India-Pakistan Border Closing Ceremony

21 May

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April 17, 2012

We headed for the train station bright and early in a cab we’d hailed while walking up the street from our hotel (we had asked a tuk tuk driver for his price and he’d simply said “no”). It turns out that we had all gotten sick in some way, shape or form throughout the night, and we were all feeling pretty wiped having not slept well. Luckily our train left from platform 1 meaning that the trek to catch our train wasn’t far at all from the train station entrance.

The ride from New Delhi to Amritsar was about 6 hours. Unfortunately for us, India’s most misbehaved child was sitting behind us accompanied by her laissez-faire parents. Thanks to headphones and iPods (what did we do before Apple?!) we were able to somewhat drown out the alternation of screaming fits and video game sounds. Too bad for J.J. that there was nothing that could be done about the repeated kicking and punching of the back of his seat.

When we got off the train in Amritsar the first thing we saw was heart-breaking. A shoeless and unwashed little girl of about 4 years old wearing a dirty cotton sundress was standing on the platform with only her slightly older sister, no parents anywhere in sight. The younger of the 2 girls was holding on to a concrete structure, her feet about shoulder-width apart, and was evacuating her bowels with explosive force. The little girl didn’t seem phased by what was happening and her older sister tried her best to help her but what’s a 4 year-old and a 5 year-old to do in a situation like that? I can’t imagine being that age and not having my parents by my side to care for me and nurse me back to health. We left the little girl there in the care of her sister, along with several families standing nearby on the platform, not knowing what else to do.

Shortly thereafter and still affected by what we’d seen, we found the driver that Mr. Shafi had hired for us for our time in Amritsar. His name was Dhilbagh and he was a slim man that wore a turban and a neatly pressed pair of grey dress pants and matching button-down short sleeved dress shirt. We walked with him to our ride, a white van, and loaded our bags inside. Dhilbagh drove us to the narrow alley leading up to our hotel, Hong Kong, and walked us up the alley to check in.

The hotel had a spacious lobby with white marble floors and white walls. Our rooms were side-by-side and just down the hall from reception. When we opened the door to go inside the first thing we noticed that this was a lot nicer than other rooms we’d stayed in in India up until that point. It was clean, big and had a washroom with a western toilet and hot water (not that you need it in India).

We got settled and met back up with Dhilbagh who was taking us to the sunset India-Pakistan border ceremony where they close the border between the 2 countries each night. After a half hour or so drive we got out of the van and began walking through the crowded parking lot and past several small souvenir shops and food stands selling everything from fruit to popcorn to samosas. The women were dressed in their brightly coloured saris and the men in clean, pressed shirts and pants. There were also a number of foreigners in attendance, most dressed respectfully in conservative clothing that covered both shoulders and knees in spite of the soaring temperatures (between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius).

We walking along a blocked off road (ie no vehicles and no honking) with fields of green on either side. We were made to pass through 2 security check points, each one with separate ladies and gents line-ups. Unlike Agra there was no boobie honk-honk, just a straight-faced pat-down. Once through we were escorted to a structure of concrete bleachers that was clearly reserved for tourists as only Caucasian people were seated in this particular spectator’s section. From where we were sitting we could see the gate into Pakistan on our left and the gate into India on our right. On the road in between were people of all ages taking turns running the Indian flag up and down the road while a massive street party consisting of Bollywood dancing to music such as the hit song Jai-Ho (soundtrack of Slum Dog Millionaire) took place.

The border closing ceremony kicked off with what I can only describe as a pissing contest of sorts. At the same time a border guard from India and a border guard from Pakistan would take to the microphone and begin belting out a single note. It seems the goal was to hold the note longer than the other person and Pakistan won every single time. To date I’m still not sure of the significance of this aspect of the ceremony.

Next the border guards marched either in pairs or solo down the road towards the gate into Pakistan. The high kicks these guards are able to do would put even the very best of can-can girls to shame. Their legs remain perfectly straight as they kick a flexed foot clear overtop of their head. Incredible. Eventually a flag crossing ceremony began and finally the gates slammed shut.

The border guards held the crowd back for a few minutes, for no clear reason, not allowing anyone to exit the ceremony. As soon as they moved aside it was mayhem. People rushing to the gate to have their photo taken with Pakistan in the background. We opted to avoid the madness and headed back to Dhilbagh and the van, fearful we’d lose one another or become squished by the mob of people rushing forward.

We made our way back to the hotel without encountering any traffic until we were back near our hotel. We said our goodbyes to Dhilbag, promising to meet him at 11am the next morning to  visit the Golden Temple, and opted to make a quick stop at the liquor store across the street before heading back to the hotel. There, we picked out a few tallboys of beer (something I wager they don’t sell much of judging by the fact that every man in the place was lined up to purchase Bacardi Breezers) and paid the cashier. Before we could leave we were asked to have our photo taken with each person there on their individual cell phones.

We dropped off our beer in the fridges in our rooms before making our way to a nearby restaurant that the hotel had recommended, Crystal. It was then that we learned that it was common for 2 separate businesses to share the same name so we weren’t sure which Crystal to eat at, but took a gamble and weren’t disappointed.

After dinner we cheated death for the last time that day as we crossed the street, dodging between bikes, tuk tuks, cars, vans and trucks, to drink the beer we’d chilled before leaving for dinner. Pete decided he wasn’t feeling well and called it a night before drinks and I opted to do my laundry as anything that had come into contact with the air in the Ivory Palace Hotel in Delhi reeked of the toxic chemical smell that had been in our room. I too kept it booze-free (in addition to a meat-free diet) in India (which turned out to be a good thing as my stomach was still reeling from the night before, Delhi belly continues…).

A couple of hours after dinner we called it a night, dying to crawl into the big clean bed of our fancy-ish hotel.

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