Our visit to the holy city of Varanasi began horribly. It started with a six-hour wait in the Agra train station, where I watched enormous rats race in and out of offices and even up one man’s back as I waited for our long-delayed train. By the time we got off the train, my purse had been stolen, and I was in a rotten mood. Then spending hours and hours in the train station police office, where I was required to write over and over my account of the incident (everything was done by hand, and there could be no cross-outs, so any time they wanted me to change even one tiny word, I had to rewrite the entire thing) did nothing to help. Finding out that after all that we’d have to come back in the evening to pick up the official report because the transcriber had a headache brought me to the brink of losing it. By the time we found out half of the city streets were closed for a festival, and we’d have to schlep our bags a long way through the Indian heat and humidity, I was too far gone to even care.
India was, at this point, pretty much dead to me. I just couldn’t be bothered to care…not about the cow shit I had to trample through to get to our hotel, not about the kids with soulless eyes begging for our change, not about the six flights of stairs I had to climb to get to our room. The overwhelming amount of poverty that constantly affronted me combined with my own experience of being a victim, most likely of someone without a chance in the world, had numbed me. I didn’t have anymore outrage left in me. Or so I thought.
As night fell on the Ganges, and its unholy mix of cremated bodies, garbage, animal carcasses and pollutants, we ventured out from the relative comfort of the hotel where we’d entombed ourselves all day into the chaos of the city. We stumbled up and down alleyways that smelled of human excrement, incense, chai, and sweat until we emerged onto a broad street, packed with people celebrating Durga Puja, an important holy day in this part of the country. Effigies–some expensive looking, others constructed with no more than hay and old clothes–were being transported down to the river in the beds of trucks, behind which rich young men danced to the pulse of Indian music. Crowds lined the streets and pushed their way around, a tidal wave of humanity. Kids ate what appeared to be cotton candy, and a man repeatedly brushed himself up against me (a much too common occurrence) until Jeff realized it and stared him down and chased him off.
If it had been another day, I’d have taken photos. The festival was the kind of thing I usually love. But that day, I didn’t care. Everything about it annoyed me. All I wanted was a rickshaw, a means of transport to get back to the train station to pick up the police report I wasn’t completely convinced would even be available (at least not without a bribe). Finally, after walking around for at least an hour, we found one, a cycle rickshaw with a driver that would agree to a price we’d been told was reasonable.
I hated cycle rickshaws. They seemed so inhumane to me. I felt like an old colonial subjugator, sitting primly on the cushioned seat while a terribly poor man forced his skinny legs up and down in an effort to pedal me through the streets of Varanasi. But, on the other hand, this was the only way these people had to make a living. If I denied him service, I wasn’t helping him. I was instead depriving him of a chance to have something to eat that day. That, and the fact that I always paid much more than the agreed-upon fare, were the only things that soothed my conscience.
On this evening, our driver was chatty, introducing himself to us as Michael. That seemed an odd name for an Indian to me, but he quickly added that he was Christian and Michael was the name he’d taken when he was baptized. It made sense, especially since just a few days prior I’d been reading about a recent trend in which many of India’s poorest were converting to Christianity, attracted by its teaching that you could be saved through faith and good works and in only one life time, a stark difference from the prevailing Hindu beliefs that require cycles of reincarnation, a seemingly endless road for those deemed the lowest of the low. He was friendly and helpful, pointing out sights all while pedaling his heart out, and I felt my mood lift a bit in his presence. There were good people in India, I was reminded.
At the train station, the report was ready and handed over to me without so much as even a hint at a bribe. Things were looking up. We grabbed a bottle of water, since we were covered in sweat from the heat despite having done nothing but sit the entire way there, and then we grabbed a second bottle for Michael. I think it cost all of 10 cents. It was no great act of philanthropy, though he was beyond pleased when we offered it to him upon our return.
The ride back was for the most part uneventful. Michael kept up his chatter and we responded appropriately, glad that this day was drawing to an end and hoping that a better day awaited us the next morning. But as we got within the vicinity of the hotel, the roads again became crowded, and Michael was forced to weave his way through the throngs of people. One of the “floats” was ahead of us, and getting around it was going to be tricky. We had to stop and wait while it passed, but then with a break between the truck and the followers, Michael saw his chance and decided to hurry through.
Not so fast, however. One of the celebrants, an obviously wealthy young man with nice clothes and nothing more important to do than dance behind a truck, approached our rickshaw with a band of followers. In Hindi, he began to yell at Michael. Michael did not yell back. He just hung his head and let the young man rant. Though perhaps India no longer has any official caste system, the caste system lives. Then, still yelling, the man picked up a stick and made a motion as if he were going to hit Michael. All this, because Michael dared to try to cross the street in an effort to make a living. I’d been sitting there watching, quite uncertain of what was going on, but at that point I lost it.
I normally shrink from confrontation. But, on that night, after that day, I’d had enough.
“Stop it,” I yelled, “Now. Stop it now. Just stop.” I don’t even know where my voice came from but I was outraged. “Do not be violent. He is a person. A person. Treat him like a person. ” I just kept yelling.
The men stopped and stood there dazed. It was as if I had hit them. This was not the response they usually got. This was not what they expected. I must have seemed crazy, rabid. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. They stopped, left us alone, let us continue.
Not wasting a second, or letting the men change their mind, Michael pedaled hard until we were away from them. He then slowed and turned to me. “Thank you. Thank you,” he said. “You’re such a good person.” He repeated this over and over.
I shook my head. “No,” I said. “No.” But he wasn’t listening.
I wasn’t a good person. I was just a person. A person doing what people are supposed to do. Yet there, for people like Michael, I was extraordinary. Perhaps that should have made me feel good, but it didn’t. Instead I felt sick. Simple human kindness should not be extraordinary. Basic human dignity should not only be for the privileged.
Arriving at our destination, we got out of the rickshaw and pressed money into Michael’s hand. He smiled broadly and thanked us again and again. I walked away, shaken to the core, then stopped and turned back. “Good luck,” I yelled to him, wishing desperately that being treated like a person didn’t require luck.
Though narrowing a year’s adventure down to pick out our top ten experiences is a nearly impossible task, we tried to do it anyhow. After all, it seems to be what everyone most wants to know. So here it is, the ten experiences we most loved, ordered not by rank but in the order in which we did them.
1. Hiking Torres del Paine
Of all the landscapes we saw on our trip, I think the mountains of Torres del Paine were the most majestic. The sheer beauty of this place was breathtaking for each and every moment of the four days we spent hiking the W.
2. Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu itself is mindboggling and not just because of the altitude. The amazing architecture and well-preserved state of this city in the sky wowed us. But what made seeing it really special was the intense three days of hiking through the Andes that we had to do to reach it. We also got to enjoy the company of my brother Gregory on this part of the adventure.
3. Cruising the Galapagos
This was eight days of pure bliss. From swimming with sea lions, sharks, and penguins, to laughing at the antics of blue-footed boobies, to marveling at the beauty of the natural landscape, to watching the stars rise from the deck chairs of our catamaran, our experience in the Galapagos was top-notch. It was far and away the most budget blowing of our adventures, but it was worth every single penny.
4. Living it Up in Buenos Aires
An apartment in a nice neighborhood, big steak dinners, ice cream every day (at least once), and a visit from my parents…our stay in Buenos Aires was like a vacation within a vacation. The city is vibrant and easy to get around with great architecture and atmosphere and tons to do.
5. Going on Safari in southern Africa
We saw our first lion in Kruger, got up close and personal with rhinos in Hluhluwe Imfolozi, encountered more elephants than we could count in Addo, found a few new species at Mountain Zebra, and became king of cheetah spotting in Etosha. We did a lot of safari-ing and never once got tired of it. In fact, I’m ready to go again.
6. Seeing the Surreal Landscapes of Namibia
Namibia might not have many inhabitants but they sure do have impressive landscapes. At Fish River Canyon, in the Quiver Tree Forest, atop the red dunes of Sossusvlei, in the forests of Naukluft, or along the Caprivi Strip, we were pretty much constantly snapping photos.
7. Meeting the Lovely People of Likoma Island
Until we ended up there, Likoma Island was never even on our radar. Malawi was supposed to be more of a pitstop on our way up east Africa, but it turned into one of our favorite spots. There’s not a lot to do on Likoma Island besides lounge on the beach and enjoy the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi, but the people are among the most friendly, welcoming, and fun loving that we met on our journey. I think we wore a constant smile the entire week we were there.
8. Trekking with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not a misnomer as trekking through the dense forest is not easy, but every step is worth it for the opportunity to spend one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas. These magnificent creatures left us all awestruck. They are impressive in size, in expressiveness, in the way they reflect so much of us and we of them. Another pricey experience, but again worth every penny. Plus we had the good fortune to get to share the experience with Jeff’s parents and sister.
9. Learning to Scuba Dive
Experienced scuba divers claim that once you start, you can’t stop, and they know what they’re talking about. We’re already addicted and can’t stop thinking about when and where we can next dive. Take any of the underwater shows you’ve ever seen and multiply the magic quotient by 100. It’s that good.
10. Exploring Rajasthan
India was tough, but we did greatly enjoy our foray into Rajasthan. The forts, palaces, and heritage hotels preserved fantastic architecture and the feeling of glory days now gone. Though hassle was still present, it was low in comparison to other parts of the country, and we met some very friendly and interesting locals. This seemed to be the India of lore.
If you’ve traveled anywhere outside the developed world, you know that for you there is always a “special” tourist price, and by special I don’t mean discounted. If locals pay $5 for a taxi ride, you pay $10, though you’re probably quoted at least $15. Walk into a hotel and the rate you’re quoted is probably not the same rate quoted to the person in front of you or person behind you. You’re constantly being sized up. How much money do you look like you have? How much money do you look like you’ll pay? How big of a sucker do you appear to be?
Most things don’t come with a price tag in the developing world. You have to figure out what something is worth to you and then bargain with the person offering said item until you reach a point where you are happy with the price or you just have to walk away. It’s all a part of the game. Some people take it too far, fussing over the equivalent of pennies, while others hand over whatever is asked the first time around. Neither is good…for you, for other travelers, or for the local economy.
Most of the time I don’t mind it. But sometimes, like when a guy selling fake sunglasses asks $30 for them when even in the U.S. you wouldn’t pay more than $5, it bothers me. Do I really look like I found the tree from which money freely falls? I’ve accepted the fact I’ll pay more; I’m not willing to be extorted.
In Asia more than anywhere else we have been, “special” prices for tourists are the norm. And here tourist rates aren’t just for taxi rides, market purchases, hotel rooms, and the like; they’re also for admission to attractions. On one hand, I understand this. The citizens of developing nations usually don’t have loads of extra cash to spend on visits to museums, historical sites, and the like. You can also argue that through taxes and the like, locals are already paying for these places.
On the other hand, why can’t there just be a set value for things? In the U.S., if I want to visit the Grand Canyon, I have to pay the same as someone from Europe as someone from India as someone from Mexico. We have determined that the seeing the Grand Canyon is worth a certain amount, and if you want to visit it, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you have to pay the price. Some of my taxes are already going to support the national parks, but I’m not given reduced admission because of that. Perhaps using the U.S. as an example is not fair considering they’re not going to let you in to the country in the first place unless you can prove you have a good bit of money, but the idea remains…there is a firm and fixed value for things irregardless of circumstances.
Most of the time, I just roll with it, pay what I have to pay and move on. And sometimes it seems like it’s not a bad deal. For instance, to visit the forts and palaces in Rajasthan, India, we had to pay about 250-300 rupees ($5-6) each while locals paid around 10. It’s a big difference, but for their 10 rupees locals were given nothing but admission; those paying the foreign price received nice brochures as well as very well-done and interesting audio guides. Additionally, the notices that said the admission fees were going toward restoration work didn’t seem like BS, as the buildings were all in rather remarkable shape and were well tended to.
In Uttar Pradesh, it was a completely different story. At Fatehpur Sikri and Orchha, we again paid about 25 times the local price, but this time got nothing in return, not even a sketch map of the site. Additionally, the sites were not very well-maintained, so it felt as all the extra money we paid was just going right into the lining of someone’s pocket (which I have no doubt it was).
At the Taj Mahal, foreigners pay 750 rupees, 75 times the local price. But don’t worry you do get something extra here: a 500 ml bottle of water valued at 6 rupees and a pair of shoe covers so you can walk around the Taj without removing your shoes worth about 10 rupees. Definitely worth it, don’t you think? And while paying approximately $15 to visit a world famous site like the Taj Mahal isn’t in itself unreasonable, what makes the price so hard to swallow is knowing that just five years ago, admission was 15 rupees, or $0.30. And no, the price didn’t rise with inflation or go up each year; it was actually increased from 15 to 750 in one fell swoop. I don’t know, but to me that feels like they’re not charging what they consider a fair price but are instead trying to see just how much us crazy foreigners will hand over before we call the bluff.
What do you think? Should foreigners have to pay more to visit sites than locals? Should the U.S. and Europe implement a similar policy? If it is fair to charge more to foreigners, how much more? I’m curious as to what you all think.
For some people, there’s nothing more emblematic of India than the Taj Mahal. For others, including myself, the most iconic image is of the pilgrims of Varanasi bathing in the Ganges. In our last week in India, we took in both of these sights.
First off was the Taj. According to pretty much everyone, you can’t go to India and not see the Taj, so we braved Agra, a city with really no redeeming qualities beyond the fact that it’s home to the Taj Mahal, to see this monument to love.
I’m not creative enough to add any descriptor to the long list people have already created when waxing about the Taj Mahal. It’s beautiful. The fact that there’s nothing behind it, no background noise to take away from it, magnifies its beauty. It’s a wonder to gaze on (and we were lucky enough to get a $10 hotel room with a million dollar view of the Taj Mahal from our window). But I have to say, if you die without seeing the Taj Mahal, I think you’ll be okay.
Maybe it’s because I’m not a romantic, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with awe at the Taj. I thought it was a beautiful building, one of a number I’ve been lucky enough to see in my lifetime, but after an hour I was pretty much done with it. We ended up staying and staring at it for three hours though, because it cost $15 to enter (a pretty damn high price for India) and we were determined to get our money’s worth. Plus there wasn’t anything else in Agra we cared to see.
Anyhow, seeing as I have nothing new to add to the conversation of the Taj Mahal, I’ll just put up some photos. Judge for yourself where it comes on your list of the world’s most beautiful places.
Then it was on to Varanasi, the one city that I’d been determined to see since India made it on to our itinerary. As it was the city we arrived in just after my purse was stolen, I didn’t reach it in the greatest mood, and the filth of the alleyways we had to wander to get to our hotel almost sent me back to the train station. Much of India is dirty, filthy. It was nothing new. But when the alleys are barely as wide as two people standing next to each other, the filth is impossible to miss. Cow shit, dog shit, probably human shit, food waste, plastic garbage, and who knows what else literally fill the alleys. I wanted to burn my shoes when we left; I refused to put them back in my bag.
But if you can look past the filth, there’s more to Varanasi. We woke early the morning after we arrived and went down to the Ganges, where we boarded a boat for a sunrise ride past the ghats lining the river. And while I was unwilling to touch the river with more than my pinky (which, thank God, hasn’t rotted off), Indians find this river to be holy. (Unfortunately that also means that they “give” all kinds of things to the river including dead bodies, cows, and all manners of offerings.)
The ride along the river was fascinating. We watched men, women, and children bathe in the waters.
We watched people raise up handfuls of water and mumble prayers as it flowed back into the water.
We saw dhobis washing laundry in the Ganges, pounding it clean on the stone steps.
We saw the effigies of the goddess “Durga,” who was being celebrated while we were there in huge festive parades that ended with the image of the goddess being submerged in the river.
And we saw bodies being cremated in pyres at the river’s edge. For Hindus, there is no better place to die than in Varanasi because they believe that if you die there you will skip the cycles of reincarnation and enter directly into nirvana.
India is not an easy place. I think it might be one of the basest places I’ve ever been. Though it’s teeming with humanity, it is for so, so, so many people impossibly inhumane. The desperate level at which so many people live is devastating. The disparities are despicable. But it’s also interesting. The north, where the Himalayas provide constant backdrop, was so beautiful. The history so well preserved in Rajasthan was magical. The spirituality of the faithful along the Ganges was moving. India is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back. But I think I’m glad I went. For all the good and all the bad, there’s simply nowhere else in the world quite like India.
We’re quite happily back in Thailand now, enjoying the last week of our trip at the beach before heading home. We didn’t, however, keep you updated on our whirlwind tour of India, with all of its ups and downs. So with that, I’ll pick up where we left off and finish off our tour of Rajasthan with visits to Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer.
Jaipur, dubbed the Pink City, was not as pink as you would think. The shops along the bazaar were painted in more of a peach color, which was at least uniform if not particularly “pink,” but everything else was painted however the tenants wanted. Suffice it to say that was a variety of colors.
Nevertheless, the city was teeming with fantastic Indian architecture. Without even counting the interesting historic houses and commercial buildings dotting the city, the city palace, the Jantar Mandar and the Hawa Mahal were fascinating to explore. I thoroughly enjoyed the Jantar Mandar, an astrological observatory with a sundial accurate to two seconds, and all sorts of fantastic angles to photograph.
From there we headed on to mainly two forts: Jaisalmer Fort and Jodhpur Fort. Both were fascinating in different ways. Jaisalmer Fort is still lived in and in many ways reminded us of Zanzibar, will tiny alleys leading to fascinating slices of life within the fort. It was great to wander around and get lost. We met a few locals that were given to conversation and found ourselves on a beautiful rooftop for sunset. The lit up for after the sun went down was particularly beautiful.
Jodhpur Fort was physically, a more imposing and more impressive fort. The architectural majesty and beauty of the fort was unrivaled in the India we saw.
For all of our current lamentations about India, Rajasthan was an area we thoroughly enjoyed. It is rightfully the most well traveled part of India, it has the culture and history and tradition people come to India looking for.
So far on this trip we’ve been lucky. We’ve had a pair of underwear and a tanktop disappear at the laundry. We left a headlamp somewhere in Nicaragua (probably the very first night). We managed to lose an ATM card in Vietnam, but despite not noticing that the card was missing for a day since we last used it, no one else tried to use it, and we were able to cancel it without consequence. We also had thought ahead and brought another ATM card for a separate account, so we were able to keep on getting money without trouble. But Monday morning our number came up.
We were on the train from Jhansi to Varanasi, in the 2AC sleeping compartment. We locked our big bags to the chains underneath our beds. All our most important valuables–our passports, our ATM and credit cards, and our cash–were in the secret pockets my mom had sewn inside our pants before we left. We were safe.
We’d traveled in the 2AC sleeper on the Indian trains multiple times on this trip. They’re fairly nice, comfortable enough, and uncrowded, occupied mainly by other tourists and upper class Indians. For the average Indian, the cost of riding in this class is prohibitive though we find the tickets to be relatively cheap. Anyhow, the compartments, don’t have doors, but a set of four beds (two bunks) is closed off to the aisle by a curtain. It’s always felt quite secure. The only people that are supposedly allowed in these cars are those with bunks in it. It’s impossible to walk from other sections into this section, and a guy stationed outside is supposed to be only letting on those with proper tickets.
So, boarding the train at 10:30, we immediately made up our bunks, pulled the curtain closed, and climbed in bed. Jeff and I had the two bottom ones. An Indian business traveler had the one above Jeff. The one above me stayed empty. All of our stuff was secured, except for my purse (an LL Bean Travel Touring Bag). There was nothing of real value in the purse. It just contained things I like to carry around with me on a daily basis, as well as a few things I might need at night. So, because I want to have easy access to toilet paper in case I have to run to the bathroom, the headlamp to see in the darkened train car, my glasses so I don’t stumble into the hole that serves as a toilet, I sleep with my purse curled up next to me in bed. I’ve done this on every train we’ve taken for the past year. I’m a light sleeper. It’s right next to me. No one but the people in my little compartment can see my anyhow. It’s safe.
Except not this time. Monday morning, at 6:45 am, I woke up. I wasn’t sure what had woken me up, but it was something. I was groggy. I looked around. I noticed the curtain in front of my bed had been pulled aside. I thought this was odd, but my first thought was that a passing person or their luggage had pulled it. I sat up in bed and pulled it back closed. I laid down again. And I then immediately realized my purse was gone. I woke Jeff.
What had happened was that someone had pulled open my curtain, grabbed the bag from next to my sleeping body, and ran off. This is obvious now. But when you just wake up, your brain isn’t functioning that quickly. Our first instinct was to look around our compartment. It couldn’t have gone anywhere, right. I mean, it was right next to my body for Pete’s sake. But no, it was gone. We tried to get help, but it was futile. No one around us claimed to have seen anything. We couldn’t find a staff member that spoke English for the life of us. We looked around and found nothing. And at the next stop, when Jeff hopped off and talked to a police officer, the best they could say was “You’ll never see it again.” Thanks. Very helpful.
The best we can figure is that someone managed to slip on our train at one of the many stops. They peeked in curtains and at mine (unfortunately, the second compartment from the door) they got lucky. I was unlucky. I had just kicked off my blankets because I was hot. Until then, my purse had been covered up along with me. They grabbed for my purse, which was right near my waist. At 6 am, the strap had been under me. I know that because I woke up then because the guy sharing our compartment had just gotten up, and I readjusted the strap because it was bothering me. In the next 45 minutes, the strap came unsecured from me. I figure the movement of the thief grabbing my bag from beside me woke me. I assume the asshole ran off with my bag in hand. I took just a bit too long to register what happened. We looked inside instead of outside. We gave humanity the benefit of the doubt for a second too long. And by the time, the realization of it struck, the train was in motion and the thief and my bag were long gone.
Above everything, I’m pissed. I’m pissed that there are such shitty people in the world. I’m pissed that someone would violate me like that. I’m pissed that this person has made me feel so angry toward India. And I’m pissed because there’s not hardly a single damn thing in my purse that’s worth a dime to anyone else, but there is stuff in there that, though worth nothing, is valuable to me. I would certainly like to have my glasses back. Getting my driver’s license replaced (the only card of any sort in the purse) is going to be a pain in the ass. I could certainly use the hand sanitizer in this dirt pit of a country. But what I most want is my little notebooks, the little tiny books in which I keep track of our expenses, write down the email addresses of people I meet, scribble notes about things I see, jot down to-do lists. It’s all completely meaningless to anyone else. I’m pretty sure that the notebooks have probably already been thrown into one of the million and one heaps of trash in this country. And while I’d like to get some satisfaction out of the fact that the low-life thief got nothing for his crime, I can’t. I’m just pissed. I’d gladly hand over a few bucks or whatever else they can find some use for if they’d just give me back my stupid notebooks.
(P.S. If you’re reading this blog because we met you somewhere during our journey and we exchanged info, could you please email us? I’m sorry to say but some Indian lowlife now has your email address.)
(P.P.S. Yes, we are insured. We have a World Nomads policy that covers theft, and we will be filing a report. But like I said before, it’s not the replaceable stuff that I want back. Argh!)
(P.P.P.S. Thanks, Mom, for the secret pockets. They’re a lifesaver!)
(P.P.P.P.S. I apologize for the language in this post, but I’m pissed!)
There’s a certain romanticism associated with the desert. Perhaps it’s because of ancient stories of explorers crossing the desert in camel trains, the silk route winding its way through the sandy landscapes of the east. Maybe it’s the vastness–of the desert underfoot and the sky overhead–that ignites the imagination. Perhaps it’s the harshness of it, the incredulousness that anything or anyone can survive here.
Whatever it is, it has spawned stories and songs. The Eagles sang of their desire to sleep in the desert with a million stars overhead, and America romanticizes the escapism of being a nameless person crossing a desert on a nameless horse.
But friends, I’m here to tell you that neither crossing the desert or sleeping in the desert is all that it’s cracked up to be. It’s an adventure—a hot, sweaty, sandy, dirty, adventure—but it’s one of those that you can put on the list of “I’m glad I did it once, but I don’t ever need to do it again” adventures.
From the town of Jaisalmer, a small city crowned by an incredible fort, on the eastern edges of India, where the temperature hit a lovely 42 degrees Celsius, we set out by jeep for the sands of the Thar desert.
About 40 kilometers from the city, we were greeted by a group of local camel herders and their charges. Before we could have a long enough look at the camels to register just how ugly they are, we were sitting in a saddle on top of them, leaning back, and holding on, as these awkward animals clammered to their feet.
Then, forming a train, we were off. Though I didn’t see any of the camels spit, as they are well known to do, I did get to hear more than a few farts. For not eating or drinking that much, these animals sure do produce a lot of gas. It wasn’t quite the soundtrack I had in mind for the trip. But the desert itself also wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I pictured high rolling dunes, a vastness empty of anything but sand. I think I was picturing the Namib desert. What we got instead was a scrubby desert, low and flat with lots of thorny shrubs, punctuated every once in a while by a nice dune.
The sun blazed overhead, but a constant wind blew making it seem not as blistering. The camels rocked back and forth, and for most of the two hours that we rode, it was, while not romantic, still fun. At least it was for me until my camel decided he’d had enough and tried to buck me off. Maybe I should have been a cowgirl, because I hung on and rode it out for what seemed like a good eight seconds, until the herders got him under control. I was a bit uneasy after that and when he showed signs of a second round of misbehaving, I opted to hop down and walk. Luckily we were just a bit shy of our destination, one of the few dunes of the Thar desert, from which we watched the sun disappear.
Then, with me sharing a camel with Jeff this time, we continued on a short bit to our campsite, where we had a very tasty dinner and watched the sky light up with stars. This was my favorite part of the trip, the sky a diamond studded blanket complete with shooting stars. I should have just stayed up watching the stars, because sleeping in the desert is just flat out not romantic. The wind that had kept things bearable during the day, blew all night, sending sand onto our beds and into our blankets. The heat disappeared and a wetness moved in, leaving our pillow and blankets damp, and us feeling sticky and gross.
I was happy to see the sun rise and to bid the desert good morning. I think a family who started the trip with us had the right idea when they opted for a one-day safari, returning to Jaisalmer and a hotel room with a bed and a shower, around 10 p.m.–long enough to enjoy a camel ride and see the magnificent sky but not endure a long, uncomfortable night.
Around 9 a.m., after breakfast, I gladly hopped up onto my camel–not the same one as yesterday, but a calmer camel–knowing that a shower was only a few hours away. I felt pretty disgusting. We again rode for about two hours.
The scenery for the most part was the same as the day before, although this time we did come across a village with a well where women in brightly colored clothes from all over the area gathered to collect water and carry it home on their heads. I admired them. I’m not sure what inspires them to live in the desert, but they must be tough people. One night in this most unforgiving of landscapes was plenty for me.
It’s no secret that India and Pakistan are long-time rivals and, often, enemies. Border territory, like Kashmir, is still disputed, and more than one war has been fought over the last fifty years. But the rivalry descends into its silliest at the border in Wagha, outside Amritsar.
It seems, over the years, “oneupsmanship” between the Indian and Pakistani border guards has led to quite a spectacle every night as the border closes. We arrived in our rickshaw amid hundreds of other Indians attending the ceremony, many with Indian flags, many in armed forces uniforms. The number of parked cars along the road makes for a long walk to the border, where giant permanent concrete spectator stands line both the Indian and Pakistani sides. It’s really like attending a major sporting event. We are lead to seats in the “tourist” section and have a seat.
Though we are 45 minutes early for the ceremony, the party has already started. Bollywood music is blasting over the speakers and people are lined up to carry the Indian flag down the road to the gate separating the countries. The old, hobbled people receive the biggest applause.
A little later, the flags disappear and the dancing begins, and the stands continue to fill. By the time the ceremony starts, the Indian side is completely full, while the Pakistani side remains decidedly empty, perhaps with 50 or so people. Not really a contest over who will be the loudest.
It starts with the introduction of the guards, almost like a starting lineup is announced, and as they enter, it is our first view of the much repeated high-leg kick. Then, repeated shouts of “Hindustan” with some sort of incomprehensible response from the crowd. This will also be a recurring theme.
It’s hard for us understand and remember exactly what all happened next, but there was definitely some speed marching to the gate, long, drawn out “aaahhh” sounds, a few salutes, and a few openings of the gate where at identically but oppositely clad Pakistani guard would do the exact opposite of the Indian guard. Each action was met with thunderous applause and celebration. Eventually, both sides were in position holding their still waving flags, and at the signal, everyone pulled down their various flags at exactly the same time and exactly the same speed. Then there was the emphatic closing of gates and speed marching back into the border guard house, all met with more thunderous applause. We couldn’t help but laugh through nearly the entire event.
While it was completely silly and ridiculous, it’s the kind of thing that gives you some hope about the relationship between these two countries. If I may paraphrase Lewis Black, things go to shit when there’s no one to poke fun and everyone is too serious to laugh. India and Pakistan are always going to be rivals, but it needs to become a friendly and silly rivalry rather than a dangerous one. These kinds of events seemed to be step in the right direction, and it was hilarious to watch to boot!
Back in the day when I had more tapes than CDs and had no idea what an MP3 was, my brother had in his music collection a tape of the Tibetan Freedom Concert. I can’t recall a single song on the tape, but I’m sure it must have had on it what we considered good music. I’m pretty certain we didn’t buy it out of altruism or a burning desire to help Tibet, because I’ll go ahead and be frank here and say that I’m pretty sure I didn’t have the first clue what the deal with Tibet was, why it needed to be freed, or who it needed to be freed from. I can say with near certainty that though I knew it was in Asia, I couldn’t have picked it out on an unlabeled map. Tibet meant nothing to me.
Fortunately, I got a bit more worldly as I got older. I came to understand that the Himalayan nation of Tibet had been claimed by China, and that the Dalai Lama had been forced out of the once-country, now-territory over which he had presided, and that Tibetan Buddhism was under attack. In the past few years, I have read reports of a high-speed train China built to Tibet, its unexpressed purpose being to move majority Chinese into Tibet, turning the native people into a minority. Yet not until I arrived in the northwest Indian city of Dharamshala did I realize the full extent of the situation.
Dharamshala is the home of the Tibetan government in exile. It is where the Dalai Lama lives as well as thousands of Tibetan refugees. Though in India, Dharmshala hardly feels Indian, with the majority of restaurants serving Tibetan food, Buddhism prevailing over the usually dominant Hinduism, and men and women all dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes. It has been this way for 50 years now, since 1959. Entire generations of Tibetans have been born in India. But almost all, even those who have never stepped foot in Tibet, want to go home. Unfortunately, they don’t believe they can. In fact, many of them risked life and limb to make it to India. (Literally, as many people lost feet, hands, and even entire extremities to frostbite while hiking over the Himalayan Mountains. Others lost their lives.)
What China has done to Tibet is appalling. During the cultural revolution, they destroyed nearly every temple and every cultural site in Tibet. Those that remained, they have converted into army barracks or even toilets. They forced the Dalai Lama into exile after taking over the government, claiming as they did so that they were freeing the people from his oppression. They then demanded that monks and nuns desecrate sacred documents and withdraw allegiance from His Holiness. Those who refused were taken into custody, tortured, jailed, made to do forced labor, and sometimes killed.
And it hasn’t stopped. Brave men and women still step out in protest against the Chinese, and nearly always end up jailed or dead. Tibetan school children must attend Chinese schools and study only in Chinese, forbidden to learn their own language, culture, or history. The child identified as the reincarnation of one of the previous Dalai Lamas was kidnapped along with his family and has been held at an unknown location, despite demands from the international community for his release, for going on two decades now. This means that when the current Dalai Lama passes away the chain of succession could be destroyed and Tibetan Buddhism upended. And finally, the Chinese make continuous protests to India about the freedom the Dalai Lama is given to move as he pleases (they believe he should not be allowed out of Dharamshala). They have gone so far as to refuse to attend international conferences when some of the participants have had recent meetings with the Dalai Lama. Why they find this man, who preaches nothing but messages of peace and universal understand, so damn threatening, I don’t think I’ll ever understand.
I’m sure there’s more to the story than this. I’m no expert on Tibet, on China, on the Dalai Lama. I know there’s always a flip side. But regardless of what the other side may say, I strongly believe that there can be no justification for violence, for murder, for brutality, for the destruction of culture and heritage, for the oppression of religion, for the denial of sovereignty, for the stealing of freedom.
Tibet deserves to be free. Unfortunately, a couple of concerts and a few tapes wasn’t enough to convince China to grant Tibet its freedom. What will convince them, I’m not sure. But I’m hopeful that if I return to Dharamshala in another fifty years, I won’t find banners thanking India for 100 years of providing amnesty to Tibetans. I hope by then they’ll all be back home. Dharamshala might not be better for it, but the world will be.