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The Myth of The Dark Alley

Golden Temple at dusk
Golden Temple at dusk

Somewhere around midnight the bus dropped me off alone on an unlit side-street of Amritsar. A guy with a knife didn't approach me. A group of men with clubs didn't close in. The CHUDs didn't come. I just had to find a rickshaw driver and pay him to take me across town. This whole trip people have been warning me to be careful. "Watch your bags." "Keep your wallet in your front pocket." "Don't walk alone at night." "Don't accept food from strangers." "The people in this [town|state|country] are nice, but in the next {village} over they're not." And this whole trip I've been careless with my bag, I've kept my wallet in my back pocket, I walked alone at night and I always took food from strangers. And every town was a nice as the one before it—but the people there warned me about their neighbors. And most of my life I was worried too. I was told to be home before dark and not take candy from strangers; but no on ever offered me candy and I used to sneak out at night all the time.

My luck is bound to change one of these days and I know it, but that won't undo all the great and amazing things that have happened by being fearless. If only one out of every 1,000 experiences is a bad, it was worth it and I'll keep taking chances. Crossing Amritsar at night wasn't so dangerous, even for a fairly large Indian city. Amritsar is home of the Sikhs, some of the friendliest people I've met on this trip. If your mental image of an Indian guy involves a large turban, you're probably imagining a Sikh. Sikhs are one of the few religious groups I've come across in my life that actually practice what they preach. Sikhs don't believe in cutting any of their hair, so many of them have cool beards and wrap their long hair under beautiful turbans. Sikhs wear silver bracelets to remind them of their servitude to god, and carry swords to protect themselves and others. Sikhs believe in housing and feeding anyone who comes to them.

Golden Palace guard
Golden Temple guard

The holiest site for the Sikhs is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which they're all supposed to visit at least once in their life. The Golden Temple poses itself in a pool of water inside a much larger temple complex. My first sight of the temple complex in Amritsar was an open-air courtyard saturated with blankets and sleeping people. My next sight was the golden temple and my third sight was a dining hall packed with hundreds of people. It's estimated that the Golden Temple feeds and houses around 100,000 people every day, and all for free. For a while, I was one of them. During the days in Amritsar I mostly hung around the Golden Temple; sometimes helping out, sometimes sitting and meditating, and sometimes learning from a Sikh—the word "Sikh" means "student" by the way. At night I took to meandering down dark alleys, as I'm wont to do.

I've wandered under invisible moon and stars through most of Asia's major and minor cities. In one of Bangkok's fancier districts, I was surprised to find a shanty town coexisting between the towering modern skyscrapers. Perhaps the people that lived there have always lived there, and the giant buildings were like new mountains which you cannot interact with but only block your path. The modern city of Shanghai lies directly on top of an old Chinese city, but the two rarely commingle. Sometimes the winding alleys aren't through a city that doesn't belong there, but those unlit mazes are just as interesting. Amidst narrow, unparallel rows of closed up shops and houses in Amritsar, I came upon a sliver of industry stabbing back into the darkness. In the late night factory of one, an old man was milling about like a ghost among big machines which were once painted green, and a tower of sacks which contained their product. But everything was white. The machines, the sacks, the old man. Flour? Cement? The steady din of the machines canceled out all other sounds but made no distinguishable noise. I kept walking. Four young men on a motorbike rode by.

Old man in late-night dark-alley factory
Old man in late-night dark-alley factory

On a different night I joined a group of travelers to go to the Indian-Pakistan border to watch the nightly closing ceremony. "Watch your wallet. Keep your money in your front pocket. Don't bring any valuables." The taxi driver told us. No one there even thought about trying to pick my pocket. As often happens in India, tourists were sequestered into their own row of seats to watch the bizarre ritual. On both sides of the border, guards with giant fan-hats fiercely goose-stepped their way to the gate, taunted each other for a minute like fenced off roosters, then violently shook hands across the divide. The Indian grandstands were packed with cheering spectators while the Pakistani side had a scant showing of onlookers. I got the feeling that the whole affair was far more safe and friendly than the actor-guards made it seem.

After hopping on a random train out of Amritsar the next day, it occurred to me that it might actually be a bit dangerous for me as an American to accidentally show up at the Pakistani border and have no good explanation for what I was doing there. Fortunately the train I jumped on didn't take me to Pakistan, but instead it started taking me up north, the exact opposite direction than I was trying to go. My "plan" was to hop the first train out of Amritsar, get off at the first stop outside town and then hitchhike as far south from there as possible. The first stop north of Amritsar was the most tragic scene of kids wading through garbage that I've ever seen, and that's where I got off. There's something unspeakably tragic about a kid standing in a pile of rubbish and floundering a kite that would fly quite well if it just had a little bit of bend in it, but the cheap paper it's built out of simply can't be made to curve.

Indian guards along the Pakistan border
Indian guards along the Pakistan border

The long black concrete vanishing in the distance of an unknown horizon is it's own form of dark alley. Every lift I got that day—and I got around six—spent most of the ride trying to convince me that I absolutely shouldn't continue trying to hitchhike. In fact, more than half the drivers insisted on dropping me at a bus stop or a train station, even if they were heading further south. They simply couldn't understand. I couldn't tell them that 10 super friendly people just helped me—it wouldn't make a difference. They warned me that the people in the next city over or the next state were horrible, unfriendly, untrustworthy robbers. The fact of the matter is, India has an enormous socioeconomic gap. The poor people don't drive cars and it's not worth it for rich people to rob poor backpackers.

Most of the cars that picked me up were fairly fancy imports with affluent passengers, but one was a beater with three young Sikhs. The driver got out to help me put my bag in the trunk.

Young Sikh: Where are you going?
Me: Anywhere. Where are you headed?
Young Sikh: Nowhere. Wanna come?
Me: Sure.
...inside the car...
Young Sikh: Where are you headed?
Me: South.
Young Sikh: I've never heard of that before.

Four guys that gave me a lift out of Amritsar
Four guys that gave me a lift out of Amritsar

After a short ride the Sikhs left me on the side of a highway heading east. Slowly people gathered around me, as they had done at every other place I stood. They were curious, mystified, and worried. At least one person in the group could always be made to realize what I was trying to do, and then he or someone else would proceed to lecture me about how dangerous and difficult it would be, and often try to flag down a bus. "It would be way less difficult if there wasn't a group of people standing around me" I would always fight the urge to say. It didn't matter where I stood—even on the open highway people appeared. As darkness became the reality I was faced with two main options: flag down a bus headed to Delhi and roll into town around 3am, or head back into the city I was just outside of and hunker down for the night. I took the second option. The city I stayed in was nothing special: it had no Statue of Liberty or Taj Mahal, it wasn't inside of a Yellowstone National Park, and it didn't have a tourist infrastructure. It was the real part of a country that exists between the places on a map. It was India.

Being alone in a strange city unused to tourists didn't result in trouble. Walking down the streets of that city in power-outage darkness didn't result in trouble. Bad things do happen, but to a large extent it's luck of the draw. Most of the things that people avoid out of fear don't reduce their chances of finding trouble. Traveling scared is hardly traveling it all, it's just changing scenery.

Soundtrack: Life's Been Good (Joe Walsh)


December 19th, 2013 at 8:27 AM

Well put, Beau. Sometimes I can't really believe how paranoid people in America are. Thanks for the work you put into your blog. Your travels are inspiring and I hope it continues for a long time. Safe travels to you.

December 19th, 2013 at 9:10 PM

I'm around every corner. You just won't find me because I'm scared myself.

December 20th, 2013 at 7:10 AM

Thanks for sharing your journeys and have a Wonderful Christmas where ever you will be.

December 20th, 2013 at 12:30 PM

You are amazing. Keep at it!

December 21st, 2013 at 9:12 PM

I'm flipping channels on TV all the major networks have murder mystery shows on.

If you're asking a question, it may be better to just email me at beau@dangertravels.com