27 May Thirteen Backpacks
I’m sitting on the corner of the bed, too hot to reach for one or two of the nearly empty water bottles on their sides, some rolled under the wooden legged bed frame. Both fans are on, spinning fast, quiet for Indian fans. The air conditioning is on full, loud and ineffective to cool the sweat rolling down my back and onto the feet of the participant asleep behind me, exhausted from the heat. Everyone else is gone for pizza in Amritsar, away from the Golden Temple kitchen– the place too traumatic to eat in again. At lunch the bus, filled with still hot air and children sitting in small seats or standing in the aisles, pushed through the streets. An administrator for the Patiala School for Deaf & Blind is out in front negotiating space with rickshaws, motorcycles and trucks to clear enough room to drive though. An ambulance turns on its blue lights and siren. The children are pulled off the buses and hurried to the large kitchen area without any thought or organization. Most OG participants sit with just three or four kids nearby, handing each other metal plates and bowls and spoons before pushing through the double doors with hundreds of Sikhs and finding enough floor, shoulders touching, sitting tight along the long burlap mat. A few participants are somewhere else looking after a dozen or more young blind students, trampled in the hungry crowd, hit on the head with heavy plates, their black shoes and blue socks left outside in no particular order without thought of how the children would know their shoes after eating, put on any foot that fits, and rushed back on the hot buses, our water at tea temperature, our sixth or seventh litres of the day. With no time for toilet breaks, we’re back in the jumbled car lanes an hour away to the Waga border to watch the sunset ceremony between India and Pakistan. The OG group’s morale is low, sitting on the cement steps, a small blind child in his own urine, drying almost instantly and the best teachers not seeming to care. All I can hope is for the rest of the day to be redeemed with an interesting performance, but this is India where hopes are often unfulfilled, expectations unmet and there’s no reason to drive an hour to watch grown men kick their legs high in the air and wearing silly red fan hats. After, we’re given mugs and DVDs and bland samosas and melted chocolate but all the school wants are toilets, water. I encourage OG to lay on the roofs of our three rented buses. The charms of the market come out, more relaxed, banana, mango stands lit up by a light bulb, cigarette huts, sugar cane juice vendors. We lie down and feel the wind over us, almost as good as a shower at this point. We’re given one room and promised two more in one of the Golden Temple hostels, keys to come while the group is out for dinner. My phone rings. The keys will not come and its nearly midnight, too late to find nearby enough rooms at reasonable rates.
I’m sitting on the corner of the bed, looking at thirteen backpacks piled on top of each other on the minimal floor space. I look at one bed and the other and wonder how thirteen people might be arranged in a room meant for four. Staring at the thirteen bags I realize this is my favourite moment of the trip so far. After a perfect week– a surprisingly pleasant time in Delhi visiting in Akshardam and Gandhi’s house, staying with the most inviting family in all of Patiala, Bhangra dance parties, Saturday night dinner at a farm, integrating seamlessly into a school for deaf and blind children, learning sign language fast enough to build memorable relationships and the thirteen of us coming together as a close group– today everything went wrong and we were pushed to new physical and mental lows. Soon the group will learn there won’t be enough rooms to sleep in. Only backpacking do days like this come, impossibly imagined situations that months later you’re lying in bed at home giggling to yourself about.
Nobody complains when they are told about the rooms. Some would sleep in the beds, others would spend the night walking around the Golden Temple, meditating, napping. I found room under the wooden legged bed frame and slept a few hours on a wool blanket.