The Tourist Assistance Force in Jaipur
My first night in a Jaipur hostel I became friends with an Indian guy a few years younger than me named Utsav. From Chhattisgarh, a state in the middle of India, Utsav was on the final days of his first time traveling on his own and had fallen in love with the idea of backpacking around the world. He had many questions about traveling and I was more than happy to share what I knew. On his last day before leaving Jaipur we met up to walk around, do some shopping for his family, and see a couple of sights.
On our way to Jantar Mantar, the famous grounds full of architectural astronomical instruments inside the Pink City, a brown clad policeman with a Tourist Assistance Force badge came up to use while we were walking. In Hindi, we were beckoned to follow him to a small police hut outside of Jantar Mantar. As we were about to enter the hut the police tried to wave me away, but I refused to be separated from Utsav and was unsure of what was going on.
Once inside the hut we were sat down and another police officer joined us. They both immediately started berating Utsav in Hindi, asking for his ID. and then his wallet. The tone was harsh as I watched them tear through every item in his wallet, discarding the contents with abandon into disarray upon the table. I waited with a questioning look on my face until Utsav finally turned to me, hands up with disbelief, and informed me that the police were trying to arrest him on charges of attempting to scam or rape a tourist (i.e. me).
I believe I am a fairly good judge of character. I had spent the previous evening chatting with Utsav about travel, his family, work, and life in India. It was I who invited him to explore the city and I was extremely confident that he had not concocted an elaborate ploy to get some money out of me. After hearing what the police were threatening I immediately began speaking in English to defend Utsav. I know the words themselves may not have been understood, but the meaning in my voice was clear.
Utsav told me he had to wait until they finished looking up his details. He didn’t appear worried and both him and the police said I could go. Utsav repeatedly told me he felt bad wasting my time, but seeing the police in action was far more interesting than visiting another sight. I also wanted to make sure nothing happened to Utsav.
After 10 minutes two plain clothed men came into the hut, and introduced themselves as undercover policemen. One of them spoke English well and I immediately asked him to apologize for the rudeness of the previous police officers. I think he was a little shocked at my reaction and he quickly began explaining his job to me.
The Tourist Assistance Force was created to assist tourists in Rajasthan. I am not sure if this department exists in other Indian states. Due to a rising number of reported cases of rape of foreign travelers that have brought India into an international spotlight, Rajasthan in particular is taking measures to ensure tourist safety from rape and other scams. Apparently a new law has been passed, only in Rajasthan, that states Indians are not allowed to walk around with tourists unless they’re an official guide. I don’t know whether or not this it true, but he was trying really hard to come off as the good guy who was only doing his job to protect me and other tourists.
For the next twenty minutes the undercover police officer continued to question Utsav, asking him how we met, what he was doing in Rajasthan, and apparently making his own threats to Utsav. Finally the regular uniformed officers returned with Utsav’s ID and we were allowed to leave.
While we walked around the Jantar Mantar I got the whole story from Utsav about what they were saying to him in Hindi. The undercover policemen repeatedly threatened to throw him in jail and beat him until he made a false confession. He was also subtly given the opportunity to pay a 500 or 1000 rupee bribe to be let go immediately. After the undercover policeman’s emotional tirade of how he was only attempting to protect me, I was shocked that a bribe worth $10 was enough for him to turn his head away from potential criminal activity.
It was sad to experience first hand a bit of corruption in India. I really hope that a woman or man who is in fact in danger of being raped or scammed do not have the police simply turn their heads away at a small bribe. Corruption happens everywhere in the world on large and small scales, and it was interesting to see a part of it in India. Utsav didn’t seem surprised as the interaction, only disappointed. In the end, I believe with my presence and the lack of any evidence or history of trouble on Utsav’s part there was nothing for the police to do but let us go.
Not to be brought down by the police and corruption, Utsav and I had a wonderful rest of the day walking around the old city in Jaipur. I finally learned all the rules to cricket, timely because of the Cricket World Cup, and we stopped at probably the best lassi shop in Jaipur, where they serve the lassi to you in a clay mug that you can smash into the trash can (or street if your Indian) when you're finished. We had a great day discussing the differences between the USA and India. I hope Utsav enjoyed learning about my life in the states as much I enjoyed hearing what it was like to grow up and live in India. Overall it was a fantastic day.
Lady Harding Hospital in Delhi
Getting my ears pierced in Jaisalmer did not work out so well. You live, learn, and hope not to make the same mistake again.
The technique of rubbing saliva around my earrings in the morning wasn’t enough to ward away infection or combat how tightly they were twisted against the back of my ears. After a week my ears were clearly infected and I was doing my best to clean them with salt water and fight the infection with antibiotics (so cheap in India!).
When I reached Delhi the earrings became a lost cause. The backs of both had been sucked inside my swollen ears. I decided that the rescue mission was over and it was time to just get them out. I visited a tattoo and ear-piercing parlor down the road from my hostel to see if they could remove them.
The parlor turned out to be a small desk in a hotel lobby. With a shrug, I continued forward to explain what had happened to my ears and see if they could get them out. The guy took one look at my ears, agreed that they were indeed infected, asked me how and where I had gotten them done, and then proceeded to curse my Jaisalmer piercer in broken English as he examined my ears.
After a bit of fiddling and cutting off the fake diamond on the left earring, the piercer finally gave up amidst cursing. He didn’t feel comfortable or able to remove my earrings. Instead, he recommended some ointment to help the swelling go down. He said that after ten days of using the ointment it would be much easier to remove the earrings.
Ten days is a long time to wait and I wanted to get the earrings out as soon as possible. I talked to the guys running the hostel and they suggested I call a doctor to get it removed. After calling the doctor he said he was not equipped for any small-scale surgeries and suggested I go to a hospital. I wasn’t expecting a surgical procedure to be necessary, but if it was then fine, it’s just my earlobes.
I hopped in an auto rickshaw to go to the nearby Lady Harding Hospital. The hospital was an industrial maze, half indoors and half outdoors. The corridors were lined with patients and families huddled under blankets to keep out the cold of the rain. With guidance from a few security guards I managed to find my way to the emergency area. There were three kiosks with doctors and a room off to the right in plain view with patients lying down on gurneys, IV’s stuck into their arms. When I got to the front of the short line, I was told that my ears were not an emergency, which I agreed with, and was told to come back on Monday, when the rest of the hospital was open (it was Saturday).
Returning on Monday I found a much livelier place within the dark cement walls of the hospital. I went back to where I received help the first day and was led away by a friendly Indian man who walked me to front of every line in multiple departments, trying to find the correct place for me to go. I felt horribly guilty. My medical issue was rather insignificant compared to 99% of everyone else's and just because of the color of my skin I was being given special treatment.
After being led to the front of three lines, getting some papers stamped, I was next in line for kiosk number 6 in the O.D.P. (outpatient department something). I handed the doctor the papers I had been given and asked if she would be able to remove the metal from within my ears. She dabbed something on a cloth, cleaned my ears, and I could feel her moving the metal around with her fingers. Within ten seconds she removed the metal from my left ear. With a slightly stronger twist and tug on my right ear, the other earring came out along with some flesh. I'm guessing the ointment I bought at the suggestion of the local tattoo shop had helped quite a bit.
She wrote down suggestions for post treatment medications, told me not to get it wet for a few days, and sent me on my way. Back in the main hallway I realized I had just been given VIP medical care and set loose without paying a cent. I looked around to see if there was somewhere I was supposed to go to pay, but I couldn't find anything. On my way out I waved to the guys who had helped me wondering if they would stop and tell me where I would pay for the medical treatment but nothing happened.
It was quite an interesting trip to witness the medical care in a hospital, even if I just saw part of the system and I can safely say that my ears have healed since.
The Golden Temple
The state of Punjab lies against the border of Pakistan in northwest India and is the only state where the majority of the population are Sikhs. I visited Amritsar, which is about 30 kilometers from the Pakistan-India border, and experienced one of the highlights of India – The Golden Temple.
The Golden Temple is the holiest site in the Sikh religion. The pool of nectar that surrounds the Golden Temple is a holy bathing site for Sikhs. Legend states that an old man with leprosy was laid to rest by his wife against a tree on the shore of the water. While the man was waiting for his wife to return he saw crow after crow enter the water and emerge as swans. He dragged himself into the water and returned healed, becoming the first Sikh Guru. A complex that is part museum, part religious activities, and part community surrounds the Golden Temple and pool of nectar.
You can reach the Golden Temple through the complex in any of the four directions. There are large arches that are always open welcoming visitors from every faith, gender, and background in at any time of day all year long. Every day over 100,000 meals (chapatti, dal, and something sweet) are served free of charge to visitors of any background in the temple complex. The cooking, serving, and cleaning are all done by over 400 volunteers every day. There is even space provided for visitors to sleep in the temple if they have no where else to stay. Witnessing the food production, distribution, and cleaning is an experience I will never forget. I have never been in the presence of such a welcoming and open religious community. I helped make chapattis for a short fifteen minutes, and I'm ever back, I plant on spending several hours volunteering.
The 10th Guru of Sikhism, also known as the current guru, is a holy book (after a couple assassinations of Sikh gurus the 9th Guru decided to have all the knowledge usually passed down to the next gurus placed into a book). Every night there is a ceremony where they bring the book out of the Golden Temple and lay it to rest in a bed in another building. The book is carried in a palanquin from the temple to its bed and Sikhs jostle each other for the honor of carrying it for 10-15 seconds. One of the best parts of the ceremony is the sheet on the bed where the book is laid to rest. On the evening I was there I saw pink flowery sheets and I have heard tell of zebra striped sheets as well.
Every day from ten at night and two in the morning, the entire complex goes into cleaning mode. I was able to explore the Golden Temple during this time and saw dozens of volunteers taking down golden ornaments and scrubbing them clean. Every single inch of the temple and the surrounding complex was being washed. During this time they no longer serve food, but you can still receive chai and biscuits.
As I explored the Golden Temple I came to a roof where to my dismay a symbol of America shines brightly in the night. From the roof of the temple the golden arches of McDonald’s rise clear over the complex walls and is the only thing you can see beyond the walls besides the stars. Oh America…
On the top of the roof is one more room where a Sikh man with an incredible beard sat reading a copy of the holy book. It may just have been a copy, but opened wide, the book had a wingspan larger than mine. As I peered through an open archway to watch the man, I stayed as quiet as possible in order to not cause an interruption. The man looked up and without stopping beckoned me into the room. I tucked myself into a corner, crossed my legs, and soaked up the sound of his voice.
I received only a brief introduction to the Sikh religion, but the community and inclusion I felt within the Golden Temple and its complex was unlike any religious experience I have ever had, plain awesomeness.
Fun fact – Sikhs don’t have to wear helmets in India because of the size of their turbans.