Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Amritsar - Kes, Kangha, Kara, Kirpan and Kachcha

On Saturday our Air India flight touched down on the scorching runway of Amritsar, Punjab (and our landing gear did not fail)! When we arrived, we were met with heavily armed and bearded men on the tarmacadam, but an otherwise tranquil airport surrounded by languid construction. I say languid because in 48 degree C heat nothing moves fast. While Felipe stopped to smoke a cigarette at arrivals, we observed the slow unloading of bricks from a large truck, the half-constructed drive that was to facilitate taxi drop-offs, and were soon swarmed by the pre-pay taxi brethren. Upon arrival the crowd provoked my assumption -- Adam Smith's hand might work even in the Punjabi desert, and this means fair price -- but alas, all worked for one price-fixing pre-pay taxi monopoly that charged us an outrageous 450 Rs for a 5 minute drive to our hotel. With absolutely no alternative, scarcity was on their side, and not ours.

We arrived at La Cascade, a boutique hotel in Amritsar after a bumpy ride inside a non-AC Tata Indica. Passing turban-clad auto drivers, motorcycle enthusiasts, charrioteers on horseback with large bullock carts piled sky-high with everything, we made our way through the small city of 1 million plus. After a relaxing AC stint, fantastic lunch of border-style food served by a dapper gentleman with a dedicated mullet, we took an auto to the famed Golden Temple.

The Golden Temple is serenity in marble. Using the same Pietra Dura style of the Taj, with inlay marble designs, the Golden Temple is surrounded by a grand and shimmering pool, and white marble portico. Men and women with heads covered slowly shuffle bare-footed over the cool white marble, between you and the sparkle of the water. Bright and matching turbans punctuate the piercing white reflection of marble, water, and gold, and accent the flowing cotton that hangs toward the smooth marble walkway. Reds, blues, greens, pinks, intricately wrapped atop the heads of tall, bearded men with grand features, penetrating eyes, and aloof, friendly stares. Men who embody and espouse the Sikh panj kakke, or five symbols of faith, men with uncut hair (Kes), comb (Kangha), clinking steel bracelet (Kara), slung knife (Kirpan), and undergarmets (Kachcha) reverently glide by.

Many ask to snap pictures with us. I too ask a man and his young son to pose, showing them the magic of Panasonic in recreating the Golden Temple and them in miniature. Though the rectangular walk around the pool is small, we spend 2 hours in rotation, as prayers echo through the heavy hot Punjabi air. With my covering and beard, I trade my sunglasses for laughs with a few local kids who flip their collars for my film, grin and giggle, and demand nothing more than conversation.

From the Golden Temple we took a rattling Tata 30km to Wagh, the border between India and Pakistan. Over good roads, we drove at speeds that should have driven cool air into the cabin but at 116 degrees F, I had trouble keeping my eyes open. In the oppressive heat the glare of the sun was omnipresent, dry, and heavy, and I found my body beginning to shut down. Unconsciousness was closer than sleep, but there was little alternative. After an hour on the road, we arrived at the frenetic border area. Immediately accosted by flag, beer, food, and DVD vendors, we soon traded currency for refuge at the cost of 120 Rs and an overpriced, fly-encrusted 'Thunderbolt' Beer (only sold in Punjab). When the gate opened at 5pm, we were the first through.

The Wagh border ceremony occurs daily between Indian and Pakistani troops. Crowds gather on either side of a heavily fortified border, and military pomp and circumstance elicits innocuous, but nationalistic pride on either side. Chants of 'Hindustan' echo over the razor wire to the similarly-dressed, kurta-clad fans on the Pakistan side. The safron of the Indian flag unfurls in the wind before we sun dropping westward over Pakistan. And the green and white crescent of the Pakistani flag flutters before those who've made the trip from Lahore, capital of Punjabi Pakistan. After much trumpeting, chanting, stomping, marching, and stepping, the flags are lowered in tandem and folded, the border gates closed, and ceremony closed.

At dark we returned from Pakistan by road, a period that was reminiscent of driving in America not because of sanity so much as driving on the right side of the road. Our driver, in an attempt to pass every moving truck and bullock cart, every motorcycle and auto, every lingering animal and rival Indica, drove at least 75 percent of the drive home on the wrong side of the road. Regardless of oncoming traffic, a flicker of brights, honk, slight swerve, and nonchalant glance at the passengers sufficed for survival. In support of Darwin, we tipped him well upon hotel arrival.

And after a 90 rupee Punjabi Thali dinner at a local hole-in-the wall with bingo night, an outdoor stroll, and cycle-rickshaw home, we made rest for fantastic day two in Punjab.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Tandoor in Tollywood

Last Wednesday we were invited to a restaurant opening for 'Tandoor,' a nice new joint in the Hyderabad Lifestyles building. Upon entry, the flashbulbs were popping as they mistook us for the important guests. We shook hands with the owners, two friendly Punjabi men with bright turbans, flowing beards and clinking Kara, the iron bracelet that's symbolic of bondage to truth and freedom in the Sikh faith.

The scene was one out of Hollywood, or Tollywood, rather, as the glam and glitz crowd began to gather under the dim lights and lightly pumping music. The sparkle of glass, swish of fabrics, and the ever-important glazed eye stare as though one were looking for everyone and no one in the transitory moment of flashbulb bliss. We were amidst that languid mix, partaking in a night of free drinks and revelry, punjabi food, sitar and tabla, and self-important entertainment.

While they rolled out the red carpet for Tandoor in Tollywood, our photos didn't grace Page 3. Next time...

Priyanka to Punjab

While I was quick to exalt the glories of the Little B's new bride, Aishwariya Rai, I overlooked another Indian Miss World in Priyanka Chopra, the stunning Punjabi beauty. Last week I watched the Bollywood stunner, 'Don,' also reputed as the Matrix-reloaded-in-India Shah Rukh Kahn response to Ethan Hunt. While thrown for some laughs by Shah Rukh's one liners, I was also enraptured by the skillful martial arts of Priyanka Chopra. Upon reading that she's a former Punjabi Miss World, I decided a trip to Amritsar, Punjab was in order... well, only half kidding. I already had my tickets to Punjab, but Priyanka was added impetus.

On Friday, after a hilarious night out at a testosterone-heavy Hyderabadi joint, we boarded our 03:45 SpiceJet flight for Delhi. Due to allegedly bad weather, the flight was inevitably late, closing the ever narrow margin of time we had before we were to board our Air India flight for Amritsar. Once our two-hour window had shrunk to 25 minutes, and after meek apologies and mumblings by our half-conscious stewardess, we dashed from the plane with an impossible task. Delhi Airport, unlike any airport in the world, is disconnected from its international counterpart. And not only are they disconnected, there is no shuttle (or an infrequent one at best) that forces one to take a 15-minute pre-pay taxi to get to the other side of the airfield. Fun, sure, but not when your flight is departing in 25 minutes. We shoved our way into a taxi, demanded speed, and then stuffed a hundred rupee note into the complaining fingers of our driver when he demanded $10 for his trouble. To his indignant huff, my only laconic response was, 'We don't have time for this,' before our dash inside.

Once we'd entered Delhi International through the staff entrance, as it was closer and we were nearly maniacal at this 7AM point, the Air India counter for Amritsar was closed. This was a half-relief, as the last two Air India flights about which I've read have involved failed landing gears, but we were still on a mission, so safety came a close second to Priyanka. Shuttling between the counter and the back office, I audaciously cut in line. To the hypocritical holler of those aunties standing nearby, whose conception of 'Line' was dubious at best, I tried to apologize for SpiceJet's typical negligence, and eventually got a point across. Utilizing the magical approach of one in-front, one behind-counter, we managed to convince an automaton employee that the customer is always right. A non-existent flight materialized, we passed through customes and into a departure hall filled with flights to unlikely destinations like Kabul, and 30 minutes later we were boarding a Dubai-bound flight with a stop-over in Amritsar.

We were finally Priyanka, and Punjab, bound. And what we found was not only miss-world hot, but other-worldly hot.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Indian Futbol

Last week I stayed up all night to watch the Champions League semi-finals in India. Liverpool and AC Milan will again meet in the final, though this time Athens, and not Istanbul, will be host to the inevitable magic. Football is the global game, and I can attest to its veracity. I've juggled a ball with a beach-side Rastafarian in Jamaica, played pick-up at the base of Annapurna in Nepal (above), performed slide tackles on gravel roof-tops in Quito, played over a net in Brazil, inside a netted pitch in Italy, and on an imacculate court in Hong Kong. But I've not played in India.

If you consider India, you realize that football is really only 5/6 global, because 1.09 billion people in India do not play football, or if they do, they're not good at playing football. Since being in India I have seen football. All the EPL matches are broadcast and Champions League gets great coverage on Asian ESPN. But hardly any youth plays, and the pockets of passion seem few and far between. Goa and its Portuguese past is an enclave of football, and West Bengal, with Pele's brief '60s visit, has inspired a predominately Brazilian following. Kerala too has a smattering of futbolistas who I did see cristening some wet sand near Kovalam, but games are Spartan at best, and skill levels paltry. Although there is a domestic league, anecdotal evidence suggests that it's only minutely popular in those states listed above.

It's hard for me to imagine how a country of 1.1 B can't put 11 good players on a pitch, but it's true, and FIFA's Blatter had no qualms saying this in his recent visit to India. India is ranked 165 in FIFA global rankings, a dubious distinction that places them as ranking worse than St Lucia, Turkmenistan, and Andorra.

If you think of having a one-in-a-million athlete, India has 1100 of them, and they only need 11 footballers to create a winning roster. That means that they need one good player out of 100 million people. And this one person out of 100 million doesn't even need to be Kaka or Messi or Sevcenko or Drogba... just a player able to propell India to rank higher than Turkmenistan.

When India requested that FIFA revise its WC team allocation to include more from Asia the response was curt but frank (no, not the proper nouns). India and China can do a lot of things well, but putting the ball in the back of the net isn't yet one of them. When I want to watch the Champions League Final on May 23, it may be with some local friends. But when I want to kick the ball around, it'll be Felipe, my ex-pro Futsal buddy from Murinho's pre-Stamford Bridge home of Porto, Portugal.

Saturday, May 5, 2007


Three weeks from today my Indian Airways flight will depart from Hyderabad for Bangkok. After a week in interim, between Cambodia and the beaches of Krabi and Samui, and the quick highlights of Seoul, Korea, I'll arrive back home in San Francisco, California. It's currently a mix of emotions, as my departure will mark a close to the time I lived in India. It will end an exciting and fascinating chapter in my peripatetic life abroad, and has broadened me infinitely.

Six months ago I did not know that I'd have the chance to live in India. Nor did I think I'd have to chance to visit 10 more countries, explore secular Turkey, travel solo through the Middle East, relax in the Maldives and trek in Nepal, bathe with elephants in Malaysia, and hopefully see the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia's Siam Reap. Life comes at you fast, but opportunities are not inspired by fortune; I firmly believe that they're the consequence of assiduity and resolve. In my final weeks in India, I'm trying to take a step back from my experiences and enjoy the day-to-day nuances of life here that make it different from my life in California. India cannot delude itself into yet thinking that lifestyle here is on par with that of other developed nations, but there are unequivocally pockets wherein you can find parallels.

I've undoubtedly lived a privileged life in India. Between 11 drivers and a 2000 sq ft marble-floored apartment, I realize that my daily life has been the furthest thing from ordinary. But it's hard to apply Western, or American, conceptions of luxury in a country where population, labor supply, and a generally low cost of living allow for formerly upper crust services to become simply above average. What I mean is that in India, even non-essential services are quite cheap because the demand for work is high. I saw an ad for a local Hyderabad apartment in which for under 4k Rs, (~$100) you could live in a furnished, all-amenities apartment fit with daily maid service. That standard cannot compute in the US. So while I accept, and sometimes deplore, our extreme privilege in India, it's not entirely accurate for me to judge my living standards with an American eye.

Many of my co-workers dine at the fanciest restaurants and call their favorite pub "Dublin," the posh underground bar at the ITC Sheraton. Granted they're IT wizzards who are doing well by local standards, but it's difficult to know exactly where to draw the line. There are discrepancies in certain prices, for example Hyderabad rent vs San Francisco rent, but flight costs are identical. So while local wages are based off the purchasing power parity of essentials like food and rent, there are certainly global disparities. The fact that I'm paid in dollars affords me certain relative privileges not shared by my Indian co-workers which are accentuated in certain spheres, such as travel, when no alternative exists. An Emirates flight to Dubai costs the same despite the currency of the salary. And that flight is cheaper to a Brit, and cheaper still to the Maltese.

Reflecting on this allows me to understand, if still feel indignant from, specifically "foreigner costs". Ecuador does it terribly with flight costs to the Galapagos Islands. It's less extreme in India, but a 1000 percent mark up for a white face is common. Charminar in Hyderabad, but one example, charges 10 Rs and 100 Rs depending on skin color. Despite my beard and floundering Hindi, I can't escape the "foreigner tax."

Some of these ponderous situations require introspection for which words do little justice. I should pay more, but yet I don't feel as though it's fair or right. And while I'm happily willing to donate, and likely would, I'm indignant at the fact that the color of my skin demands a higher price, especially despite my local status, burgeoning knowledge of Hindi, and growing appreciation of India's rich diversity. It's the typical, 'I'm not a tourist, so don't treat me like one,' mentality. But at root, I am a tourist, I am paid in dollars, so wihle it's "unfair," it's probably "right."