India was my first international assignment with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) and in my capacity as international officer of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
The experience was quite overwhelming, for several reasons. The first was that this was my initiation to travel to exotic locations. I had traveled to Europe with Carol in 1967 but had done nothing more until this trip. The second was that I had a mission and responsibilities to deliver upon. The third was the nature of India and her people, a nature that I only glimpsed during my short time there and that thoroughly captivated me.
I took along my mini tape recorder, intending to talk into it each evening to record my impressions of each day and its events and people. I did this for a few evenings only and then put the recorder aside. I did not keep a written journal. Checking with CTF just recently to see if there were any records of my visit to India, I was told that everything in archives from 1986 back had been disposed of when CTF moved to their new building.
There are some records of the event in a conference kit that I keep in storage. There are also my pictures, but not negatives, of a lot of the things I saw and did. From these, and from the mini tape recording cassettes I have constructed the first part of this journey. Please enjoy the "trip" so far.
TAJ All India Primary Teachers’ Federation Resource Persons Training Course
New Delhi, India
March 11 – 20, 1986
Tim Johnston, International Officer The Alberta Teachers’ Association
Friday, March 7, 1986
I am about to begin my first overseas experience working with teachers in India through the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF). I had applied to CTF some time ago indicating that I would be interested in taking part in some of the extra programs operated in connection with teacher organizations. CTF had asked for resource people for programs in Katmandu and other exotic locations and I was mesmerized by the possibility of visiting places like that. In addition, I have been the international officer for the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) since my appointment as secretary of the ATA’s CTF committee. In that capacity, I look after sending Alberta teachers on Project Overseas as well as other specific projects, such as the program supporting the strengthening of collective bargaining capacity in the Caribbean area.
And so, CTF asked if I would like to work in India with the All India Primary Teachers’ Federation, a national education organization representing approximately 2 million Indian teachers. I am to travel to India and work with Bob Gordon, recently retired executive secretary of the Manitoba Teachers’ Association.
To get to the Edmonton airport, Rebecca drives me to the MacDonald Hotel downtown so that I can catch the airport bus and save her a rather long trip. She and Kalie drive me and my luggage to the hotel in the big Pontiac station wagon. A quick kiss goodbye to both of them and I’m off to the airport for the first part of my journey, travelling from Edmonton to Toronto on an Air Canada Boeing 767. I have a short wait in Toronto, meet up with Bob, and then we board an Air Canada Lockheed 1011-500 Tristar for the flight to London.
Saturday, March 8
On arrival, we travel into the city, first by bus and then by cab to our hotel, the Stand Palace, near Piccadilly Circus and Lester Square. After check-in, I spend some time walking the area, have dinner with Bob at the hotel and then retire for the evening.
Sunday, March 9
After breakfast this morning, I head to the nearest underground station and ask about the routing to the Royal Air Force Museum just north of London. An operator points out the line I should take (North Line) to reach the museum that was at one time RAF Station Croydon. The tube emerges from underground after several miles and travels through beautiful urban countryside until we reach Collingdale Station. A walk of about three blocks brings me to the gates of the museum, just in the shadow of an RAF Blackburn Beverly transport. The museum is divided into three sections, one being aircraft flown in the Battle of Britain by both the British and the Germans. The main concourse is filled with a wonderful variety of aircraft from the very old (a replica of the Bleriot aircraft that first crossed the English Chanel) to the more recent, including an English Electric Lightning and the first prototype of the Harrier. The bomber section contains wartime English bombers as well as a Vulcan and a Victor, two of the three Cold War “V” bombers, and a Boeing B-17. The only example remaining of the Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber from WW II is on display. This aircraft had been salvaged from the bottom of a Norwegian Lake, having crash-landed there during the war. It was displayed as it had been collected on the lakeshore, as pieces were brought up.
After a pint of bitters and a sandwich, I return on the tube to London, meet up with Bob for a quick ploughman’s lunch in a rather rowdy pub, and then check out of the hotel for our trip to Heathrow.
We board the aircraft at 1800 and sit for an hour until departure at 1900. This is my first flight on a Boeing 747 and this British Airways airplane is a very large one, indeed. I have an aisle seat (for which I will soon be grateful) and we head out on the great circle route non-stop for New Delhi. The flight path takes us over the North Sea, up the Baltic Sea, just south of Moscow and subsequently down over Afghanistan, Pakistan and then to New Delhi. About two hours into the flight, just as dinner is served, I feel vomit coming on. I hand my meal tray to my seat companion, grab the barf bag and head for the nearest washroom. Just outside the door, I deposit neatly into the bag, step into the washroom and have a quick refreshing face wash. Afterward, I return to consume part of my dinner.
As we near India, we fly over the Himalayan Mountains and I stand at one of the passenger doors, staring down through its little window, at the magnificence of that impressive range.
On arrival over New Delhi, the captain announces that the personal jet of the prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, is about to take off. Because of this, our landing will be delayed, as the entire airport is closed until he is airborne. We finally make it down, taxi forever, and then arrive on the tarmac in company with five other 747’s. We unload down a series of stairways and then step onto one of several rickety little busses that take us to the terminal proper. We enter the arrivals terminal, a rather hard used looking quasi-modern structure. The place is hot and dim, a fitting place for a visit with the immigration folk. Methodically, the agents check our landing cards and passports and look us up on computer screens. To process all of us seems to take forever but we eventually clear the area and enter another where Bob and I change British pounds for Indian rupees. This happens at the “branch” of a local bank, a little plywood hut in the middle of the room that is staffed by only one person. Money changing also takes time, with forms to fill, passports to show and finally the handover of the currency to be exchanged. Our next stop is customs, where our luggage will be checked if we have anything to declare. We haven’t and so we proceed directly outside where we are met by Aloysius Mathews, the Asian representative of the World Confederation of Organizations of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP). With Aloysius is Nefe Mann, one of the local representatives of the All India Primary Teachers’ Federation (AIPTF).
The four of us pile luggage into the trunk and onto the roof of a small taxi, one of the ubiquitous old Fiat models manufactured locally by Tata, and start our drive into town. I pay close attention to other vehicles that share the road--high sprung busses and cars that seem to be constructed in the most basic forms, diesel powered and just rickety looking. And the driving! It just seems to be a mad house on wheels. Our trip seems to take forever and the chances our driver takes seem unbelievable to me. He can drive anywhere on the road surface he wishes with almost constant application of the car horn and the gas pedal. The West Edmonton roller coaster has nothing on a drive down Janpath Street in Delhi.
We finally arrive at our hotel and, not sure of what to expect, are very pleasantly surprised. The Hotel Kinishka is a very modern hotel with a rate of about $70 Canadian per night. At the entrance we are greeted by a security officer and doorman dressed in traditional dress. The lobby is open and spacious, two stories high with lots of natural rock, carpeting and beautifully decorated. All amenities are present including a first class restaurant, a tea bar, a lounge and coffee shop and a gift shop. My room is 1212 and Bob is next door to me in 1211. The rooms are similar to those in a Westin Hotel, for example. We have been warned against drinking the water from taps. The hotel brings jars of water to the rooms for drinking and tooth brushing and this is supposed to be safe.
We rest on our own for about six hours and then Aloysius comes for us to take us to dinner. We go to an old colonial hotel, the Claridge, very full of the presence of the one time British masters of the continent where we eat in a lovely traditional Indian restaurant. We start at the bar, where Aloysius buys us a couple of gins and tonics. This drink is looked on here as medicinal, as the quinine in the tonic water counteracts the effects of malaria. So far, I have not seen any mosquitoes and am quite glad of that. We have a delicious meal, return to our hotel and I retired for the night.
Monday, March 10
Today we meet with Mathews and Mann to plot out strategy and timetable the events for the seminar over the next two weeks. This takes most of the morning, after which we all go down for lunch in the Kanishka restaurant. Bob and I also take a time to book our travel by bus to Agra and the Taj Mahal on Sunday. We will be taking Saturday afternoon and Sunday off and this trip is going to be a real highlight of our time here, I’m sure. After booking the Agra trip, we board a local tour bus for a three hour trip around parts of the city. Some of the highlights in Delhi are the shrines to Gandi, Nehru, Indira Gandi, who was assassinated while in office, and her son Sanjay. The thing that impresses me most deeply, after seeing beautiful shrines and palaces, is the extreme poverty that exists here. I understand that compared to Calcutta, for example, the poverty is really on a minor scale. But to my western eyes it is a very great revelation to see such great poverty and such absolute destitution. Driving down a street later in a cab, a little girl comes up to the window, puts her hand to her mouth seeking money. Everywhere I go, I am approached by people and asked for whatever they think I might provide. Westerners are natural targets and are pursued rather diligently unless one simply ignores the pleas, which is what I have tried to do. One exception, however, is a young fellow I encounter at a palace of a long departed Rajah. He decides that he will be my tour guide and he takes me around telling me stories of the entire history of the place. He is only 11 years old and for his efforts, I give him an Alberta pin and five rupees. “Couldn’t you give me ten rupees?” he asks. I encouraged him to think about becoming a teacher.
While approached many times by beggars for help, I never see any of them approach other Indian folk. That is another side of the country one encounters, very wealthy Indian citizens. There is clearly a huge amount of wealth in the country but it seems to be tied up by an elite group of people. If I were not to leave my hotel, I would never see the poverty. The Indian people who come into the hotel are very affluent, well-dressed, healthy looking people. Most of the men carry gold Cross ballpoint pens prominently displayed in their shirt or jacket pocket as signs of position. Outside the hotel, people lie on the streets, sleep in bushes on the verge of roads, wait on little pedal taxis or try to exist in little stands selling the oddest collection of goods and services.
On our city tour, I notice that many merchants in little stalls are organized in a quite orderly fashion. For example, along a stretch of booths, one might find all manner of tools, from pliers to gigantic drill bits. Later along, there will be places that sell only chickens--pens of them and the smell that accompanies them, followed by stalls selling bicycle parts or nuts and bolts.
The traffic here is made up of busses, three wheeled taxis, scooters, cars, trucks and animals. Of automobiles, there appear to be only about three makers and most of the cars are kept in very shiny condition, at least in the city. It is such a different and strange place to me, and yet everything runs, life carries on and progress is being made. New Delhi has modern roads and beautiful landscaping while Old Delhi is pretty rough and poverty is very evident.
Tonight Bob and I have supper together, after our mandatory gin and tonic, and then I phone home to Rebecca, 1800 here and 0600 there. I have finished the day and Rebecca has not yet begun it. So good to hear from home and to almost unconsciously make the comparisons between what I know at home and what I am seeing here in New Delhi. I have such mixed feelings being here, very hard to describe. Tomorrow, the sessions begin in earnest.
Tuesday, March 11
Our first day of sessions went very well. I had an opportunity to sit back and watch how the translation will work. Bob gave a session on association organization and later Aloysius presented on UNESCO/ILO recommendations for education world-wide.
Wednesday, March 12
Today is my day to start the presentations and I use the time to conduct our ATA communications workshop. This was a very interesting experience to go through. Last night, I worried about how many of the ideas in the workshop would find favor with the participants based on how they like to operate in their own environments. I wrote out an introduction and decided to carry on with the straight workshop and adjust it as needed. I worked with the translator Mr Jah, an aptly named individual, and we had a great session with lots of good results. Folks worked in groups on the assignments, reported their results and seemed to enjoy the experience. The first Alberta pins were given out today as a reward for all the good participation during the workshop
I took a walk around the hotel this evening when we returned on my first venture out alone. Bob and I await the arrival of Aloysius who will be leaving for Bangladesh at 0400 tomorrow morning and I want to give him a little going away present from Alberta. When learning of my trip to India, brother Dick loaded me up with all manner of little gifts from Alberta, including books, pins, little pots of honey and other goods.
We are being driven back and forth from the hotel to the centre by a taxi. The driver picks us up each morning and drives us past the beautiful government buildings in the centre of the city including the old Viceroy’s palace, parliament and ministry buildings, most of which are over 100 years old. Cornerstones depict huge elephants and other animals bearing the weight of the structures. Lots of armed soldiers with automatic rifles, sub-machine guns and old fashioned Lee Enfields. All the cabs are black and yellow (all Fiat models made by Tata Automotive) but are individually adorned inside according to the tastes of the drivers. Most are basic rattle traps with bald tires but all of them go like blazes. Roads have lines painted to depict the traffic lanes but nobody bothers with these. The centre line is crossed regularly and the oncoming lane is used to make rapid forward progress. It is an incredible system, scary to the new arrival, but one that works nonetheless.
Our sessions are held in an international youth centre, a very nice building, about four stories tall, with an open courtyard in the middle. The building includes a library, residences and meeting rooms. The open courtyard works well in this climate and allows the free flow of fresh air throughout the buildings many rooms. I have been eating good meals, mainly Indian dishes, except for lunch when, on return to the hotel, I have what is know as a “dopple popple,” consisting of an egg omelet on a sliced bun, and a very large bottle of mineral water. I have breakfast in my room each morning in the company of photographs of all of my children. The first morning, the waiter was delighted to meet each of the kids through these photographs and thought I was a very lucky man to have such a fine, large family of children.
The sessions are full of very interesting folk from very diverse backgrounds but all are teachers. Some appear as though they have just come out of working in a field and all wear costumes traditional to the parts of India they call home. The women in the course are perhaps the most sophisticated. One of them, Sulabha Karkahanis, is from Bombay. She is quite beautiful, fully fluent in English and seems to have the respect of everyone present. Mr Jha is a lot of fun. I asked him today why he takes more time to translate what I say than I take to say it. “I have to put it into context that everyone can understand,” he tells me. He is a very animated speaker and I’m sure a very fine teacher. He also chews beetle nuts throughout the day and so his teeth are often bright red and his breath perfumed by the nuts.
I have been keeping an eye out for gifts for home but haven’t gotten much farther than the hotel gift shop. Sulabha wears different jewelry each day and I greatly admire her taste in such things. She told Bob and me that she will take us shopping and we can be assured of very good prices for whatever we select.
Thursday, March 13
On the agenda for today is a full-day workshop on administration and financing with lots of participation by Aloysius, Bob and the participants. About mid-morning, a man enters our workshop area and all of the participants stand up in silence. Mishra Ji has arrived, the founder of the AIPTF and its spiritual leader even today. He is dressed very simply in the costume of his region and his hair is closely cropped, with just a little ponytail at the nape of his neck. If one saw this man on the street, he would be passed by as just another country fellow. He clearly isn’t. Something then happens that I am completely unprepared for--Sulabha walks around to him from where she is sitting, kneels before him, and kisses his feet. This from a young woman who seems so urbane and “modern day.” Afterward, she told me it was simply a recognition of all the man means to the teaching profession in India and out of respect for all the support he has given her in her career as a leader of the AIPTF.
For the last session of the day, I present on budgeting processes, not the best time of day for such a topic, and I find my compatriots nodding off just a bit as the translation of my remarks go through Mr Jha’s enhancements.
Friday, March 14
Today we work only half of the morning. This morning, Sulabha gives a session on women in education and why women need to be recognized as full partners in the educational and organizational environment. She provides a background sketch on women in her country and how they fit into society. Her presentation is very professional and well done and reflects on her attaining the vice-presidency of the Bombay AIPTF unit. Then Bob and I open the floor to all sorts of questions about CTF, our own teacher organizations, life in Canada, salaries, types of houses, kinds of cars and anything else that whets our participants’ interest. Ministry personnel give a session on government plans for education in the afternoon and Bob and I return to the hotel. I walk around the hotel neighborhood by myself, taking photographs of the hotel setting and the surrounding streets. The hotel is in a very pretty area with wide, tree-lined streets and well kept curbs and sidewalks. I come upon an area where service work is being carried out. There are two men with their wives and two children playing while the dads work at this manual task. There are lots of street vendors selling little things like pens and pencils, offering shoe shines, and one fellow who has a bathroom scale and will let folk weight themselves for a small fee. I meet Bob back at the hotel afterward and we have our usual “medicinal” gin and tonic together.
At 1930, we walk to the Meridian Hotel, about two blocks away, in pitch darkness. The only part of this hotel that is open is the coffee shop and the rest is still under construction. This will be a beautiful structure when finished, full of marble halls, brass and glass. A mosquito passed by during our supper, the only one I’ve seen to date. On the way to the hotel, in the total darkness, Bob nearly became a victim of an open excavation. Quick stepping on his part saved him from what would have been a nasty fall. We just take for granted that such excavations will be well marked and traffic diverted away. Not here. When one is done digging for the day, just walk away and return to the project in the morning. Hopefully no one will be found at the bottom of the hole.
Saturday, March 15
Only half a day of workshop today with Mishra Ji speaking about the history of AIPTF. I follow him giving a presentation on the role of teacher organizations with specific references to collective bargaining, public relations, professional concerns and standards and a bit about the international work of Canada’s provincial teacher organizations. Then it’s off on a shopping and sightseeing tour in the capable hands of Sulabha, Mrs Rajni Bhalla and Mr Hari Vashist. We visit the Nehru Museum, located in Nehru’s former residence, and are delighted with the beautiful gardens all around the building. One of my favorite photographs is taken from the open window of one of the drawing rooms looking out onto the foliage. We then go to a Hindu temple where one is required to leave one’s shoes before entering. This means, of course, paying someone to look after your shoes while you are inside. I skip the visit and just view the area around the entrance. Lots of vendors come by to try to separate me from my meager stash of funds, with little luck on their part. Other places of note on the trip around the town include the Qatar Minar, a huge tower, perhaps 400 feet tall, and the site of the ancient Mogul kings. Near the tower is a tall iron structure that looks like a naval cannon, stuck vertically into the ground. I am directed to step up to the structure with my back to it and then I try to reach around it to touch my hand to each other. If I can do that (and I can) I will have remarkably good luck. We see the funeral pyres of Nehru and his daughter Indira and another temple where we actually go in to have an audience with the holy man. This chap serves as counsel to many of Delhi’s influential folk, Sulabha tells us, and we have a nice visit with him. He dabs us with red powder on our foreheads after our conversation and we take our leave. As mentioned earlier, Sulhaba and Rajni said they would take us shopping for gifts for family back home. After watching them in action on our behalf, I feel the need to apologize to the shop owners of Delhi whom we visited. We were taken to the central Delhi shopping plaza, an intriguing structure that circled down into the ground for perhaps five or six floors. One walks down the spiraling structure and glances into little shops located on both sides of the hallway. It is very crowded and hot but most worthwhile to see. Our ladies told us to go ahead to locate items that we would like to have and then come back to them and point out what we wanted. Then they entered the shops and dealt with the merchants. On watching them in action, it seems the poor vendors are completely at their mercy. Prices are beaten down, items were specially cleaned and polished and then wrapped according to the ladies’ specifications. Great fun to witness and lovely items coming back to Canada. Our hosts then take us for an extended drive around Delhi in Vashti’s van. We see the home of the prime minister and some of the most beautiful homes I have ever seen. In a somewhat rural location, we stop at an area that sells all sorts of food. Cokes are purchased for us and we drink them in the van as we watch the crowds buying food for the day from vendors. Bob and I are somewhat appalled by the number of flies around us and are shown the correct way to down the Coke without having a fly or two drop into the bottle. The lid is popped off and the straw immediately inserted, followed by one’s fist surrounding the top of the bottle with the straw just poking out between the junction of the thumb and the palm. All flavor, no flies!