April 6th: Back in Amritsa, Goodbye to India
Finally, it's time to depart Dharmsala and make for Pakistan. Over a ceremonial last banana croissant, I say goodbye to Kiwi Kate, my roommate and pasta companion. 'Good luck on this crazy highway of life!' she calls out. Lugging panniers, tent and mat, I board the government bus and settle down amongst its knee-cap-grinding benches. With a triumphant series of horn blasting, we launch down the hairpin bends towards Pathenkhot and the Punjabi lowlands, Hindi music cranked up to a maximum.
A few bumpy hours later, I unfold my contorted body as the driver wishes me well, his voice hoarse from yelling a continual stream of abuse at oncoming traffic. Stumbling on to the next bus to Amritsar, I feel I can now claim the unusual accomplishment of having cycled, bused and trained to this dusty city.
An inflexible pattern of driving exists in India and we duly tear off at highway speed, braking sharply, pulling over indefinitely (beard combing time for our Sikh driver) and maintaining a road presence with undiminished zeal. Families board and disembark, children fall asleep against me and life goes on all around. It's good to be back at the Sikh Golden Temple; better still to see my bike is still there, albeit under a coat of dust. I go about my own rituals - showering in the courtyard, wandering round the marble walkway and joining the pilgrims for chapatis and dahl at supper time. My dining companion introduces himself: 'I am Bobby and English is my hobby!' Unfortunately, his catchy opener seems to be it, and a rather stilted conversation ensues. Long stretches of nodding and smiling.
Amongst the tangle of backstreets, Momo's Internet Cafe has undergone a face lift. Refurbished since I was last here, in its spotless environment I burn away my last few Indian rupees. So many changes. Changes that take so long to come about yet happen so quickly. I'd never expected to spend this amount of time on the sub-continent of India, yet here I am, 5 months later, about to leave. Departure seems so sudden.
The emotions of leaving a country as lively and confusing as India are those of sadness tinged with relief. Underpinned by a religion that seems to work on so many layers, its ambiguity is reflected by a merging of colours and sounds, of aggravation and nonchalance, of wealth and poverty, of peace and mayhem. Impatience spirals into patience, and visa versa. At the end of every noisy, colourful day, a golden sunset smoothers the land in peaceful glow, refreshing it for another high-action round of life. I long for the solitude of the mountains, the emptiness of the high plateau, to be left alone. Yet I know, right now, that despite the mixed feelings this land incites, I will be powerless but to miss it. There's no denying that India can test even the most patient traveller: this is as much part of its enriching experience as anything else.
For all the cliches that are written - you'll love it and you'll hate it - I see now how such words ring true. These are my departing impressions; to delve deeper into why they are so feels like a task in itself, like everything in India. But for sure, as I gaze out upon women in glittering saris, men holding hands, cows oblivious to surrounding mayhem, the clutter of polluting traffic and the profusion of street stalls blackened by grime, there's no such thing as indifference in this country. I'm reminded of a English teacher's remark when I first crossed over the border from Nepal: India is like a garden that has been badly maintained. Whatever my feelings become over time, it has certainly left a deep impression.
Back in the foreigner designated dorms of the Golden Temple, this atmospheric night amongst the pilgrims is the last I will spend here. The Punjabi's uneasy existence within the Hindu caste structure, physically and religiously divided as they are by Partition, is a final reminder of the struggles, complexities and ambiguities of this land.
Tomorrow, just an hour's ride away, lies the border with Pakistan.