Sikhs Do More Than Feed People

Arriving in Delhi after 18 hours on the Rajdhani Express, James and I donned our packs and stumbled off the train. We both looked left, looked right, and followed the rest of the riders left on the assumption that we’d find an exit. Correct!

At the very edge of the non-railway world, we paused before stepping out. We had seven hours until our train to Chandigarh, and though we were weighed down by our bags, we wanted to see something of Delhi. I had read through the highlights in the Lonely Planet and was most interested in Humayun’s Tomb, Connaught Place, and the Qutb Minar.

So we forged our way into the crowd. As soon as my foot touched the top stair outside, the touts got started. I was not surprised, but fought to remain clear enough not to feel overwhelmed. You’d think that being a head taller than them would give me all the confidence in the world, but being unsure of my bearings gives me a vulnerability that is visible. Masking it is a matter of finding a direction as quickly as possible. I haven’t yet been intimidated, just half-drowned, as though covering for a teacher in a raucous kindergarten class. My usually effective headshake and repeated nonononononono didn’t discourage them, but it did keep them from stopping me. Finally, we got to the line of taxis and saw a person who seemed reasonable. After a brief negotiation for three hours of touring, we told him he was ridiculous and that we wouldn’t pay his fee. He just nodded seriously.

Another man, who had remained beside me and who smelled of licorice, said not to pay him. “Go to tourist office,” he said, pointing out the place with a sign reading, of course, Tourist Office.

We nodded and walked over, wondering if this was for real. Apparently, the fake tourist office is a big deal in Delhi. There are thousands of them. It’s not that you can’t arrange for trips and such through those offices, it’s just that they’re private and designed to take as much of your money as possible. There is an official, state-run tourist office as well, but that’s not the one we entered.

After about three minutes of conversation with the guy, he quoted us exactly the same price as the driver below. We stood. I was shaking my head, but smiling. Really, scams are the same everywhere – unless you get emotionally involved in the idea of whatever it is they’re selling you, it’s not hard to laugh them off.

When we walked out again, though, the crowd of touts was waiting for us. They became much more offensive, standing closer, stepping in front of me, yelling right in my ear. They are worse to James – I get a little extra personal space being female. I suggested to James that we head back to the tourist office in the railway station itself and we went. Of course, they’re really there for rail stuff, but it’s a very nice waiting area and James and I powered up the computer, charged it up, and then moved to a couch for some reading.

I pulled out the Lonely Planet and started reading about Chandigarh. From the US, it had sounded lovely. From Delhi, it sounded more like the US than like what we’d been enjoying in India. I became even more dissatisfied with the idea of going there when looking at hotel prices. Ridiculous! Okay, what about…Amritsar? And just like that, the plan changed. James cancelled our original reservation and made a new one. We were off to see the Golden Temple, the Sikh’s biggest and most impressive place of worship. What did I know about Sikhism? Um, well, they feed people, I think.

The only downside of the train switch is that it pushed back our departure a full two hours. So we had waited two hours of our seven, then still had seven hours to wait. Having just spent hours in the Mumbai Central train station, we weren’t charmed by the idea of sitting around in this one. We hadn’t seen a single bit of Delhi yet, and the city outside agitated for attention. Finally, our annoyance with the touts faded enough that we could consider going back out. We only had one problem left – the bags.

We’re carrying about 30-35 pound each. Oops – I mean about 15kg each. (I’m trying to get on the bandwagon, but I barely have a toehold.) This is not too much to carry. I have a backpack that fits nicely along the curve of my back, with my hoodie rolled up in a bag on the bottom. That bag sits on the shelf of my ass quite nicely. I also have a computer bag, with my computer (of course), computer gear, Lonely Planet, Trains at a Glance, and the book I’m reading (currently Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson). That bag goes crosswise on my torso and rests against my belly. It’s a pretty good balance. James has roughly the same, but with more of the odds and ends, so his load is just a bit heavier than mine.

Okay – not too much to carry. But too much to carry for very long, very comfortably. I could possibly walk for a couple of miles, or stand for an hour, but I wouldn’t like either one. And trying to keep an eye on where I’m going, an eye on my bags to make sure no one’s opening them and dipping in, and an eye on James to make sure we don’t lose one another…no go. So we puzzled it out. Some stations are listed in the Lonely Planet as having bag check areas. Delhi’s a big station. Even though we didn’t see a reference to a bag check, maybe there was one. Hey presto! What a good idea!

So James asked the man at the help desk. He said yes and gave us half of the directions, telling us to ask a policeman at that point. We did, and we found the bag check, except it was called a “cloakroom.” Oh, those wacky Brits! After a semi-long wait, an impromptu purchase of cheap locks from a queue-side vendor, and a strange exchange with the can’t-be-bothered clerk, he motioned for us to take our bags back. Back to rack after rack after rack, most full of luggage. They’ll hold luggage for up to one month, which is pretty neat when you think about it. Or not so neat once you realize that your luggage, if not made of a hard material, and especially if made of a natural material, will be nibbled and perhaps really eaten by rats.

Oh yes. Rats. Not mice. Believe me. I’m glad James didn’t get any pictures – I don’t need to see them ever again. Brave too. They didn’t really scurry, and they looked too well fed for all of the baggage to be intact.

But let’s not dwell on that subject, hmm?

So unencumbered by anything except our lovely zip-pocketed shirts and the Lonely Planet guide, we meandered back out with strong purpose and a plan. The plan was to walk to Connaught Place. Now, there’s only one problem with that plan, and it is that my entire sense of direction seems to be dependent on the conversation between my internal time clock and the almost subconsciously assessed position of the sun. Being in a place that is 11 ½ hours different has turned my world upside down. I’m sleeping fine, no problems with that, but when the sun is on my left shoulder and my internal clock says afternoon, I believe that I’m facing north. Of course, my internal clock being off, it’s not afternoon, it’s morning, and I am facing south. So we walked directly away from Connaught Place, looking into storefronts, trading hellos with dark, sparkling children proud of their English. The occasional driver tried to get our attention, but we just forged on.

A carefully dressed young man with a lovely grace was walking the same direction and slowed beside us. “Where are you from?” came the expected question. “USA,” went the usual answer. He was very excited about the USA, had family there, and was going to school for computer science. He was very pleasant, a happy change from the pushy drivers and touts, and exactly what we had come to expect of everyone who wasn’t trying to sell us something. After a brief conversation, he told us that we were nearing his neighborhood and that we shouldn’t walk there. Pickpockets, thieves, etc. Of course, they all knew him and knew he had nothing, but he said it didn’t matter what we did or didn’t have, they’d try to take it from us.

While we were trying to explain that we were no strangers to bad neighborhoods, and that we could handle ourselves, he dropped the bomb on us that we were headed the wrong direction for Connaught Place. Taking advantage of our confusion, he stopped an autorickshaw driver, dickered sharply for a few seconds, and then said, “Okay, he will take you to Connaught Place. Ten rupees, no more!” This, after paying 30-50 rupees for rides of about the same duration! And before I really had wrapped my head around what was happening, we were hustled out of “danger” and into a taxi, driving away and waving at the young man.

In an amused, touched, willing-to-believe frame of mind, we arrived at Connaught Place and started walking. There were still the usual calls from drivers, but no pressure, and more than one person stopped James to compliment him on his mustache or beard. Wow – never in the 12 years we’ve been together have I seen people so enamored of his facial hair. But there were comments and compliments and casual short conversations. Each one ended with a suggestion that we go to the Tourist Office, the official one, not a rip-off. Each person received a warm smile and was told no, but thanks.

Finally, after a circumambulation of the not-terribly-impressive central park of Connaught Place, we headed back toward the road that would lead us to the train station again. We were still hours early, but figured it might take us a while to walk the distance. As we walked down Radial 2, a stocky man in a red turban exclaimed over James’ beard, requested a sample from James’ digeridoo, and asked the usual where-are-you-from. That branched into a long, loud, happy conversation about Oakland, where he worked at a gas station on Mandela Parkway, where we rode our bikes past his gas station daily. When we said we were going to see the Golden Temple, he said, “I am Manjeek Singh. This is my rickshaw, but I am on a break, going to my temple. I am Sikh. I want to share my temple with you – no money, just share.”

On instinct, James and I both believed him. We looked at each other, not to assess his trustworthiness, but to assess our time and interest. In a quarter of a second, we both answered, “Yes!”

Now, I don’t want to give the temple short shrift. It was an amazing experience, not documented in photos because James had checked his camera along with the baggage. We will go again to enjoy the Sikh hospitality and to get pictures of the place. But really, for me that visit was about being introduced, by a generous man, to the beauty and ritual of a Sikh temple. From covering our heads, to washing our hands and feet, to walking around the central building where the writings were displayed, to eating the mash that they drop into your hands at the exit, I marveled at the art, architecture, and music, but more than anything else, I marveled at the attitude. He loved showing off his temple, and we were made very welcome.

When we left, he ushered us into his rickshaw and then turned from the front seat and looked at us speculatively. He said, “You still have a couple of hours until you leave. No pressure, you can of course say no, but if you will go to two or three shops for me, they will pay me in fuel coupons. Ten minutes in each, and my fuel is paid for.”

Now, this might sound like the punchline. This might sound like the point. But I truly believe that it was not. I am almost completely certain that this man would be just as good to us, drive us just as happily to the train station if we said no as if we said yes. Had I believed otherwise, I would have said no, kneejerk, just on principle. But I believed, James believed, and we couldn’t see the harm of shopping for a little while. So we stood and waited on a corner with him, while he made cellphone calls to another driver.

Turns out, he owns a small fleet of cars and rickshaws, and one of his cars is attached to the Imperial Hotel, a very fancy place, way out of our price range. We got into that car (nicer interior than we were used to) and waved goodbye to our friend. The new driver wasn’t very communicative, but he drove us to a shop and opened our doors. As we walked up to the shop, I started to realize that this was no casual hole-in-the-wall.

Eighty-year-old Himalayan carpets for $4000, new handmade carpets in traditional designs for $1300. Saris, jewels, household goods, and more. It was all beautiful, and James and I accidentally overdid our roles. Carpet after carpet was unrolled for us and we discussed quality, workmanship, and design with the salesman. Finally, I looked at my watch and realized it had been a half-hour. Just as the salesman must have thought he was closing the deal, I looked at James and said, “We have to go!” We got a business card and hustled out of there, feeling bad, feeling even a bit covetous.

Whew! Two more upscale shops later, I was tired of looking at “wedding ring” pashmina, ornate jewelry, marble with precious stone inlays, and sundry other items. Only one thing neared the purchasing threshold – a set of tablas – but James backed away and we left. I’m not much of a shopper, but at least I know what these things cost in fancy shops. Better bargaining power if I buy something in a plainer shop later.

He took us back to the train station in plenty of time, and though when asked about accepting a tip, he shook his head in the Indian fashion, it means neither yes nor no, and we took that as a yes. So another train ride began shortly thereafter – another large meal (chai, biscuits, candies, soup, breadsticks, butter, samosas, strange sandwich, more chai, paneer dish, dal, rice, yogurt, and ice cream, served in non-stop courses over six hours). And then we were in Amritsar.

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2 comments

  1. Enjoying catching up on your blogs. The beard thing is interesting. I was on the ferry from Port Townsend, WA to Kingston once and a Sikh passenger complimented me on my beard. First time I’d ever been complimented on my beard by anyone other than my wife. I was very flattered.

    -Steve

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