Sunday, August 10, 2008

Border closing

As an officer in one of the most powerful armies in history, there is much for which to be thankful. After seeing a number of other militaries, our non-commissioned officers, equipment and general esprit de corps are second to none. But it is not just our sophistication; I also appreciate the simplicity of our U.S. Army. We walk and salute in somewhat normal fashion. No weird leg kicks, odd arm swings, or spastic salutes, our movements seem very clean, sharp and simple. Second our uniforms don't have nearly the ridiculousness of plumes, crops, riding boots, super-sized medals and strange hats that seem to dominate the rest of the world. These days we don't even polish our boots and our combat uniforms are pajama-like comfortable. Last weekend we discovered the Indians and Pakistani border guards were not so lucky.

On our one free weekend, we decided to head west towards the Pakistani border. Attari is the single border crossing point between India and Pakistan. During the 1947 partition, estimates ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions went missing as Muslims fled to newly created Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs fled south to India. I expected the closing to be somber, serious and martial reflective of the current conflict, backed by nuclear weapons, that has killed thousands over the years, and a handful even since we've been here.

The drive from Dharamsala took over six hours, even though the distance couldn't have been more than about 150 miles. At any moment, on any stretch of Indian highway, lanes are mere suggestions as cargo trucks swerve around rick shaws, avoiding taxis which dodge around little pelatons of Hindus, riding bikes covered with orange garlands, all of which watched by dozens of people on bikes or simply standing on the side of the roads. And all must dodge, swerve and avoid the damn cows.

The cows are well past annoying, not out of lack of respect for religion, but out of their disrespect for instinct. Nothing in their genetic instinctual wiring should lead them to stand in the middle of a paved road, where there is no food, with huge beasts swerving and beeping just inches, but always inches, around them. Yet this is where I've seen almost all the cows in India, not in the fields munching on grass as one might expect, but in the streets eating cardboard boxes or nosing through the inevitable pile of roadside trash. As we near missed our hundredth cow, I really do believe they are conscious and take great satisfaction in simply screwing with a nation that reveres them.

Dropped off by our driver about a kilometer from the border, we heard the border before seeing it, with the deep thump of techno music and cheers of crowds hitting us. It felt like walking through a parking lot to a baseball stadium, hearing the crowd roar...we quickened our step.

We climbed the three flights of stairs to get to the top of the stadium and wedged through a mass of Indians. What we saw next was nothing like the seriousness you would expect two enemies would display. Thousands of Indians sat and stood in huge bleachers surrounding a road leading to the border gate. Children and women danced to popular Indian songs in the street. A man in teal somehow was appointed to get the crowd going and would occasionally give the 'raise the roof' sign to produce a cheer.

This was usually in response to a cheer from the other side. About 200m away, we could see the Pakistanis, in their own stands, waving their own flags. "Allah...Allah" was answered by "Hindustan!".

Which brings me back to those poor Indian and Pakistani soldiers. While I was impressed with their height, I felt for them in what they wore...what looked like red and gold Chinese fans on top of their hats for the former and much cooler but still elaborate dark fans for the later. These shook and wobbled, making them look like roosters, twitching and strutting and constantly having to reposition their hats to keep them straight.

We talked our way into the VIP section about 50 m from the border gate, and sat a few feet away from a group of plummed soldiers led by what was likely the officer of the guard. In sync with their Pakistani peers, the officer would call each out one by one. They would answer by a straight leg kick that the Rockettes would admire, then with arms swinging straight, march at a double time up to the gate. It reminded me of pro wrestling, with the match getting more complex as more and more ran out of the locker room. Each had a role, mirrored by a Pakistani on the other side, of gate opener, flag rope tier, flag lowerer, buggler, etc. As each got inches from the imaginary line separating these two foes, they would prance and look tough, flexing and preening. The toughness patina ended when they would do their Roxette kicks, with their unfortunate hats, but the Indian and Pakistani crowds loved it.

At the end, the flags were lowered, in sync, inch by inch. The gates were again closed and the crowds were allowed to surge past the rooster plumed soldiers to the gate. I expected hatred from the crowds of enemies now separated by feet, but mostly I just saw little waves back and forth and curious stares peering back and forth. The mirrored movements of the soldiers were replaced by the mirrored reflection of two enemies that up close, looked almost identical to each other.

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