Our first week of volunteering was over. Those first days were an introduction as we were meeting all the people we would be serving and understanding what our place in the community would be.
I will talk about my personal experience with the volunteer program in a different post, as I’d like to expand on that. First, let me share with you our weekend trip to the city of Amritsar.
We are nine volunteers in the homestay and we all wanted to do something after the week was over. Amritsar was recommended by past volunteers, Lhamo and other people Matt and I chatted with prior to our trip, so choosing the destination was no hard task.
Lhamo booked us two drivers to pick us up on Friday at 9:00am. Of course it wasn’t 9:00 as we are living under “Indian Time” so by 10:00am we were on the road.
According to our research it was going to take 6 hours to get there. A rule of thumb is always to allow for more travel time in India as they are always late and you don’t know what adventures you will encounter on the journey. Between the morning delay, some pit stops, a one-hour lunch in the middle of the trip and the usual traffic, 8 hours later we were there.
The main site to check out in the city is a Sikh temple called “Golden Temple” because you know – it is a temple and it is gold.
Pilgrims and travelers from all over can sleep, eat and shower there for free so all the volunteers with the exception of Matt and I wanted to do that. We instead booked a room at a guesthouse that was recommended on TripAdvisor.
It’s not that Matt and I lost the adventurous spirit – I think we’ve proven that we still got it after quitting our jobs to do this trip – but the idea to sleep at the temple wasn’t appealing to us. To add to it, I was craving a hot shower since we only have cold water at Lhamo’s place. It is known cold water is great for blood circulation and brings other many benefits but when you are living in 50 degree mountain weather, the cons seem more powerful than the pros.
On arrival we split from the group to check in at the Osahan Paradise – a family owned place located in a hectic and dirty street near the temple. Matt and I standing in front of the hotel’s door looked at each other reading our minds: “Oh goodness, we hope this is April Fools’ Day.” We knocked on the door and a friendly old man opened up. All our worries faded away once we were inside because it was clean, comfortable and homey.
After showering and unpacking, we headed to the Golden Temple to meet with the rest of the group.
As we entered the promenade where cars aren’t allowed, the scene changed completely from filthy to clean and beautiful marble floors and nice buildings leading to the main entrance.
Before getting to the gate to see the temple, we learned we needed to remove our shoes and leave them in a specific area. Then, we needed to take an orange bandana from a basket right outside the gate and wear it on our heads. As a last step, we needed to wash our feet. After all of these requirements, we finally were allowed to enter the temple.
There it was: the Golden Temple surrounded by what’s supposed to be a body of holy water.
There were thousands of people. The idea of this place is that everyone is welcome and we definitely felt we were part of the community. Anyone can stay there and volunteers contribute to cleaning the premises, cooking meals and even guiding others around.
When we met with the rest of the volunteers, we found out there wasn’t enough space for them at the temple so they were going to check in at a hotel.
Matt and I were hungry and tired so we decided to split one more time and see everyone in the morning.
I read about a famous restaurant called Kesar Da Dhaba that serves Punjabi street food so we decided to go there for dinner. It is hidden inside a street market so google maps was our guide to take us there. The market was busy and hectic, especially because there are many motorcycles and rickshaws transporting people or merchandise. It is important to note that in India pedestrians don’t have priority on the streets. If you see a motorcycle, car or whatever, you better move!
After dodging everyone and everything in the market we finally arrived. We tried a dish called Rajmah which is basically a bean stew you can mix with rice. We also ordered some cooked vegetables. Matt and I would give anything for a raw, crunchy, delicious salad – but that will need to wait until we get out of here, as it is unsafe to eat anything raw, so we are sticking with curry!
Note on picture above: we didn’t eat that raw salad. It took a lot of courage.
Dinner was delicious and cheap! We paid $3.00 USD for the entire meal. That’s $1.50 USD a person. What are we doing overpaying in New York? Shiva only knows.
We found our way back to the hotel and went to bed.
The next morning, we woke up at 6:00am as we wanted to go back to the temple and see the sunrise. Dorothy, one of the volunteers, met us there.
Most of the people sleeping at the temple were already awake when we arrived. It took a good 30 minutes for the sun to show up but when it did, it was a magical moment. The Golden Temple was shining and the firey red sun was behind it.
Outside the complex there was a Cafe Coffee Day (the chain I wrote about when in Delhi) so we got in to buy a coffee and meet the rest of the volunteers. After an americano with milk we walked to the Jallianwala Bagh – a park that commemorates the 1,500 Indians killed or wounded when a British officer ordered his soldiers to open fire on peaceful protestors in 1919.
Matt and I knew already about the massacre since it’s represented in the Gandhi movie with Ben Kingsley – a film we watched in preparation for our trip.
The park was packed with Indian locals and tourists so being the only white people, we became the main attraction for them. It is a thing in India that everyone wants to take photos with you but in Jallianwala you really cannot escape it.
We saw the walls that still show the bullet holes, a well that people jumped into trying to escape and an eternal flame that burns 24 hours a day for those who lost their lives. The energy was tense and heavy – common when you go to a place with such history.
We split again from the group as everyone wanted to do different things. Matt and I walked towards the town hall area and went for lunch at another famous place called Bharawan Da Dhaba. This time we ordered Makki ki roti (a type of corn tortilla) with Sarson de saag (mustard greens).
After lunch, we walked back to the hotel and met with the property manager that arranged for all of us to go to the Pakistan-India Wagah border to watch the lowering of the flag at sunset. This is something that’s done every day and a tourist attraction. We met everyone again, got into a Hop On Hop Off bus that took us to the border. One hour later we were there.
Words cannot describe what it was. It was a bizarre event Indian and Pakistanis seem to feel very proud of. You get into a coliseum type structure that’s half built. Two gates separate India from Pakistan and there are shows happening on both sides. On the Indian side, an MC makes the crowd dance to Indian pop songs while women run around waving flags and dancing Bollywood style. On the Pakistan side there’s a Justin Bieber-like teenager making some dance moves although the crowd is more put together than the Indians.
When it’s time to lower the flag, there’s a whole choreography of the soldiers kind of fighting kind of greeting each sides until they come together to lower both flags at the same time. The whole thing was weird. We were all looking to ourselves thinking: “What did we sign up for?”. But we cannot deny it was worth the experience. Matt claims this is the strangest thing he’s ever seen in his whole life – I will have to agree.
We went back to Amritsar, had dinner at a place called Brother’s Dhaba where we had curry with cashews and went straight to bed.
The next morning we woke up to see the sunrise again at the Golden Temple and say goodbye to the city. The temple was even more crowded than the day before, but remained shiny and beautiful.
Eight hours later we were back in Bir, happy to be in a quieter place but satisfied from our weekend escapade.