It was on the bus from the clusterf…ilthy city of New Delhi to Amritsar that I was finally able to relax. New Delhi had scammed me and tested me, and if it were a contest, it won. I spent my first three days of traveling abroad exhausted and stressed, rotating between giving up a $100 deposit, moving into new hotel rooms, avoiding touts, and trying to figure out a plan that would mitigate the amount of trouble I encountered in the future. Travelers need thick skin wherever they go – travelers in India need even thicker skin, primed street smarts, and the brains to discern a friend from a greedy opportunist.
But there is a fine balance in this aspect of gauging every situation. If you act submissive and overly trusting in your interactions, then you will find your money slowly disappearing to people taking advantage of you. If you grow distrustful though, then you sacrifice the benefits of traveling as well. To ignore locals because of fear would be to travel in ignorance. Moreover, to run and be annoyed by scammers will only make your day worse. It’s a lot easier to smile and say hello than to shake your head and run away. One needs to walk the line between distrust and foolish trust, and walking that line will allow you to have great interactions, new friends, and still have money in your wallet at the end of the day.
Amritsar is located in the agriculturally important and majority-Sikh state of Punjab. Above its quickly diminishing groundwater level, Punjab is known for its massive farms of wheat, cotton, and rice. Out of the bus window I saw endless fields and countless villagers hunched over, weeding or harvesting their hardworking day away. As we neared Amritsar, houses and temples took over and, with that, crowds of Indians and foreigners on their holy pilgrimage. Amritsar is best known for being the home of the Sri Harmandir Sahib, more commonly known to foreigners as the Golden Temple. The Golden Temple, originally built in the late 1500s, is the holiest Sikh religious site in the world. It is incredibly revered and popular, being more visited than the Taj Mahal.
The Golden Temple is on a higher plane than the Taj Mahal spiritually and philosophically. While the Taj Mahal is probably one of the most visually striking buildings in the world, its purpose as a mausoleum, commissioned by an ultra-rich emperor for one of his many dead wives, isn’t very inspiring. It is in many ways a ridiculous display of wealth that the average human cannot grasp, which is probably among the biggest reasons why its interior is covered with pencil marks, graffiti, and dried out pieces of gum. If it wasn’t for its nearly unmatched notability, I probably would have been fine skipping the Taj Mahal altogether.
The Golden Temple on the other hand, while being a holy Sikh site first and foremost, is an all-inclusive institution in the best way possible. Humans of all faiths, genders, sexual orientations, castes, and economic backgrounds are welcomed with open arms to the Golden Temple complex. Anybody could visit the beautiful Golden Temple, bathe in its waters that are said to have restorative properties, and eat for free. Even better than the free vegetarian meal is that all people that are served that meal sit on the floor together as equals.
Sitting between wealthy Sikh businessmen in suits and homeless Hindus putting a meal in their emaciated bodies, I gained a little faith, a little trust, and began to truly love India. I spent a couple hours rounding the temple, sitting on the edge of the pool, and meditating on the importance of, as simple as it sounds, everybody eating together. It is not surprising, given the principles of the Golden Temple complex, that there are no pencil marks, graffiti, or dried pieces of gum anywhere in the complex. Looking back now, I can’t help but think about how there would be less metaphorical pencil marks, graffiti, and pieces of gum in our world if we did eat and think as equals.
My smile wouldn’t leave my face as I sat in the back of a bicycle rickshaw maneuvering slowly through busy streets of the cool Amritsar night. I no longer felt a divide between myself and the impoverished man pedaling, between opportunistic touts and wealthy foreigners, between beggars sleeping beneath cardboard sheets and businessmen in their detailed BMWs; because I knew that just an hour before we were all sitting together on the ground, eating a simple vegetarian meal. India in a sense is a country of divisions, especially regarding castes, but I learned that night that in these people’s hearts they have a beautiful and inspiring sense of acceptance, so I did too.