I feel like I am always making anecdotes or allegories in this blog, traveling is this, traveling is that. Traveling is about the people you meet.Traveling is about the unconditional experiences. Traveling is about the personal moments. Traveling is about all of those sensations blending into one; feeling like a local, feeling at home in a place you’ve never been, knowing you’ve found an experience free of the traps of so many places or things, and making connections while doing it. I was just so lucky to have all that.
Here’s the setting: The best way to relate it would be to compare it to a long couchsurfing stay. I was able to stay with an Indian family in the Sikh region of Punjab in northwestern India, near the border with Pakistan and Kashmir. I stayed on their beautiful compound, ate their wonderful food, talked about politics, life, culture, sport… I was introduced to and lucky enough to experience their life and get to know them. And like couchsurfing, I did not know them before I arrived.
And here’s the catch: They’re my family.
This is really the story of how I met a side of my family half way across the world that I’d never known.
Amanda and I were picked up at the Phagwara train station by my grandfather’s brother, Jagmohan, and his son, Monu. I had no pictures of either one before I arrived, and the name Jagmohan conjured up images in my imagination of a larger than life figure with a strong beard. Instead, Jagmohan (or Uncle Ji as I called him) was clean shaven with thin glasses and a still strong head of hair neatly parted, looking more like Dave Brubeck with the archetypal West Coast Jazz style than the picture I’d created. We found each other because we both had the mutual and unmistakable body language of somebody looking for somebody else. Once I did see him, introduce myself, shake his hand, and hear him speak, it was immediately apparent how much he was like my grandfather, Sukhi. And Monu was tall. At maybe 6’1 or 6’2 he was a good head taller than the average Indian man.
We left the train station, drove through the city of Phagwara, and headed towards the village of Rehana Jattan where they lived. Phagwara was dirty and busy but green. Amanda and I both noticed quickly that Punjab was going to be significantly prettier and more pleasing than Delhi had been.
Rehana Jattan was about a 15 kilometer drive north of Phagwara through country roads that cut through fields of wheat and corn. The village itself was a short strip on the country road no more than half a mile long that stretched probably another half mile inwards to the farmlands. I guessed that maybe one or two thousand call Rehana home. Uncle Ji and the family’s house sat right off the main road into Rehana, with a large sculpture, the work of my grandfather and Uncle Ji, directly above the entrance. Entitled “Spirit of the Sikh Warrior”, it channeled the passion and fury of the famous Sikh warriors of past centuries with a warrior standing in an animated defensive position and created a foreboding and prominent entry point to the family property.
Once inside, Amanda and I had a chance to meet the rest of the family, Auntie Ji, Uncle Ji’s wife (who I unfortunately didn’t realize until after I left Rehana is the only one I have no photos of) Monu’s wife Manjinder, and their daughter and son, Sombrit and Baraj, 13 and 11 respectively. From the very moment we arrived the hospitality was overwhelmingly genuine and wonderful. Even uncomfortably so, as Amanda and I wanted to help and were often told to just sit, relax, and enjoy. So we did as we were often beckoned to, enjoying the amazing meals that Manjinder cooked and taking some time to decompress from what had once again been a crazy week.
We started our time in Rehana slowly enough, visiting relatives and meeting extensions of my grandfather’s family. We met his cousin Jesuwan who shared us stories of his work history including bashing a pipe over a man’s head who’d picked an ill-advised fight with him in a factory. He didn’t tell us (but we found out later on) that he was a semi-pro wrestler, who at 75 is apparently still stronger than his three, muscular 40-something sons. Family legend goes that his sons wanted to team-up and take him down but decided not to knowing he would single them out for a beat down even now.
We also met Sukhi and Uncle Ji’s sister Bindu and her husband Harjit, who split their time between Phagwara and Vancouver, where there two healthcare professional son and daughter live and work.
On our second day in Rehana we visited Phagwara proper, seeing the properties that Uncle Ji and the family owned, and walking through the local markets. At some point Monu and Uncle Ji decided to take Amanda and I to the Ramgarhia College of Education where my grandfather had first been a student, and later a lecturer. He is still a practicing and successful artist and sculptor (he just won a competition to put a work of his on aprominent piece of beach front in Laguna Beach, Southern California), and one of his works from decades ago still sits in the garden of the college, “The Archer”.
Uncle Ji, Monu, Amanda and I visited the dean of the college to say hi, and for Uncle Ji to let her know that Sukhi’s grandson was in town. Something was mentioned between the two of them in Punjabi and she turned to immediately.
“Would you like to guest lecture for us?” She asked, already beaming at the idea. I felt at best, underqualified. I have a few years experience in classrooms, but still not enough in my eyes to warrant such an opportunity. She however loved the idea of having somebody share their experiences who’d been in Iraq as well as America. Sitting at her desk, we came up with the idea of me drafting an hour- long lecture comparing education and methodology from my brief experiences in America, Sierra Leone, and Iraq. When we left the college I was excited to have stumbled into the chance, and nervous as well, wondering how something would go without ever having done anything comparable before.
We finished the day driving out to the family’s largest piece of farmland, meeting some of the farmhands and seeing first hand agriculture in Punjab. We got to milk cows, play with pigs, and watched the prize winning greyhound chase down people on command. That night we relaxed further by pulling chairs out into the open courtyard and watching a massive thunderstorm pass overhead in the crisp air.
Amanda left between the second and third day in Rehana. I spent the that following day relaxing and doing little besides reading and writing. When Baraj and Sombrit came home from school I played Baraj in a game of wall tennis, the ball being frequently stolen by Niki the adorable dog.
The following day, Monu, Manjinder, Sombrit, Baraj and I went to Amritsar. Amritsar is neither the largest nor most important city in the state of Punjab, but is the holiest, being home to the focal point of the Sikh religion, the Golden Temple of Amritsar. Sikhism is a relatively new religion, having been in existence for roughly half a millenia. One of the main focuses of Sikhism is the ‘oneness’ of god, that god is everpresent. What I found of particular interest when visiting the Golden Temple, was that the small, square temple has open doors on all four sides to represent its openness to all other religions, its acceptance that there are many different ways to approach one’s faith and belief in god.
I’m starting to run out of superlatives to describe some of these temples and structures in India. The Golden Temple, like Akshardham had the highest degree of opulence. The Temple was appropriately named, the upper 25 of its 30 or so feet covered completely in gold. No expense was spared for its decoration. The temple sat in the middle of a large rectangular pool surrounded on three sides by a beautiful open courtyard with lovely four story bright white buildings. The buildings were constructed of marble and wood and with Sikh architecture, which I could best describe as being half Hindu, half Victorian. Inside one of the outlying courtyard buildings was a museum displaying the history of Sikh conflicts.
Like I’d written before, Sikhism is a relatively new religion, having developed when the Indian subcontinent was dominated by the Mughal (a predominantly Muslim) empire. New religions are never welcome where one already exists, and the museum was a beautiful testament to the struggles that Sikhs and the region of Punjab has faced in the last four to five hundred years. Countless martyrs and gurus for a religion that has done a far better job than most at cultivating and living up to its promises of peace, and yet also one that has been feared for hundreds of years for the ferocity of its warriors when this peace has been threatened.
After visiting the Golden Temple we went to the Wagah- Attari border between Pakistan and India. I had remembered seeing an episode on the pageantry involved in the border closing on Michael Palin’s travel show, whatever it was called. It stood out in my memory for the peacocking of the soldiers (clearly influenced by the local bird) as they displayed as much bluster and bravado as possible in the face of the border guards of the other nation.
What I didn’t expect, was to what degree the entire production was going to occur. And that they did it every day. There was an MC, a border guard on a full drum set providing a rhythmic backtone to everything that happened, a short dance party in the street for children, and the marching and gesturing of the soldiers alone lasted for over an hour. I had pushed my way through the crowd to get a lucky seat on top of the last bannister in the grand stands (which proved to be a great seat) and had a clear view for everything.
It shocked me that ‘The Border Retreat’ (as it’s known) was so much like a sporting event. These two countries don’t necessarily have the best political relationship, but any outsider would’ve expected it to take a great deal of international camaraderie to put on such a stirring show, chants of “PAK-I-STAN” and “HIN-DU-STAN” roaring back and forth between the probably 5,000 in attendance. The finale was marked by the lowering of the flags, and the dramatic closing- or slamming shut- of the gates.
The following day was far simpler, the only thing planned being my lecture at the Ramgarhia College of Education. I still couldn’t believed I’d stumbled into such an opportunity. The lecture was scheduled for 10AM and we arrived at 955, Uncle Ji having strongly insisted that we not show up to early. Im not the most punctual person in the world, but I thought it wasn’t a good move to cut it so close. I relented, because even though he didn’t specifically say so, I felt it was a cultural practice here, as it is in many, many countries, to be more relaxed with time. And naturally, he was correct. I walked into the dean’s office at ten, and found myself perfectly on time. She had some small drinks prepared and we waited for about fifteen minutes as students slowly wandered into the seminar hall where I’d be speaking. By about 10:15 we walked into the full seminar hall, and I was introduced as the featured guest speaker. I stood up in front of the podium, 50 or 60 young teachers in training before me.
The lecture went very well. All I did was share what I’d experienced in the teaching world. I kept any opinion to a bare, bare minimum, trying my best to objectively share what I’d seen in the different places I’d worked, how people functioned in the different environments, and shared what I saw as the biggest development needs in Iraq and Sierra Leone’s education landscape moving forward; the kind of thing that interests me more than outright teaching. I even found time to throw in my mom’s name as an example of the successes of e-learning and increased technology use in the classroom. The lecture concluded with a brief Q & A, and I was surprisingly awarded a plaque for my participation in Ramgarhia’s ongoing convention on international education.
That night I went for my last walk with Uncle Ji. We had been on several walks throughout the week, through Rehana Jattan, visiting different villagers and getting an idea of the size of the village and how it functioned. He took me to the western edge of the village at sunset to one of the family’s smaller plots of land, a ten acre patch of young sugarcane. We took a long and detoured way home, passing things I had not yet visited, and stopping to visit and old friend of his and my grandparent’s. Her name was Punam, an elderly lady who ran her own kindergarten. We sat and had evening tea with Punam who thanked Uncle Ji for finally bringing me around. She’d apparently heard several days before that Sukhi and Marija’s grandson was in town, and wanted to meet me. After tea, we arranged for me to come over and have breakfast with her the following morning.
Nine AM the next morning I was at Greenway Public School, greeted immediately by Punam. She wasn’t teaching a class, but looking over three different classes that were happening. She didn’t teach classes any more. Her husband had died a number of years ago and she had then decided to downsize the small school and convert a few rooms of the school into her new home. She now acted as more of a proprietor and less a teacher, watching over the three young teachers who led classes of 10-15 young students, making sure everything ran smoothly.
Punam made me a delicious breakfast of toasted egg and tomato sandwiches with milky cinnamon tea. We talked about education, my grandparent’s artwork, her school and her two sons. She was a wonderful host, and when I asked to take a photo of her with just a few students I was lucky enough to get a photo of the entire school with Punam and the three young teachers.
I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing, reading, writing, and making sure I had everything together to catch my night train. I was leaving Punjab that night for Rishikesh, a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas north of Delhi.
It had been the perfect week. I had desperately needed a week to relax and think about nothing more than the things I absolutely had to. My plans had changed drastically with how quickly Amanda and I had both decided to leave Iraq, and Rehana Jattan provided me with the perfect setting and people around me to let my mind wander a little more clearly towards what would come next. I realized also that with how things had changed I wouldn’t likely be home in California until December, making this about the halfway mark of somewhere around fourteen months away from home. And yet right in the middle of those fourteen months I found an amazing home away from home, that felt even more comfortable and familiar with every day.
It was only a week and yet I can’t believe how perfect the balance was between relaxation and action, how much I did and how much I didn’t do in seven days. Most importantly who I got to know. Names and places that had always been distant in conversation, mentioned but abstract became real people and places that I got to know and love. As I was leaving Uncle Ji let me know that he’d like me to come visit every year, and if there’s any way that becomes practical, I would have no problem coming back every year, year after year to see everyone and revisit Rehana and Punjab. And if I can’t, I have three siblings who I would love to get to see and do as much as me, and who I’m sure would love to as well.