I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, the people we meet, the decisions we make, our reactions to all actions lead us to where we are in our lives and essentially who we will become. The present, the unexpected and that is the journey that shapes who we are today, that is why we travel. That is why we step into the unknown.
With my mantra and mission statement, I tend to avoid doing research before reaching a destination. For me a site to see, is yes stunning, beautiful, a wonder of the world! However, it is through the frame of reference in which we approach, the people that we meet and the perceptive we have that shape and develop our experiences. It is for me those people that make a place, a memory, a goose bump making, spine shivering, soul shaking moment. Without all those factors a thing is just a thing, with them you can find yourself in places you never expected, building relationships you never knew possible and find yourself believing in the pull of the universe. This is the beauty of travel and the journey of self-discovery, to truly live and not exist, to explore and get lost in hopes to be found. Personally, I feel that the research takes away the fun, the lack of planning leads to chance and possibility, who knows where it could take you. Finding your way in a foreign place is the hit of travel, the adrenaline, excitement that we all grave, and the sense of achievement when you unravel the tube map, locate the best Pani Puri in town, or become a” local”. I feel If I wanted to read about a country, I could save myself a hell of a lot of travel time and money and simply read about it from the comfort of my own home, guaranteed to have hot water, a fluffy white duvet and tissue paper. Surely Netflix or YouTube has any documentary you could imagine. With that, ill trust in my omens and listen to my pull and see where it takes me.
Three days into India and I’m feeling it might take some time to get my traveller juices flowing. India is not for the faint heart, the irritable bowled or back seat driver. With that being said, I’m coming to learn, it is 100% for the kind, the loving, the accepting and the conscious. Delhi to Amritsar, destination number 2 waits for me on the other side of my very first, India Volvo AC sleeper seater night bus experience. I don’t know what I found more amusing, more terrifying and simply after seeing the Delhi traffic therefore more predictable. Was it that the bus driver was giving it full pedal whilst hurtling down what would be known as a “motorway”. The term motorway here seems debatable as with all means of transport being foot, bike, Tuk Tuk, car, bus, lorry, elephant or camel, if the roads aren’t overwhelmed and sardined with minimal movement, only that where the palm meets the wheel giving a constant drone of horns, sirens and the occasion and questionable melodic, yet invasive song. The only rule stands, there are no rules. Three lanes become five, occasionally six if you include the car driving up the wrong way, a speed limit becomes a number challenging how many times to can spit out the window and the traffic signals are just a road side disco. Here at 2am, with free reign of the road, still using his horn regardless, most likely as a personal alarm to keep him awake after his 20 hour long double shift, 7th day of week, our driver has decided to multiply the speed limit by his favourite number for a laugh, I’m going with the number 3. Whilst driving like a mad man, cigarette in one hand, phone to ear in the other, is this just Europe in some twisted nightmare. Was it that with the consequences of this driving, if you could call it that, taking a piss whilst being on the bus was the most intense leg suspension work out I’ve ever done, whilst squatting over the whole in the ground in determination not to touch a thing or give myself a golden shower. Over the years of weight abuse through sheer volume of load, luggage and crop, the pot whole penetration and the “same same, but different” attitude has resulted the bus springs to be a thing of a distant aspiration. Then only to have the driver slam on the breaks to be thrown forward, pants around my knees, never ankles when the risk of touching the floor is there and me go face first into spooning the wall! Or finally that I was the only female, never mind tourist person on the bus. I’m semi wishing there was a padlock on my sleeper cabinet sliding door to keep any unwanted prey out! Although saying that I do trust that no one will harm me, the guys in the cabins next to me seem youngish and just like the idea that they shared a ride with a westerner, I feel more intrigue over attack. The bus driver however is absolutely in attack mode as I continue to bounce up and down within my little 1.5/1m cubicle. I do have all my possessions with me none the less so that makes me feel a little safer. Knowing that I am as I am, and as I am is being curled up with everything that I own, or technically it owns me. This is quite the introduction to my solo mission in India and certainly carving my expectations. I’m learning there really is a huge different in walking alone than with someone. Not only for the safety, protection and companionship but purely for the sheer interest, entertainment and conversation. The distraction from staring back into the many faces staring straight at you. As a solo traveller you have no choice but to walk with confidence, head held high and stride into the crowds, in India, this art is like balancing on a tight rope. Don’t have presence and make no progress, have too much presence and your every man’s next potential wife, the Indian men fall hard and fast, certainly at the feet of western women. Without company, staring into the distance just makes it hard to ignore that everyone is looking only at you. I can’t help but feel a little self-conscious, cautious and truthfully a little alone.
I survived the bus journey, quite successfully although very much suffering with sleep deprivation. Arriving in the dark to Amritsar at 6am, now is not the time to be walking around or looking for the Golden Temple. I had planned on staying there and volunteering, however later I find out why finding a hostel was very much a wise move at this early cold hour. An old man offers a lift in his rickshaw and when I say offers, this of course comes at a tourist cost. First hesitating as you never know who to trust… I decline. After a few moments staring at maps on my phone, in the cool, crisp 6am air, stood in the darkness by an alley, Its quite apparent I don’t have many other options. For a mere 50 Rupees I jump on the back holding myself in position with my backpacks at an extra 20KGs and doing a final body check for camera, wallet, passport and phone, the old Sikh man pedalled into the night. It’s frosty, and quite fresh, the air is clean and clear, certainly the opposite to Delhi’s smog and constant cloud. I’m not sure how to feel, but what warms me up from the inside out, as I turn to the right, floating in a sea of dreams, I see the super moon. In that moment I think of my sister. Not quite blue, nor red, not much bigger than a normal large full moon, none the less looking somewhat wise, bright and a shining star that fills my thoughts with confidence, she puts my body as ease and fills my heart with love and security, I am home.
Arriving at the hostel with no booking the 2 brothers welcome me in, rubbing their eyes they talk me through my options and of course ask my interests of being in Amristar giving me a mini introduction and virtual guided tour of its religious history. With little, well NO research, my response goes as far to say the Golden Temple and continue by asking them as locals what they think. I realise that my method can sometimes come across as looking uninterested, unaware, naive or just lazy or maybe I’m just very good at articulating that it isn’t all those things, I assure you, it’s much more fun this way. Both Jagroop and Ravi are warrior status within the Sikh religion which is 80% of the population here in Punjjab, they have lived their whole lives on a farm in a village 20km from the city and worked on night shift in the hostel for 5 years. Jagroop spoke great English, Ravi had attempted English collage a few times, but kept leaving due to successfully winning over a girlfriend and therefore seeing a slight shift in his priorities. He is absolutely the cheeky one of the two and can get away with a lot even without the more common used verbal language means of communication. Jagroop goes on to ask in a somewhat assumptive and leading tone if ill be going to the border? My response is totally clueless as he explains it’s the done thing and is the border lines between Pakistan and India. He expresses that it is a dance, a show from each side of the enemy lines, performed every day to acknowledge and celebrate their separation. With the split happening in 1947 I really have little knowledge of the nature of the destruction, war and separation to the country. If this is a done thing, something written in the hurdles of history and an event which shapes the present lands I explore, I sign myself up for the trip leaving at 1pm that afternoon. Sipping on my Chai, chatting about anything and everything I feel very comfortable and once again, good energy all around, once again I feel at home.
TukTuking to the border I use the 40km to catch up on some sleep. Dosing in and out of snoozing, I begin to day dream the public display of gratitude and solidarity I’m about to witness. In my mind I see woman and men dancing on either side of the border, colours and silver, hymns and drums, chants of acceptance and love that two countries now accept that the other seeks and new destiny. My thoughts go to a love of India and the humility, integrity and beauty of the people that I have already come to identify in a short space of time. Despite being divided they come together every day to celebrate that they are at peace. Of course the gift of hind site is a beautiful thing and it isn’t until we arrive that I find out that the performance is actually a nationalist military dance and it is approximately 3 mins into the show that I see, feel and accept that my initial expectations were far from correct and that I’m going to hate this entire experience.
My initial assumptions were so far gone, thinking it was tribal dances to show a mutual understanding and respect of the countries separation. Quite naive it would seem and a little too hopeful of a peaceful world. I find it is a military parade, not quite peacocking but gorilla chest pounding, testosterone led men making a stance to the better or stronger side. This for me is only a terrible and poor representation of this world, the Indian people but also a huge metaphor displayed in physical performance of the worlds ugly truths. This all takes place in a large roman like auditorium built for the very purpose of this show and continue to act this mockery every day. Surly this can only mean its purpose is for tourism and entertainment, not anything that holds truth, authenticity or validly. Woman run to the front, snaking through the crowds to form a que in the centre stage. As the woman run back and forth relaying with the Indian flag the crowd go wild, the men dance and rejoice as though this act alone will save their souls and transcend them to a better after life. Questioning this ritual in my mind I come to the assumption that as the woman run, every step is a step to independence, a new direction, the “right” direction. The freewill and liberalism of the Indian woman is slapped across the Pakistanis faces with every wave of the Indian flag. This display certainly doesn’t give the impression of light hearted entertainment and tourist attraction. There is something else written over all the faces in that arena, through the words being spoken and an almost sickening energy in the air.
As the chanting and applause start on each side I can’t help but get goose bumps all through my body. I’m not quite sure what they are saying, how they are feeling but I know they are all over my body, head to toe! As the drums pound in Pakistan, and the trumpets play in India it is a musical dance off with the crowds shouting over the other. The Indians noise is the directed over the border, as if to say “look what you left? Look how strong we are, look how PROUD we are.” Sadly, I can’t help but think, is this India’s wounded ego of losing their beloved land, their friends and essentially their family. A mirror image, but much smaller mirror, is reflected on the Pakistani side, only words of “were better off” and “you should have left” Really what can each country gain from doing this ceremony or daily ritual? Crowds cheering, waves of Indians screaming, chanting football hooligan-esque. Quite the opposite to today’s temple, the energy the country has already given me and all this for just another site to see, another tourist attraction. Personally, I see nothing “attractive” about this shameful act of humanity. The guards, dancers, showmen, whatever you could call them, proceed to the gates on each side, arms held strong with aggression and attacks. Legs kicks above the head, I imagine the higher the kick the closer to holiness they get. This cannot be part of military training, I wouldn’t think that they have a gymnastics module? Are they military men or employed actors? Seriously it’s a show. If I was a respected military officer I would not want to partake in drama, I would have taken an amateur acting class instead. There is then a little head shake from one to the other, I’m not sure whether this is simply telling the other solder not to smile and stay in character, or a disapproving, resonating anger that keeps them in character as this charade of shame placed on the Pakistanis.
As they continue chanting, the goose bumps are back, this time they feel like pain, anger, uncertainty, PRIDE, the need and desire to be a part of something. The need to be BETTER, to compare and to compete. Unfortunately, I am not filled with solidarity, wholeness, togetherness and love. Even though we are all together, I feel no sense of community, as to me, community is about a team, and with that comes all kind of ships. And ships, riding the waves, although sometimes may be high, low and a little rocky, they are progressive and accepting. The soldiers are so proud, proud of their dance, their unity of song. It’s the crowd, the presenter in his comic showman manners cheering the crowd on, the cameras, the Mexican waves, the reality of what this ceremony has become, and even the very nature in how it was born, that make it a performance, a bizarre sensation, a sad and ugly truth. I’ve been here three days, I’ve seen some beautiful acts from the Indian people already, I’m sure I’ll see a lot more. And through lack of knowledge and experience am not able to make any assumptions or declarations on their people, however this is certainly a sad event for me. This is not the Indian culture I see and love. See and respect. This act I feel is truly based on ego. In a way I feel sorry for the Pakistan side, as how can they compete to the sheer masses on the Indian side. Is this just a visual representation of the status of the 2 countries? In addition, when a country seeks and gains independence, it isn’t always the locals of the present who wanted it, nor fought for it, however they are the ones who will continue to be reminded of it. Therefore, for Indians thereafter, even to the present day, any Pakistani is still seen and acknowledged as someone who left. The wound of war is the hardest to heal, and once you leave you can never go back. How can you mend a broken heart? I feel in some cases this is possible, but from what I see here today, for the Indian people that is a very long way away. If this show and performance is truly representative of real emotions, then it’s sad to say that the Neighbouring countries, once sharing the same family and mother tongue have chosen and continue to lead a very sad fate. More so, if this is a representation to our world, how it works, what has happened in the past, what is happening in the present, and what we can expect of the future, then that truly is deeply soul destroying indeed. Two countries who once shared the same, Kulcha, chapati and chai now drown each other out with their chants to defeat.
At the end of the ceremony the take down their flags. This is done at an angle on each side as if to represent a crossing over, a change of land and space. They cross the flags in the middle, this could be something towards an agreement, an exchange. They slide gracefully from their heights, the calm after the storm, the surrender and despite everything an acceptance to remain in peace. My body, mind and soul is overwhelmed with turmoil and confusion as to what the last hour was about. The bordering cities in Punjap may continue to keep their guns and machines as bay, however in the Northern state of Kashmir, there is very much a civil war going on with Pakistan. It’s a smile, with an ulterior motive, an act of keep your friends close, but your enemies closer, a promise with a stich behind your back. The faces I see today, the screams, the chants, the pride isn’t coming from a place of peace and love, unfortunately it’s far from it. A non-violent ceremony but brutal in a battle field of emotions.
After a month in India, traveling other bordering cities and 71 years after the divide I see the ripples of the catastrophe that was the British empire. The devastation that they left. The heart ache created. The genocide still occurring. People leaving their homes in the middle of the night abandoning every sense of home. The Ratcliff line drawn through the darkness, sent lives into the unknown. Dividing living rooms, families, friends, states, people and a nation. The wall may have been built, the reality might have happened, that fight might of ended but the war is very much still going on.