and push with your fingers. Within minutes, the servers are back around for 2nd servings, though its hardly necessary after the heaping portions given on the first round. Within 15 minutes of walking in the door, over 250 people have been fed, and the room is nearly empty, save the cleanup crew, who come in with large mops to clean up the mess that accumulated on the ground (particularly around my plate – eating rice and curry with your fingers is rather messy for the inexperienced).
Serving hundreds - bucket-style
One of the most orderly endeavors we witnessed in all of India
The food, prepared in the biggest pots I’ve ever seen in my life, is surprisingly tasty, and most certainly filling. The people around stare at me as they eat, but with big warm smiles, and my neighbors practice their English and invite me to their home. While seemingly out of place as the only white guy in this huge room of Sikh pilgrims, I feel completely welcome at the meal, happy to have enjoyed what will surely be one of the most unique eating experiences of my life.
The kitchen - wood in the center for cooking, huge pots boiling curries in the back, and a chapati lady on the left
Lots of meals means lots of dishes, and lots of people to wash them
Coca Cola is the world’s most popular and widely distributed product (based on my own very scientific research of traveling and drinking a lot of it). From super rural villages in Ecuador, to Nepalese hill stations accessible only by foot, to remote Indonesian islands, there isn’t a place on the planet that you cannot buy a bottle of Coke. While the recipe varies slightly from place to place, you can always count on the familiar jolt of sugar and carbonation no matter how far from home you are. Coke’s ubiquity is a modern marvel of mass production, distribution, and marketing, and I really can’t think of any product that even comes close to it’s universal recognition. Can you?
Coke delivered via carts
Coke delivered via bike
In Amritsar, we encountered what I believe to be the cheapest Coke on earth – 5 Indian Rupees per bottle. That’s about 11 cents! I think the Sikhs are subsidizing the cost slightly – the 5 Rupee Coke Stand was just outside the free food building at the Golden Temple. No matter how cheap you find it internationally, you almost never find soda fountain machine Coke anywhere but home (with the exception of McDonalds restaurants anywhere). And those fountain machines provide one thing I miss dearly when traveling abroad – free refills!
Ted and I were casually B-List celebrities in Amritsar. Though Indians in big cities and tourist towns are used to seeing foreigners, Amritsar (being a pilgrimage point) attracts Indians from all over the country – some from tiny villages in remote places that never see travelers. For that reason, we white folks were kind of a big deal. Walking around the temple and out in town, we were constantly being stared at, talked about and pointed at. Some folks would indiscreetly rush by and snap a photo on their cell phone without saying anything and some people would come up and have us pose in a picture with their whole family. Though initially uncomfortable, I quickly got on board and was holding babies, hugging grandmas and standing awkwardly next to teenage boys. Being white had never been so exciting!
P.S. Women had to cover their heads when visiting the Golden Temple, hence the awkward scarf on my head in the photos.
From Rajasthan we headed way north to the Indian state of Punjab, known for its rich delicious curries, its bearded turbaned men, and for the Sikh religion, which is centered in the city of Amritsar.
Amritsar is a fascinating and very special place for a number of reasons. It is home to the Golden Temple – one of the most impressive structures in all of India. The temple itself is a beautiful building that glows in the sun, surrounded by a massive bathing pool and then further enclosed within a series of impressive white buildings. As Muslims hope to make a to pilgrimage to Mecca in their lifetime, Sikhs from around the country (and around the world) make pilgrimages to the Golden Temple. At any point in time, there are hundreds to thousands of Sikhs within, bathing, praying, walking the perimeter, or waiting in line to give offerings within the glowing temple.
Golden Temple glowing at sunset
Pilgrams walking the perimeter of the temple grounds
A Sikh man prays and baths
Sikhs are unique in their very open and inviting approach – anyone and everyone is not only welcome, but welcome with a bed and all the food you can eat. On the grounds of the temple, free meals are served throughout the day to believers of any religion (more on the very interesting experience of family-style eating with 1000 of your best friends in an upcoming post). In addition, nearby accommodation is provided free of charge and once again is available to all (we did not take advantage of the free accommodation though we met many travelers that had). It’s an amazing hospitality that I’ve never seen before – sometimes feeding over 40,000 pilgrims a day! This generosity is incredibly important and impressive – it allows Sikhs from around Punjab, from around India, and from around the world to make this important pilgrimage financially possible for their families. If you can round-up the money for a train or bus ticket, you’ll be taken care of once you get there. How cool is that?
Because of its religious importance, most of the visitors to Amritsar are not just foreign tourists, but rather Indians who are visiting for spiritual reasons. As a result, many of these visitors are from small towns around India, and they are sincerely excited to see white people. The more outgoing ones asked us to be in pictures with them and their children (seriously, we’ve posed for well over a dozen shots with kids, parents, wives, brothers, etc). We are part of the attraction when rural people come to Amritsar. Before we figured this out, we were wondering why so many people were staring at us so hard – afterall, this is a pretty well-visited place. It all came together once we understood that almost everyone there was a tourist too.
A long line forms to enter the Golden Temple
Many impressive buildings create the perimeter of the temple complex
So, with a super open and accepting religion, an extremely holy (and impressive) monument that draws millions of Sikhs from across the country (and beyond), a pilgrimage center that provides free accommodation and food, and a bunch of people who are not used to foreign tourists, Amritsar became one of the most fascinating and welcoming places on our trip. Every conversation we’ve had with people (save rickshaw and taxi drivers) has been the polar opposite of our experiences in Rajasthan. We met a teacher outside the gates on our first visit, who told us about his class, and even invited us to the school for a visit. At the communal lunch, I met a kid who wanted us to stay until next Sunday when his family was having a party. Others wanted to practice their English or just be in photos. And the big one – I met a guy named Digpol, an Indian man who spent much of his life in Switzerland, who asked me to sit with him while he told me a bit about the history of the temple. For 20 minutes, he told me about Sikhism, the history of the pool around the temple, and answered a few of my questions. Afterward, he was insistent that we come stay with him when we came back through Delhi, where he would feed us, help us get around, and we could stay for at least a few days in his house. And it was heartfelt. From the way he approached me, to the teaching nature of his conversation, to the way he offered a visit, I could finally feel the Indian hospitality, sincerely.
Arriving in the north after 2 weeks in Rajasthan, I needed to take a step back to re-evaluate my interactions with the people around me. It really disappoints me to say that my overall impression of Indian people was pretty low through Rajasthan. A severe lack of authenticity and genuineness. These outrageously persistent, annoyingly intrusive people have put me not only on the defensive, but on the antagonistic approach going into every new conversation. How is this person going to attempt to take my money? Will he be frank and pushy, or beat around the bush a bit before laying his pitch on hard. They have no qualms about creating super awkward and uncomfortable moments – in fact, this discomfort generally helps their cause, as many people will just pay up to get out of the situation. To some extent, I can understand the competition in this country, and the need to be aggressive just to get by. But, I really dislike who it makes me – a hardened personality that ignores nearly everyone who addresses me, often times pushing people out of my way who stand in front, and really just assuming the worst of anyone who talks to me. That really sucks.
So, now it’s time to take a step back, and give the people of this country a 2nd chance (or perhaps give myself a 2nd chance to be the friendly and trusting traveler I like to be). I’m really hoping that the people troubles we ran into are concentrated in Rajasthan, the country’s biggest tourist area. I’m hoping that now we’re up north, things will be a bit different, more relaxed, more inviting, more genuine. So far, that’s exactly what we’ve found.
Jaisalmer, is known on the traveler circuit for 3 things – camel safaris, the fort, and Havelis. Havelis are private mansions, generally with open courtyards and very intricate stonework and carvings. Elaborate homes of Jaisalmer’s rich merchants, the Havelis here have very impressive sandstone frescoes depicting gods, goddesses, animals, and other Hindu symbolism.
The interiors are also impressively decorated, bursting with color and bling.
Colorful and ornate
If we had to pick one thing that consistently blew us away in Rajasthan, it would be the architecture. Forts, city palaces, and Havelis are some of the world’s most impressive structures, and the history surrounding the empires that constructed and destroyed them is fascinating.
As you know, we Americans don’t really give a damn about the game of cricket, but for Indians it is the national game and a borderline obsession. Everyone loves cricket and this national infatuation was multiplied a 1000 fold during our stay because India (along with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) were hosting the Cricket World Cup 2011. Similar to the World Cup of soccer/rugby, it only happens every four years and it is of huge importance for national pride to compete well.
The night we got back from our camel safari, India was playing Pakistan in the semi-finals of the tournament. This was no ordinary game. India and Pakistan pretty much hate each other and the competition was symbolic of much more than a sporting match. In fact, India’s Prime Minister had invited Pakistan’s Prime Minister to come to India to watch the game together and the newspapers referenced this gathering as a notable sign of diplomacy! Every Indian we talked to told us that it was much more important to beat Pakistan than it would be to win the whole tournament. These guys weren’t joking around.
Though Ted and I didn’t watch the whole game (because we didn’t really care and we don’t understand it no matter how many people try to teach us the rules), we were able to guess how India was doing based on the number of fireworks that were exploding in the night sky. Though Pakistan started strongly, the Indians were the ultimate victors and the country celebrated with pride. We were only in tiny old Jaisalmer on western edge of the country however, from what we saw and heard in our little town, I can confidently say that the whole country was ecstatic.
India went on to play Sri Lanka in the finals and managed to win the whole tournament. As you might imagine, Indians were celebrating for days. It was quite a treat to be in India when the country both hosted and won the world championship of their much loved national game. Kids and dads took to the fields for impromptu games, the newspapers couldn’t get enough of it, the fireworks continued, and the players were all instant celebrities. Overly excited India got even a little more so.
In my latest post for World Nomads, I talk about how Jaisalmer’s famous fort is being loved to death by locals and travelers alike. Check it out here, or copied below:
How Tourism Conquered India’s Oldest Fort
Jaisalmer Fort, situated along the Thar desert in western Rajasthan, is one of India’s most impressive historical monuments. The Fort, built in 1156 by the Rajput ruler Jaisala, rises out of Trikuta Hill and is surrounded by golden sandstone walls dotted with 99 bastions that radiate in the desert sunlight. Jaisalmer Fort is a living museum – claimed by some to be the oldest still-inhabited citadel in the world – with a palace, temples, hundreds of havelis, and over 1/4 of the old city’s population – about 2500 people. The Fort is also one of the world’s most endangered monuments.
Jaisalmer Fort, from a distance
Bastions lining the Fort's outer walls
Jaisalmer Fort is being destroyed, and the primary culprit is tourism. One of the most popular attractions in Rajasthan, the Fort has endured an explosion of hotels and restaurants along its narrow cobbled paths. These water-intensive businesses require the Fort’s aging water system to pump 120 liters of water per person through its pipes – over 12 times its intended capacity. Exacerbated by poor building practices and overcrowding, these drainage issues are causing the Fort to literally sink into the hill, collapsing buildings, walls, and bastions in the process. Since 1993, over 250 historic buildings have fully or partially collapsed, including 3 of the 12-century bastions.
Jaisalmer Fort is falling down
As a result of tourism’s negative impact, nearly all guidebooks covering Jaisalmer strongly advise against staying within the Fort’s walls, and some ask that travelers do not eat at the Fort restaurants either. But not all residents feel this boycotting approach is good for the local industry. Not surprisingly, all of the business owners I spoke with within the Fort adamantly protested against the guidebook advice, claiming that the Fort’s condition is most certainly stable, and without tourism, their livelihoods are in jeopardy. Outside the Fort’s walls, opinions were mixed – some agreeing that tourism should be controlled within, others more sympathetic to the struggling hotels inside the Fort.
As a responsible traveler, you have to make a choice – support the struggling local businesses who desperately need your rupees for survival, or support the ban on staying within the Fort’s walls to help curb deterioration. I chose to stay outside the Fort, but after meeting a few locals impacted by the ban, I’m not sure what the most “responsible” choice really is.
For more information on saving Jaisalmer Fort, check out the very impressive accomplishments of the charity, Jaisalmer in Jeopardy.