Having been staying in the accommodation directly across from the Mountain Cleaners office, I was the unofficial MC secretary by the time I left, taking messages, collecting donations, writing notes and directing potential volunteers. I could have gone full-time, which I think Tashi would have welcomed. Unfortunately though the world awaited and I had to retire my MC badge and pistol.
I went back to the guest house to say my goodbyes to Sunny, Baba, Raj and the bros. Before leaving they connected me with a friend in Jaipur who I’d be able to hook up with when I arrived, which was great. I had spent a lot of time with them, appreciated their hospitality and their taking me in, and generally had a great experience. There was more to the story with these guys….but if you want to hear it you’ll have to ask me straight.
The good news was I talked Caro into joining me for a short trip to Amritsar, so we would make the journey together.
The roughly five-hour bus ride from Dharamsala to Amritsar in the “government bus” was the worst yet, with no AC, windows down, crowded, jolting and sweltering hot (especially going from the mountains back into the valley), and having left at 0500.
It occurs to me that I’ve mentioned but failed to describe the Horns of Hell. The horns in India are ruthless and unrelenting. They haunt your dreams. In every large city and small town, each vehicle and motorbike, even the bicycles and carts and horses it would seem, perhaps even the streets themselves, continuously sound the alarm, announcing their presence, pushing through, assaulting the inner-ear, with no regard for peace and order. They utter a resounding, never-ending chorus in a symphony of chaos, penetrating to the soul.
After arriving in Amritsar and haggling with several taxi drivers, Caro and I spent about an hour walking around trying to find a reasonable guest house, which we did finally.
After a rest we took a stroll to the Golden Temple, the most famous and sacred holy place of the Sikh religion. Its construction was mainly intended to build a place of worship for men and women from all walks of life and all religions to come and worship God equally. There are four entrances to the temple within a main square, a symbol of welcome to all. Over 200,000 people visit the holy shrine per day for worship, and it’s overall a pretty incredible place.
I really enjoyed it there. Extremely welcoming, calm and (relatively) peaceful.
Booking travel in India is just a mess. I never managed to master it but failed epicly (seriously) more than once, including my attempt to purchase a train ticket from Amritsar to Jaipur. First I went to the train ticket window at the Golden Temple, where I waited for an hour so that they could tell me I can’t purchase it here because it was sold out. Apparently there are still some tickets held available for a) “emergency tickets,” which are sold 24 hours before departure, and b) “tourist tickets,” a certain number that are held just for tourists. But I can’t get those here, so I then made the journey to the dubious Amritsar train station so I could finally get this damn ticket.
Waiting in line in India is like 5-year olds playing soccer, where every kid on the field swarms to the ball, and the only thing really being accomplished is everyone kicking each other in the shins. Every person in “line” simply pushes and crams their way up to the window with money and/or tickets outstretched until the window operator finally takes attends to them.
This particular time at the Amritsar train station there were actually hand rails more or less forcing people to stay in somewhat of a line, but even so the mob in front was mashing up against the window. As the transformer on a nearby fan blew, starting a small fire that no one was overly concerned about, I’m standing there in line and the guy behind me is creeping closer and closer and closer until he’s literally breathing down my neck. I’m holding the railings on either side of me to establish position and create a barrier, but this guy just keeps on pushing until he’s full-on leaning against my arm trying to push through. I do a step-in-front move to shield him away with my body and he starts getting all bent out of shape, and I’m like, “dude, where the hell are you going?!?!”
I finally get to the front of the mob and ask for my ticket to Jaipur. I wasn’t exactly sure what happened, but the lady took my money and handed me a ticket that said Jaipur on it so I figured I was sorted. I’d later learn what this really meant.
We spent the evening in Amritsar relaxing in a pretty nearby park, but not without excitement.
White people in Punjab are celebrities. The local people are CONSTANTLY approaching you asking for “one snap please, just one snap” (meaning let them take a picture with you), what is your good name sir, and what is your country of origin. At the park that evening, rather embarrassingly, while doing a workout I was surrounded by no less than 30 or more Indians watching me exercise. It was pretty weird honestly and it gives you a sense of what celebrities and famous people go through regularly.
The transformer outside our guest house blew at about 10:00 PM, knocking the power and air conditioning out for the night, causing a larger fire and slightly more concern. The next morning the shop-keeper, blacksmith, hotel operator and taxi driver teamed-up to attempt an ill-advised repair job that wasn’t completed before I left.
Apparently you can get a shared taxi from Amritsar to see the Pakistan border, but by the time I inquired it was too late in the day.
I said goodbye to Caro and spent the rest of the day going around Amritsar, hiring a rickshaw for a very pleasant half-day including a visit to the slightly lesser-known “Silver Temple.” My driver was a great man, close to 50, pedaling furiously for over 25 years to support his wife and four kids, and considers himself lucky. For my life I’m trying to remember his name, as I promised to hire him again next time I’m in Amritsar. I will remember it soon and report back.
The train from Amritsar to Jaipur was an experience. Very hot, open windows, bunk-style sleeper vinyl seats, one which folds down to make it three beds stacked from top to bottom. I soon learned that I had an unconfirmed ticket, which means you can get on the train but you don’t have a seat. For 12 hours. This was not good.
Fortunately I met many great and hospitable people on the train. I met a few great guys early on that I had a good chat with, and another group later on gave me food and water (which I just went for and didn’t get sick from). This whole time I’m on the sleeping situation morale roller-coaster, sitting somewhere and then eventually getting kicked out, thinking I’m set and then suddenly bumped. Exhausted, just as I was finally about to sleep in the aisle on the train floor, one man gave up his bunk for me. Incredible.
I was on the fast track with only a couple of days left in India. Arriving in Jaipur, in the state of Rajasthan, just after 0700 I was picked up on motorbike by Manoj, homeboy of Sunny and Shanu back in the D-Sala. Manoj took me straight out to Amer, just outside of Jaipur. There I spent the whole day with Manoj and his buddies. Two of them took me to a wildlife reserve where I saw several caged pacing tigers and an ancient desert palace overrun by monkeys.
And then the much-anticipated Chris Healy international cricket debut. Out on the dirt lot in the desert two neighborhood rival teams squared off. I had a fairly impressive performance on defense snagging a couple of sharp liners and fielding my position solidly. Thinking I was going to drop the ball my teammates were elated each time I made a play. They also got some good old fashioned American ball yard chatter in between bowls.
“ATTA KID KEEP BOWLIN EM IN THERE!”
“ALRIGHT DEFENSE GET TOUGH!!”
“YEAH BABY THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKIN ABOUT!!!”
Only slightly alarmed by the volume and intensity, they got the idea.
Then came my first and only career cricket at-bat. Taking a baseball approach, I’m thinking let’s take a pitch (bowl), get an idea of what it looks like coming in, get the timing down. I’d seen several bowlers already that were pretty inconsistent, missing the zone more often then not. Well, in cricket you don’t get three strikes. Sure enough, first pitch this guy just heats it up and fires a nasty one-bouncer with action right down the pipe and drills the center wicket flat. One bowl, one out, no swing. Just a bat in hand.
This might have been the funniest thing any Indian has ever seen, because there were about 30 of them rolling on the dirt laughing hysterically, even the little kids. I hustled back to the bench, which is really just the dirt.
That night there was a little birthday party for Manoj. Not the kind of party you’re thinking. There were about 20 people out in the desert in a small concrete gazebo-like structure built on the side of the hill, in darkness except for an oil lantern producing just enough light to cast long shadows across plates of food and faces. A strong hot breeze blew all night as I sat and talked and ate and listened and watched Indian men, all close to my age, and the way they live…an unforgettable night.
It was a one-nighter in Rajasthan, irresponsibly short, and thus I actually didn’t even get to see Jaipur, the Pink City. It really didn’t matter though, because I will certainly return there someday and in the meantime had such a unique experience with Manoj and his buddies which doesn’t compare to driving around seeing monuments.
At the train station in Jaipur, the guy wouldn’t sell me a water because he couldn’t make change for a 500 rupee bill. So I reluctantly go ahead and board the train and stow my pack, sitting and waiting and thinking how thirsty I already am and that I’m not going to get water for hours. Debating, I finally run out in desperation to try and talk the guy into it one more time, leaving my pack on the train but where I can just about see it through a window. The guy finally gives in and I give him the 5-hundo. He puts the water and four 100’s on the counter, turning to get the rest of my change. Waiting for my 80 rupees, I glance over my shoulder, and much to my surprise my train moving.
There is a space in your brain that is dedicated to the realization of a major disaster unfolding, and mine was on red-alert. Sirens blared in my head screaming that I need to be on that moving locomotive right this second. Instantly, only one thing in life mattered.
If you happen to be watching the Olympics on TV right now, the sprinters and hurdlers have got nothing on my panic-induced sprint, running down a moving train, juking and leaping over Indians on a 20-yard burst into the end zone.
Only one minor error….the water and 80 rupees were still sitting on the counter. I was still thirsty, and I had 100 fewer rupees in my pocket.
Little mistakes. They won’t usually kill you, but they’ll cost you.
Back to Delhi
Two weeks later than expected I was back in Delhi and had a chance to catch back up with Meera. We went to a few sights together including the Red Fort and the National Museum, and she took me to a fabulous south-Indian restaurant that Shonali had insisted I try. It was indeed stellar.
I actually considered staying even longer, perhaps even another month, which still wouldn’t be nearly enough to fully experience India. But, by this time I was ready.
As I said before, it really is Incredible India. My experience was so erratic, so haphazard, far-reaching into both ends of the spectrum, and yet I don’t think it really would be considered too far out of the ordinary.
Being in India forces the expansion of the comfort zone and the mind, and the understanding that this country, the Indian way of life, while often strange and foreign to me, is their way. The people live, the country goes, and it’s obviously working for them because there are 1.3 billion of them. And it goes on, right now.
One thing I can say with confidence, that I think probably holds true for anyone who visits India, is I’ll never be the same again.
Unfortunately, ready as I was to leave India behind me, the Big I wasn’t ready to let me go just yet. Literally on the way to the airport another fever began setting in. By the time I was checked in, through security and in the airline lounge, I had full-blown body ache, fever and chills. On top of that I’d arrived three hours early.
I curled up into a ball in the lounge, freezing cold and shivering as I waited for my flight.
And that’s how I left India.