In the 500 Yards Between India and Pakistan, I’m a VIP

15 Mar

Outside Amritsar.

This is the road to Pakistan.

Lahore: 23km.

Somehow, when our Indian friend asked which of us might be interested in visiting the India-Pakistan border, I was the only one to speak up. I mean, Pakistan? When am I ever going to have that opportunity again? Now – cold sweat in check, I’m curious, but I’m not crazy. Knowing this is a somewhat delicate political territory, I’d looked this one up in the guidebook, and I had a small idea of what we were about to see. But even I was surprised.

The welcome sign at the India-Pakistan border.

We rented a car for the hour or so ride to Wagah, site of the only open border crossing between India and Pakistan. With a somewhat hesitant mood, we piled in and went for a drive. The cars and motorbikes heading in the same direction seemed to thin out the farther we drove, their turban-clad drivers seemed increasingly somber. We passed army base after army base for several miles. I pictured barbed wire, and lookout towers, and the typical “no-photography under penalty of imprisonment” signs you find at immigration and military zones the world over. Images of utilitarian government waiting rooms and holding rooms and stacks of official forms filled my imagination.

You can buy border souvenirs! And Coca-Cola!

We were warned before stopping the car that any bags would be confiscated and that we needed to leave anything valuable behind. We drove past a roadblock protest and stepped out into a sea of people. We walked along border fences, lookout posts, glass booths, and were pushed into a fast moving crowd, then quickly ordered by a horse-mounted official with a whistle to separate men from women, not something we wanted to do. We continued along – through a security pat-down, past confiscated bags and bottles of water, into. . .a festival arena grandstand.

Pakistan is just on the other side of this gate.

Now, hold on a moment. Those were bags of confiscated popcorn at the gate. Popcorn? Of course, from the lines of snack vendors just outside the gate. Snack vendors? Yes, fruit and tea and nuts and candy – and families with small children and school field trips and teenage girls in bright-colored, sequined scarves. We weren’t headed to impending doom. . .we were headed to a full-out, stand up to the blaring pop music, wave your mini-Indian flag, and cheer along with the track-suit clad emcee political rally-come-dance party that is the nightly India-Pakistan border closing.

Fancy border guards!

Not at all what we expected. We were pulled out of the crowd by a guard and directed to a different gate – the VIP gate. Special reserved seating for visiting officials and foreign tourists (Guess we didn’t look very Indian. No surprise there.) That’s right, somewhere on this soil between the India-Pakistan border, I got picked out of the crowd as a VIP.

The patriotic crowd runs flags back and forth.

The event was really a non-event. I mean, they close this gate every night. The ceremony itself was full of pomp – (very, very tall) Indian border guards dressed in their fanciest official uniforms doing unintelligible prolonged chants and fancy high-kick synchronized marches. Pakistan had its respective grandstand and music and fancy-uniformed guards. They opened the gate. They brought down Indian and Pakistani flags. They closed the gate. You know – border closing.

The India crowd at Wagah.

But the surrounding interest and festive atmosphere was really surprising. A crowd of thousands of enthusiastic Indians had made this hour-long drive to witness this nightly event, cheer along with their countrymen, and shout positive nationalistic chants over a megaphone, a shout that carried far on the wind and echoed off the less-filled stands on the other side of the gate.

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