3rd September 2017

Amritsar, India


Yesterday, I’d witnessed animals being sacrificed, slaughtered, and cut open in the streets, at the beginning of the Eid ul-Adha festival.  That was what I’d stuck around Pakistan a few extras days to see.  Now, it was time to move on.

 

I took a rickshaw to the border, where I was met with the same passport checks on the approach as last time.  The police directed me into the customs building, by the side of the road leading to the crossing.  My bag was scanned, my visa was checked, and passport was stamped.  The building was empty, save for the few officials who had to return to their desks when they saw me coming.

 

As I walked through the building, a man hung around me, trying to exchange Pakistani Rupees for Indian.  His rates weren’t bad (55 Indian to 100 Pakistani, where it should be 61:100), but he was acting suspiciously.  I asked him to make the exchange on a counter, where we could each lay out our notes, and no sleight-of-hand would be possible.  He insisted on doing the deal with us standing in a quiet corner, where the officials couldn’t see us.

“Fine, I don’t want your money!” he shouted at me, when I refused to do the transaction his way.  “Go away!”

By the time I’d left the customs building, he was back.

“Ok, how much you want to change?”

“I thought you said you didn’t want my money?”

“No, I just asked if you wanted small notes or big notes . . .”

 

I changed 2,000 Pakistani Rupees with him, just under half of the total I was carrying.  I insisted that we sit down by the roadside, and carefully counted out all the notes.  I looked up a few pictures of Indian Rupees on the internet, to confirm the cash he was giving me was genuine.

 

I walked into the stadium, where I’d watched the flag-lowering ceremony a few days ago.  A final official checked my passport.  I walked through the Pakistani gates, across the narrow strip of no-man’s-land, and into India.

 

I was immediately greeted by an official, who had a quick scan of my passport, then sent me walking through the Indian stadium, towards a few soldiers standing beside a bus.  One of the men guided a German Shepherd to sniff my backpack.  The dog didn’t seem very well trained, needing repeated commands to make it work.

 

A short bus ride later, I was at the Indian customs building.  Another soldier brought a Labrador over to sniff my bag.  This one seemed totally untrained.  Despite the soldier forcefully yanking the lead, to direct the dog’s nose into my backpack, it didn’t sniff once.

 

Inside the large, quiet building, I was sent to a few desks to fill out paperwork, and a few security checkpoints for myself and my bag to be frisked and scanned.  In this building, there was an official money changer, rather than a man with wads of cash in his pockets.  I exchanged 2,700 at a rate of 51 Indian to 100 Pakistani: a slightly worse rate than I’d been offered earlier, but at least I trusted the officials here to give me real money.

 

An elderly French couple arrived into the customs building, just as I was getting ready to leave.  I overheard from their interactions with the clerks that they were crossing with their own vehicle.  I stuck around to talk to them, in the hope I might get a free ride to the nearest city.

“It was great to meet you!” the man said to me, after a few minutes of conversation.  “I wish you the best of luck in your travels!  Is there anything we could do to help you out?  Anything at all?”

“Are you driving to Amritsar?” I asked.

“Yes, but I am afraid we do not take passengers.”

I wondered why he’d even asked if I needed any help.  Obviously, a lift was the only thing I would have wanted.

 

A gang of taxi drivers were ready to pounce, as soon as I walked out of the customs building, into India proper.  I was faced with the usual issue when hiring a taxi in a new country: I had absolutely no idea how much I should be paying.  The men asked for 800 Rupees (around €11).  I asked for 400.  I was told they could do 400, but I would be dropped at Amritsar train station, a few kilometers walk from the city centre, where the hostels were.  I told them in that case I’d only pay 300.  I had to walk away before one came after me, agreeing to the price.  I later learned I should have paid around 100.  As we drove away, I saw a sign by the taxi rank, claiming the ride would cost 1,000 Rupees.  It was a fitting introduction to Indian pricing systems.

 

After a half-hour drive, and a forty minute walk through Amritsar’s chaotic streets, I checked into Backpacker’s Nest Hostel, a small, busy guesthouse in the very centre of the city.  After spending the past three months travelling through Iran and Pakistan, it was a welcome relief to see other tourists about the place.  I actually had to resist the urge to enthusiastically greet fellow westerners on the street, as I would have done one month ago.

 

I wasn’t special anymore, I had to remind myself.  Back in Iran and Pakistan, if I walked into a restaurant, the staff would be very surprised to have a foreigner in their establishment, and would treat me with huge interest and attentiveness.  Here, I learned on this first evening in India, I was just another tourist; one of many, many, many.

 

I visited the Golden Temple at sunrise: a 16th century Sikh shrine; the holiest in the religion.  I followed the crowds of worshippers and sightseers, by removing my shoes, putting on a hair-covering, and walking clockwise around the temple, built on an island in the centre of an enormous, manmade lake.  It was spectacular.