Sort of. After being in McLeod Ganj for two weeks I kind of forgot that I was in India since it’s pretty much Tibetans everywhere around there. Then today, I along with my Mexican friend Cesar (aka Pablo or Diego or Manuel) and my Israeli friend Itai (aka Pad Thai or Kobe Tai) woke up at 3 a.m. to catch a 4 a.m. bus to Dharamsala from where we were going to take a 5 a.m. bus to Amritsar. It was all really tightly coordinated.
And as is the norm in India, the 4 a.m. bus hadn’t shown up by 4:30 so we cabbed it to Dharamsala instead so we wouldn’t miss our next bus. The highlight of the bus ride was stopping for 15 minutes in Pathankot where I bought some awesome potato samosas for breakfast. I kinda missed having Indian food all around all the time as McLeod Ganj was mostly Tibetan cuisine and the Indian food was okay. And unlike the norm in India, we actually arrived in Amritsar two hours ahead of schedule! I believe this was the first time since 1982 that this has happened here.
The main attraction in Amritsar is the Golden Temple, the Sikh’s holiest temple. Sikhism was founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak who was protesting the caste system and the oppression of the Muslim rulers. I learned most of this because some guy stopped me in the street and began reading, in English, from this Intro to Sikhism pamphlet. I don’t believe he knew what any of the words meant; he just knew how the letters sounded. His friends gathered around us were cracking up and I found it humorous when he began reading until he tuned the page and just continued. There was at least 50 pages in this thing and I fortunately managed to cut him off after the first page or else I’d probably still be there.
The whole time we were in Amritsar was like this. People were fascinated by three white tourists and were constantly asking to be in our pictures, and then crowding around to look at the pictures we just took, and then asking ‘Excuse me sir, what is your good name?’ and ‘Where are you from?’ and answering these questions 100’s of times. I kind of felt like the hot chic at a bar getting all the attention. It’s great and flattering at first but it gets kinda old after a while.
The Sikhs are some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. And not just nice-because-they’re-not-rude, but outwardly showing their kindness. While we were in the temple we noticed that some people were getting these orange colored packets, about the size of a phat stack of dollar bills.
We asked this guy what they were all about and he explained that there were sweets inside and that the orange wrapping was a turban. He then offered each of us one of these packets as his family had accumulated several of them. Cesar and I each took one, thanked the man and then left the temple. We decided to rest for a while and bought some ice-cold Cokes in a bottle, just like they had in the U.S. back in the day and they cost just 5 Rupees, which is around 10 cents. As we’re sitting drinking our Cokes a small crowd started gathering around us as they were taking an interest in the orange turbans we had folded in our laps.
Then this young girl approaches us and tells us she wants to help us put the turbans on. Before you know it she’s tying Cesar’s around his head while two men have come over and are wrapping mine around me. And there was a crowd of at least 20 people standing around watching us, laughing and taking it all in. I never realized how Sikh I could look but it’s a bit scary.
The temple grounds are massive and there were at least a couple of thousand Sikhs there on a weekday. In the temple itself three men were playing music, two on a tabled accordion and one on drums and the music goes on all the time, playing through Bose speakers (nice touch) all over the temple grounds. Around the temple is a big pool of water where you’ll find men stripping down to their underwear to bathe, but never taking their turban off. To enter the temple grounds you have to wear a turban, even the tourists, and they’re very strict about no shoes to the point that you can’t even carry them or have them in your bag. And the place is immaculately clean.
There were people on hands and knees cleaning the whole time we were there. I’ve never seen anything like it before. And a couple of the highlights of the Golden Temple are that they not only have free accomodation (we got a 3 person room to ourselves) but also offer free food 24 hours a day. I’ve heard they feed 30,000 people a day. Of course you can make a donation but in addition to that we pitched in with some kitchen volunteering. After we ate we joined the assembly dish washing line where I put in my dishwashing experience from my 10 days at Tushita. It’s a quiet activity and no one talks as you’re supposed to be serving your fellow man.
But one young guy across from me couldn’t help himself and started whispering across the sink, asking me where I was from etc. After a couple of minutes he just walked over next to me and we had a full on conversation. He’s 20 and wants to go get his degree in Melbourne, Australia. He was very concerned how people would judge him because of his turban and his broken English, asking if people on the plane would be okay with him flying with them.
I guess that’s where we’ve come to in this world. I did my best to assure him that he would absolutely fine and that his English was more than enough to get by. He also told me that he doesn’t watch American movies because they have crime and sex. He then clarified by saying that he doesn’t watch them when his parents are home, only when he’s home alone. That’s my kind of guy.
I hate to admit this but my preconceived impression of the Sikhs was that they were a very serious lot, as the turban has this way of making the men seem like they’re scowling at you. And their past political stories especially in the 80’s clouded my judgment too and I found myself being apprehensive when telling people I was from the U.S., like I wasn’t sure what there reaction would be. Surprisingly they were really interested and wanted to talk even more.
And the whole experience with the dishwasher guy and the crowd circling us for the impromptu turban wrapping ceremony got me thinking that maybe I can do my part to change some people’s perception of Americans and help them realize that we’re really not so different from each other. And that underneath all the political, religious and social differences all we really want is to laugh and be happy. And wear orange turbans.