I needed something stable after my first Indian illness. In Mumbai the hostel man with feminine fingers told me I’m safe as long as I eat in a restaurant. When Ram and I walked to a “famous” Amritsar vendor with pre-made food outside and indoor seating (the sign of a restaurant), and he told me I wouldn’t get sick, I trusted him. And the fried bread and potato sandwiches were tasty. But later, the owner of the store placed my change– bill after bill of filthy Indian rupees– onto the piles of pre-fried potato, which he warmed by stirring in the wok oil that had been sitting there for god knows how long. As if that wasn’t enough, for dessert we had street lassi, which I felt scared about as I drank quickly, as I watched the proprietor using tap water to make his next batch. It was cold and tasty going down but it was still repeating on me as I walked barefoot beside hundreds of Sikhs into their holiest of holies, over the marble floor and around the lake where a long line was forming.
Offerings were for sale at a nearby stand. The smell, or maybe just the sight of food after what I’d eaten the night before, was enough to make me wretch. Next to the herd line was another, for people to wait single file, and there was no one there. A couple of Sikh men walked back through the crowd to get into this line when they saw some men walking straight up to the temple this way. I figured there was a catch, and my queasiness made me reluctant to press my way back out of this line to possibly be told to have to go back into the line for the masses. I stayed where I was. Chanting and drumming Sikh music played over the loudspeakers. It was relaxing and the man next to me, carrying a big silver tray of the offering, a sweet brown paste covered in banana leaves held together with toothpicks, knew the words and sang along.
The line had moved a third of the way in fifteen minutes. Now the music wasn’t so relaxing. I looked at the clock. It was 1015 and I still had to shower before leaving to buy my bus ticket at 1130. People were walking down the single file line now. I asked a girl next to me why those people were walking so freely. VIP, she answered. I’m VIP, I thought, I’m from halfway across the world.
Now even the VIPs were waiting. I couldn’t take it. I didn’t really even care about this Golden Temple. Biggest temple in the world. That little golden isle in the middle isn’t the biggest in the world– the record must be for the largest temple complex. And besides, that girl who had woken us up at 430 in the morning came to Amritsar and didn’t see it. I could do without it too.
I was going to go home. Hopping a fence to get into an empty VIP line is one thing, but cutting off a line of VIP Sikhs waiting to get into their holiest site is another. I crossed the one gate, disregarding the glances of the sheep who kept waiting, then swung my leg up over the other gate to enter the exit line, when an official white-bearded man stopped me. I looked behind me, shrugged. No protestation.It was my fate then, to see the Golden Temple.
I waited maybe five more minutes. Up close the temple was coated in a thin layer of gold. On the outside were pietra dura designs, similar to those on the Taj Mahal. Inside pilgrims were gated around the temple’s perimeter. Three holy men sat within, protecting the donations and sacred Sikh texts. They were the ones singing. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so antsy if I had known I was hearing live Sikh music. But then again maybe I’d still be waiting in line. Upstairs, protective plastic covered magnificent Mughal paintings. On the roof the sun shone brightly off even more marble and gold.
But I didn’t have time to feel at home; I had a bus to catch, and now I didn’t have time for a shower. I bought a fruitcake at the station, with little red chunks of fruit, made with glycerine. I had a Coke, which helped. At the rest stop, three hours in, a banana. And like a contradiction, my stomach stirred with hunger, yet my mind said don’t. The ride was slow. We had been picking people up along the way. The bus conductor would whistle for the driver, who honked his horn a lot, to stop the bus and let people on or off. Men stood in the aisles. An elderly European lady protested when a polite older Indian tried sitting next to her, then resigned herself to fate.
15 km to go and the sun was setting, spraying orange that faded into light blue from behind the foothills. And in the other direction was the base of a huge snowy mountain, its top shrouded in clouds. We drove past fledgling rivers barely bigger than streams, waiting for the Himalayan snows to melt and for the monsoons to further smooth and round giant boulders that lay in their wake. Evidence of where the rivers once flowed was rounded boulders in grassy fields, where nearby goats grazed and locals carried grass on their backs. An elementary bridge, two parallel cables attached by vertical ones every meter or two allowed pedestrians to cross the river easily. 5 km to go.
The stops were even more frequent now, every half kilometer, and the rise was steep, ten degrees at times. The bus was very slow at these points. There was flowing water in the sewers, too, not the stagnant putrid stink of Uttar Pradesh. The colors of clothing and houses are more muted, too, since it’s not as hot: teals instead of turquoise, pastel yellow instead of sunshine, burgundy rather than hot pink.
When we arrived it was an eight hour ride altogether. A group was considering how to divide up the cabs. I had the feeling that Mcleoudganj would be more crowded and touristy. A couple of girls with half-shaved heads and a bald guy named James were going just past, another couple of kilometers away, to Bhagsu. I found out in the cab they were anarchists. The Aussie was writing a book on telepathic government rule and when I asked how it works, she said, like a soundboard,which didn’t make any sense to me and helped me decide that I probably won’t be friends with these weirdos. And sure enough, after we had broken a sweat climbing up the hill to a hotel, there were only two rooms, and she was nice, offering me the good room, but I declined and she approved like she expected me to.
There was a room just across the path, in a neighboring hotel, without an in-room bathroom. It was private and $3 a night. So after a hot Western shower with a high faucet, not the waist-high Indian style ones, with the buckets you have to fill to pour over your body, I ordered vegetable soup and a banana lassi at their restaurant, an outside tarp-covered seating area. The vegetable soup broth was translucent and reminded me of hot ‘n’ sour soup. It cost $1. A blonde dredlocked girl came outside her room and smoked a spliff in silence. It was drizzling and blue lightning flashed in the valley I looked out upon. Two fast-rising mountains were blinders to my panorama. Everywhere was green, like Oregon. I noticed puddles of water on an uncovered table, glimmering like crystal. Tired from the long trip and my upset stomach, I lay in bed in my brown-curtained skyblue-painted room, on two full mattresses placed side by side, under posters of Krishna and Vishnu. I fell asleep quickly.
When I was a kid, maybe from the ages of 4 to 9, I’d eat the same thing for breakfast every day. Mom would slather cream cheese between two Eggo waffles and pour maple syrup over them, serving them with a tall glass of Tropicana. It was best when they were strawberry waffles. Blueberry was good, cinnamon apple was okay and banana was a later marketing strategy. The packages of the different flavored waffles also corresponded directly to my favorite colors.
Mom had a special way of cooking them: she’d put them in the toaster to defreeze, then after putting the cream cheese and syrup on them, she’d nuke them for thirty seconds. They came out piping and just soft enough. She had a special way of cutting them too: each waffle she’d draw three equally spaced vertical lines through, and then a final one bisecting the waffle horizontally. I would start breakfast with the corners, which were crispy and crunchy, although they had a tendency to be dry if mom didn’t put on enough syrup. And by the time I reached the two middle pieces, one of which was usually bigger due to human error, I saved the syrupy one or the one with more cream cheese for last.
I did everything I could to enjoy this breakfast when I was away from home, too. Of course, sometimes, if we were at a family reunion, I didn’t put up a stink about not being able to get my favorite breakfast. But if I spent the night at grandma’s, I made special requests to have Eggo’s, cream cheese and pure Vermont maple syrup. Aunt Jemima’s was a facile imitation which I only approved of when I had to. At my great grandmother’s they never used maple syrup, because they were Dutch maybe, and there aren’t maple trees in Holland, so they fed me my breakfast with honey, and this worked well enough.
I viewed this breakfast as my right, not a luxury, so that when I didn’t get it, I felt as though I were learning the ways of an ascetic. I’m not sure when I stopped eating Eggo’s for breakfast; probably sometime before I began puberty. But when I did my life changed in more ways than one.
During my adolescence I fondly remembered my breakfasts of yore, and one day at the supermarket considered buying some waffles and reliving the pleasures of youth. I opened a freezer door, pulled out the package and examined the nutrition facts of these waffles, because like most sixteen year olds, I was really into my body image. Preservatives and lots of fat. Plus the fat from the cream cheese. Plus the sugary carbs from the maple syrup. It was no wonder I was such a fat little boy; I had consumed half my daily fat intake before 9 in the morning. Though I don’t blame Mom for feeding me like that. If I was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live, I’d eat my old breakfast every day, even adding a coffee and maybe some lox on the side.
Last night I dreamed of finding my waffles. I had a spectacular craving for them, and back in New York for some reason, on hiatus from my travels, I went food shopping. I went to an enormous supermarket, so big and complex, I had no chance of finding the frozen food section where the waffles would be kept, not to mention the dairy section, where they’d have the cream cheese. And in my vain effort, my craving only grew and I became more lost, so that at one point, deep within the bowels of the supermarket, I realized I had no hope of eating the breakfast I so desperately craved.
When I woke I knew I wouldn’t be able to get waffles in the Himalayas. But I remembered that the organic grocery store, which is cheaper than my neighborhood supermarket in Brooklyn, had another comfort food available. They had delicious looking peanut butter made by a women’s Himalayan self-help group; rhododendron preserves, which I hadn’t known existed; and soymilk, which, you know, whatever. So the second thing I did was go food shopping. And pb n j, which is as comfortable to me in my 20s as waffles were to me in my childhood, makes me even more relaxed and at home as I sit in my Himalayan perch, watching goats eating boskage, hearing the cows low in the distance, the birds sing, and the low clouds silently float over my head.