I know we’re lucky, exceptionally so, and as much as we try and experience everything we can do, everything available, often things fade into a memory that we’ll perhaps recollect one day. Of course some things hold a real significance and provide for much more frequent memories, or things you look back to fondly. They can be real obscure memories like trying to cook burgers on a BBQ at the Grand Canyon – In a thunderstorm because we were so short of cash we had no other choice. Or the time we scaled a volcano in Indonesia, sat waiting for the cloud to clear in order to get a better view. Then there are the obvious memories, the Taj Mahal, Disney World in Florida, The Statue of Liberty – Memories borne through extravagance. But the memories which mean the most in regards to travel for me, are the ones that weren’t planned, and often they are things that at the time seem really insignificant. Like driving all the way to a place in Texas to see some cars stuck out of the ground and then not going to see them because it was muddy, $5 footlongs, hanging out of a tuk tuk in Jakarta, throwing the kids in a fountain for the laugh in Orlando, waking up in Malaysia and spending the day in Singapore – Losing Abi in Singapore, having a bird shit on my chest in Santa Monica, hiring a speed boat in Thailand because I feared Charlie had Malaria; All things that at the time didn’t seem to be memorable but now make for amazing or powerful memories.
I say this because we ended up in Amritsar and though largely unplanned we ended up seeing, in all our opinions the most beautiful building on earth (seeing it at night sealed it) and then experienced probably the most fascinating ceremony we ever have witnessed.
It’s no secret that India and Pakistan aren’t best of friends, they are more like siblings of resentment. They get along because they have to, but deep down they despise each other. Actually even now there are pockets of violence not too far from here in Kashmir (the next State north) In what is an immensely complex situation, the essence is that when India gained Independence efforts were made to draw borders of what was India and what was Pakistan. Essentially, Eastern Pakistan became Bangladesh and in the West Punjab (where we are now) was split. It had a large populous of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh, was particularly affluent and had two major cities within it – Amritsar and Lahore. The British bloke given the task of setting the boundary of the New India figured the best and fairest thing to do was to simply draw a line on a map splitting the towns equidistant from each other, with Lahore being in Pakistan and Amritsar being in India. As a result of this around 10 million people had to move countries and around half a million people were slaughtered. Though the dust has settled there is still a deep resentment between India and Pakistan. The crossing between the two countries is 30km West of Amritsar at Wagah. A dusty frontier of just a few people cooking up corn on coal fires and kids selling water, the place comes alive just before sunset when up to 10,000 people head there to watch the comical theatrics of the border closing ceremony.
About 50 years ago the Indians decided to hold a ceremony just as the sun begins to set, of them closing the gate. Done in pure pomp and colonial circumstance it is a fascinating show of Indian military kicking themselves in the face, aggression and I really can’t think of a better way of explaining it, than by plagiarising LP by saying its like watching Monty Python. It really is! But it is done not in a tired way that tells of boredom and insignificance. It is done with energy, but more importantly, with an ‘up yours attitude’
Let me elaborate.
There is a road which goes from India, through the Indian gate and then within a foot, the Pakistan gate. From both gates is a huge seating area where the ‘audience’ sit and watch the ceremony. Pissed off with India shouting how awesome they were the Pakistanis watched the Indians do their thing. They then decided to do the exact same on their side of the border. Over the years this has escalated into a full ceremony with the Indians sat on one side screaming “Hindustan zindabad” (Long live India) waving massive flags and with the Pakistanis chanting “Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan” and waving equally large national flags. Of course they both try and outdo each other in regards to the loudness of their music.
Being a foreigner we got VIP seating and so got awesome seats (completely free). But before that we paid 400 INR for a tuk tuk from Amritsar that dropped us off about 500m from the border. We queued with the women and so escaped the mass hysteria in the mens queue. Not entirely sure of whether it’s ok or not, but we never got bothered. In any case, they women were pretty feisty too!
India is a proud nation – Seriously. Indians love being Indian, they have the largest democracy on earth by far and love to tell people. The woman that won bronze (that’s right, Bronze) is deemed to be a national hero, the government have given her cash, and her face and every comment she makes is plastered on the front page of the national papers every day. In total thus far India has won just 4 medals (1 silver and 3 bronze) and is 43rd in the table. The point is, these people are national hero’s and India loves it. The whole country does. They are intensely proud of their history, of their nation and of their future. And so, as you can imagine, the atmosphere at the border ceremony was electric. Abi and Charlie were selected to run the Indian flag to the Pakistani gate along with a few others. In front of thousand of people they ran with the National flag to the gate, on the other side were about 3 thousand Pakistanis all screaming “Pakistan” and on the Indian side they had 10 thousand Indians all on their feet cheering for them. personally I was hoping no one lobbed a grenade over the fence. But it was amazing to watch, to listen and to feel. They absolutely loved it. 4 Hours later (as I write this) Charlie is still smiling.
In what for me was a a mixture between complete disrespect and indication of the relationship between the two nations, Pakistan blasted out its national anthem, the Pakistanis on their feet waving their flag and singing. Suddenly, on full blast the words “Jai Ho” rang out. About a thousand Indian woman all gatecrashed the road and to the A R Rahman – Slumdog Millionaire anthem, danced in true Bollywood style like it was New Years eve. It was fantastic to see and in a country where largely women are free I wondered what the Pakistani’s felt and pondered.
In any case, after a lot of goading, but harmony between both sides of the military, and then slamming of gates and removal of flags, the border was shut and the countries isolated from each other once more.
Having been at many sporting events the atmosphere was very different, one team against another is one thing, but here was two countries against each other and it was absolutely fascinating. I wouldn’t say it was hostile at all, but what shone through was the national pride from both sides. It’s quite obvious that India is ridiculously wealthier than Pakistan and whilst the Pakistanis were made up largely of men in full Pakistani dress, the Indian side was of men women and children wearing everything from traditional attire to jeans and a T shirt. To the kids and me India completely stole the show and made a mockery of Pakistan, and it was easy to feel sorry for them. But amongst all the emotion, atmosphere, pomp, and cheering – We felt oddly proud of India too.
It’s that feeling, that tiny part of this epic journey, that for me, will be a memory I have for a long time.
And again I find myself nipping off the tourist trial, taking the kids outside of their comfort zone and finding something amazing, something special, something memorable, but above all feeling it too.
This was what travel is all about.