Punjab, India: early 2015

Why Punjab?

It was late 2014 when into my inbox popped a job advert from a local company requiring IELTS teacher/ consultants in Punjab, India.  A six month contract, with flights, visa, apartment, a housekeeper, driver, and acceptable remuneration in $AU, was sufficient to lure me from my boredom.  After all, I’d always wanted to see India!  Start dates September to December came and went, until I finally set off early January 2015 with two fellow Queenslanders, Estelle our very young recruiter and ‘academic coordinator’, and my fellow colleague, the far more experienced, qualified, and older, Rod.  Our mission: to act as consultants in establishing in Punjab four English language schools focusing on IELTS tuition.

An oddly different work experience, the job was indeed challenging, but not in ways I’d expected.  Whether it was the ‘business plan’ or the management, it was a very stressful appointment. Students didn’t rush to enrol and financial strain was soon apparent. Wary at the outset, I’d insisted on an Australian contract and by end of March (three months in), I was grateful I had.  Calls to my solicitor yielded the result I required: payment of 5 weeks of outstanding fees. On the same day came termination!  Same for Rod who was desperate to extricate himself. (Unfortunate was Estelle, who in January after only two weeks into the job, was suddenly dismissed and despatched back to Australia.  With no contract she was left unpaid and uncompensated for many expenses. ) However, the work drama is quite another story………

BUT IT WAS IN PUNJAB THAT I FOUND FAME ………….AT LAST!!! 

 

Although working in a foreign country is always interesting, the following describes some of my Indian experience OUTSIDE work! 

ARRIVAL: 

The journey from Delhi airport to Jalandhar was a taste of things to come…re the traffic.  With Estelle in the front passenger seat and Rod and myself behind, our driver appeared to be trialling for the next Formula One. We hurtled through pea-soup fog at frightening speed, weaving in and out of traffic of all kinds (bicycles, scooters, heavy trucks, cars, motorcycles, autos, buses) all honking horns and flashing headlights.  With little heed to traffic rules, and with low visibility, I thought these would be my final hours!  On the road for approximately six hours, we arrived after midnight at the apartment complex in Jalandhar, (Palm Royal Estate, Green Model Town).  It had been 48 hours of travel including an unkind layover of 12 hours in Changi. Jalandhar

 

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View from apartment 9/1
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View towards back of Palm Royal Estate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our second floor apartment with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, dining/ living room, heavy timber furniture and heavy drapes was in need of renovation, and a good clean. FREEZING cold, and not a drop of fresh water available. We crashed onto the wildly patterned bed linen atop rock hard mattresses and slept like babies! The next morning we waited, hungry and thirsty, for the arrival of managers to assist.  Two young men arrived at the door and with big grins, babbling in Punjabi, pushed their way inside, …. we deduced after a while, they meant to clean, empty-handed! Rod found some old newspapers and they started turning the dusty floor into an even dirtier one!

At last, the local manager arrived to take us for lunch at ‘Sunny Side Up’, with our Indian Aussie managing director, freshly disembarked from Australia.  We then left to see the Jalandhar ‘school’ on Link Road, its sign impressive:  ‘Native English Planet, an institute for English with Australian teachers’, but its entrance, obscured by building rubbish, scooters and motorcycles, below ground and down a flight of stairs where work was clearly still in progress, debris everywhere….How were we going to work here? I wondered. At street level, was a bank, and above, ‘Sparks Gym’ owned by landlord, Deepak Mittal. Sparks Gym

So what was it like living there?

Three months in the Punjab highlighted many contrasts with Australia. This is one of the wealthier regions of India, probably to do with its fertile soil allowing cultivation of sugar cane, wheat, rice, vegetables and fruit. Poplar trees are grown for matchsticks, as well as other products , and I saw herds of buffalo and goats. I enjoyed good health, and I guess this was due to the very fresh vegetables and fruit direct from street vendors and local farmers…. no long term cold storage here.

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Trucks overladen with sugar cane common & tipped over very common!

Shopping for groceries was not easy at the outset. (Our local colleagues and managers, all  male, had wives and mothers attending to these matters!!!) It took some time, given a lack of transport and local knowledge, to source food in our out-of-work hours. The local fruit and vegetable vendors with their roadside carts, and the little shop opposite the apartment block with its limited supplies of staples like eggs, milk and bread, kept us alive initially. In time, we found on weekends, larger shops like More, Big Bazaar, Easy Day and Reliance Fresh ……..reasonably well stocked but fresh dairy or meat wasn’t common. After turning vegetarian by circumstance (we did feel well though), we finally sourced fresh chicken in Jalandhar at Republic of Chicken!

Like any newcomers, other shopping required local knowledge, so we needed Manjit, our young Jalandar manager, to haggle for heaters (we were Queenslanders fresh from 35 C +, after all!!) so we could withstand the freezing cold inside our flat.

However, in three months I had sussed out great Indian fashion from Biba, FabIndia and little “fashion wears“. Biba  FabIndia .  By late March the weather was heating up, and I had to shop for summer clothing…….not a problem for me!!

Jalandhar has some middle class residential areas with very large homes, flash cars in driveways, and beautiful gardens.  Not unusually, they sit alongside a vacant lot including a makeshift hovel, washing strewn across tree branches and bushes, an open fire, with women working and others squatting in the dirt whilst grubby kids run about.  Main streets , mostly dirt roads, going into town or away from the posh areas, are full of shabby derelict buildings and shops, lined with rubbish, rutted potholed roads and nasty hanging overhead wires.  During the coldest days and nights we saw men huddled around open fires, of cow dung or wood, I assumed.  Jalandhar city centre had its beggars but apparently far fewer than in other areas. Busy intersections were a sad sight…children and disabled,  many of them greatly deformed polio victims, begging from passing cars.

Scenes from Green Model Town

Our local gurudwara

 

Punjab roads are chaotic with cars, trucks, buses, tractors, ‘autos’, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, horse drawn carts, pedestrians, as well as cows everywhere, and occasionally a herd of goats or an elephant.  High speed weaving, overtaking, horns blaring constantly!  Some drivers use sirens, flashing red or blue lights, and badge the vehicles with “press” or “police”, all in an effort to get the edge on other motorists.

Unrelenting noise! All day long horns blaring, and almost all night long, as January to March was “the wedding season” with a mix of drumming, singing, chanting, and loud music into the early hours. Often I’d be awoken early morning by some kind of sermon or repetitive chanting from the local Sikh or Hindu temple.

One constant bugbear were powercuts !! Frequently, these disrupted any continuity at home or at work. Blackouts at night led to blundering around until candles could be found, lit, and watched carefully so they didn’t extinguish. More than once power was out for almost 24 hours which meant uncharged phones, no wifi, cold showers….. not fun in the 10 to 15 degrees. Cooking by the light of a gas flame, sharing ‘candlelit dinners’ with Rod, an all too frequent occurrence! Why we asked each other, did neighbours in the block have lights and we didn’t? “Don’t you have an inverter?” we were asked. Finally after several weeks of blackouts our complaints to our managers were heeded, and an electrician sent to locate the hidden, non-functioning inverter, restore it and after wiring up the wrong circuit, two days later he got it right. …we now had lighting in some areas if power failed, but still faced cold showers, boiling water on the gas camp stove, and no wifi.  (The TV promised in our contract never materialised but would have been useless anyway!)

By 9th March, two months in, frustration was sky high. The apartment without power for two days, had meant no hot showers, refrigeration, no wi-fi.  Waiting for the jug to boil, or mobiles to recharge was wishful thinking. But ….at least we had light…. in the kitchen!! It was a Saturday afternoon and I’d located, within walking distance, an aryvedic centre offering head massage.  I was desperate for relief from the tension headaches I was experiencing …heavenly but I hadn’t realised my head would be soaked in oil, which the masseuse (in sign language / limited English), advised to leave for a few hours. Returned to the apartment -still no power!!, so I braced myself to wash my oily head under the cold tap….brrrr!! That night, the gas also ran out, leaving my sophisticated evening meal of chicken sausages, potato and pumpkin, partially cooked…Rod and I were planning to cut and run to the airport! The next morning, a Sunday, I walked the 30-40 minute hazardous route into Jalandhar to ‘Barista’, (the other great coffee shop discovery on the Link Road), where I could charge my mobile, use wifi AND enjoy a coffee!! (The same scenario at work……classrooms plunged into darkness for hours, CD player and printer inoperable, computers discharging their battery power after several hours.)

FOOD, FOOD, FOOD

I had looked forward to eating fabulous Indian dishes, but was wary of eating out. Unfortunately, our dining out experiences were limited – we didn’t know where to locate reasonable restaurants after long hours at work. (The lack of a car or public transport prevented us from exploring Jalandhar.)  One long day in our first week ended with a two hour return drive from Ludhiana. Being famished upon return, Manjit took us to Hot Drive, an outdoor cafe where the busy cooktops were fabricated on an American open top touring car chassis. We waited in the cold, alongside locals, watching the steam rise from the various curries, rice dishes, chappatis, and naan bread being prepared.   Sitting on plastic chairs on a chilly night, we eagerly  tucked into our assortment, and for 370 rupees (approximately $8) it was plenty for all three of us. Hot Drive, kitchen car

 

In time, Rod’s communication with his driver, Raju, improved and he was able to get the message across that we wanted to buy some decent Indian food, (as a break from my basic but boring combinations of eggs, veggies, rice or pasta!!) So, a nice surprise was Rod walking into the apartment in the evening with bags of curries and vegetable dishes. (‘Take aways’ come in thin plastic bags secured by rubber bands)

On our very first weekend in January, we walked into Jalandhar centre, to discover “Nik Bakers, run by a Professional Baker from Australia”!!! As coffee culture is not well established in India, it was a surprise to find a menu of coffees, teas, and a range of cakes and pastries, and comfortable furnishings. This place became a haven on many weekends! Popular with the affluent, prices ensured this place was out of reach of the average Indian. Nik Bakers

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Rod & Estelle at Nik Baker’s Jan 10

On  two occasions we visited Haveli which offers Punjabi food in a traditional setting. It has great ambience, and is hugely popular with locals. Enjoyed some fantastic masala chai and snacks outside in the courtyard too. We missed out visiting Rangla Punjab, next door, which replicates the heritage of a traditional Punjabi village. Rangla Punjab

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Manjit and friends at Haveli, March

The Brewmaster” where I celebrated my birthday late February….the rooftop bar and views, with Indian singer, was a most welcome antidote to dreary nights at the apartment. Great ambience, meter high beers, but food disappointing. The Brewmaster, Jalandhar

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The Brewmaster with Rod & Manjit 22/2

The evening before I left I was invited to a farewell dinner at Sagar Ratna, specialising in South Indian food, and at the invitation of the interesting Natalia, one of my students. (Russian lady married to a local). Sagar Ratna, Jalandhar

ALCOHOL

A woman drinking is frowned upon, so I had to cajole Rod into walking with me to the corner grog shop at night, to secure supplies. Wine was prohibitively priced  ……. fortunately Kingfisher beer is affordable and was a welcome drop at the end of some exceptionally frustrating days! Our Punjabi colleagues, however, preferred local whisky, which they like to mix with still water.  Drinking and driving – not a problem! And on a few occasions we found ourselves squeezed into our young friend’s small sedan, speeding around Jalandhar roads, his mates passing around the whisky, water and plastic cups, whilst ear splitting Punjabi rap blared from the car stereo.

Jalandhar ‘book market’ turned out to be an area of book shops lining both sides of a few long narrow dirt roads, with lots of bicycles, rickshaws, cars, scooters, small buses, utilities and horse drawn carts all manoeuvring around each other with their constant horn blowing.  Inside, a request to see a book would result in the shop assistant reaching for it, giving it a good bash on the counter, dust flying out, before passing it over. Haggling required of course. Familiar textbooks were available, until one looked inside to find that it wasn’t quite what was expected, but some concoction of the original text mixed with odd antiquated exercises (“Indian English”), strange translations, and grammatical errors. Copyright and intellectual property are clearly foreign ideas! (When I mentioned copyright infringement, Manjit just laughed saying, ‘This is India!’) For pleasure I found “Maharaja” and “Maharani”……very salacious reading about a long gone era!

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Jalandhar ‘book market’

Some highlights of my 3 month experience included a visit to The Golden Temple in  Amritsar, attending a Hindu wedding, the Holi festival, and  finally, a couple of weekend escapes, first to Chandigarh, and the second to McLeodganj, a hill station in Himchal Pradesh.

The Golden Temple: Amritsar

After a Saturday spent advising and testing at the Amritsar ‘school’, our colleagues Sapna and Ankush were eager to take Rod and I to Sri Harminder Sahib, the holiest guradwara of the Sikhs. This gilded temple is breathtaking. A holy calm pervades inside the walls, and hundreds of worshippers sat or stood quietly praying or bathed in the waters of the lake surrounding the temple. Beautiful marble underfoot and stonework in the walls with many commemorative plaques noting significant events, many bloody battles, in Sikh history up to partitioning in 1947 and more recently. With the other visitors we lined up to receive the holy ‘offering’, a gluey lentil mixture. The Golden Temple

Holi, the Hindu ‘colour festival’ is also celebrated by Sikhs, Christians and others….(and gave us a public holiday on 6th March!) It’s a unifying and harmonising celebration for all Indians. We had been invited a week or two earlier, but we were unsure exactly what to? On the day of Holi it was clear ..lots of noise and colour streaked everywhere. Mid morning entering the lawned area at the front of the complex, our faces were daubed with a slash of colour. A plastic cup containing clear fluid, (vodka) was thrust into our hands. Around us men women and children were covered head to toe in colour. Younger women were dancing together to Indian pop music… I was invited to join. Long tables laden with all kinds of Indian treats were set up for lunch later.  Stayed inside for the rest of the day as we didn’t want to be “colour -bombed”!

A Hindi wedding 8/2

An invitation was extended to Rod and myself to attend the wedding of Manjit’s friend. Much fanfare and lots of noise down the street from the reception venue heralded the approach of the groom on horseback. Guess this horse was a wedding veteran -I feared it would bolt with the tremendous noise from drumming, trumpeting, shouting, etc. Finally, the groom dismounted and entered the curtained venue, a large grassed area surrounded by stalls where cooks were preparing all sorts of treats for guests. Much later the bride arrived with her procession …she looked so miserable I enquired after her well-being, but was assured she was happy, only that it was customary for the bride to look demure and sad to be leaving her parents’ home.

Chandigarh

Finally, in mid March Rod and I arranged a weekend away – with the help of my driver Bunty and his nephew Lovepreet. After two months stuck in Jalandar, we both desperately needed a change of scenery and the luxury of a decent room with constant electricity, a hot shower and a television with English language programs!!!  So we booked rooms at Park Plaza in Chandigarh. Entering Chandigarh was surprising; its streets are wide, tree-lined avenues, which are well planned with modern intersections and roundabouts. It was designed by a French architect, after India’s independence, so a modern city. Upon arrival we went to the Elante mall, a large western style shopping mall where Rod purchased some exquisite woven shawls for his daughters. That night I enjoyed the luxuries of room service, a red meat meal, a bottle of Indian red wine and television!  The next morning was spent exploring the gorgeous Chandigarh Rose Garden touted to be the largest rose garden in the world……. those roses were exquisite.

Mcleodganj: Himachal Pradesh 21/2- 22/2

My other weekend escape was to Mcleodganj, a hill station, in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh, …thanks again to drivers, Bunty and Lovepreet.  It was a long day taking us up into the mountains into different terrain. As we zigzagged up the mountain roads hundreds of monkeys sat roadside, waiting for the tourists. And they were fussy, rejecting our bread in favour of bananas! We stopped an hour at Kangra fort, an ancient fortification well situated high above surrounding country. Lots of ancient inscriptions on the stone battlements and walls.

Late afternoon we arrived in Mcleodganj, in the area of Dharamsala.  This place is the home of the Dalai Lama and the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile, which explained the completely different cultural atmosphere…seemed we were in Tibet (almost). Wandering the streets were Tibetan monks, and tourists of all nationalities. The town was an interesting mix of the spiritual and touristy. I turned the prayer wheels in the main street, enjoyed a delicious hot Tibetan noodle dish and spent the night in Hotel Natraj, a basic hotel, only 1500 rupees (apprx $30), but adequate. (Most of the town was booked out). Visited the holy temple of the Dalai Lama, a serene space (minus the other tourists!) the next day and on to the Bhagsu waterfall, from a rocky gorge, nearby.  Spectacular scenery with snow capped peaks of the Himalayas in the distance.

 

But my earlier intentions of seeing more of this amazing country were put on ice, as I’d had quite enough of the messy, difficult work situation which had left me and my colleague stressed out, frazzled and devoid of energy. I was eager to escape altogether so departed early April to the UAE where I could meet up with old friends and colleagues.

Will be back to India one day!

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