A beautiful old man, stray dogs and snow-peaked mountains

I paid a grand total of 10 Indian rupees (about 12p) for a roadside chai tea masala (with extra ginger please!) The cardamom circled my tongue and went down a treat. As we drank the sweet tea in little paper cups, under the star light – we were joined by an old man, who proudly told us that he was 70 years old.

His smile was crooked and his voice was soft and sounded like a nightingale’s song. After speaking with us for a maximum of 30 seconds, he touched my head and gave me his blessing. He then said, “tomorrow, you be here.”

“No, I’m sorry. We leave Amritsar tomorrow.”

“No, tomorrow, you be here.”

“No, sorry. We leave and go to Dharamshala tomorrow.”

“No, tomorrow you be here.”

He really wasn’t getting it, was he?

But before the 70 year old man got on his scooter and rode off into the moonlit side road in central Amristar, he touched my head once more, blessed my precious life, and said for the final time, “Tomorrow, you will be here.” He tapped his heart whilst saying this. “You will always be with me here.”

27th February

Today we venture further north to Dharamshala. It is in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains and it is a place both Mum and I are struggling to say. It is supposed to be Dar-am-shall-ah, but so far it has been Duh-haram, D-haram-salla, Daram-sall-shalla…

Yesterday Mum told Gobind, “We’re going to Dar-am-shlow-mo tomorrow.” — That is definitely not correct.

Dharamshala, Dharamshala, Dharamshala. We practice and laugh.

After a five hour drive, we arrived at our hotel in between upper Dharamshala and lower Dharamshala. I guess you could call it, ‘middle’ Dharamshala. (Man, I’ve said Dharamshala too much). It’s almost 3,000ft above sea-level and apart from the loud, barking dogs, it’s rather quiet. The place we are staying at seems more like a house than a hotel – it’s old Indian style – quite grand but in a ‘could-definitely-do-with-a-lick-of-paint’ kind of way.

We spent the afternoon hiking to upper Dharamshala. Mum got a bit cranky and did not appreciate my springy, hiking enthusiasm.

The nights are cold. Freezing in fact. After an Indian feast I returned to the chilly room to find that a kind member of staff had put a hot water bottle in my bed. Ah, they know the way to my heart.

***

February 28th saw us trek a different, more beautiful way to upper Dharamshala. We walked amongst yellow mustard flowers with splendid mountain views, admiring their snowy peaks. We were privileged to visit many temples and learn about 3 million facts regarding His Holiness The Dalai Lama (who lives in exile there). Our guide liked facts. He liked facts a lot.

***

Ever had rice pudding but instead of rice, it’s noodles? I have. Dinner was an intriguing, triumphant feast once again. The staff kept coming out with more and more, loading your plate with fabulous flavours. I thought it was fabulous anyway, however, a British man who sat opposite me would disagree. I soon learned that his name was Stan (his wife Barbara enjoyed saying his name after every sentence).

“I want fish. Where’s the fish?”

“There’s no fish, Stan.”

1st March

It was a silly idea to attempt a run really. After about 6 strides, 4 stray dogs were jumping up at me. They were skinny and looked hungry. I had a mild heart attack but did my best to stay calm. It took me right back to last year, in Indonesia and Thailand, when I had some awful experiences being alone with stray dogs. Breathe. Breathe. Close the gate. Of course, they jump over the gate. Breathe. Breathe. Back in the room. Alive. All good.

We venture to Pragpur today and will be staying in a place called The Judge’s Court. It’s in a Heritage Village and has a rich history. Founded about 3 centuries ago, Pragpur has held onto the essence of an earlier era – unchanged shops, cobbled streets, ornamental village tank, mud plastered and slate roofed houses. I hear that The Judge’s Court will be grand and have that ‘croquet on the lawn’ and ‘more tea Ma’am?’ kind of feel.

Adventures in Amritsar

25th Feb

It was an early start, departing Delhi and catching the train, heading North to Amritsar.

The station was crowed Indian mayhem and even with all the hundreds of bodies, we certainly don’t blend in. Our white skin seems to glow even brighter than the colourful pashminas that surround us. Everybody is staring.

I liked the train. It had a rustic ‘old school’ charm about it. A little man in a green polo shirt made his way through the carriages with complimentary refreshments such as lime water in a yogurt pot and India’s version of a rich tea biscuit.

Both me and Mum were speechless as the train tracks made their way through miles and miles of total poverty. Words struggle to explain. Old men, twice as thin as me. How is that even possible? Thousands of people were squatting, pooing by the train tracks on the heaps of waste. Do you look away? I didn’t want to stare but at the same time, you can’t ignore it. You can’t pretend that it’s not happening in the world – people behaving like animals because they have no choice. People in agony from starvation. Neither of us wanted to speak for a while. We stared out of the train window onto the rainbow of litter and pain. A hard hitting reminder how blissful our lives are and how any problems we have back at home, really are quite trivial.

After about 5 hours, we arrived in Amritsar. Today the driving experience was less Mario Kart, more Dodgems. Cars pressed up against tuk tuks, against bicycles, against scooters against, oh – yep, it’s a cow. There are no rules in the carparks, no rules on the roads. The beeps lack any form of meaning because everyone just does it constantly. Beep! Beep! Beep!

26th Feb

My oh my. Today was quite something. I’m actually feeling quite a lot of pressure to write about it because it was nothing less than extraordinary and I fear that my diary entry won’t do it justice.

As a memory of the day, I bought a Sikh bracelet. It is a silver bangle that now hangs on my right wrist and the idea is that it is a reminder to ‘always do the good thing, the right thing.’

70% of the population in Amritsar are Sikhs – the highest Sikh population in the world. We learned a lot about what it means to be Sikh from our amazing guide for the day – Gobind.

Gobind himself, identifies as a New Sikh. New Sikhs are generally quite relaxed and just live by the rule of being a good, kind, compassionate, respectful person.

Sikhism in general is an incredibly loving and understanding religion and this is shown in the principles of The Golden Temple. The fact that it has four entrances means that they welcome everybody – whatever skin colour, gender, religion or sexuality.

To visit The Golden Temple, out of respect, you must remove your shoes and cover up bare skin, including wearing a headscarf of some sort.

The sky was bright blue and the colours around us from the people and their attire – my goodness, it was electric. And when I say people… Tens of thousands of people. Crowds. Crazy crowds. And yet, somehow, I felt peaceful and safe.

The temple was grand and proud and at the same time, humble and inviting. It felt like the world was going in slow motion – it was just so, so different to anything I have ever seen before now.

Next to the temple is the communal kitchen. Run entirely by volunteers, they serve free food to over 30,000 people every single day. It was manically busy but ran like a well oiled machine. Groups for washing up, groups for chapati making, groups for stirring the mammoth bowl of dhal: jam-packed with lentils, kidney beans and warming spices.

Thousands of people sit on the floor, all together and consume the free food. Sikhs believe in togetherness. We are all equal. Show love for everybody, care for everybody. We sat amongst some of the fast working volunteers and helped to roll out some dough for the chapatis.

Gobind then took us into some sacred private rooms where readings of The Holy Book were taking place. I don’t think we were allowed in here, but Gobind believes in ‘good intentions’ so even though it was technically ‘not allowed,’ because we were doing no harm, all was OK. The same goes for taking us onto a rooftop to see the most incredible view – the blazing sun shining over The Golden Temple and the sea of multicolour surrounding it.

We then visited the historic Jallianwala Bagh, which commemorates the hundreds of Indians killed or wounded by British bullets in the most notorious massacre under their rule. It caused a lump in my throat to see the sign “shots started to fire here X” and to see the bullet holes through the wall.

After taking some time to rest, and filling up on fresh naan, brown grain rice, paneer masala and fragrant dhal – we were ready for The Golden Temple adventure 2.0. This time, under the moonlight.

As we made our way there, me and Mum joked what would happen if we photo-bombed someone’s photo. They’d probably love it! We’d make their day! I mean, everyone wants a photo with us anyway (we’d been pestered as though we were celebrities all day), so imagine how thrilled they would be if we just jumped in to surprise them.

Behold, two young men with turbans were taking a photo. All of a sudden, we were both overcome with confidence. Without any real consultation we just ran in and did it – cheesy grin, thumbs up, we sprung in between the camera and the two men.

Oh dear. They’re not laughing. They don’t get it. Sense of humour failure. They’re angry. Abort! Abort!

Like two naughty school girls, the sudden seriousness of it all made it even more hysterical. Run away!!! Howling with laughter, we ran through the crowds. I ran, cradling my backpack, still laughing, but also scared, hoping they wouldn’t be chasing us. I don’t think I’ve ever known my Mum to do something so juvenile and silly. She’s pretty cool, I thought to myself.

Jokes aside, we were seconds away from seeing the temple now. Sandals off, through the water, under the arch and…

Speechless.

My eyes flooded with I don’t know what. Emotion? Awe? I was transfixed. I’m not sure if I breathed for a while.

If you imagine the colour gold in your head, but a gold that is golder than gold – a gold that is dazzling. A gold that even in the pitch black, would still be gold. A gold that brings every man, every woman, every sound in nature to silence. A gold that is so gold, it doesn’t truly exist.

But, it does exist. In the state of Punjab, the city of Amritsar, it exists and it’s called The Golden Temple.