Amritsar – Company Bagh and How to be a Pedestrian in India, Part 1

Good morning all,

I arrived in Amritsar a little over a week ago, safely and soundly.  The first thing that happened on landing here is that someone dropped his carry on bag on the back of my head.  I figure that was a pretty good omen… not.  Ever since then, I’ve been a passenger or a pedestrian a lot and I’ve been pushed, prodded, poked, elbowed, stepped on, and man-handled in a variety of ways.  That bag dropping on my head was just the beginning.

After settling in with my hosts for this portion of the visit – Gurmit and Ramneet – and visiting both the local gurdwara and the Darbar Sahib (the Golden Temple), we spent an afternoon at Company Bagh – a large park in uptown Amritsar.  The park is as full of intensity as the rest of India so far.  There were school children being brought through, men playing cards in a small group, families enjoying an afternoon, homeless men sleeping under trees, shadier characters doing what I expect was heroin toward the back of the park.  Parts of the park are very well maintained while most of the fountains and some of the other structures… not so much.

Other than the massive sculpture of a mounted Maharaja Ranjit Singh which dominates the high spot in the park, there aren’t many signs to tell you what is what.  I’ll get to Maharaja Ranjit Singh in a later post.  For now, he’s a big deal hence the statute… but I’m sure you’ve figured that out.  There are signs all over the place encouraging people to keep the park clean, to take care of nature and to be otherwise green oriented.

The park is one of few places on the “tourist-to-do-list” in Amritsar that isn’t crowded and jostling with people.  It was a nice break from being pushed, jostled, poked and elbowed everywhere else.  Thankfully, most of the gurdwaras, mandirs and mosques and even some of the museums are not tourist hot spots either so, with a little over a million people, Amritsar generally has a lot of breathing space for people.  And if you plan things carefully, you can have even visit the Golden Temple without the crowds.

Amritsar is foggy in the mornings this time of year but my noon, the fog has burned off and we generally have blue skies and sunshine – much less of the air pollution here than in Delhi.  Though there were still public hygiene issues during my visit to Company Bagh for sure.

There is a fountain at one end of the park (the opposite end of the massive statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh) that does not work.  People have taken to through birdseed and food into the non-working fountain, attracting hundreds and hundreds of pigeons to the dry cement well.  If any of you have ever kept chickens or lived anywhere near a chicken farm, you know about large piles of bird dung…  while it may make great fertilizer, this bird dung is just sitting in an open cement pot, baking in the substantial heat (it is 30C here even in ‘winter’).  And there is rotting food baking in there with it… yeah.  I avoided that side of the park.  Thankfully there was no wind to carry that smell anywhere else.

The other hygiene issue is public urination.  What the fricken’ hell?  I’ve never seen anything like it before.  In a land that claims such conservative values, men just whip their penises out anywhere and piss.  Okay, not all men and some will turn their backs to you so that you’re not getting a full on shot of penis but… it’s a lot of freakin’ males doing this and way too many don’t bother to turn their backs or find a secluded spot.  Way.  Too.  Many.  It makes the streets smell like stale urine along with all of the other smells and worse, people are using the parks, alley ways, streets that are being pissed all over… I hope the City of Amritsar puts in more public toilets eventually and maybe a public education campaign against this practice.  Gross.

It’s not just men either…

Yesterday, I was visiting the Darbar Sahib and I needed to use the ladies washroom.  Push and jostle, push and jostle for a stall and a well dressed, seemingly hygienic, normal woman gets into the stall ahead of me (the one I’m in ‘line’ for).  She turns on the faucet, drops her salwar, props the door OPEN, and starts peeing on the squat toilet in front of all the other ladies.  She didn’t even close the door when she proceeded to wash herself.  Yeah.  Gross.  Nasty.  Gross.  Ewww.  Just what the hell????!?!?!?!  So unimpressed with your lady bits there woman, so unimpressed.  I have a set of my own I can look at anytime I want to.  Really didn’t need to see yours.

Thankfully, I could tell all the other women were grossed out as well so … I don’t expect that to happen again often… or ever.

At the end of our visit to Company Bagh, there was some debate about where we would go next.  Gurmit wanted to show me Hall Bazaar so that’s where we ended up.  Thankfully, given that it was far away, we managed to get a cycle rickshaw to take us there.

Hall Bazaar is insanely crowded.  It’s five or six little blocks of shops which are all lumped together.  So you would have say a couple of dozen electronics shops all in the same part of the Bazaar, then several dozen textile shops, a few dozen shoe shops,  and so on an so on.

Running through the middle of Hall Bazaar are a couple of very busy streets.  Who am I kidding?  They are all busy but because of the crush of people in Hall Bazaar, the streets and the people come into very close, constant contact.  This is where I first learned the rules of being a pedestrian.  It’s a good place to learn since traffic is sort of stuck going 10 km/h max.  I just assumed the one rule would be “Try Not to Get Killed” but it’s way more complicated than that.  Here’s what I’ve managed to figure out so far:  

– Never cross at an intersection, those are crowded with other people trying to cross the road.  Just cross where you are at, in a diagonal line toward where you want to get to on the other side.

– Climb through the motorcycles parked on the 12″ wide sidewalk to roughly the middle of the oncoming lane of traffic.  This is your start position.  Don’t worry that cars, buses, rickshaws and motorcycles are coming your way, that’s just to see if they can get you to forfeit the race by starting early.  Don’t let them phase you.

– Taking steps no longer than a 10″ pace, walk right in front of a cycle rickshaw or if you can’t find a cycle rickshaw, an auto rickshaw.  If you can’t find either, you’re not trying very hard at all.  

– If there is seriously a dirth of rickshaws, choose a cart with an animal attached to it (elephant, horse, buffalo, donkey or human) and step right out there in front of it.  It will probably stop.  I mean most likely it will.  Okay, your chances are 50/50 but it’s a freaking cycle … how much damage can it do?

– Do NOT under any circumstances make eye contact with the person driving the conveyance you stepped in front of.   That will earn you a 10 second penalty.  Apologizing to the driver will get you disqualified from the race all together.

– The driver of the conveyance will probably slow down a little to avoid hitting you.  He might also just try to bypass you.  If he tries that, take another full step in front of him.  The object is to get him to slow down or stop momentarily.  If he doesn’t slow down or stop, you lost this round and have to start over from the beginning.  If he stops or slows, you’ve made it to level two.  Congratulations.

– While standing in front of the first guy (who will be honking his horn if he has one), take another 10″ pace into traffic, in front of a motorcycle or if you’re lucky a scooter.  Hold a hand out toward the driver but remember, no eye contact.  Motorcycles are a little trickier and they love to try the bypass move but don’t let them win!  They cannot win!  You’re on level 2 dammit and you are a warrior!  Besides, giving up at this point is probably just going to get you run over so… suck it up buttercup and get in front of that motorcycle.

– The motorcycle has a horn.  The driver is going to honk on that horn.  It may sound to you that he’s annoyed with your being in front of him but that’s not so.  He’s really just cheering you on.  After all, you’re halfway to level 3 now.  If it sounds like he’s cursing you, that’s just him offering a blessing for your protection and victory.  You get 10 bonus points for every second you can get him to lay on that horn.  Go for 40 or 50 points right here.  Bonus point opportunities are rare.  And remember NO eye contact.

– Now, level 3 involves the cars and trucks.  These seem trickier but they’re not really.  They don’t have the room to make a bypass maneuver, remember that.  And they really can’t get to any sort of speed on these roads so, avoiding eye contact, make yourself visible and step right out in front of that big-engined bad boy.  The only maneuver it has is the excessive honking and nudge-feign.  No matter how close it gets to you, ignore it and don’t make eye contact.  Ignore the horn as well – wear ear plugs if you have to.  On level 3, they are trying to distract you from your game, don’t give in to them.  Congratulations, you’ve made it to level 4 and your are officially halfway across the street.  No turning back now.  

–    Now it’s a matter of reversing the rules until you get back to the crowded ‘sidewalk’ on the side.

Some other tips for winning the “Cross the Road” game:

– If you drop anything, anything at all between the one sidewalk and the sidewalk on the other side of the road… forget about it.  It’s lost.  Bending over to pick it up will leave you flat out on the road under so many tires.  This applies to anything you could possibly drop… hotel key, money, wallet, bag of souvenirs, a small child… anything.

– If you accidentally make eye contact with a driver, do not make it worse by smiling or offering an apology.  Either is a sign of weakness.  Look away as soon as possible and recommence feigning total ignorance of the other person’s existence.

– This game is easier if you find a really tall person to follow, or a group of people all crossing at the same point.  In that case, do not look at traffic at all, just hone in on the back of a head and keep moving until the head you are following stops.  

– Never pause, never hesitate.  Commit to that step into traffic and then make it.  Pausing and hesitating is just the sort of sign the enemy … er… traffic needs to signal they should proceed.  Pausing before a step is very confusing to oncoming traffic.  Just walk on out there and work it!

– Sleep well the night before playing this game, eat right, and stretch to avoid injuries.

Next post – I guess I should introduce everyone to my hosts and we can talk about all the random stuff that doesn’t make for a full post but is some fun stuff anyway!

In the meantime, enjoy the remaining pics from Company Bagh.

I know many of you are waiting for shots of the Golden Temple.  The Darbar Sahib is a very, very important place for me.  The pics will come but for now, I’m just immersing myself in the serenity of our holiest of places, getting to know it and letting so much of what has happened here sink in before I share.  I know you all will understand.

Peace and love all
– Preet

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