We unpiled from our luggage-topped car in Moga, stepping around a pile of trash and weaving through a maze of bicycles and into the warm sunlit patio of a school. Between shy giggles, the students presented each of us with single roses wrapped in heavy plastic, the kind you might find on a counter at a gas station.
The Rotary Club in Moga funds the school that these girls attend. Six months ago the students didn’t have desks — they sat on the floor. Now they sit three to a desk that’s meant for two.
I asked to use their washroom, and a young girl, 9 or so, took my hand and guided me up the cement stairs to the teachers’ bathroom.
She was waiting for me when I came out, and although she knew very little English, she knew enough to invite me to her classroom. I walked in with her, my teammates still downstairs, and every single student rose from their seat to greet me. “Good afternoon,” they said, and I wished I could visit a thousand more schools just like this one.
Meet Rani (left) and Sanjiv (right), Faridkot’s finest.
We were two weeks into our GSE and somehow our handful of scheduled days to get some rest had evaporated into places to go and people to see. It was Day 14 and we were tired. Really, really tired. Enter: Sanjiv and Rani, my hosts in Faridkot.
Sanjiv works for the Indian government, co-owns a brick manufacturing business with his brother, and farms about 10 acres of wheat and rice. He went on a GSE to France 10 years ago, so he gets GSE, the going, going, going nature of the program, and how sometimes you just need a break. He definitely delivered.
On our first night at his house he had a few friends and neighbors over and blew our minds when he lit up a BBQ. We had chicken and fish and sat under the stars (we could see them!) and talked for several hours. It felt like a night I’d have at home with friends — change the back yard for my front porch and it would be the very same — and that’s what made it so comfortable.
We visited a local law college the next morning, but managed to get the rest of the afternoon to be unprogrammed. We had a Rotary meeting that night, but a free afternoon meant 7 hours of sweet, sweet freedom. Sanjiv knew that we’d wanted to go shopping for shoes, but rather than loading up into our trusty minivan, he brought the shoes to us.
He called a local shoe shop and asked the owner to bring a variety of shoes to his house. “Not a problem,” he kept saying. So we sat on the lawn and drank bloody marys (with fresh tomato juice, because of course) and twenty minutes later a man appeared with a canvas bag of a few dozen pairs of mens and women’s shoes. If we’re comparing, which we are, I’m pretty sure that Papa John’s can’t even get me a pepperoni pizza that fast.
I bought four pairs, and when Sanjiv was done negotiating I paid a grand total of $23. Twenty-three dollars.
I was also able to convince his wife, Rani (pronounced like “Ronny,” and his nickname for her — it means “queen”), that all I wanted for breakfast was fruit, toast, and coffee. Indians eat heavy, buttery, fried breakfasts, and for a girl like me who eats fruit or nothing at all for breakfast, that was a shock to my system.
So it took two weeks, but I finally got exactly what I wanted. Well, Rani threw me a curve ball with the fresh-squeezed orange juice, but it was a welcome one.
Pomegranate. Kiwi. Grapes. Watermelon. Strawberries. Melon with no English name. What you can’t see are my tears of happiness. Oh, and homemade butter for the toast. Rani, you good woman, you.
Sanjiv and his across-the-street neighbor, Sonu, planned a “small breakfast get-together” for us for our final morning in Faridkot.
By small, of course I mean that it was catered, had draping linens, heavily armed police for the government officials who were there, and flower arrangements. Small.
And finally, Remki.
Every home I’ve stayed in in India has servants. Two weeks in and I’m not used to saying “servant” — let alone having them. They’re paid a daily wage and live with the families that they work for. This is so foreign to me that my first night with a host family, confused enough already because of their joined-family structure (adult sons, their spouses, and their children all live with their parents), that I had no idea who was a daughter-in-law and who was domestic help.
I’ve not been in a home that didn’t have at least one, and but others have many, many more. Drivers, cooks, maids. I’ve cringed more than once hearing the way some people speak to them, but I noticed immediately that Sanjiv and Rani treated the Remki and the two other people in their home with a lot of respect. Their work was dignified. No honking, no snapping, no degrading.
Remki (that cute girl in the pink shirt up there), has a smile that’s bright like fire. Most Indians don’t smile in photos, so I had to pry that half-smile out of her for the camera. Just trust me when I say it’s a smile so full of life that if you’d seen it once, you’d never forget it.
We visited the 5th largest wetland in Asia, Harike, where two of the five rivers of Punjab, the Beas and the Sutlej, meet. Punjab, I learned, means “five rivers.”
We did go on a boat ride, but was it in one of these? You decide.
I can’t say that it was terribly beautiful, but it was the cleanest and quietest place I’ve seen outdoors in India. The silence did us all some good.
After the river cruise, we took off for the India-Pakistan border, or the “Indo-Pak” border. Before leaving for our trip, I thought the closest we’d get to Pakistan was within about 10 miles, in one of the cities that we’re staying in. Wrong. Try a foot or two.
I’m in India. The other side of that line is Pakistan. The gate directly behind me is the entrance to the country, the men in black are Pakistani military.
I’ve officially been an inch away from Pakistan. The Indo-Pak border retreat happens daily at sunset, and the ceremony is a must-see if you ever visit northern India. We walked up to a full amphitheater (late, as we always are), and before we could see anything, heard the roars of the Indian and Pakistani crowds.
Front row seats.
This space is divided down the middle, Indians on one side, Pakistanis on the other. The border closes each day with this decades-old intense and perfectly choreographed ceremony. I have never had an army boot so close to my face, nor have I ever seen a man high kick quite so high.
The pomp and circumstance, the aggression in the soldiers’ eyes, the raw patriotism on each side. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve seen in my life.
Crossing to one another’s sides to race the flags down.
We had front-row seats, and our timing was interesting. One day earlier, Afzal Guru, a man from Kashmir who on Saturday, February 9th, the day before our visit, had been hung in an Indian jail for a 2001 attack on Indian parliament.
We were supposed to go horseback riding before the border retreat, but the horses had all been sent to the border for extra patrol – concerns over retaliatory attacks. Delhi, where he was hung, was under tighter security than normal, and from what I’ve read, information about the hanging has been made scarce in the Pakistan-occupied region of Kashmir, where newspapers have been under a gag order and aren’t printing.
We knew that the Rotarians wouldn’t put us in any kind of danger, but it was certainly in the back of our minds. We were definitely yelled at and pointed out, and one of our hosts joked that the Pakistanis who were there must have been angry to see a group of Americans sitting on the Indian side, cheering for the Indian soldiers. The news insisted all was normal at the border.
This isn’t my video, but watch it to get an idea of what this experience is like:
No stone faces here. I accidentally bumped the soldier behind me, turned around to apologize, then realized just who I’d hit, so I apologized even more. Somehow I managed to bump him AGAIN, which lead to further apology. He just laughed at me.
We all joked about putting a foot into Pakistan, but even getting my hand close to the dividing line earned me a sharp yank back by the wife of one of the Rotarians. No jokes about going into Pakistan, and definitely no putting a hand into Pakistan. (I would’ve settled for a stamp in my passport, but no.)
Megan did get this text from Verizon, though, and I was a little jealous.
Our drive back to our hosts’ town for dinner left us all pretty tired, but more than that, it was the two-weeks-in-a-brand-new-country-without-a-day-off that had left us all run down, and at least one of us pretty sick.
Our dinner hosts asked us if we’d like to rest, and before we could politely refuse, someone agreed it was best for us to take a nap. Kate, the lucky teammate, got her own bed, while the other four of us collapsed on a bed in another room. One of us snores, one of us does yoga breathing in our sleep, and one of us drools. If you know any of us, I’ll let you try to work that puzzle out. It was completely ridiculous, but that nap may end up as one of my favorite team memories from the trip.
At a temple in the morning, we passed by this bride and her new husband. Her stone-face was for her photographer, and a tiny smile turned up on her face when she saw the fascinated Americans. The money being dropped into her lap by friends and family was new to me, but Indian weddings have so many ceremonies that it didn’t totally surprise me, either. (Looks like less work than a money dance, so sign me up, I say.)
Also, buckling shoes is hard work:
I’ve got to tell you about our Monday Funday (we finally got a break). We arrived in Moga today (Tuesday) and we’ll be here for three days. So happy to have the internet again!
We left for Faridkot, but not without stopping at one last Patiala temple.
Yes, we took a selfie in a temple.
The drive into this temple was the first time I can remember feeling mildly unsafe in India. Our car turned down a narrow road that was lined on each side by street vendors and entirely too many people. We inched through the crowd, people touching the sides of the car and the windows, and it didn’t take long before I felt like the doors were about to be opened. I slid my hand over the lock and pushed it down.
As soon as we stepped out of the car there was a group of kids, shoeless and open-handed, asking for money. The poverty here is overwhelming, so much so that I’m still not sure how to capture it with words. The kids were shooed away by a man who spoke no English, but took it upon himself to watch over us (figuring he’d profit, I’m sure). He helped our drivers rearrange luggage, found bags for us to put our temple freebies in, and kept the children at bay. I pressed a 100 rupee note (a third of the average person’s daily income, for perspective) into his hand as we left – the best $2 I’ve spent in a while.
Everything about the place was chaotic, even inside the temple, and everything about it made me uneasy. Settling into our car, just us five (and our driver), flipping the AC on and getting on the road to Faridkot felt really, really good.
We travel pretty comfortably around town, typically with several cars. When we’re traveling as a team to a new city, things can get a little cramped. Five big suitcases (which grow at every stop because Punjabis love to give gifts), five carry-ons, five (usually tired) people, one driver, and one minivan.
Too many bags. Lots of flowers. Faces smashed into pillows. Life on the road in India.
We were welcomed to Faridkot at Oxbridge School in what was our most beautiful greeting yet. We pulled up to the gate of the school and were met by at least a dozen teenage girls dressed in bright Punjabi suits and holding a hand-embroidered tapestry in the air like a tent. We filed under it, the five of us, and we walked the long road up to the school steps as they sung and tossed marigold petals on us.
I scrambled for my phone and recorded as much of it as I could. It was really pretty magical. We headed straight to their big lawn and the students performed dances for us, pulling us up out of our seats and onto the lawn with them.
Our first night in Faridkot was close to perfect. It’s smaller town than we’ve been in (just 80,000 people), and I found myself in a gorgeous, sprawling home. We barbequed for dinner, talked on the lawn for hours, and it was the most at home I’ve felt since being in India.
Were you doing a wifi dance for me? Because the Gods of the Internet were listening and my new home in Moga has wifi. I may have jumped for joy when I found out. Maybe. OK, I did. Here are some musings on our last full day in Patiala and our amazing time in Faridkot. Hopefully I’ll be able to upload more video for you.
We had our last full day in Patiala. I’ll tell you about in photos:
Remember the story of the pitcher and the crow?
We visited Yadavindra Public School (YPS), a well-known and very old private school (despite “public” being in its name, which is deceiving). From what I could tell, it’s the Casady School of Punjab.
Students may attend school here for 13 years – from kindergarten through grade 12 – and come from all over the country and even world. We met two girls who were finishing their 10th grade year, one from Canada and the other from Botswana. Their parents, Indians, had sent them to YPS to immerse them in their culture. The Canadian girl was particularly hilarious, thrilled to see Americans (“people like me,” she explained). She had spent 8th – 10th grades at YPS and was headed home to finish high school. She confided that she was terrified of high school and was worried that she’d be made fun of for her race at home in Canada. I told her not to believe what she read on the Internet about high school and that she’d be just fine. Don’t disappoint me, Toronto.
The school has assets that total more than a billion U.S. dollars. The facilities were impressive, and the dance class that we stumbled upon made one thing clear: the reason Indians can dance so well is that they start when they’re abut 5 years old. (Same for Spain, where my attempts at learning to Salsa fell as flat as my attempts at learning any kind of Punjabi dancing.)
We took a quick look at the home (OK, palace) of the former King of Patiala.
We only saw a few snippets, and the ivory carving was the most captivating for me. I’d never seen a full tusk. I can only imagine the value of a piece like this. I probably don’t want to know, actually.
Also, these paintings? Yeah, they’re not paintings. They’re embroidery. I considered stealing one to enter in the State Fair (hello, first place!) … but arrest and time in an India jail seemed … unappealing.
We had one last Patiala Rotary meeting, and the highlight was the cutest 8-year-old girl in the world, Mehreen.
She quizzed me all night in her perfect English on topics from favorite colors to whether or not I believed in ghosts to words I knew in Hindi. Her shoes, she told me proudly, were from America. (Bedazzled and lit up, of course.)
I promised her that we’d be pen pals. I’ll be pretty heartbroken if she doesn’t write back.
After a week and a half, I was finally in a home where I could upload video. I realized (too little, too late) that the video I have of driving isn’t a very good example of the total insanity that is driving in India. If you can get behind the wheel in India and not die (for any amount of time/distance), I’m convinced that you can drive anywhere in the world.
I’ll get some better video of driving, but for now, here’s a look from the passenger seat at Agra. The first is a fairly good representation of an average street in a smaller Indian city. Dirt, trash, street vendors, smog, stray dogs, children all over the place, and lots of color.
From what I understand, most homes like these are built on government land by people who are squatters, more or less. I noticed similar shanty-like homes today while in Patiala that were dotted with satellite dishes. Seemed odd.
Day 10! We’re just about caught up. That’s kind of relieving.
Flowers are big business here in Punjab. I think you could live QUITE happily as a wedding florist, in case you’re considering a move to India but don’t know what you might want to do.
When we landed at the airport in Delhi, we were greeted with marigolds and an enormous bouquet of roses and daisies. I thought it was a one-time thing, and even saved my marigolds because of it. HOW WRONG WAS I.
Sarah and I, all decked out. It’s a sign of humility to remove these almost immediately after they’re placed around your neck, but I really like wearing them. They smell good! And who said I was humble anyway?
It’s a week and a half into the trip, and here’s my personal flower tally:
Bouquets of roses: 3
Marigold necklaces: 11
Bouquets of gladiolas: 3
We just had to see where all of these pretty petals were coming from.
Greenhouses of red, white, orange, and yellow roses were on this one farm. The smell was pretty incredible.
If we’re getting choosey, I prefer peonies and tulips, but I can’t complain about roses and gladiolas.
Unlike the roses, marigolds are grown outside. I had every intention of running into that field and rolling around in them, but it was a big huge mud pit after the last two days of rain. If only I hadn’t left my galoshes at home.
We had tea with the growers (as per the usual), and played a traditional Punjabi flower balancing game.
OK, that’s a lie. It’s just a game Megan and Joe made up. But maybe the Punjabis will adopt it.
Shortly before Megan picked all of the petals out. Fun-hater.
It was a lovely, lovely day.
I got to use my Angry American Lady voice at a shop in Patiala. The Rotarians pay for our meals when we eat out, but we ventured into a shop for a snack, and without thinking, I pulled out my wallet. I picked up some almonds, and the cashier tried to shortchange me by 500 rupees.
“I gave you a thousand,” I said, after I counted the stack of bills he’d handed to me.
“Five hundred,” he countered.
“I gave you a thousand.”
“No. I gave you a thousand.”
He untwisted a 500 rupee note from his hand and pushed it across the counter, and that was that.