The bus was the regular city sort and we shuffled into our hard twin seats with the locals. There was enough room that Luis and I had our own benches and I dozed the first two or so hours of the six hour ride, in and out of that interruption filled, open mouthed, upright seated sleep that isn't all that restful. I was glad to get any kind of sleep though, through the shuddering lumber of the bus and the semi-constant blare of the drivers horn. Once we got back into the lower elevation (heat and smog) it became increasingly uncomfortable and with the combination of a lack of sleep, the heat and driving back into what I knew was a big, engrossing city, I ended the ride sweaty, hungry and irritable (sorry Luis)!
We got off the bus and were followed around by a taxi driver that pretended we didn't answer "no" every time he asked if we needed a ride. Instead, we bargained with an elderly driver with a green motorized tuk tuk. We hadn't booked any accommodations and hadn't eaten anything other than the few snacks we packed, so food and a bed for the night were high on our to-do list. The driver dropped us off before the traffic for the Golden Temple became more of a hassle than the price we'd agreed upon was worth. We walked into a small restaurant where the owner sat us under the fan and ordered deliciously fried bread and curry so I could eat my way back into my more pleasant self.
The owner helped us find a reasonably priced hotel and after checking in we took an hour for some much needed R&R. Refreshed, we walked through the half-paved, half-dirt roads crowded with people, restaurants, lassie shops and stray dogs to the Golden Temple. We weren't far and it was maybe ten minutes before we were swapping the city landscape for the white, marble surrounding walls of the temple. We entered from the South and sat down on one of the benches to take off and check our shoes. The marble floor had been soaking up the sun all day and was hot against our feet. We half ran/half hopped to the covered shoe check where we traded our shoes for a small coin with a number etched on it. I watched as the man placed mine into a small cubby, hoping I'd get the same pair back when I returned. We then followed the green, scratchy mats of fake grass to the stream that preceded the archwayed entrance. We washed our feet in the cold, refreshing water and covered our heads with the cloth provided, then walked under the marble archway to the inner walkway and the sight of the Golden Temple, directly across from us, in the water.
There were half naked men bathing in the water and both men and women walking the prayer lap towards the gurdwara (place of worship) in the middle of the pool. Orange Koi shared the water with the bathers, men in turbans and long white robes walked around with swords hanging from their waists and the Indian women, with their saris, filled the temple with all colors and shades of the rainbow. We made our way slowly to the side opposite where we'd entered, observing the people walking by, the families sitting in circles on the ground and the beggars resting in the shade. Some had round bellies that contrasted sharply with the rest of their skin and bone frame. I guessed they'd recently eaten the free meal of rice and daal offered to anyone that visited the temple.
The gudwara itself was magnificent. The gold leaf covered top half glittered while the bottom, made of sparkling clean white marble, stuck out against the blue water and the multicolored clothing of the people walking behind it, on the bridge or worshiping just outside its doors. It had looked freestanding from where we'd entered, but walking around, the bridge that linked it to our path came into view. We reached the bridge, ducked under the ornate golden doorway and followed the crowd onto the middle isle, sectioned off from those going in the other direction by golden banisters and hand rails. We reached the Akal Takht, the "throne of the timeless one" and again followed the crowd, this time weaving in and out of those actually worshipping. I stopped and watched the people prostrate and pray when I could, but with the flow of those around me it was hard to stand in one spot for more than a few seconds. I nestled myself into a corner for a minute or so, momentarily losing Luis to the crowd. I focused my attention on one of the men kneeling in front of me and the golden gate in front of him. He was wearing a blue turban, a white robe and had a wiry black and white beard that reached to the middle of his chest. His lips moved, although I couldn't hear his voice, and he swayed gently, back and forth, the surrounding world lost to him. I lost myself also, in watching him, coming to when a women walking by bumped into me. I continued around the rest of the building, looping in and out of the doorways to similar scenes of worship and caught up to Luis before we walked back across the bridge.
Back on the main walkway we were given prasad, a blessed food offering, on a banana leaf. The sweet yellow food tasted and looked a little like pound cake, although granier and slightly more ooey and gooey. We walked back to find our shoes where we had left them and headed to our hotel in enough time to get an early dinner before heading to the India/Pakistan border.
Our hotel offered a guide service to the border and we booked it because I wanted some insight into what I was about to see, even though it was 500 INR (roughly $8), and we could have gotten a tuk tuk there and navigated our own way in for 100 INR (~ $1.50).
Our guide told us a brief intro about what we'd be seeing and pointed out some sights along the way. There was a university, a military base and lots of farm land. Luis and I interrupted him frequently to ask a question or get clarity on something we didn't understand. He passed the rest of the hour by telling us about his life, where he grew up, where he learned his English, how he became a guide, etc.
When we got to the border, he parked the car and told us to follow the crowd; he'd be in the car waiting for us. I thought he was going in also, but he mumbled something about foreigners and Indians having to sit separately and said he'd be at the car, ready to answer all our questions when we returned. There was a separate entrance for foreigners, but eventually we all got funneled into the same security line and led to the stadium like seating enclosing the road that ran out of India and into Pakistan.
We sat on the bottom row of the bleachers, cramming into the only places we could find and waited for the ceremony to begin. The border patrol were dressed in Kakhi flood length uniforms decorated depending on their ranking and topped off with a red hat carrying what looked like a splayed fan on top. There were some announcements made in Hindi and the guards began to randomly pick Indians from the crowd to run up and down the street carrying the Indian flag. There were mothers with their children, solo women and men and older couples all showing their pride, trotting to the border and back carrying their national flag. We all cheered them on as their families stepped out to take pictures and they waved both to them and to the crowd in general.
The guards stopped calling people down and collected the flag so they could line up and perform their overly aggressive border dance. There was stomping and rigid waving arms combined with a series of yells and walking front kicks. The jerky movements matched the series of stomps, grunts and bellows. There faces were a mask of anger and contempt and I felt like I was watching a war preparation rather than a flag lowering ceremony. Seriously, the testosterone was running high. The Pakistani guards had their own combative dance and the two forces met in the middle when the gate opened. The flags were lowered simultaneously and loud music came over the speakers as the gates closed and the official ceremony came to an end. The crowds started to dance and eventually spilled from the bleachers to the street, dancing, shouting and smiling. All the militaristic gestures were replaced with snapping fingers and swirling hips as everyone transitioned into party mode.
Eventually, the music stopped and the crowds dispersed as we all walked back to whatever mode of transportation had gotten us there in the first place. We got back in the car and I peppered our guides with questions, slowly coming to the understanding that he didn't really know that much about the border crossing, at least not enough to answer my questions. He knew more about the few landmarks on the way and the regurgitated description of the flag ceremony than any real meaning behind it. He had a funny habit of answering questions he didn't know with stories from his personal life, so we did get an insight into life for a twenty-something in that area.
He dropped us off in a section of the city with a fair amount of restaurants and we found ourselves a Southern Indian place to have some of the coconut infused cuisine we'd grown so fond of in our month at the ashram. We finished eating and flagged down a bicycle powered rickshaw driver to take us back to the hotel. We paid him for a ride, but still got out and walked (and helped push!) to the top of the one uphill portion of our journey, then hugged the side of the street as we merged into traffic with the larger, faster vehicles. It's a wonder I made it out of India alive…
When we got back to the hotel, I went almost directly to bed, still lagging from the early wake up and change in environment. Luis went back to the Golden Temple at night. He showed me his pictures in the morning; it looked beautiful lit up against the night sky and reflecting off the pool around it.
That afternoon, we hopped on the same bus, heading in the opposite direction, and wound our way back into higher, cooler, calmer Dharamsala.