A few days ago I was at Trichy, a city about 350 km from Bangalore. One of the places I visited was the Rock Temple. The Ganesha temple stands on a rock that is 3.6 billion years old! This is considered one of the oldest exposed rocks in the world and belongs to Earth’s infancy, the Hadean eon. It’s only a few million years younger than the world’s oldest exposed rocks that are in Australia and Canada apparently, and a lot older than the sedimentary rocks of the Grand Canyon.
As I stood outside the temple at the top I felt the ancientness of India in my soul. Looking down at the town spread out below me I was overcome by the sense of transience that assails me now and then. The spot where Trichy lies has been inhabited for hundreds of years; there are references to its existence in records from 2nd century BCE. A lot is known about Trichy from the 5th century CE, when it was ruled by a string of kings from different dynasties. But two thousand years is actually not a very long time.
When you come down to it, India is just a 100 km thick layer of crust-and-mantle floating on the Earth’s surface. It’s called the Indian plate and is half the thickness of the more robust China plate. Underneath it is viscous gunk that can liquefy anytime and send the Indian plate sliding under China! Geologists say our little chip rifted from Africa about 55 million years ago and was rapidly scooted northwards by mantle plumes deep under the ocean till it rammed into China, partially slid under China, and created the Himalayas.
The Indian tectonic plate doesn’t have deep lithospheric roots unlike the China plate. I imagine India spinning its wheels trying to find purchase, pressed against China by subterranean forces. On the surface of the earth India and China squabble over tiny bits of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. They are forced to diplomatically make the relationship work like two fifth-graders punished with detention for fighting over a desk to sit at. One day the whole of India could suddenly slide, i.e. subduct, under China and cease to exist! This is probably the wrong lens through which I should view international relations, but when I hear the things people running the world say, I wonder if the economics of oil and weapon sales is the only lens that is approved.
Knowing that I live on this fragile little piece of the earth’s crust gives me a sense of impermanence regarding our continents with their tidily drawn lines that separate countries into independent entities, each with its own government, people and culture. We confidently declare there are 195 countries. We live like it was this way since the beginning of time. And we make nukes to ‘protect’ ourselves from our bogeymen countries, when the odds are already stacked against our little Lilliputian race of Homo sapiens.
It took four eons to reach where we have. One eon is about a billion years. Should any of us even consider damaging the one and only beautiful, fragile blue-and-green marble we call home? Imagine if we could think of ourselves as Gondwanites, Laurentians or, even better, Pangaeans with no borders, or even merely earthlings!
I was taking a picture of this cloud standing at the riverfront in Phnom Penh last month.
In the next nanosecond there was lightning inside the cloud and I just clicked again, without really thinking, and captured this! I have spent hours – even in the days of film cameras – trying to capture lightning. So getting this fluke shot was a big thrill. Some day I hope to catch a lightning bolt on camera, but for now this is enough to make me happy!
A friend commented that there’s a little bear-face at the base of the cloud. Looks like a cuddly little kitten to me!
This is not a side of Cambodia that we expected to see when we planned this vacation. A congregation of kids worshiping at the altar of STEM!
We were sitting in a gazebo in a park in Phnom Penh. There was a large crowd of teenagers gathered for a ‘STEM festival’ near by. Two kids came in and asked if they could use the table to eat their lunch and we got into a conversation. They were eleventh graders from a distant province. Their school had arranged transport and lunch for them to attend the event. They were looking at going to college in either New Zealand or Japan. “Not the US?” we asked, as that’s where most Indian kids want to go. They shook their heads and smiled.
By the way, the boy’s name was Makaran and it means January in Khmer, which is what it means in Indian languages too. Makara is the zodiac sign of Capricorn.
We knew that the Education system in Cambodia had been completely destroyed in the seventies by the Khmer Rouge, so this revival was obviously a very good thing. Everywhere, even in the small towns we passed through on our 6-hour bus journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we saw a steady stream of children in neatly pressed uniforms winding their way to school. Right now, there are hundreds of kids working in the tourism industry apparently selling souvenirs. But the sheer number of seedy massage parlours in tourist areas like the riverfront, with very young girls hanging around outside, hint at child sexual abuse, with tourists actively involved. Education is the only way out.
A whole generation grew up with no exposure to the arts through the seventies and the eighties because of the Khmer Rouge. Artists and performers from the pre-Khmer Rouge era have kept their art forms alive and are teaching the younger generations what Khmer culture and Khmer glory are about. We saw a beautiful dance performance presented by Cambodian Living Arts at the National Museum one evening.
The churning of the ocean of milk is a story called Samudra manthan in Hindu mythology that explains how Amrita, the nectar of immortality, was made. Apsaras are celestial maidens in Hindu mythology, and Mani Mekalai is a Tamil epic poem from South India that was written around the 6th century CE.
Though we didn’t initially know it, we happened to be at Siem Reap during one of their most important festivals, the Water Festival, when the annual boat races are held on the Siem Reap river. We were lucky to get an unobstructed view as a friendly organiser gave us ringside seats next to a group of monks!
The entire town of Siem Reap seemed to have lined up along the river’s banks, eagerly awaiting the races.
Those not at the races were gathered in small groups having picnics all along the length of the river.
In the evening religious rituals were performed and flowers and lighted candles were floated down the river by hundreds of people, a little like Ganga Arti in India. The whole city was partying!
The legend of the water festival is actually a geographical fact: when the Mekong river is in spate water backs up into the Tonlé Sap river, fills the Tonlé Sap lake, and backs up into the little Siem Reap river which therefore floods its banks. The ebbing of the water is what is celebrated.
This is the reason why homes are built on stilts in regions along the river. This is also why floating villages exist.
Dawn at Angkor Wat is as beautiful as the brochures say.
This was my blue-and-silver sunrise, shared with a couple of hundred other folks that morning.
Angkor Wat is a vast ruin. It’s the largest religious complex ever built in the world. Walking past ancient sculptures under a bright blue sky and a blazing sun, a magical vibe in the air, you feel transported to a distant time in the past, making the trudge through rubble and up and down uneven stone steps worthwhile.
There’s a comfortable sense of familiarity in Angkor Wat’s layout and architecture for an Indian like me. It’s a mandala, or a microcosm of the universe.
The central shikhara represents Mt Meru, the mythical abode of the gods; you pass through five doorways in five walls to reach the centre. Each wall and space symbolizes a step in the spiritual journey of man until he reaches the garbagriha, where the deity embodying the Universal Principle, or God, resides. The moat surrounding the temple complex stands for the ocean that surrounds the land, the flat earth with an edge, as people imagined it those days.
First Hinduism, then Buddhism, came to Cambodia from India in the late BCEs and early CEs. Funnily, Hindu gods who came before Buddha are now viewed affectionately as remote ancestors: Ta Prohm = Ancestor Brahma, Ta Reach = Ancestor Vishnu. Ta means grandfather. They are still worshipped, as is Ganesha, something we were surprised to discover. Hindu beliefs have been absorbed into a seamlessly syncretic Buddhism rather than ridiculed and rejected without comprehension, the way recent converts from Hinduism to other religions do today in India.
A dwarpalak, or guard, stands on either side of the first doorway. All dwarpalaks at these temples have been beheaded over the past few centuries, like most of the statues of deities and divinities. The heads are now probably displayed in museums around the world. Fortunately, many of them are housed in the Angkor museum, safe from vandals and smugglers. Angkor artifacts command a high price in the black market dealing in stolen antiques.
There are scores of empty yonis from which Shivalingas have been gouged out, possibly by the Vietnamese or the Chams long ago. Or even the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
Or maybe they were removed when the temples were repurposed for Buddhist worship in the 15th century. Historically it is common for people to remove deities of another religion and replace them with their own deities: the Hagia Sofia mosque in Istanbul was once a church, Spanish conquerors replaced the temples of Inti the Sun-god of the Incas in Peru with churches, etc. Traditionally, Hindu temples are built from scratch on carefully chosen plots of land following rules of vaasthu shastra and shilpa shastra, so any available building cannot be turned into a temple. It has to be on land where there has been no strife or bloodshed so there’s sanctity to begin with. Anyway, the guides at Angkor were unable to tell me what happened to the shivalingas, though one did mention that they were in the government’s safekeeping.
One day we visited one of the Killing Fields of Pol Pot at Choeung Ek, a most unhappy experience. There was a monument housing all the bones that had been unearthed from the mass graves after the Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1979. There were piles of victims’ clothes that had apparently floated up to the surface of the shallow graves after heavy rains turned the area into slush.
The tree against which the heads of babies belonging to ‘arrested’ people were smashed was covered in little offerings left by visitors. I felt terrible and I could see that most people standing there were feeling awful too.
In the museum there are many, many photographs of victims, and well-made charts telling the story of what happened in those awful years between 1975-1979. A couple of rooms in the museum are dedicated to information about the people responsible for the genocide. There’s a large photo of Kaing Guek Eav, the commandant of the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison in Phnom Penh, wearing a smart white Polo shirt, no obvious remorse on his face after being responsible for the death of nearly 10,000 innocents. In fact, he has actually said in court that he ought to be acquitted because he was only following orders! He is still alive, in jail.
The most shocking part of the story is that he worked as a mathematics teacher for twenty whole years, undetected, until a journalist exposed him. And the other thing that I find amazing is that he converted to Christianity after all this! An avowed communist who killed thousands for his atheistic cause, now seeking absolution through religion!
Another sad aspect of this saga is that the international community could have saved more than a million lives if only Gunnar Bergström of Sweden had not accepted Pol Pot’s invitation to check out the refugees’ claims of starvation, torture and massacre for himself, then got taken in by the Potemkin village scenario that was set up for his benefit. So, unfortunately, the message he carried to the western world favoured the Khmer Rouge. In 2016 Bergström said that it was the geopolitics being played out between China, the US and Russia at the time that resulted in the Cambodian genocide. The usual explanation, like how one explains the destruction of Yemen, or the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi nowadays. We never learn in spite of all the wars and genocides that have happened.
On our way back from the Killing Fields we stopped at Tuol Sleng (S-21) to see the school that had been used to imprison, interrogate and brutally torture victims before they were dispatched to the killing field in Choeung Ek. The metal cots, the torture paraphernalia, the barbed wires strung across the building’s façade to prevent desperate people from committing suicide by jumping off higher floors, single cells, dried blood stains and actual photographs of people being tortured have been preserved almost in the condition in which they were found in 1979. The blackboards in the classrooms are a poignant reminder that this was once an ordinary little school. Looking down from an upper storey I could imagine the excited shrieks of children running around during lunch break.
As we were leaving Tuol Sleng we passed a very old man sitting at a table signing books. He is one of the only seven survivors from Tuol Sleng. His name is Bou Meng. He says he was treated a little better after his tormentors came to know that he was an artist and could keep painting portraits of Pol Pot for them. We bought a book and he autographed it for us.
One morning we set out for Preah Khan, another part of the Angkor Wat complex. Just outside the archway leading to it we got out of the tuk-tuk to admire a very tall white tree. Its common name in Khmer was painted on a small board at its base. It was a Spung tree.
I was very surprised to find that the shape of the letter ‘sa’ in Khmer was similar to ‘sa’ in Kannada, my state language. I asked our tuk-tuk driver Chanda (chanda means light in Khmer, moon in many Indian languages) if he could recite the Khmer alphabet for me. Again I was surprised that it was like the alphabet of almost all Indian languages, from J&K to Kerala, from Gujarat to Bengal (excluding the northeastern states)! Our consonants go like this: ka-kha-ga-gha-nga, ch-chha-ja-jha-nja, etc. Khmer goes ka-kha-ko-kho-ngo, cha-chha-cho-chho-nho. Looking it up on the net I found a resemblance between the kannada ‘ga’, ‘ya’ and ‘ja’ and the corresponding consonants in Khmer in the written form.
At the museum in Phnom Penh there was a whole section devoted to stone inscriptions.
The Khmer script has apparently evolved from both Sanskrit and ‘South Indian’. For example, there’s a stone slab with the first two lines in Sanskrit and the next six in Khmer . . .
I fancied I could read this word in Khmer as sha-ta . . . ha-na in Kannada. Could it be shatavahana? That was one of the dynasties that was in power in South India from 1 BCE to 2CE . . . Was the next word sin-ha-la, the old name for Sri Lanka? I’m very likely totally, totally wrong but those moments of speculation were exciting . . . The Khmer script has gone through 9-10 iterations over the past 10-12 centuries, and the ancient Kannada script is so different from the current one that I can’t read it at all, so I can’t tell if they did resemble once upon a time. So, even if there had been a likeness a thousand years back, they diverged long ago. Chaos Theory applies I guess.
However, this inscription says Aum jaiminiya swaha, a Hindu mantra. I can read the ‘jai‘ and the ‘swaha‘ here – in Kannada! Swaha is the last word in every mantra recited by pandits while performing a homa, or havan, a ritual involving fire offerings to Agni the fire-god. Swaha is the name of Agni’s consort. The same rituals were observed in Cambodia as they were in India, so far away, at one time in history! And in the same language – Sanskrit. I was overwhelmed.
A single idea can change when it is processed by another mind. Like when I use any of my mother’s recipes the dish turns out slightly different than hers, and other versions result when my sisters cook the same dish using the same recipe. So I marvel at the fact that such a massive bunch of Indian notions and beliefs were shared with a large, distant population, propagated almost intact for many centuries, modified in an organic way rather than by design, and they still remain recognizable. For example, they have a version of the Ramayana, called Reamker, in which all the names are distorted but recognizable from the context because the story remains quite faithful to the original. The names of Bharat and Shatrughn carry a hint of their original names, but those of Luv-Kush, Rama’s twin sons, not at all.
And the transfer of all this information was done without indoctrination, coercion or bloodshed. When another set of ideas and beliefs – Buddhism – arrived from India, the Khmer people liked them more. So they began to follow Buddha’s teachings, retaining some of the old Hindu beliefs and their own animistic ones, while also allowing room for the Chinese in their midst to indulge their rituals and religious beliefs (pics below). At least, this is the impression we got from what we saw and what we managed to glean from the language-challenged conversations we had with Cambodians we met.
We found the Cambodians to be peaceful and patient people except for one young tuk-tuk driver, Dara, who lost his temper because we stopped to drink coconut water too many times, when all he wanted was to ride his tuk-tuk non-stop at breakneck speed. He glared at us and shouted “Youuuuuuuuu . . . youuuu . . . stop-stop-stop-stop-stop . . . WRONGGG!” and threatened to offload us on the highway!
I can’t do justice to Cambodia in one blog post – there’s street food, clothes, Pub Street, lotuses, the markets, silk weaving, modern monuments, the riverfront, cute little babies, tree roots reclaiming land from old monuments, the longest boat in the world, loads of Apsara dance poses, lush green rice paddies, the bus trip to Phnom Penh, remains of French colonial architecture, Khmer script written by our tut-tuk driver, a young couple on a pre-wedding shoot (saw quite a few – it’s a trend now), Buddhas, homes on stilts, and the bane of cities everywhere – ugly black wires marring the beauty of the city . . . and lots more . . . So, here’s a slide show. . .
While hunting for a book in my bookcase I came across the souvenir they gave us on the 50th anniversary of my alma mater, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore.
Looking at old B&W photographs of students that have passed through its portals always makes me feel weird, like it wasn’t me at all who knew many of those people, and worked and lived on that campus. Time and space play tricks then, just for a few seconds, and I feel suspended far above the earth, floating in a timeless space, looking down at my life, belonging to neither then nor now.
Academically they were my best years: great faculty, smart classmates, interesting classes and discussions, and wards full of patients to learn from. More than that, NIMHANS is where I found a purpose for my life. While Medicine is about human anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and histology, and how to manage whatever goes wrong with them, Psychiatry is wider and deeper. It considers the ills that can afflict the human body, but goes beyond that to include the mind, soul and milieu.
I grew up with the notion that life is essentially meaningless and we each imbue it with our own special make-believe meaning. When I was four or five, my grandmother, the earliest influence in my life, said that being a good girl and doing good to others was the only way to make sense of life, to build good karma, to be born into an even better life in the next birth, and finally achieve moksh from the cycle of birth and death.
I guess this belief in good karma, deeply ingrained in childhood, led me towards Medicine more than any great interest in the science of curing illnesses and saving lives, however selfish and idiotic that might sound now. Nor did I have a clue that ‘good’ was a word loaded with ambiguity.
For all that, the even stronger belief that there was no real meaning – apart from what I gave to Life – continued to lurk in the background and intrude into the spaces between academics, friends and the myriad experiences and insights that make up the typical exciting medical college life. I often felt as if this existential quicksand was the matrix of my mind, and inconsequential things like classes, exams and people flitted over its surface, impinging too briefly and too lightly to have enough of an effect. Of course, this was much before I came across Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the weight of eternal return, and later, Milan Kundera’s concept of the lightness of being. A disadvantage of the lack of a liberal arts education I guess.
In the first few months of college, cadaver dissection was a big trigger. The same body was fished out of the formalin tank every day and laid on our dissection table. The formalin would roll down his temples from his eyes, like tears. Why was this body on a dissection table and not cremated with holy rites? Then, second year onwards, the constant contact with death and disease, and the metaphysical questions they raised. These sorts of thoughts, attached to strong emotions, are only there in adolescence when there’s a laser-like clarity that gets blunted as you enter adulthood and become mature and pragmatic to fit into the many roles you have to play, the way presidents are expected to be presidential, and monarchs, royal.
But now, to my own surprise, I don’t find the lightness of being unbearable anymore. It is acceptable, even liberating. When I experienced burnout three years ago I thought there would eventually be a sense of loss, or even depression, once the absence of feeling was replaced by some sort of emotion. But that hasn’t happened. It no longer matters if this is the only life there is; there’s nothing more I can think of doing with it, though I’m open to new experiences like my recent voyage from Kuwait to South Korea. This is actually a good place to be.
The idea of Samsara, planted by my grandmother and further strengthened by reading Vivekananda as a young adult, doesn’t seem such a heavy burden either, mostly because there’s nothing I can do about it; one day I appeared on Earth, one day I’ll leave and, perhaps, take birth again. These are the decades allotted to me at one point in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history to assume the gravitas for the work I have to do, to grow as a person, and be there for the people in my life, always being aware that I am only playing the roles assigned to me in this life time.
I could hear someone talking loudly when I neared the little fitness park at the lake this morning. It sounded like a speech. No, it was more like a sermon. People were exercising on the machines as usual. Nobody seemed to be paying attention to the man. In fact, it looked like they were avoiding eye contact with him. He went on, nevertheless. As I got on the cardio-walker to get the morning stiffness out of my legs, I tried to figure out what was happening here.
He was saying he loved to hang out at this lake whenever he came to Bangalore from Delhi, his hometown. He told us we were lucky to have the famous Bangalore climate. True, it was a beautiful June day. Then he began talking about yoga. I zoned out for a bit. When I got back to listening he had moved on to how Indians should not be divided on the basis of religion because all religions are routes to one god and all religions are about being good human beings…
He spoke in Hindi to an almost exclusively Tamilian audience, most of whom neither know Hindi nor wish to learn it! At least, that’s the impression given to the rest of India by Tamil Nadu politicians. Luckily for him, though, most Bangaloreans know some Hindi. He ended his talk with an extra-loud “Bharat mata ki…” and waited for the crowd to respond exuberantly with a “Jai!” The exercising people gazed at him in bewilderment. He smilingly cajoled his listeners into shouting “Jai!” Finally, people smiled tentatively and shouted “Jai!” after him three times as going along with him was the easier way for a bunch of sleepy people at that early hour.
A man slowly got off his machine and ambled over to the preacher. He asked in very basic Hindi, “Do you think there is a god?”
The preacher answered with a smile: “I don’t know.”
“Then why are you talking about him?” There was an edge to his voice.
People stiffened and looked warily at each other.
The preacher kept his smile in place and said, “See, we are having a discussion, we are not going to get angry.”
The man backed off a little, then muttered, “We are always being told to pray to god, to not fight. So when the rest of the world keeps progressing, we keep praying, nothing else…”
He walked off to another machine. After a while he called out to the preacher, “What happens to people when they die?”
The preacher again said “I don’t know” in his mild tone.
“Oh, shouldn’t people know where they are going when they die? You should…” He slid off his machine and bore down on the preacher.
One youngster, apparently anxious to head him off from an aggressive confrontation, called out to the man in a neutral conversational tone, “Why don’t you read some books and find out? Don’t you read?” I expected him to round on the kid but he shook his head and said “No”. He slowly looked around at all the people watching him. He seemed to be in a daze, as if he had just come out of a trance and realised what he was doing. Then he turned on his heel and walked away.
Meanwhile, the preacher had started singing a song in Hindi. The lyrics were on the same lines: Indians are one people, all religions lead to one god, all religions try to make their followers into good people. He was on his own trip in a happy place inside his head, where subtexts and undercurrents didn’t exist.
I left the fitness park and continued down the path to finish my walk. When I passed that point again on my way back he was still singing, and people seemed to have accepted him as a part of their lives for one morning.
Meanwhile, I thought about the other man’s questions. He was obviously fed up with god and didn’t have the patience for platitudes early on a weekday morning. But the preacher was evidently in the middle of a peak experience and had a strong urge to share it with the rest of humanity, and he happened to pick our quiet fitness park for sharing his joy and goodwill!
The paths of people unknown to each other crossing like this, unexpectedly, to create uncomfortable situations, is the stuff of sitcoms, not of an early morning walk in the park. As I walked towards my car, the moment when the man’s face registered annoyance at the preacher’s “I don’t know” stayed stuck in my mind, with the rest of us frozen in our places like a tableau on a stage.
It was lovely being back on a nice big ship again after sixteen years.
My husband’s a captain on a VLCC, or very large crude carrier. It measures 330m x 60m. That’s thrice the length of a 100m sprint track and maybe as big as one of those islands that mysteriously spring up in the South China Sea overnight!
Here are pictures of the anchor chain, and the spare anchor stored on the main deck. The accommodation is about 200m in the distance.
I had no access to WordPress during my month-long stay aboard. But, seriously, I had nothing to write about because I mostly write when I’m riled up. I read, watched movies and enjoyed the company of the other people on board. The food was great and the best part is that I didn’t have to cook it myself!
The deck officers and engineers were from different countries and the crew, including kitchen staff, was Filipino. Diversity of this sort makes for interesting conversations. I love how my mind stops being preoccupied with my usual worries and frees up space for all the new information that is invariably shared, mostly at the dinner table, when everyone gathers together after work.
Igor, the chief mate, is from Dubrovnik in Croatia. Apart from the well-known collective headache caused to the people of Dubrovnik by tourists after GoT was shot there, life in his city is good. The Croatians I sailed with in 1990 had been a worried lot as Yugoslavia was in the middle of a bloody civil war at the time and was breaking up into many small states, one of them being Croatia. Igor happily told me all about his wife, kids, parents – and even in-laws! – and I got to see snaps of all of them. What a lovely, doting husband and father, and what an adorable pair of tiny twin girls!
Ante, the third mate, is from Split, Croatia. He was reserved, but as we were often the only two people having lunch in the saloon at noon he would talk to me. He told me he had worked on cruise ships before switching to tankers. Really? Did he have to talk to passengers? He answered in his characteristic grumpy style, in that European accent that sounds so innocent and childlike: “Buth I usually avoidh them. They ask the sa-ame sthoopid questions, in the sa-ame ordher – ‘whath is your name, how long you sailing, where you from…’” His brilliant blue eyes filled with disgust at the mere memory of it. “Here I don’th have to thalk to anyone!” But as he continued to talk about Split and his life there whenever we were at the lunch table together – and even smiled occasionally – I guess ‘anyone’ didn’t include me.
Living in India where the population only goes up and up, I was surprised when Samuel, the second engineer, told us that the population of his country, Bulgaria, is falling! From nine million in 1985, to seven million now. Why? Because of the economic collapse after the fall of communism in 1989, and because of Bulgaria joining the EU in 2007. So where did two million Bulgarians go? To Germany, along with two million Romanians! If Germany accommodated them, plus all the refugees it’s been taking in, maybe Lady Liberty should be relocated to Germany from New York, especially with Trump’s new policies!
Dinner table conversations with Samuel and the Egyptian chief engineer, Tareq, were fun actually. I miss them. Samuel’s wide-ranging topics – from Baba Vanga and Akashic records, to movies and documentaries, to recent research in tech for studying the mind – were always engaging. Since Tareq’s communication style didn’t allow for nuance, he made some pretty interesting, but jaw-dropping, statements! Really, the way different people express things can leave you totally surprised. The electrical engineer, Kris, who is from Poland, was once telling a group of us about some scientific work on black holes. He got frustrated because he couldn’t get the name of the scientist, went bright pink with the effort, finally slouched in his chair, bent his neck to one side and proclaimed, “That guy!” Of course, it was obvious that no disrespect to Stephen Hawking was intended.
I spent forty minutes every evening with the deck cadet, Llorenç, to add a little to my meagre knowledge of Spanish. Llorenç is from Mallorca and speaks Catalan and Spanish. We wrote out conversations for translation around our own experiences. I wanted to learn to say things in preterite tense as I had only done lessons in present continuous when I attempted to learn Spanish before. This way, I could talk about things that have already happened in my long life rather than simply give a commentary in present continuous!
Before I met LIorenç I knew nothing about Mallorca except that it’s a tourist destination and that Rafael Nadal is from there. Now I feel as though I’ve spent a few days with Llorenç and his girlfriend on their island, visited their new apartment, and seen all his favourite haunts. Mallorca is now a place that I think of warmly; it’s no longer just a smudge on a map.
I loved being a part of this little community. It was like a family. Most nights, especially moonlit nights, I used to look out of the porthole in my cabin and feel very peaceful as the ship quietly sailed along the course set for her. I knew that our conscientious young second mate, Daniel, had carefully set the course, and it had been double-checked by the captain. I knew that Ante, Daniel and Igor, during their watches, would be monitoring the radars and other instruments carefully up on the bridge through the night. I felt safe ensconced in my bunk, with the ship rocking ever so slightly. There was the slightest vibration from her engine – a comforting sensation – as she made her slow progress out of the Gulf, crossed the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, squeezed through the traffic of the Singapore straits, then sailed up north through the South China sea, to finally reach Ulsan in South Korea over twenty days.
I loved the clarity of knowing that the ship had only one thing to do: transport tonnes of crude oil from Kuwait to Korea. Everyone worked towards this one goal in a perfectly coordinated operation.
When we neared Ulsan the pilot came in a pilot boat and the crew lowered the pilot ladder for him. He climbed on to the deck and went up to the bridge to guide the ship towards the SBM (single buoy mooring). The engineers down in the engine room monitored the main engine as per the commands given from the bridge control.
Then, two tugs made sure the ship wouldn’t ride up on to the buoy. Around then, the loading master arrived on a boat from the port.
The chief mate and his crew set up the equipment for cargo transfer on the main deck, the loading master coordinated between the ship and the shore, the deck officers took turns at manning the Cargo Control Room, and the entire operation was smoothly completed over several hours.
We had a chance to go ashore by boat at Ulsan port. The ship chandler, Mr. Bak, who supplies our ship provisions, took us around in his car.
We got to see a bit of Ulsan and try Korean food.
As we were driving down a city road Mr. Bak reverently pointed to a wall that seemed to go on for ever: “Hyundai factory.” A bit further, another never-ending wall: “Hyundai port.” Eighty percent of the cars on the road were Hyundai, including the one we were riding in.
Ulsan was preparing for Buddha’s birth anniversary on 18th May. Buddhist temples were decorated for the occasion.
Just a thought as I end this nostalgia trip: One of the sentences I had written out for my Spanish class with Llorenç was ‘I couldn’t bear to get rid of it (my old moped).’ He translated it as me sabía mal tirarla. I asked why me sabía mal, not me senti mal. He thought for a moment, then placed a fist over his tummy and said, “No… it’s like… bad food…” I thought about it. There are things you feel in your gut, and not through your senses, so you can’t use sentir, I suppose.
Me sabía mal. This is how I felt when I walked down the gangway for the last time. As I sat down in the boat that would take me ashore to catch a flight back home, I looked out at the ship that had been my home for a month, until it disappeared from view.
Shippees maintain that friendships on ships are only up to the gangway. True. They can only rarely sustain friendships that are forged over three or four months of working together. But I will treasure the delicate threads of memory of the time spent with these guys. They are bits of colourful weft woven through the largely neutral (beige? teal? mauve?) warp of my life. For this one month, they were family, and I’ll feel the warm glow of the camaraderie I shared with them, whenever I think of them.
We’ll be boarding this ship and sailing out of the Persian Gulf tomorrow, bound for Korea. I’ve been in and out of this narrow channel so many times in my life that it brings back a flood of memories.
There are two that stand out.
It was Christmastime in 1990, and my husband was chief mate at the time. Our ship was anchored at Fiumicino in Italy. As we had a couple of days free Capt Milo gave us time off to visit Rome, 32 km away. We bought a map, chose the places we wanted to see, plotted a route and walked to most places, covering many miles, dossing down at a pensione at night.
When we returned to the ship after two days, completely tired out, we heard the shocking news that Operation Desert Stormwas likely to be launched by US-led coalition forces on 17th January in Iraq. Ship life those days was pretty isolated and we barely knew what was going on in the outside world. As our next port of call was going to be inside the Persian Gulf Capt Milo had decided that I should sign off the ship at Dubai, just a little way into the Gulf, but far enough from Iraq-Kuwait to be safe. That was going to be around the 10th of January.
When we reached the Gulf of Oman we had another shock. There were dozens of American naval ships massed around us. War was no longer something we only heard about on the radio (those days we got television only in port) but was right here, and these ships were a part of it.
I disembarked at Dubai — along with two other crew members whose tenures had ended — and flew home.
What happened to the ship after I left? She remained anchored in the Gulf of Oman for over a week awaiting voyage orders. On the 19th she sailed into the Persian Gulf to load cargo at Ras Tanura. My husband tells me that they passed an American aircraft carrier with her attendant fleet of frigates. He saw fighter jets take off from her deck. Jets from US army bases in Saudi also flew across the night sky frequently as the bombing usually happened at night.
Another vivid memory is of the time in 1993 when our ship sailed out of the Persian Gulf loaded with crude oil from Ras Tanura in Saudi, for discharge at New Orleans in the US. What happened as we sailed out of the Gulf is something that still gives me goosebumps and I’ve written about it an earlier post.
We eventually signed off that ship in Dubai. My husband and I were amused to hear our toddler son’s excited observations about land, after having been on a VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier) for four months without ever going ashore.
“So many Christmas trees!” He had only seen the tiny tree set up in the saloon at Christmas!
“So many aunties!” There had been no other women on that ship!
When we returned to India we were baffled by his homesickness for the ship, when he would cry to be taken back ‘home’, and would only be placated by watching the videos we had taken during the voyage.