Wagah was a short ride away and surprisingly calm and relaxed. It was hard to believe that this was the only land border crossing between two neighbors whose people shared a common history until the second half of this century. Later I would read about what took place in and between Lahore and Amritsar—where we'd just been and where our day would finally end—learning of the unfathomable violence that erupted in the painful creation of the two nations.
We queued up behind one other foreigner for a rigorous bag search—scouring for antiques and drugs. The official looked disapprovingly when he retrieved a condom from his pack, demanding to know (in case he was mistaken) what it was. When my turn was up, he asked how long we'd been in the country. "Half a day," was my answer, "not even enough time to use a toilet." This seemed to satisfy him as he motioned for me to put away my things with a wave of the hand. Within minutes, all formalities were completed and we were directed to the 100-yard corridor that was the "no man's land" between Pakistan and India.
We've seen lots of borders on our travels, but none quite like the one that awaited us around the corner of the Pakistan customs building. A typical ornately painted Pakistani cargo truck was parked as we approached the corridor. Two men were unloading goods packed in wooden crates onto the heads of human porters, each feeling for the center-point of his precariously stacked load before turning back down the corridor. Their narrow frames were draped in colored cloth—greens, reds, and oranges—feet cushioned by no more than a pair of worn-out slippers, if even that. At the other end, Indian porters in blue received each load and transported it onto the Indian truck awaiting in the distance.
To our amazement, we were allowed to take photographs. A stern-looking but amiable Pakistani official told me each porter earned Rs2.0 (about U.S. 5 cents) per load and did this for six hours a day. A delegation happened to be arriving from the Indian side, obliging the line of porters to stop in their tracks, loads weighing down on their heads, until the cars with tinted black windows drove past. It was both aesthetic and rhythmic, watching the line of colorful figures elegantly bouncing in unison down the stretch. It was also incredibly painful to watch this piece of human machinery at work. Humans are supposed not to have to engage in this sort of back-breaking physical labor anymore—that is what vehicles are for! It was work artificially resulting from the absurd rigidities of nation-states, and yet ironically, at least it was work.
Paper-processing was a bit slower going on the Indian side, mostly because posts were abandoned until we made enough noise to state our presence at each desk. I found the Indian officials to be friendly and chatty—not suspicious and hard-nosed as I anticipated from all the horror stories I'd heard of Indian bureaucracy.
The entire crossing took nearly three hours. Attari, the Indian border town, was a few kilometers away so we were peddled to the bus depot where we were able to get on a bus for Amritsar, some 30 kilometers away. The bus that awaited us was a broken down mammoth—steel sheets patched together and set on big thread-worn tires. Still, it was overloaded with passengers, leaving no seat but my backpack to sit on. I glanced down at my filthy feet until my eyes fell on a broken edge of the corrugated metal floor of the bus. I stared down in a daze, mesmerized by the bit of road streaming past beneath my feet. On the seat next to me were mothers and their many children, piled uncomfortably one on top of another. A very young boy was passed through the driver's window and placed on top of the engine cover, sitting half on the dash, content to look out the big window, all the way to Amritsar. Though this was my first time in India, it felt strangely familiar. We've finally arrived in the Asia that I remember, I thought.