Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tiger Safari - Fail!

Before the triumphant afternoon safari where we were lucky enough to witness a tiger pass before us, we had a morning safari with lackluster results. We had heard that May and June present the best opportunity for sightings in Ranthmbhore National Park with estimated success rates ranging from fifty to eighty percent. It was our guide that used the 80% figure. Either he was very confident or hadn't learned the finer points of setting low expectations with customers.

Even with the high success rates quoted, I wasn't overly confident. I've never had much luck spotting wildlife. I grew up visiting many of the national parks in the west during the summer and considered any mammal larger than a ground squirrel a rare sighting. My expectations were appropriately low.

In addition, my only prior experience with tiger safaris was a visit to Sariska in January 2005, which is a reserve closer to Delhi but still in Rajasthan. That trip was a total bust. I didn't realize until after I did some research that there was no chance of it being a success. There were zero tigers in the park (they've since tried to reintroduce the species but I think the count is still in the very low single digits). The only redeeming parts of that trip were (1) spending time with some good friends, (2) staying in Sariska Palace, which was the Maharaja's old tiger hunting lodge, and (3) the fact the guide called out the animals in a very monotone and easily imitated, "sambarrrrr deer", "spot-ted deer", "peacock" (with an accent that sounded more eastern European than Indian); a tradition which I tried to keep alive as we saw the animals of Ranthambhore. It kept me entertained, not so sure what it did for the fellow travelers.

When you're riding around a tiger reserve in a jeep, your mind starts to play tricks on you. Any remotely orange colored shape in the grass becomes a tiger. It's a little like when you're fishing as a child and the slightest movement to your bobber indicates there's a huge fish on your hook. Every time you crest a hill, you envision a tiger walking down the road in front of you. At one point early in the morning, we crested a hill and I saw a moving object with some white fur. My heart rate spiked and I pointed forward. It took a few seconds to realize I was pointing at a spotted deer. I mean, sure it's neat to see a deer that resembles Bambi, but it's not exactly a rare sight in northern India wildlife preserves.
Spotted deer, arguably cuter than a squirrel but just as common
While there was no tiger, there was a highlight to the morning safari. We've seen hundreds of peacocks while in India but had yet to see one imitate the NBC logo. Ironically, we crested a hill and came upon a muster of peacocks (yes, I looked up what a group of peacocks is called and actually found out that "peafowl" is the correct term for the species, a "peacock" is a male, and a "peahen" is a female; for my purposes, I'm going to call them all peacocks). One of the males (for those that don't know, the males are the pretty ones with the long, colorful feathers; whereas, the females aren't nearly as bright and have shorter feathers) had his feathers spread strangely on the ground behind him. Slowly he lifted his feathers into a full plume. As you'd expect with my luck, his back end was facing us.
Just my luck, the back side of a fully plumed peacock
Slowly, he started to turn, strutting and shaking his back end the entire way around. This little dude was obviously trying to impress the females.
In case you ever wondered what the profile of a plumed peacock looks like
Soon enough, we were treated to a fully plumed peacock. Impressive. Not "tiger" impressive but certainly not a bad consolation prize.
This guy was far cooler than Argus on "30 Rock"
As we began to see other vehicles in the park, the drivers and guides would quickly something in Hindi (presumably whether they had any luck) while the passengers in opposite vehicles would give each other that, "did you see one?" look before quickly and solemnly shaking their heads back and forth. It was a sad morning for all in Zone 1 of the park.
Even in a tiger reserve, you'll be asked "tea coffee?"
To try and cheer us up, the guide made a timed coffee stop (the hotel was kind enough to provide a basket with coffee mugs and pastries; not exactly roughing it). The highlight of the stop was the birds that were obviously attracted to the crumbs. One bird in particular hated Lindsay. I can't explain why, but this bird just knew that she was an easy target. It nearly attacked her, which provided at least a little entertainment to some of the others that had stopped and were still quietly hoping to see a tiger.
It's all fun and games....
....until you mock the bird.
Thankfully, we had a second safari planned which ended with far better results, at least as far as wildlife spotting goes; however, the failed morning safari provided more than enough entertainment. It also helped us realize how lucky we were to witness a tiger later that day.

Tiger Safari - Success!

Ranthambhore National Park is hot in May. It's also one of the best months for sighting tigers. As a result, the 111 degree high temperature wasn't nearly enough to keep us out of the park for an afternoon safari.

The park is divided into different zones to which your jeep gets assigned. Our guide, Yad, found a way to get us moved from Zone 1, where we had been in the morning with no luck and had no interest in returning, to Zone 4 where a tiger had been spotted earlier in the day crawling into a cave; a cave adjacent to one of the roads deep in the zone. After 40 minutes of driving, while I still expected to see a tiger walking down the road with each hill we crested, we approached three jeeps from behind. Still not sure exactly why the jeeps were stopped (we hadn't been told of the cave), a boy in one of the jeeps said (in Hindi and translated by our friend Swata), "Shhhh, the tiger is sleeping." I thought it was just a cute kid with an overactive imagination.

Additional jeeps began to show. Since my tiger spotting can best described as "limited" (i.e., one failed safari in the morning), I finally started to realize this was a good sign. It was an even better sign that the driver and guide each pulled out binoculars and started scanning the cave. Shortly after, Yad pointed toward a spot just below a tree that crossed the cave entrance. Something was moving. Something big. Something with orange and white fur. Jackpot.
Can you spot him?
By this time, six or seven or some number of jeeps had gathered. Getting an accurate count seemed secondary, what with a 400+ pound cat nearby. A cat that realized he had an audience. An audience he had no intention of granting immediate gratification. He moved around a bit, inched closer to the opening, and even gave a couple of good roars (which our guide could easily replicate), but we had no idea when or if he would leave the cave. The guides all seemed confident he would. Again, as a tiger spotting novice, I had no room to argue.
He starts to move and stupid me thought this was the best shot I'd get
Thirty minutes after our arrival, the tiger stood and slowly started walking down from his perched cave. There were two watering holes in opposite directions. Since the jeeps were blocking its way to one, it opted for one a little further away and began its slow march through the jungle. The guides, having seen this path before, knew exactly where to go. The chase was on.

The seven or eight jeeps had created a very proper Indian traffic jam with vehicles pointed in all directions. We maneuvered around a couple and still found ourselves head on with another vehicle but on the main trail. The driver of the other vehicle expertly reversed himself for some time as we chased him, hood to hood.
My 55-200mm zoom wasn't quite the fanciest lens in the park
We drove around toward a watering hole in hopes of his impending arrival. The impending arrival was later than expected. Seeing the crowd of vehicles, it took its place laying in the grass, probably 100 meters away.

After some time, our driver moved us from the current "prime" viewing spot and positioned us pointed out where we could easily drive one of two directions. He was also strategically positioned so that other jeeps couldn't jockey in front of us. We waited there for a while before it became obvious that the tiger was on the move. It was actually moving directly toward where we previously had been so the driver somehow found his way back to a perfect position. The cat was walking straight at us.
Just a bit of an adrenaline rush
As the tiger began to move, again the driver got the jeep moving, placing us in position for the next great spot. Again, there was a serious traffic jam as each of the jeeps tried to get in the best position. Fortunately, we were perfectly placed and had a great view as the tiger walked past. At one point, it was no further than five meters from our jeep. It was such a rush to see a tiger at that range that at no point did I think to myself, "oh crap, I have no idea what this cat is thinking and it could literally pounce into one of these jeeps for a quick and easy meal."

From the time the tiger left the brush and slowly walked past the watering hole and eager audience, it was about ten minutes in elapsed time, a detail I had to go back to the photo timestamps to confirm. My only regret during the entire experience was that I spent a majority of my time clicking away on the camera and less time just simply admiring the animal.

It's amazing how effective a tigers coloring is as camouflage, whether in brush or on rocks. If we hadn't seen the tiger walking into an area, there's no way we would have ever seen it at distance. Physically, other than its camouflage, it's sheer size stood out. The paws were enormous, it's head was enormous. The whole cat was just enormous, and you needed the context of the jungle to understand exactly how large it was. Other than its physical characteristics, it walked around the jungle with a "it's fine if you want to watch me, but I'm going to pretty much do what I want, when I want, and you'll be happy when you see me" kind of attitudes. There was no mistake. The tiger was in charge.

While I'm always a fan of any trip into a wildlife preserve or national park, I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't have been disappointed without a tiger sighting. Though with only 31 adult tigers and 14-16 cubs in a park that is only a couple hundred square miles, we were extremely fortunate to see one in the wild. Truly one of my most memorable experiences in India.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Morbid Fascination

Locals almost seem morbidly fascinated with the scorching temperatures here and tend to wear it with a badge of pride. When they see a sweating Westerner like myself whom they assume is uncomfortable beyond belief, the first question from their mouth is almost always, "How are you liking the weather?" Translated, this means, "I can tell by the sweat dripping profusely from your head that you are in no way enjoying this country; how are you possibly surviving this heat which is but a slight nuisance to me?"

But here's the thing, it's my second year. I know what it's like. I expect high temperatures. And I never thought I'd say this (and I'm sure it will be followed up with a complaining post later this summer), but it's not that bad. In fact, when I get the "weather" question, my stock response has become, "it's not as bad as last year." I've yet to feel the "hair dryer" effect when walking out of the office at night, though I'm not sure if it's just not that hot or my expectations have changed. Granted, I've only been back in country six days.  Apparently there were a couple hot days while we were gone (46 or 47 Celsius, which in American terms is 115 to 117; I knew it was hot when a colleague responded to my comment from an instant message where I mentioned I was looking forward to returning with the simple phrase, "John, it is hot here").

Sure, when we returned the peanut butter was melting in the cupboard, the hand soap had settled into segmented layers, and it took three days for the air conditioning to actually cool the apartment to a core temperature where it felt like it was working, but these things now seem like slight nuisances. The scorching temperatures have become a morbid fascination.

Again, I've been back six days; the morbid fascination will slowly and surely turn to incessant complaining.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Half Century

The first Tuesday while home, temperatures hit record highs across the Midwest and in my hometown of Moline, IL. While the 91 degree temperature seemed tame by Indian standards, the added humidity and fact that it was nearly forty degrees cooler only a couple days before made it feel a little like July in Delhi (OK, July in Delhi before 9am). Mom was scheduled to preside over her monthly garden club meeting and Lindsay was forced to take a few early meetings with her team in India followed by a manicure. As a result, Dad and I had a few hours to spare and loaded his bikes to the back of the car and met his retiree crew for a morning ride.

This retiree crew isn't what most would expect when describing a retiree cycling club. Dad has said he likes to be in shape enough to handle three 60 mile rides per week. Dad would also be the first to admit that he's one of the "weaker" riders in the group. Even though I'm in adequate physical condition, I hadn't ridden a bike since June 2009 when this same group allowed my older sister and I to tag along for the two-day TOMRV ride along the upper Mississippi River valley. Needless to say, I was expecting a rough day.

We started the ride from a church parking lot in Colona and made our way to Andover. These are two small rural towns in Illinois that you've likely never heard of; that is, unless you're from this area. In addition to the heat there was wind. The good part of riding into a 15 mile per hour wind is that there is plenty of air circulation; the bad part is that, well, you're riding into a 15 mile per hour wind. Andover was upwind.
Refueled after a much-needed breakfast stop
Andover marked the midway point and the requisite breakfast stop. While I'm sure the greasy (yet awesome) diner breakfast mitigates most of the benefit of the ride, it was necessary. I wolfed down a huge Denver omelette and hash browns while most the retirees needed only a small breakfast sandwich. I didn't care; I needed fuel.

After breakfast we had a tailwind, which makes for a much more pleasant and swift ride. I've yet to do an actual "tailwind" with my Dad's group, but it's an actual thing where they have four predetermined routes in each of the four directions. Based on the direction of the wind, they'll have someone drive them against the wind, drop them off, and ride 100 miles back into the Quad Cities. I'm fairly certain my butt wouldn't have made it 100 miles. When we finally made our way back to the church parking lot in Colona, the odometer read 53 miles, distance enough for my butt to let me know it was more than enough for this warm spring day.

Having spent the better part of 16 months in India, the most powerful part of the ride was how empty the American heartland feels and how one of the most fertile regions of the world seems almost devoid of human life. While we passed farmers working here and there throughout the ride and cars passed us, the scene felt refreshingly lonely. It felt good to be home.

My First Cricket Match

A few days before returning to India I received a note from friends indicating that they were planning to attend the Delhi Daredevils' season finale and wanted to know if we wanted in. The Daredevils are Delhi's representation in cricket's Indian Premiere League (IPL). Even though we returned from the US just a day before, "attend a cricket match" was on the India "to do" list. It seemed an opportune time to take them up on the offer and finally get to a match. Plus, I wasn't sure there'd be many more opportunities.

IPL is a more "commerical" variety of cricket and lasts for 20 overs (which typically takes about three hours to complete). This format is much more viewer-friendly than the longer 50 over format of One Day Internationals (ODI) favored by the latest world cup won by India and much, much more viewer-friendly than the five day test matches favored by the staunchest cricket traditionalists. Having only basic understanding of the rules and having watched only a few ODI's, I can say that the 20/20 version seems fast, hurried, and a little too full of offense. I can understand where people that grew up watching the game might not like the format. ESPN published this article titled "Why You Should Care About Cricket" and I recently heard the author, Wright Thompson, on one of Bill Simmons' podcasts basically pose the question, "how would you feel if the NFL suddenly decided to shorten their games to fifteen minutes?" You get the point.

Having not checked the standings, I didn't realize tonight's game between Delhi and the Pune Warriors of India was actually a battle to see who wouldn't finish in last place in the league. Unlike soccer's English Premier League (EPL) where the lowest finishers are sent to a lower league, there is no risk of relegation in the IPL, which would have made the stakes higher than just playing for the pride of not finishing last.

Not cheap, even by American ticket standards, I was surprised that our Rs. 1750 (around $40) entrance only granted access to a general admission section in the northwest stands of the Feroz Shah Kotla cricket grounds. We arrived just as the match started and couldn't find seats (at least with a view) on the ground level. We were told there were seats in the upper deck, so we climbed to the top of the stadium and found a fairly empty section. The only down side was that we couldn't see the entire boundary (this is a little like when you're at a baseball game and can't see the entire outfield from your seat). The only other ticket options were Rs. 17,500 or Rs. 25,000. Do the math based on the conversion rate implied by my Rs. 1750 ticket and you can understand why we went with the general admission option.

The stadium was dressed up for the IPL though still wasn't in the best condition. I remarked to the wife upon leaving, "the stadium was kind of a piece of shit." She was more diplomatic, saying it was probably as nice as most minor league baseball stadiums (though in the 10+ years I've known her I've never known her to attend minor league baseball so I wasn't exactly sure what prompted the comparison). Regardless, it had a field, it had seats, so there's really not too much to complain about seeing as how it was my first live sporting event in India (at least the first one that required a ticket).

The stadium aesthetics notwithstanding, the atmosphere within was extremely festive and, not surprisingly, the crowd was pro-Delhi. Even with the pro-Delhi sentiment, I get the general sense with the IPL that people follow the players more than the teams. After all, it's a made-for-TV two-month season and only in its fourth year of existence. It's a great way for cricket's stars to get a little more visibility and also earn a little extra money (the best cricketers make a lot of money; however, cricket isn't nearly as monetized as other sports so outside the Sachin Tendulkar's and MS Dhoni's of the world, you don't see nearly as many astronomical salaries as you might in the EPL or many of America's major sports leagues). Much like other sporting events, there were cheerleaders that would dance on platforms between overs and when boundaries were scored. There was also advertising on the field. The coolest part of the on-field advertising is that it's stretched in real-life so that it appears correctly based on the angle of the camera on television. In other words, the Citibank logo was much taller and skinnier in person than it appears to the average television viewer. I wish I had gotten a decent picture, but being a little too much of a rule follower, I took the "no cameras allowed" notice a little too seriously. Very few others did.

About midway through the Daredevils innings (i.e., their set of 20 overs), it started to sprinkle. This wasn't that surprising since it was pouring down rain as we left Gurgaon to head to the match. What was surprising was that I, even though I knew it was pouring earlier, though enough to bring a rain coat yet still decide to leave it in the car. With sprinkles, not such a big deal. With the showers that followed, not so bright. Thankfully, there was enough cover for those that wanted it. However, since much of the stadium was general admission, as soon as the rain would slow, the masses would race down for the best seats. As soon as the rain came back, they'd vacate as quickly as they had left.

After 45 minutes of waiting out the rain entertained by those fans dancing in the rain with the Indian shoulder bob (it's one of sports greatest celebratory dances, famous round the world, or at least famous in countries where cricket is played), we decided to call it quits. The rain was slowing but the flashes of lightning made sitting in a grandstand, even though it was primarily concrete, not the best of ideas. At least we had seen a little bit of action but, as our friend Jay pointed out, even if it stopped raining we were probably another hour away from seeing any additional action. As a result, we made our way for the exit turnstiles. Since we were leaving before the game was official, we were forced to show our tickets, which seemed a slow process to exit the stadium and a process you'd hope they would abandon in the event of an emergency.

On the bright side, we made the right decision. Shortly after leaving, the match was called on account of the weather and we were able to quickly move away from the stadium. On the down side, since there was no result, I now live in a region forced to lay claim to the IPL's cellar dwelling franchise.

Friday, May 6, 2011

"New" Experiences

After sleeping seven hours on the flight home, waking up at what would be around midnight central time, landing five hours later, and keeping myself moving through the day (including a jog, a late breakfast with the in-laws, free Starbucks, and a outdoors clothing shopping), I’m happy to report that I’m not yet suffering the effects of jet lag. It will come; I know it will. It’s just a matter of time; however, I’ll take what I can get. To further stave off the moment when my body just quits for the day, here’s a quick list of twelve experiences from by my first twelve hours home that I hadn’t experienced since I last left American soil:
  • Drank milk that was refrigerated at the time of purchase
  • Emptied a dishwasher
  • Ate at a restaurant specializing in breakfast
  • Placed clothes in a washing machine
  • Dropped clothes at a drycleaner
  • Drove on the right side of the road (the only driving I’ve done in the past six months was in Bali, Indoensia which is like India andf a left side drive)
  • Opened a sunroof
  • Entered a garage
  • Recieved a hug from a child
  • Listened to the radio in a car
  • Purchased a The North Face product
  • Updated my resume (to any colleagues who may be reading, this is entirely for exploring internal opportunities after the assignment)
All in all, a pretty eventful and "normal" first twelve hours.

Time for Home?

Note: I'm now back at home, having landed approximately 25 hours ago at O'Hare; however, since my house here is basically a glorified cabin in the woods (i.e., there are sheets on the furniture, we have water and electricity, but we have no internet or cable), posts over the next couple weeks may be a little dated from the time actually written to when posted. Either that or I'll turn into one of those hipster doofuses that blogs from Starbucks.

One of the final things I did in Gurgaon before heading to the airport was get a quick haircut. Even though I get my hair cut at a higher end place (yes, it's a day spa; I tried a cheaper place once and felt like I needed a shower afterward), the price is only Rs. 330 (about $7.50, or half of what I pay in the states). As I sat in the chair waiting to begin, the dude that was going to cut my hair was struggling to get the plug for the clippers to stay in the outlet. He tried a couple different adaptors but each time either the clipper wouldn’t work or it wouldn’t stay plugged to the wall. Very calmly he called one of the boys responsible for sweeping the f loor over and instructed him to simply hold the plug firm to the wall for the duration of the haircut. A task which, should be noted, was executed to perfection.

The fact this in no way surprised me and seemed a perfectly reasonable solution to the problem at hand made me think that maybe it was time for a little break from this ridiculous little Indian lifestyle.

It should be noted that I was happy with the haircut.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Two Week Itch

Wednesday after work I head back to Chicago for my second of two home leaves during this assignment. It's my last planned trip before the end of the year. The build up to the trip feels different; something is missing. Two weeks before every time I've left India, whether it be to go home or just for a vacation out of country, I get the itch. For whatever reason, two weeks before I leave I typically have the distinct desire, which quickly escalates into a "need", to get out of the country as soon as possible.
Wednesday's plane should be a little bigger, but you get the idea....
Typically, every little thing about the country bothers me. The traffic becomes unbearably chaotic, elevators skipping past my floor annoy me, the strategically placed speed bumps come more frequently, beggars are more attracted to my car than usual, all the beer starts to taste like Miller Lite (not a good thing), and the locals' English becomes more difficult to understand (not that I've tried to improve my Hindi).

This trip? No itch. None of those things are bothering me; well, except maybe the beer.

While I'm happy that I get to go home to reconnect with friends and family, for the first time I don't feel like I "have" to go back. Maybe I finally see India as home. Maybe it's the fact my parents were here in March and Lindsay's Mom was here in February. Maybe it's the visitors and travels planned through the rest of the year.  Maybe work is just busy and there's a lot to get done. Maybe I'm running out of time in India, and it signals the start of "the end."

So it's a short week of work, a week of family and friends in Chicago and Moline, a weekend with my buddies in Memphis, and three days in the office in the U.S. (you know, it's never a bad thing to show your face in your home office every few months). It's going to be a fun trip home, but I've got to admit, I think I'll be ready to board that flight back home to India on May 19.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Edge of India

I had not done a lot of research on the daily Wagah border ceremony but had some idea in my head of what the ceremony might be like. It's safe to say that nearly every one of those ideas was incorrect. Some more than others.

The Physical Space
I'm fairly certain India built their grandstands and gate pillars first. Why would one make this assumption? Pakistan's were taller. A road runs through the border, and each nation has it's own gate. Pakistan's is green, the same color as its flag, whereas India's gate is actually painted like its flag (horizontal srtipes of orange, white, and green). I expected that the crowds would be close, if not even sitting across the border from one another, and that there would be some level of direct interaction between the sets of constituents. In reality, amphitheater style grandstands on both sides are set back maybe 100 or so meters from the border facing one another. In addition, on the south side of the road in India, there is a set of grandstands that line the road that runs into Pakistan. Right next to the border are a few rows of seats reserved for VIPs. The foreigners are placed in this grandstand which sits between the VIPs and the rest of the crowd. Thanks to our passports, this is where we sat.
A surprisingly prompt Indian crowd
The Citizenry
If there's one thing Indians aren't known for, it's being on time. Except at the border crossing. An hour and fifteen minutes before the scheduled start, when we arrived, the amphitheater in India was full. Looking across the border, there were only a few scattered people that I could see. The Pakistani side eventually filled in and the half that I could see appeared much more colorful than the Indian side. I looked a little closer and realized there was a reason; it was segregated by gender and the right half of the amphitheater was full of women in colorful clothing while the left half, which was mostly hidden from view, was occupied entirely by men.
Flag waving nationalism at its finest
One other item of note was that the Pakistani viewers were allowed to stand the entire ceremony; whereas, if someone in the Indian audience stood either before or during the ceremony, they were met with a stern look and a whistle from the soldiers below. Not until the lowering of the flags at the end of the ceremony was the Indian crowd allowed to stand.

The Buildup
Prior to the ceremony, the Indian side was much louder than the Pakistani. Of course, this might also have been because the Indians, as mentioned above, were early for once. The atmosphere was festive and the crowds and actions were very pro-India rather than anti-Pakistan. Girls were allowed to line up in pairs and take turns running the Indian flag toward the border. Music was played, and women danced in the road. I'm sure there's some significance, but men weren't allowed down at that time.
Indian girls taking their turn running the flag
As the Pakistani crowd filled in the grandstand it became more lively. While the Indians dance to their loud music, loud music could soon be heard across the border as well. Finally, there was some sense of friendly competition.

Prior to the dancing and music, the daily bus from Delhi to Lahore approached the border and both gates were open. It was the only passed through the border. It was the only thing we saw go through the border in the two hours we were there.
The bus drives into Pakistan; near empty grandstand in background
The Ceremony
The actual ceremony had a little less pomp than I was expecting. Don't get me wrong, there's something a little unnerving about seeing an Indian soldier speed march toward the border, stop just short, and execute a high leg kick where he nearly hits himself in the face with his knee; however, there were far fewer soldiers involved than I expected. There were eight or ten soldiers involved on the Indian side. Honestly, I couldn't see much of what was going on in Pakistan, though each time an Indian solider approached the border, it's safe to assume one did the same from the Pakistan side.
Soldiers in a very fast march toward the border
There was also a lot of yelling into microphones from both nations. Having no idea what they were yelling, it can best be described as a screaming match where the person that screams the longest wins. I'm not sure exactly what they won, but there was a lot of cheering when the yelling stopped. I regret to report that the Pakistani soldiers consistently lasted longer than the Indian soldiers. Of course, I can tell you neither if this is good nor bad.

From time to time, someone sitting in the stands would stand, lead a cheer of "Hindustan" followed by the crowd yelling, "yeah-yeah-yeah" (or at least that's the general translation we were given). One gentleman, sitting in the row in front of us on the other side of the rope (the foreigner's section is roped off) took a couple turns leading the entire crowd. He was passionate, to say the least.
The ceremony ends by both countries simultaneously lowering the flag that flies by the respective gate. The flags are folded and quickly marched away in opposite directions, presumably to be raised the following morning (though there isn't a complementary flag raising ceremony).
The Indian side can finally stand to lower the flag
Returning the flag
The Exit
Once over, we left underneath the grandstand (which straddles the road) and walked back to find our driver. There was a buzz amongst the crowd much like when a concert lets out. My favorite part was walking past the sign that reads "India the largest democracy in the world welcomes you" in Hindi, English, and Arabic It's a little known fact that Indians are rightfully proud of. I have some experience with misunderstandings of this type and, as a graduate of Miami University, I can completely relate. You're probably not aware (unless you've been to Oxford, Ohio in which case you've most likely seen the tee shirt) that Miami was a university before Florida was a state.

The ceremony itself seemed a little anti-climactic. To me, it was interesting to just be at a border that is known to be less than stable though safe enough to still create a tourist activity. However, based on the amount of barbed wire and the number of machine guns posted high above the crowd, it still felt like a place you don't necessarily want to screw around. In other words, tt's probably not the spot you want to pretend like you're running for the border.

Amritsar's Golden Temple

Sometimes travel means exploring some new place, learning how to navigate, and discovering hidden treasures all on your own. Sometimes travel means experiencing a new place with someone intimately familiar with that location. Saturday's trip to Amritsar fit into the latter category. When learning that Lindsay and I wanted to head to Amritsar with our American boss while she was in town over the weekend, our Indian boss who is both Punjabi and Sikh, volunteered to join the trip. While we could have easily made the trip alone, having someone so familiar with a place that obviously meant so much to him made it a truly memorable experience (and regardless of what you think, I'm not just sucking up here).

As is probably the case with most tourists in Amritsar, our first stop was Harmander Sahib, more commonly known as the Golden Temple. For those unfamiliar with Sikh temples, which is a group I was among until yesterday, covering one's head is mandatory for both men and women. Baseball caps don't count (I actually saw someone trying to enter the kitchen of the temple with a baseball cap and it was obvious by a volunteer's reaction that it wasn't an appropriate accessory. As a result, I had the pleasure of wearing a bandana on my head. I'll be the first to admit I look certifiably goofy with a bandana on my head. However, rules are rules.
Following the first rule regardless of how goofy I look
The second rule is that all visitors must wash their feet prior to entering. Even though I had walked through the shallow bath, I made the mistake of not walking directly into the temple. The guard hadn't seen me wash, figured I had tried to circumvent the rule, and made me wash again. Rather than protest and try to explain that I was clean, I simply walked back through the bath. It didn't seem appropriate to try to argue a technicality. After all, I was the visitor.
Following the second rule a second time
Immediately upon entering, the Golden Temple presents itself in the middle of a lake, connected by a walkway jammed with people waiting to enter.
First glimpse of the Golden Temple
We walked clockwise around the perimeter. One of the aspects of the temple I most wanted to see was the kitchen. Something I learned just earlier in the week thanks to a blogger I follow that produced a short video for the Smithsonian, is that every Sikh temple has a kitchen that offers free meals. The Golden Temple's kitchen produces some 100,000 meals per day. Any person, regardless of religion, gender, class or otherwise, can come to the temple and eats for free on the floor. As my India boss said, everyone sits on the floor, even if the Prime Minister (a Sikh) were to visit, he'd be right there on the floor as well. It's also worth noting that the food is actually served by volunteers to those seated. In other words, it's one of the few places in India you won't find a buffet.
Handing out plates at the kitchen entrance
Waiting area for the next batch of diners
After viewing the kitchen, we walked the rest of the perimeter and joined the back of the long queue to visit the inside of the temple. The line, which ended up being about an hour long, moved relatively quickly. Every three or four minutes they would allow fifty or so people into the temple. While the inside was crowded, there was still space to navigate and many people found a spot to read, reflect, or pray. Photos aren't allowed (which they took seriously as Lindsay learned when she attempted to take a shot before we entered but were fairly close to getting in when both a volunteer and a fellow visitor reacted adversely to an attempted shot) which you might expect in a place of worship. The interior of the temple is as impressive as the exterior with a ceiling of intricately carved gold.

I'm not an overly religious person and typically don't "feel" much when I enter a place of worship. The Golden Temple, I have to admit, was different. The place just seemed peaceful. Everyone was welcome, people made sure to remind me to watch my backpack when standing in queue, and they were serving thousands of people at the free kitchen. Its hard to imagine this was a place that hosted an unfortunate military action called Operation Blue Star only a quarter century ago. Regardless, I can't recall a more welcoming religious environment in my travels. To totally botch the opportunity for some sort of grand hyperbole, the place just felt "good".

For someone who's gone from thinking "Punjab" was simply the name of Daddy Warbuck's clean-shaven turban-wearing bodyguard in Annie to someone who just thought Punjab meant the best food in India (that's my opinion but it's safe to say it's an opinion shared by millions), Saturday's trip was an amazing glimpse, short as it was, into the region on India's eastern border.

The Ease of Indian Air Travel

One underrated aspect of Indian travel is that most airline tickets are refundable. Not entirely refundable, but with a reasonable fee (typically somewhere between Rs. 250 - 1000 per direction), you can get out of a ticket. With the Indian Airlines faction of the Air India pilots striking, this refundable property came in quite handy over the weekend.

I bought tickets for a quick day trip up to Amritsar to hit the two major sites in and around the Punjabi city: the Golden Temple and the Wagah ceremony at the Pakistani border. We were scheduled on JetLite (the discount version of Jet Airways) for the trip there and Air India for the return. Originally, I had decided on the Air India flight because it was just under Rs. 1500 (like $35 per ticket), and it's just fun to say you can buy a one-way ticket for $35 so I jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately, on Wednesday came the strike.

In light of the strike, which hit random flights, the group I was buying tickets for (which consisted of the wife, my Indian boss, and my American boss, also known as three people I should probably try to keep happy) decided to error on the side of "let's make sure we get back to Delhi on Saturday night". Thankfully, for around $20 per person, we were able to make the switch and get onto a Kingfisher flight back an hour earlier. The most surprising thing was that Kingfisher had done the right thing and elected not to gouge potential customers. Even buying the ticket the day before the flight, the price remained constant (about Rs. 4000) to the one I had ignored ten days previously in favor of Air India.

The airport seemed busier than usual. The non-Air India counters were full so it took more time than usual, but it was faster than it could have been since my Indian boss somehow talked his way to a shorter line and we jumped over after were quickly checked in and through security. Our JetLite flight was ultimately delayed about 90 minutes, which was annoying but wasn't the end of the world. The dude I ultimately sat next to on the plane was headed back home to Amritsar for the first time in two years after working as a laborer in Australia. He had arrived in Delhi from Australia last night, had his Air India flight canceled, and was still in good spirits after spending the night in the airport and a fresh delay from a new airline.

Even with all these challenges, I've got to admit, the entire air travel process in India is easier and more customer friendly than that of the United States; that is, as long as you're fine with getting frisked, an act which is performed on 100% of air travelers in India.