I hadn’t long crossed the border, before i noticed the change. The Wagah border ceremony is a pompous reminder of the problems still faced between old adversaries; India and Pakistan. It is pretentious, yet strangely entertaining as the tallest men from the two countries strut and stamp, in a display of what appears to be great national pride and ego. I had waited two hours for the charade to start, after being dropped off at the border with a Pakistan News television crew, who had followed me all day, filming me with great glee and excitement. On both sides of the gate, where grand stands have been erected for the daily ceremony, huge crowds gather to shout over the loud bollywood music on both sides ‘Pakistan Zindebad’, ‘Hindustan Zindebad’. On the Indian side a large party breaks into full swing, the women dancing bare foot to the delight of the crowd, while on the Pakistani side a few young boys shift from side to side to the music nervously, no match for the Indian parade, but the strictly Muslim country couldn’t have its women shifting their head scarves, even in the secular Punjab!
Yet the real change, and most entertaining change was not the sudden change of culture. So the women, had their hair out, some pretty young things were wearing tight jeans and short tops; who cares. The sudden distinction between the tourists i had met in Syria, Iran and Pakistan, compared to the strange bunch in India is massive. I was sitting in the tourist enclosure waiting for the start of the ceremony, when what can only be described as an American homeboy, wearing a large turban and a patchy beard arrives. He informs me without question, that he is a Sikh. I congratulate him on his decision to become a Sikh and firmly break the conversation, thinking that he is merely a rare nutter in the world. While for the past months, all i have met is cyclists, mountaineers, hikers, scientists and journalists along with the occasional Japanese mentalist. In India, all there seems to be is a collection of trustafarians trying to find themselves in life.
The evening of strutting, goose stepping was quickly over and i find myself in the Golden Temple at Amrtisar, minus my self appointed ‘Sikh’ guide, but among his kinsmen, the kindest of people; the Sikhs. The Golden Temple is a feast for the emotions and senses, where every Sikh should come to perform his duty and to serve others. From the richest to the poorest, Sikhs come to work in the huge communal kitchens, providing free food for anyone who wants it, to clean the communal bathrooms and guard the huge pilgrims quarters that i find myself slumbering in for free. My grandfather always told me to ‘Seek to be a Sikh’, although i suspect strongly that he was taking the piss, he was probably correct in his assertion. The temple is noisy as always in India, because Indians are unable to do anything quietly. Twenty fours a day, the loudspeakers scream the Sikh scripts into the night sky, the communal kitchens clatter at a deafening pace and the hub-jub of India continues despite the sacred nature of the temple.
In the separate foreign visitors quarters, I find myself talking happily to a girl from the west country. She seems vaguely normal, and we begin to wonder round the temple, bare foot, with our orange scarves taped to our heads; singling us out as phoney Sikhs in the sea of big turbans and the guards, carrying their spears peacefully. Its not long before she drops to the floor, looking at the moon, and proceeds to announce ‘its the summer solstice tonight, normally i would be at stone henge’. I make a swift exit, stage left.
So i met two lunatics in my first five hours on Indian soil; so what? Its not until i drive out of the Punjab and arrive in Dharmasala; the home of the Dalai Lama in exile that i really start to notice the tambourine banging nutters. I find myself surrounded by pseudo hippies, playing Sitars, smoking dope, having deep but ill thought out conversations and generally wasting alot of time. I feel like a little bit of a square, wearing normal trousers and a shirt, everyone else is donned in an acid trip like collection of hemp skirts (for the boys), and other vaguely ethnic clothing for the others, or those who can’t decide. A huge collection of events are advertised on every spare space or wall, such as ‘Free Dance’, ‘Booty Shake with Cinna-man’ (Who it turns out is a girl), ‘Probitoic Aviotic Massage, yoga, and general hocus pocus’. Maybe i made the last one up, but you probably get the idea. I select the ‘Free Dance’ from the list of events, and wonder along with one of the other ‘normal’ guests in this mad village. We enter the room to find a number of multi-coloured people wriggling like maggots on the floor, while others flail their arms and yet more strange are the legions yelping and making strange noises. I attempt to dance along, but find myself pulling on my crotch, shifting from side to side like I’m in an R&B club, uncomfortably and struggle for twenty minutes to hold onto a straight face.
The amount of shameless exhibitionism in Dharmasala, or Bhagsu; it’s traveller enclave is fascinating. People seem to be determined to go out of the way and make complete fools of themselves. A lot of people have stayed far too long and lost all sense of what is reasonable, or normal in reality, and find themselves talking nonsense about the earth, the meaning of life and blowing various digareedon’ts (or a didge, if you are cool), while sipping vairous frappacinos, spending copious amounts of times on the Internet and eating a collection of Pizzas, Pastas and other western imperial dishes. The establishment of what was correctly described by one traveller, as a ‘Kibbutz’ is a further oddity about the place, a small piece of Israel in India, complete with a chabad house (a right wing synagogue for missionaries), a large amount of Hebrew signs, Israeli restaurants and hundreds of Israeli backpackers.
Most people need to go home to their parents, get a haircut, a pair of corduroy trousers and stop trying to fund their jollies through bizarre exhibitions, selling musical instruments and busking . So what, yes, I’m a bigot. But the place is so mindless, and the cabin fever faced is incredible. People seem genuinely to be bored, and therefore forced to do bizaare things, while the monsoon rains lash the wettest place in India and mask the Himalayas which in other months cast their shadow over the foothill station, which otherwise may allow them to get some fresh air.
I’m only saved from buying a pair of stripey trousers and a large bag of drugs to keep me interested in my bamboo flute, by my adopted Israeli parents who are counting down the days to fly home and get married in Israel, who nurture and mother me, along with my bed bug bites which have arrived with my arrival in India. Further saviour arrives in the shape of Nick Gravely, another English biker who has flown in from the ‘stans, and we are soon on our way, back to the Himalaya, to Indian held Kashmir.