5 - The Beggar and the Sikh

I awoke in the afternoon laughing at myself because I was still wearing boots. Excited, I splashed water on my face then raced down to the street.

My neighborhood was set up for tourists, with restaurants, hotels, and shops selling accessories for the spiritual seeker. The gritty lane was packed with humanity living at the edge of chaos, with women in colorful saris avoiding cow dung as they walked near crumbling buildings plastered with hand-painted advertisements, with spaghetti wiring keeping the lights on most of the time, with rusty motorbikes speeding past children peddling bangles, incense, and fruit.

I sat down to take in the scene, but a beggar girl found me, her legs so disfigured that she had to drag herself across the madness and filth, her beautiful eyes pleading for help. I wanted to give her money, but I didn't want to attract attention, especially given the other beggars on patrol. As I wondered what to do, the girl touched her grubby hair and said, "Shampoo."

Inspired, I entered a shop that sold shampoo. The girl followed. Her smile warmed my heart, so I made the purchase.

As I stepped back outside, other beggars grabbed their hair, yelling, "Shampoo! Shampoo!" They swarmed to me, so I lurched away while protecting my wallet, then I looked back only to see my crippled friend selling her gift back to the store for money.

Confused, I sought calm, so I followed a sign to a rooftop restaurant where I enjoyed a panoramic view and a shockingly inexpensive curry, but I couldn't get my mind away from the beggar girl. I knew that giving her shampoo wasn't going to help her plight in life, but at least the money provided her with a moment of happiness. I decided to always keep small change handy in case I encountered a situation where my heart wouldn't allow me to give nothing.

With my belly full and my attitude adjusted, I procured an Internet outlet. First I emailed Mom to tell her I arrived safely. Then I emailed Dan to confirm my imminent arrival in Dharamsala. Finally I emailed my best Mexican friend to narrate the events at LAX.

To Pedro I typed, "I bet the cool cop took your joint home and smoked it himself. I hope it helps him find enlightenment :-) Anyway, please ask your computer-guru friend to look into my red flag, you know, that Hawaiian guy with the crazy tattoos (I forget his name). I bet he can break into the airport's database or something. He told me that hacking is what he does for fun, and I really want to know what the Feds have on me, so it's worth a try. Thanks! Meanwhile, it's great to finally be on the road!"

As I stepped outside to the busy street, I felt a rush of excitement. I was in India!

I hired a bicycle rickshaw for a tour, paying a man named Ganak to take me through the alleys of the Old City. Ganak pontificated about poverty as I marveled at the sights and sounds and smells. On a street that specialized in used books, I saw a man feeding a cow with a potato. I saw cows eating plastic too, but the rats fascinated me more, or rather, the way in which the magazine wallah ignored them. I didn't see children begging from locals, but I did see them smiling and playing, only to put on pathetic faces with their hands out for money the instant they saw me.

Ganak stopped several times to show me interesting sites by foot, every time paying a boy almost nothing to watch his rickshaw. We entered a hardware and electronics market, but instead of wandering around, my guide took me straight to the rooftop for the view. From high above the city I could see a billion souls scrambling to survive, but I was no longer surprised by the crowds and cows and filth, but by the density of happiness. I didn't expect the smiles.

After Ganak's tour I entered a Sikh temple, a sanctuary in marble, where I met a man wearing a turban and a most-impressive mustache, a man who offered me food, insisting it was free. Feeling no hunger, I declined. The Sikh explained how his temple was a place where anyone could eat. "It is the way of the Sikhs," he said, "to treat all people equally, with yellow hair or balding, Hindu or Muslim, it does not matter."

I asked him why Sikh men all wear turbans, to which he replied that he wore his turban as a traditional tactic to protect his long hair, which he never cut. He said, "The turban also benefits for keeping warm in winter, cool in summer, and for shielding face from sand storms in the desert. The turban also increases hygiene, most important in food preparation."

We continued to a great hall where perhaps a thousand people sat eating chapati bread and dal. Meanwhile my guide explained how Sikhism grew out of Hinduism but rejected the caste system, an ancient organizing principle whereby everyone inherits their occupation at birth.

The Sikh said, "The priests and power brokers are traditionally of the Brahmin caste, whereas the backward-class people do the filthy and menial labor. Many Hindu people consider the lowest of these backward-class people to be untouchable, branded as impure from the moment of birth, but please never say the word untouchable to refer to human being, nor dalit either. Ganhdi-ji himself outlawed these words in favor of harijan, this word meaning, children of God."

My turban-wearing, mustache-bearing companion asked me to sign a guest book, insisting that all donations went entirely towards food. I gave generously, smiling as I imagined the little beggar girl enjoying a meal with all her harijan friends. To understand India, I decided, one must meet a beggar and a Sikh; one must go to India.