Monday, March 01, 2010

Beauty amid chaos

Yesterday we arrived in Amritsar, a city of about 1 million, located in the state of Punjab, near the Pakistani border. Exiting the bus, we were greeted by the usual mob of taxi, auto-rickshaw, and cycle rickshaw drivers. Unwilling to brave the crowded, dusted streets, we hired an auto-rickshaw to take us to a local guest house. After a quick negotiation over the fare, we were off to Tourist Guest House.

Our guidebook describes the budget hotel situation in Amritsar as "underwhelming," which certainly seems like an accurate word for our digs. The price was cheap (350 rupees, about US$8) for a room, but I was afraid to touch anything in it. We tried to make the best of our situation by pulling out into the courtyard the lawn chairs and table that furnished our room. Gary, a fellow guest at our accommodation befriended us, and eventually we decided to head out into the city with him as our bodyguard.

While our guest house is underwhelming, walking down the streets of Amritsar is certainly overwhelming. The dusty, dirt roads are filled with honking taxis, buses, and auto-rickshaws. Cows, people, and cycle rickshaws loiter the roadside; there are no sidewalks. Garbage and piles of shit can be found everywhere--watching your step while avoiding getting run down by traffic is an essential survival skill. The bazaars are a lively, colorful mix of fruit, saris, flowers, and sundry items. Everyone turns their head to stare; whispers are shared among locals as we walk by.

Weaving through the labyrinth of streets, we eventually made our way to the Golden Temple. This temple is the reason people come to Amritsar. For Sikh's (pronounced 'seek'), this shrine is like Mecca--the holiest site and one all followers of the religion aspire to visit. The temple itself is rather small, a two story marble building covered in a roof of pure gold. Surrounding it is a holy pool of water, which many pilgrims take the opportunity to bathe in. Around the pool is a walkway of marble. People of all sorts can be found circling the walkway, Sikh gentlemen in their bright colored turbans, Hindu ladies in lavish saris, boisterous children asking to shake our hands.

Just outside is a dining hall, which serves free meals to pilgrims and tourists visiting the site. Anyone at anytime can eat there--the hall serves nearly 80,000 people a day. The place is a buzz of people and plates; we lined up and upon entry were were given a silver tray and bowl. We were then guided upstairs where we sat in a long line, on a thin floor mat, in a huge hall filled with other diners. We were served a delicious bean curry and chapati (flat bread), boiled water was poured into our bowls. Men came around to serve us seconds and thirds (which we kindly refused). As we were finishing up, a Sikh man plopped his young toddler in Amy's lap to take a photo. Next the baby was passed to me. After the obligatory smiles, hello's, and photos, we exited the hall.

A young Sikh approached us. "Excuse me," he said, "but can you tell me the meaning of a word, "retarded?"'

Amy and I looked at each other awkwardly. "Hmmm, it's a bad word. It means to have mental problems." Amy said, pointed at her head.

"Yes. It can mean stupid. It's not really a good thing to say. Where did you hear this?" I asked.

"A rap song," he replied proudly.

We chatted with him, a volunteer at the temple's dining hall. He invited us to see the kitchen's chapati machine. How could we pass up such an offer? Following him from room to room, we witnessed what it takes to prepare meals for some 80,000 people. Cauldrons boiled curries, machines kneaded dough and pumped out flat bread; an assembly line of dish washers efficiently cleaned thousands of plates, bowls, and spoons; groups of people peeled and cut vegetables and garlic--almost all the workers are volunteers.

After our tour we returned to the temple to see what it looked like in the full moon light. The golden temple was shimmering, casting its color into the surrounding water. People continued to circle, bathe, and pray. It was a beautiful look into India in the middle of a dirty, bustling city.

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