Depending on how you read that could say a lot about the next big step you need to take this year. A middle-aged, philosophy teacher with mediocre English wrote this down and presented it to me and two fellow Canadian I have been travelling with for the past couple days while standing in the middle of Shri Durgiana Temple in Amritsar, Punjab. “Life in no where”, was Fred and Vince’s response. I glanced at the page, not really aware of what they had said and read out “life is wow here”. He had extremely messy writing so the N looked like a W but I realized this immediately and corrected myself, “life is now here”. “Exactly” he responded with a smile.
Gajner was a full house this past week when we gained a new intern, Lea from France, and hosted a few of her friends who were travelling from Jaipur to Jaisalmer. B, our project director, came by for a week as well and we had Fred and Vince stop in; two Montreal-based photographers and the founders of Shoot to Help, an organization that aims to change the imagine of not for profits by photographing and reporting on all the fantastic projects being done by NGO’s all around the world. I think it’s fantastic what they are doing. It provides such an optimistic alternative to all those sad photos of skinny African children other NGO’s put out in the media to pull at heartstrings for donations. The two of them are on a five-month adventure through Asia meeting with 25 different NGO’s throughout Burma, India and Nepal and right now, they’ve tag along with me as I travel to the other EduCARE clusters.
Tuesday evening the three of us left for Punjab to check out the on-going projects in Janauri and Dholbaha. It had been a busy couple of weeks in Gajner with the progression of so many projects, and since I’ll be away from home for two weeks, Tuesday was an extremely busy day. Manoj, B, Mathilde and I visited a new area of the Kolayat region, where Gajner is located, in the late afternoon before heading to the bus station. The two Muslim communities, Modia and Mansar, are about 15 kilometres from our home in Gajner. The entire community is stretched out over about 60 acres of land, has only two local businesses and most men are out of work. The land is very dry and is occupied by about 60 - 80 homes that are widely spread out. We stepped out of the car and a group of women gathered before us. We introduced ourselves and asked questions about their community. They expressed the need for education, the want for alternative ways of creating income for their families and joked about how lazy the men were while pointing to dozens of them sitting on random rooftops staring up at the sky. We giggled with them and shook hands before leaving. I sat at the bus stand reflecting on the visit and letting my mind conjure up project ideas that would be beneficial for the community. Then some how I got involved in playing some weird card game with a bunch of old, traditional Rajasthani men. How do I always end up playing cards with a group of hilarious Indians?
After many uncomfortable and sleepless nights in buses in India, I gave in for the ride to Amritsar and got a sleeper instead of a seat. It wasn’t that much more expensive and it made a world of a difference for the travel. I actually got some shuteye in the cozy little box. It’s quite funny sitting in it for the first time though; like sitting up in your own casket, but lying down is quite comfortable. We arrived in the early AM, twelve hours after our departure. The streets were still quiet and the air seemed so foreign. It was humid and dust wasn’t swirling around me. Rajasthan and Punjab are like two different planets! We grabbed our bags and walked from the bus stand to the Golden Temple, zigzagging through the streets as we followed the huge signs directing us to the holy place. When we arrived at Guru Ram Das Niwas, the donation-based guesthouse located inside the temple complex, we were given our own room. Such a bonus! There aren’t many beds in the “foreigner” area of the guesthouse so we were very fortunate; mostly it was due to luck since we had arrived so early in the morning. We threw down own bags, washed up quickly and headed back towards the main entrance of the temple, grabbing the most creamy and delicious lassi on the way. It was so fresh that bubbles were still formed on the top with a thick cut of curd resting gently on the foam. I couldn’t have drank it any faster. Somehow we ended up in a McDonalds afterwards where the guys grabbed breakfast and I sat watching, refusing to give in to such globalization (although I gave in the next morning for a cup of Joe). As we reached the entrance of the temple, we braced ourselves for the beauty that was about to be unfolded before us. We handed over our shoes before entering and covered our heads with handkerchiefs. We stepped into the cold water to cleanse our feet and descended the stairs to the platform outlining the Holy water tank, which surrounds the glowing Golden Temple. And my goodness, it is incredible. It sparkles when the sun hits it, and the reflection of the light dances along the roof as you pace around the water tank.
We sat on the waters edge taking in the sights of the colourful turbans and head covers while listening to the continuous prayers being sang beautifully by deep baritone voices over the beat of a cultural, Sikh drum. We sat for a good hour or so before heading out to see other sights nearby and indulging in huge North Indian thali plates.
A while after lunch, we squished into the back of an auto rickshaw while driving at an alarmingly slow pace of 50 km/h for the 30-kilometre drive to the Pakistan border. We hopped out at the 1 km mark and pushed through the crowded parking lot to store our bags in lockers and grab a quick plate of pakoras before walking to the edge of the country. We stopped at three different security check points before reaching a huge stadium-like stand with tiered seating filled with hundreds of dancing Indians from all over the country, all of whom were screaming the lyrics of every song playing over the loud speakers. We were shown to the VIP/foreigner section where we sat among the annoying bunches of white tourists whom continuously took photos of every second that past. When the show commenced, I couldn’t stop laughing. The closing of the border is exactly that, a show. It is a hilarious dance battle between India and Pakistan that is taken extremely serious by the guards who perform it. I watched giggling as the Indian guards stomped hard into the concrete on beat with the drum followed by kicking their leg as high as they could in the air, looking extremely flashy dressed in red and yellow while the Pakistani guards followed suit in their dark, all black uniforms. The intensity between the two sets of guards was so thick you could feel it against your skin mixed with the heat of the burning rays of the late afternoon sun. Unfortunately our view was obstructed by people standing in front of us so we couldn’t see the Pakistani guards very well but either way, they remained on their side of the open gate and the Indian guards on ours so the view of them wasn't very good no matter where you were sitting. It's pretty crazy to think that just a simple, metal gate is all that was separating hundreds of people from entering a country that is portrayed by the media as such a violent and corrupt place. In the 30 minutes that the show took place, all I saw was a beautiful and proud country as they danced and stomped along with the Indian guards, trying to keep a straight face. As I watched all their proud faces and felt the nervousness the guards possessed, evident from their slightly trembling, muscular arms, I just wanted to yell and cheer with the rest of the crowd “Hindustan! Hindustan!” but my eyes were fixed and my mouth was glued in a smile.
We waddled our way through the crowd back towards the parking lot to find our auto driver to bring us back into the city. Within the hour, and just before sunset, we were happily filling our bellies with thalis again. The day had been extremely long and incredibly hot. We went for one last tour of the temple, walking around the beautiful structure as it float alone in the middle of the water tank, reflecting a perfectly mirrored image on the waters below. When we arrived back at the guesthouse, the entire main courtyard square was filled with hundreds of sleeping Indians, tucked happily under layers of blankets. All these people were from all over the country and from all different religious backgrounds yet were being sheltered within the four walls of a Sikh establishment without being questioned of who they were and what they were doing there. All based on personal donation, these people were being given food, water, a place to bathe and a place to rest their head…how do you ever re-pay such kindness?
I awoke with swollen eyes from extreme exhaustion. The last thing I remember was the boys discussing something about a cockroach before I drifted off to sleep. I’m still praying I didn’t somehow eat it during my slumber. I showered with the rest of the Indian women in the open area of the women's bathroom, not knowing there were private stalls available. They kept their eyes on me the entire time. I didn’t feel uncomfortable though. Every woman showed me a smile when we met one another's eyes. Some part of me could feel them appreciating the fact that I was in there with them, acknowledging that we are all women and we are all the same no matter where we come from. A young girl around the age of 5 couldn’t focus on much else, staring at every part of me as I changed. She couldn’t help her curiosity. I smiled at her and she ran away giggling. It was quite an interesting experience.
We arrived in Janauri after about 6 hours of travelling, a journey taken in two separate buses. While waiting for the second, we grabbed a delicious and extremely cheap lunch in Hoshiarpur and watched grown men go loco over the cricket game, which was playing on a large screen in the bus station. Janauri is a small, lusciously green little village about an hour outside of Hoshiarpur (and when I say green, I mean marijuana. It’s literally growing everywhere). The village is clean and extremely quiet, aside from the sounds of hundreds of monkeys living within the trees and grassy backyards of residents. Nana and Margaret greeted us on the main road where the bus dropped us off. Nana arrived on the back of a local’s scooter while Margaret came running behind warning the boys that the bus they needed to take to the other house in Dholbaha was on its way. The bus came around the corner and stopped to let the two travellers on. They looked dazed and confused as they boarded and Margaret shouted instructions at them. The bus jetted off and the three of us continued walking in the other direction towards their home, which is shared with an adorable older Indian couple whom they call Maji and Uncle G. The house is up a hill of stone steps and past a small area of colonial looking buildings, developed by the British in their early settlement in India. Their home here reminds me of being at my family’s cottage in Port Franks, Ontario. The large wooden house is equipped with old wooden furniture, 1970’s looking appliances and squeaky doors. Margaret and Nana made me tea as we sat around the table outside under the awning, looking out at never ending fields of marijuana while catching up on everything that had happened in the past month. Dinner included quinoa and mushrooms and I could have kissed them both for making me such a meal, consisting of two items I have fantasied about since arriving here. Mushrooms are extremely hard to find in Rajasthan and quinoa just simply does not exist. I’m feeling a little disconnected to rice right now. I think we’ll take a break from each other when I finally head out to my next destination. I’m eating it almost everyday!
I’m almost at the half way point of my internship here in India and the thought is already giving me anxiety. I’ve watched interns, like Ali, Christina and Maria, leave at the end of their six months with eyes full of tears. How am I going to do it? How do I say goodbye to my new home and all the people here that I love? My mind is racing with ideas of what to do next and where to do it. Living here for one month is like being here for a year. You grow so accustom to your surroundings, the locals, and the simple way of living. Should I stay longer? Should I head to Nepal? Should I go right to Australia? Maybe Burma or Thailand? Life is now here or life is nowhere? This silly little line is driving me crazy. I feel like you are bound to feel a sense of both theologies within your lifetime and right now, life is everywhere. How do I choose where I want to live mine?
Sometimes I really hate following my own advice but at the end of the day, you truly do have to trust your gut and right now all mine wants is North Indian thalis.