ocean to ocean in small steps

A small boat came alongside our ship when we were waiting to enter the Miraflores locks of the Panama canal. A couple of men climbed up the pilot ladder to the deck with mangoes to sell. They didn’t want to be paid in US dollars, they wanted Camay bath soap! So we bartered – three small mangoes for a bar of soap!

Sailing through the Panama canal is one of those experiences you enjoy at different levels, from the practical and cognitive, to the sublime. So many thoughts and reactions crowd into your head and heart all at once.img_5562

The ship’s engines were switched off while mules pulled her into the first chamber of the Miraflores locks. In earlier times real, live mules used to haul barges through canals. The locomotives that have replaced them are called mules too.

Two huge gates – the valves – closed behind us and the gates in front of us opened. The water level gradually rose by gravity to reach the level in the chamber ahead. Then the ship was pulled forward into that chamber. The gates behind us closed. Our ship was raised 85 feet from the Pacific ocean through this system of locks. What a clever idea!

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The ship sailed through the narrow confines of the beautiful Gaillard cut, then through the vast expanse of Gatun lake. It took all day – the Panama canal is 77 km long. Watching from the fo’c’sle it all seemed to happen in slow motion, every operation being done with utmost caution and precision.

From the Gatun lake she was gently lowered 85 feet into the Atlantic, stepping down bit by bit through the Gatun locks. On land, we drive over steel and concrete bridges to cross rivers; here we crossed land by using water as a bridge!

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The first time our ship transited the Panama canal, I was awestruck by the fact that people even came up with such an audacious idea. They used 60 million tonnes of dynamite to blast the Gaillard cut in the land mass of the isthmus! Then, they diverted a river to create a lake to fill it up. I marvelled at the design and engineering skill involved in its execution.

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The beauty of the passage itself was overwhelming. The Gaillard cut passes through virgin forest. The land is green and you can hear the twitter of birds. It is very quiet, very peaceful. There’s even a little waterfall somewhere along the Gaillard cut! Its tranquility filled my heart with gratitude for the Earth and the power that created it. Perfect. It was a deeply spiritual experience, sitting alone on a bitt in the fo’c’sle, absorbing it all.

I read up what was available on board of its fascinating history. It was built by the Americans and the French in the early 1900s with mainly trade in mind. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who supervised the digging out of tonnes of sand to create the Suez Canal, was commissioned to create it. They apparently thought his experience at the Suez was adequate to design and build any canal. Dynamiting rock, changing the course of the Chagres river, building dams – so much more was involved in building the Panama canal – that it now seems ridiculous that they gave the responsibility to Lesseps who wasn’t even an engineer! Still, they muddled through it and finally succeeded. Wow!

A ship bound for Rotterdam from Peru – like ours was – would have had to sail south along the coast of Chile, navigate the Magellan straits, then sail north, cross the equator and head for the English Channel, had there been no Panama canal. What a waste of time, effort and fuel! The Panama Canal cuts time, effort and cost to a third of what the long route would need. Very practical.

That human beings have these absolutely wonderful brains, initiative and tenacity to create this! This is progress, with tangible benefits to many and harm to none that I can think of … Hold it! So far, I had been viewing the Panama canal only through the eyes of a sailor. A sailor on a commercial vessel. Seeing a lot of natural beauty is simply an unintended perk of the profession.

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Gatun lake

The builders of the canal had blasted a passage through a rainforest! What about the people, animals and birds that lived there? A dam had been built across the Chagres river to create Gatun lake, as the canal needs lots of water. They must have displaced whole communities when they flooded the river valley? I had noticed the dredging apparatus on Gatun lake and been told the lake was silting up all the time. Why? Deforestation, loose soil flowing into the lake? What about the thousands of people who died of disease or due to accidents during its construction?

The sheen of the Panama canal transit was dulled a little as these thoughts crossed my mind. Sigh… I wish I could be an ostrich about it. On the other hand, I was enjoying the Panama canal nearly eighty years after it was constructed and the terrible circumstances of its construction had passed into history. What I saw was a beautiful canal and a well-run system for the passage of ships. I should probably leave it at that.

ports of call

Our ship was anchored at the tiny port of Ilo in Peru. We were to load 6,000 tonnes of fish oil bound for Rotterdam.

Loading cargo in South American ports is an unhurried process. People are laidback and will casually tell the captain “la bomba no funciona” or whatever, so loading may be put off by a few hours while the thing is being repaired.

So, we usually get time to go out and explore. Frankly, it’s much more fun than loading or discharging cargo at efficiently-run ports. At least for me, a person who is designated a supernumerary, i.e. an unnecessary additional person, on every list on notice boards all over the ship! Including which life boat I should go on, should something untoward happen. I almost feel guilty about being allotted a space on a life boat despite being a mere supernumerary, not part of the ship’s complement.

Our first morning in Ilo, I went to the market with the chief cook and Capt. Lobo to buy provisions. Ilo is not for tourists, so you get to see real people going about real lives. Nobody tries to sell you souvenirs, nobody tries to entice you to buy bus tickets for conducted tours, the sort of things that make tourist destinations feel like the whole place is a staged show. The vendors at the market were Quechua, with no obvious trace of Spanish genes. Women with babies strapped to their backs with colourful shawls. This is a painting I made of one of them.

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The local agent who dealt with our ship was a man called José. In an excited mix of Spanish and English he told us the history of Peru: Incas, Athahualpa, the conquistadores, Francisco Pizzaro, and all that had happened after the Spanish invasion. So much indignation, so much gesticulation to emphasize important points in the narrative – ¡muy interesante! That is the day I fell in love with Español.

José invited Capt. Lobo, me and my husband for lunch. He ordered dishes of frutas del mar for all of us, and a pisco sour, Peru’s national drink, for himself. There was no stopping him once the pisco sour hit home. He kept us in splits, reeling off jokes like a stand-up comedian. This is what I like about shipping: enjoying the newness of places, meeting people like José, hearing new stories and often laughing a lot. And the best part is that we take our home with us, so there’s no need to pack a suitcase!

From Ilo we sailed up the coast to Callao, a larger port, to load another 16,000 tonnes of fish oil for Rotterdam. Here, too, there was plenty of time to go ashore. We spent half a day at Pachacamac, an Inca ruin 45 mins from Callao.

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I picked up a tiny piece of pottery outside the fenced-off site. It now sits on a shelf along with a figurine of Inti, the Inca sun-god, a lump of pyrita (fools’ gold) I bought there, and a shell I saved from the frutas del mar I had eaten for lunch in Ilo.

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bit of pottery from Pachacamac
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shell from frutas del mar
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pyrita

Another day, my husband and I went to Miraflores, a city not far from Callao. A man passing us on the pavement stopped to ask if we were Indian. “Yeah,” we nodded. He told us there were fifty Indian families in Callao-Lima, all Sindhi. Then he invited us for a wedding that was to take place three days later! We regretfully had to decline as we were sailing out of Callao in two days. Such a pity. It might’ve been fun.

img_5516We had a few hours free again the next day. Capt. Lobo, his wife who had just arrived from India, my husband and I went sightseeing to Lima. A group of six curious seventeen-year-old girls and one boy, Jorge, tagged along with us for the part of the city tour that was en route to their school. Being a native Portuguese speaker, Mrs. Lobo could understand Spanish and translated for us. I especially remember Giovanna, the most outgoing kid of the lot. When we jokingly asked whose boyfriend was Jorge, they giggled, and Giovanna carefully constructed the sentence, “he is a friend of all of us,” and looked mighty pleased with herself for having got it right.

Loading completed, it was time to leave Peru. The saddest moments are when the ship is sailing farther and farther away from port, and you stand on the bridge wing and identify the now-familiar landmarks. It occurs to you that you won’t ever see them again. You pick up the binoculars and look until you can’t see them anymore.

The next morning, with only the ocean for miles around, Peru seemed like an elusive dream that I couldn’t fully recall. A few snapshots flitted through my mind, not the uninterrupted video I wished it was.

pausing for a new story

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We got off the bus near Malibu beach in Los Angeles and walked along a rough footpath that ran a few feet above the beach. My husband and I were going up the road to the Getty Villa on the hill to see Paul Getty’s interesting art collection.

When we passed the parking lot for the beach a car drew up and parked. Five or six excited little kids tumbled out. A woman got out of the driver’s side and met our smiles with a ‘Hi’ and a smile. We stopped to chat. Another woman joined us. These two friends, Mairead and Paisley, were spending the day on the beach with all those kids. Soon we were engrossed in an animated conversation about Dublin, Mairead’s hometown. The kids started getting restless, so we decided to meet on the beach while returning from the Getty villa, if they were still there.

They were. We spent only about half an hour with them but it added another little highlight to our LA experience. We talked about so many things, chief among them being Donald Trump, of course! By the way, Mairead is a singer and this is a link to her YouTube channel.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCK_IrWqvx0

Paisley said, “We Americans go on vacations but don’t talk to the locals at all. Maybe we should.”

Yes, why not? I can think of lots of people we have passed interesting hours or minutes with on different trips.

Once my husband, toddler son and I spent an entire evening with a family on their boat in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They had sailed in from Miami for a short vacation. It was the 6th of January, The Three Kings Day holiday in San Juan. We had been in San Juan for a few days as our ship was docked there. Our son joined their two little girls at the fountain and soon the kids were happily playing together. We drifted into conversation with the parents. They invited us to see their boat as they thought my husband, being a sailor, might find it interesting. For our little boy it was a good change from his virtual friends, Barney and the backyard gang, that he watched on video every afternoon.

In San Fernando, Trinidad, a concerned family of four called Bissessar gave us a ride in their car as it was dark and they felt we were not safe where we were waiting to find a taxi. They were of Indian origin. Their forefathers had been brought to Trinidad as indentured labour about a hundred and fifty years ago. They told us a bit about their history and their life in the half hour it took to get to the port. Their name, Bissessar, is a corruption of the common Indian name Vishwanath! Though they spoke regular English with us, they spoke another language among themselves which, they said, is the English they speak at home. It didn’t sound like any English we knew!

On a family vacation in Leh in the Himalayas we met the Hollywood actor Jamie Bartlett with his kid. We had pulled over for a closer look at yaks grazing in a field. They had apparently stopped for the same reason. Then we got news of a landslide up the road. The locals said it would take an hour to clear. So we all sat in a shack eating momos and noodles, shooting the breeze while we waited.

The point is, a place comes alive when you talk to residents and see it through their eyes. You get a glimpse of how it might feel to live there. Or, if it’s a fellow-traveller you’ve got into a conversation with, you get to hear a new story.

‘May God be with you’

It wasn’t even an incident. Thankfully, nothing happened to me on that summer evening in Portugal many, many years ago.

The ship I was sailing on was in dry dock* at Lisnave dock yard in Almada, Portugal. I had walked to the shopping area of Almada to pick up a few things. Walking back, I lost my way. I asked passing pedestrians directions to the ship yard but only got “no comprendo” and a regretful shake of the head. At that time I didn’t even know the little bit of Spanish – which shares similarities with Portuguese – that I know now. I began to feel anxious but told myself that it was summer and it wouldn’t get dark for another hour at least.

Presently I saw two nuns in white habits a little way ahead. Weaving between people thronging the sidewalk I caught up to them. I smiled and said “Excuse me?” Then I started with the simple English that kind of works in some places.

“Help, please?”

“Ship?”

Blank expression. In desperation I tried the two Spanish words I had recently picked up.

–¿El barco?–

–¿Lisnave – puerto?–

One of the nuns asked, “Do you speak English?”

I could’ve wept with relief.

She said, “Wait…I… haven’t spoken English… for ten years…It is…difficult…” I waited. Her eyes sparkled with happiness. She said she was from Canada and told me a little about herself. The other sister was Portuguese. They accompanied me till we reached the road that would lead straight to the ship yard and left me with a solemn blessing, “May God be with you.”

I bought an ice cream cone as my mouth had gone dry with all that anxiety. As I began walking a man fell in step behind me. Hypervigilance is second nature to me when I’m walking alone in an unknown place, or on a poorly-lit road in the dark. I became acutely aware that the road was completely deserted. I quickened my step, but he kept pace. I sneaked a look at him and he grinned and called out something I didn’t understand. After that I resolutely avoided looking back and walked faster for – 5 minutes? 10 minutes? More? I don’t know. He kept up his non-stop gibberish.

The scenarios that played out in my head in those few minutes sent me into a panic. It was like being in a nightmare. I was gasping and my heart thumped away like I was hearing it through a stethoscope. My knees felt like they could buckle any moment. And the man continued to keep pace, insolently tossing out short phrases that sounded like questions. Frightened though I was, I held on to the thought that I was fitter and swifter than this middle-aged man.

Finally the shipyard came into view. Oh, thank God! I guess He had heard the nuns bless me. I chucked the melted ice cream and broke into a run. Some ship yard workers in boilersuits were around, and the footsteps following me ceased.

I have been in an accident where my moped was rammed in the back by a lorry, and I had a head injury and lay unconscious on the road. Another time, a speeding bus scraped past my little moped and pushed it into a storm–water drain whose width was fortunately less than the diameter of the wheel of my bike. The wheel twisted and got wedged, and I was saved. I fainted, actually keeled forward on to the handlebar. Some passengers stopped the bus and got down to revive me. It took me weeks to recover from both these accidents. PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.

As I said at the beginning, it wasn’t even an incident. Nothing happened in a physical sense to hurt me on that summer’s day. Nonetheless, the jolt to my psyche was no less traumatic than being hit by a lorry.

*Dry dock:

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Ship is sailed into a tank and carefully placed on blocks. Water is drained out. Repairs and painting are carried out.

earthquake

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The first time I was in an earthquake was in Augusta, Sicily, in December 1990.

Our ship was sailing into Priolo, on the eastern coast of Sicily. It was about six o’ clock in the evening and we were listening to BBC news on the radio. There had been an earthquake at Syracuse, about 14 km south of Priolo.

My husband and I planned to go to Syracuse the next morning. Of course, we were behaving like a couple of idiotic tourists, just wanting to gawk at the damage caused by the earthquake. The ferry service to Syracuse was cancelled, so we went to Augusta instead, ten minutes by boat to the north. There was no damage to any of the structures there – though it was only 35 km from Syracuse –  except for an ancient church, the Chiesa Madre, whose plaster had fallen off in places. That was all.

But what a sight! People were camped out on every available inch of open space. All buildings had been vacated out of fear of a quake or aftershocks. But the day passed uneventfully.

The next morning I went up to the bridge to look at Mt. Etna through binoculars as I had noticed small puffs of smoke coming out of its crater. Joško, the second mate, came up to make a cup of tea. He had just finished his watch and was going to Augusta to take in the sights. He asked if I wanted to go along. We had lunch at a restaurant there. I remember having spinach tortellini and some strong red wine.

We paid the bill and sat there talking about Yugoslavia over the last bit of wine. Those days, Yugoslavia was in political turmoil and was about to be carved into several independent countries. Joško often said, “There’ll be no Yugoslavia when I go home!” with a touch of gallows humour, but was really worried about his family back home, especially the girl he had married just a few months before.

Suddenly we saw everybody running for the exit. People were crying, shouting and hugging each other. We asked people –¿Qué pasa?– in Spanish, hoping they’d understand, as Joško didn’t know Italian either. People were too numb to bother to answer us. We wandered out and asked a couple more people. Someone answered “Tumulta!” Wow! There had been an earthquake? Joško said, “That wine must’ve been strong. I never felt it either.”

We ran to the ferry boat and made for the ship. It seemed the safest place to be. We casually asked the boatman if he had felt the tremor. He nodded with a troubled expression and told us in English that his daughter was out there somewhere, and he was worried about her safety. His eyes glazed over as he stared at a distant memory and murmured something about the last time there was an earthquake. We didn’t know what to say. Was this a way of life for these people?

And here we were, excitedly looking around like there was a film shooting going on, and the whole thing was a movie set. We had addressed the boatman in much the same insensitive tone that we find offensive when used by interviewers on television. Although – between us – we claimed the novelty of the experience as an excuse, we felt quite ashamed of ourselves and silently stared out at the shore as we sailed away from Augusta.

On reaching the ship we rushed up the gangway to the Cargo Control Room. The third mate, Boris, was on duty. We told him about the earthquake. He said it had been just a mild aftershock. Obviously then, the locals had been on tenterhooks and had overreacted. Joško and I were glad to know that we hadn’t been too drunk to notice an earthquake!

ships that pass in the night

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Quoin Islands

It was a night like any other. Our ship was making her silent passage, bow gently cleaving the waters, propellor leaving a broad wake as she passed.

We were on a voyage outbound from the Persian Gulf, thirty nautical miles south of the Straits of Hormuz, in the Gulf of Oman. The ship was carrying a cargo of 300 thousand metric tonnes of crude oil.

It was about half past eight. Capt. Murphy was in his cabin, gazing out at the fo’c’sle through the porthole. The transit through the Persian Gulf had taken 26 hours after sailing out of Ras Tanura. He was exhausted.

The third mate, Alex, was on bridge-watch. This was a routine passage for the ship but the captain had decided to keep a casual watch from his cabin, based purely on gut instinct, as he later told us.

He suddenly sat bolt upright. The Didamar light house on Quoin Island that we had passed a little while before on our starboard side was now on our portside! Experienced navigator that he was, he sized up the situation in a trice. He rushed upstairs to the bridge (wheelhouse), took over from Alex, and asked him to go to his cabin. The phone rang in our cabin for my husband, the chief mate, to join him on the bridge along with the bo’sun. The bo’sun took the wheel and Capt. Murphy snapped out helm orders. The chief mate kept watch for traffic and the vessel’s position on the radar screen. With my toddler son beside me, I watched tensely from the porthole in our cabin as the ship was slowly steered back on course.

This is what had happened. Alex had had a psychotic breakdown, something that had apparently never happened before, as per his medical records. He had turned the ship around, heading back towards the Persian Gulf. And he was in the wrong lane, which would be like driving on the wrong side of the road if it were a street on land! The vessel’s passage plan had been totally abandoned by his addled mind.

Had there been a collision, or if she had run aground on one of the islands, imagine what an ecological disaster that would be. 300 thousand tonnes of thick, viscous crude oil gushing out into the Gulf of Oman! Images of the Exxon Valdez running aground four years before in Prince William Sound, Alaska, were fresh in every seaman’s mind. Mine too, as I had been on another tanker when that happened.

It was only Capt. Murphy’s quick response that averted a major calamity that night. And the good fortune of not having another ship sailing towards us on a collision course during those moments. The other ship would have been fully loaded too, like any ship sailing out of the Persian Gulf. Our ship was moving at 14 knots. It’s incredibly hard to apply brakes on a ship moving at that speed due to momentum. If the ship’s engine had been put in a ‘stop’ position, she would have moved 2500 metres more before coming to a standstill!

There is a poem called ‘The Lights’ by J.J.Bell in an anthology I own. It had never meant anything to me before. That night I vaguely remembered it was about the ‘emerald’ and ‘ruby’ lights that tell you which way a ship is going. It ended with a prayer for ships passing in the night.

I have often wondered what jogged Capt. Murphy’s gut instinct that evening. Did Alex seem spaced out when he last spoke with him? Did he notice something out of kilter? Or was it just sixth sense?

When I greeted Alex in the alleyway the next morning he looked blankly at me. It was an expression I had seen countless times on the faces of patients in the middle of a psychotic breakdown. So, it was entirely possible that he would have displayed prodromal symptoms  – some oddities in behaviour – the previous day, that might have drawn the attention of anyone interacting with him. But then again, he was from an Eastern European country and nobody knew his language, or him either.

What happened to Alex eventually?

Well, there is a book called the Captain’s Medical Guide that captains consult to treat minor ailments. Common medicines are available on board too. For medical problems beyond the captain’s ken he can talk to a doctor via radio. If a surgical emergency is suspected, for example appendicitis, the ship can be diverted to the nearest port, or a helicopter can land on the ship to take the patient to a hospital.

In Alex’s case, he was given a standard dose of antipsychotic medicine on a daily basis. He was confined to his cabin so he wouldn’t hurt himself, as the medicine was extremely sedating. The captain checked on him twice a day and a steward took his meals up for him. The door to his room was left ajar and a member of the deck crew sat just outside his door to ensure his safety.

He signed off the ship when we reached port after a fortnight. Some of us went to see him off at the gangway. He happened to open his carry-on baggage to put something in. His entire salary in stacks of 100-dollar bills was in there, shoved in carelessly. He looked around vacantly, waving indifferently when we said goodbye. Did he make it home safely with his passport, money, and other valuables intact? I don’t know.

friends you haven’t met yet

“There are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet.” So said William Butler Yeats.

We were at the wedding of the daughter of our friends, Tushar and Sunetra, both astrophysicists. A couple and their tween son sat close to the havankund watching the ceremony very attentively. The man and boy were dressed in kurta-pajama, the woman in a blue sari. They seemed to be North Indians.

At lunch my husband and I were seated beside them. We introduced ourselves. They were from Mexico! Armando, Patti and Emilio. Armando is an astrophysicist and has collaborated with Sunetra on several projects – that’s how they knew each other. We chatted about our kids, professions, had they been to Bangalore before, places we had visited in Latin America, things like that. I told Patti about a singer I used to like and before we knew it we were softly singing old Spanish songs together!

                                                                                      ******************

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It was 1994. My husband, I and our little son were in a taxi driving along the bridge across Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. There was music playing in the taxi. I don’t have an ear for music at all, so I was surprised to find myself enjoying these songs – lyrics, guitar, the voice. I asked the driver who the singer was. It was Leo Dan. I bought a couple of cassettes in Maracaibo and listened to them so often that I learnt to sing many of them completely. A few years ago I used the internet to get the lyrics right.

Those were the songs Patti and I sang that day. We had fun doing that, thanks to an Argentinian singer that nobody in India has heard of. ¡Qué raro!

My husband and I had lunch with them the next day and met for coffee another time. It’s strange how you sometimes really hit it off with strangers. The interaction is light and easy as there’s no history, I guess.

We now have an invitation to visit them in Mexico City for a holiday. Maybe we will. Someday. I’ve always had this notion that I’ve spent an earlier lifetime on Earth as a Latina, which explains why I took a fancy to Español although I’m not good at picking up languages, and responded with pleasure to Spanish music despite being tone-deaf!