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 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.
On Friday we left Kuwait city behind and drove southwest down Route 70 towards the Saudi border. There was a sand storm, not a severe one, and the sky was reddish-brown to the east.
In some places the sand glowed golden in the ethereal light.
We reached a wide expanse of desert where there were several cars parked haphazardly. We pulled over to see what was there. All-terrain bikes (ATV) were available on hire.
People were riding them at top speed across the miles of flat sandy desert and up and down gentle slopes. We had a go too. Half an hour of riding at a good speed with no traffic (and certainly no traffic jams of the kind I’m used to in my home town Bangalore) and no kerbstones to set boundaries, was exhilarating. Liberating.
Kids were amazingly good at handling them! And they were having good, clean fun outdoors too.
We drove further to what we think is the Al Ahmadi ridge where we saw a family picnicking near their parked car, a common sight in Kuwait.
There were a couple of people walking on the escarpment, deep in conversation. Nice place to have an interesting conversation actually.
Some men had ridden the ATVs all the way up the road to the escarpment from the place where they were being hired out.
We drove back down and took Route 70 towards the border of Saudi Arabia. The storm had driven sand onto the road and it was piled on the hard shoulder.
It was a great day!
Note: No photo has been edited. This is exactly how the world looked that day.
We’ve been living in Kuwait City for about a week now. Living because we’ve been given a furnished flat by the company my husband works for. Which means shopping for groceries, cooking, cleaning and laundry to do, unlike staying which means hotel, sightseeing and eating all meals out.
It’s a quiet, fairly spacious, flat in downtown Kuwait City. The sea front is just 10 minutes away on foot. On Friday evening – which is the weekly holiday here – we took a long walk along the beach. It was also the beginning of the Liberation Day weekend, the 26th anniversary of the end of the First Gulf War. A quarter century ago a lot of adults living here now were kids or young adults and have memories of the war. There is an awareness and appreciation of what it means to be free, and it comes through in the energy you feel swirling around, a feeling of relief and joy that conveys they don’t take freedom for granted. The parents’ indulgent expressions as they watch their kids run around freely seem to say “thank god they can have a childhood like this.”
Families were out in full strength fishing, flying kites and having picnics. Nobody has picnics in Bangalore any more, so happy families eating biryani sitting together on sheets spread on the sand was a heartwarming sight that brought back childhood memories.
There was a cool sea breeze and the sun set in blue-grey and gold, understated spectacular, like discreet jewelry.
It rained all Saturday, so we stayed indoors.
Sunday brought great weather and celebrating crowds out into the streets. Kids were dressed in the colours of the Kuwait national flag.
We were warned by locals that the kids would be hurling water-filled balloons at people on the sidewalk. We took the risk and had a couple of near-misses, but it was fun being out there among happy people. It was fun to see kids throwing water-filled balloons and squirting water at passing cars using water guns, thoroughly enjoying themselves.
We spent the evening in the historic Souk Al-Mubarakeya market that sold everything from toys, fabrics, garments, vegetables, fruits and spices – to gold. Lots of gold.
We peeped curiously into a shop selling what looked like wood chips. The young owner invited us in for a sweet (in plate in the corner of counter in pic) and a shot-glass sized tumbler of Kuwaiti coffee that is brewed along with cardamom and boiled till it is reduced to a thick decoction. No milk, no sugar. The shop sold pieces of the bark of different trees brought from Assam in India for burning like incense in homes here. He told us he had lived in the US – mostly in LA – for six years as a student. He missed the burgers at In-N-Out the most, and in a burst of loyalty to In-N-Out, he disdained McDonald’s as “only for the homeless!”
The market encloses a vast square surrounded by small eateries. It was packed with diners and we found it hard to find a table. Mountains of food on huge platters kept arriving at tables, borne aloft and deftly served by agile and expert waiters. What a sight! (pic below)
The evening ended with a short fireworks display with infants screaming in terror at the din. I remembered how my kids had cried in fear on their first Diwali and smiled to myself. Rites of passage . . .
The 26th is also considered part of the Liberation Day although 25th is the official one. That was the day in 1991 when the last few Iraqi soldiers who remained at the Kuwait airport had been vanquished.
Yesterday was the 26th. We walked to Kuwait tower which is about 5 km from our apartment block. The scenes were exactly like the day before: kids, kids, kids running around everywhere, squealing and shrieking with joy; water-filled balloons splattering, water guns squirting, flags flying, cars adorned with flags cruising, happy families picnicking on the little grassy spots that must have been carefully nurtured as nothing seems to grow here except date palms and petunias!
In fact, on the way to Kuwait tower I was surprised to see a stray hollyhock plant in full bloom in a square little flower bed outside an office block. Was it planted and forgotten? Its stem was bent at right angles and lay parallel to the ground. What a pity. She could’ve been ‘the stately lady hollyhock’ if someone had watched over her.
Anyway, it was another lovely evening both in terms of weather and the festive atmosphere. Walking back, we passed the marina where rows of dhows were tied to the jetty. It looked beautiful lit up the way it was. All of Kuwait City did, in fact.
Tomorrow the city will return to normal: kids will go to school, men will go to work and women will tend to their homes and children, I suppose. And the streets will be swept clean of the colourful debris of celebration, the rubber balloons gleefully tossed and abandoned.
This is my third visit to Singapore and Singa-poh getting better only lah!
Gardens by the Bay is a new addition to Singapore’s tourist attractions that has come up after my last visit. It was worth spending an afternoon seeing all those beautiful flowers in the giant greenhouse designed by someone who genuinely cares about plants: Tan Wee Kiat, who stepped down from the post of CEO ten days ago, but will fortunately continue as adviser.
It was the Chinese new year and there was the dragon dance, the light-and-sound show and all the other festivities associated with it in the evening. The place was jampacked with both locals and bus loads of tourists.
Another day, my husband and I went on a 10km hike through the McRitchie Reservoir trail. It was mostly in the shade, but not dense, because it’s a secondary forest that has sprung up on previously-farmed land. It was surprisingly similar to the part of the Appalachian trail hike we had been on in 2014 at the Delaware Gap in New Jersey. We saw an iguana up close a couple of times, an adult-sized one that silently slunk away, and a young, smaller one that hadn’t perfected her camouflage skills yet.
There was one tree called the Terap that I found interesting because the leaves it produces when it’s young are so different from those it produces when fully grown. The young tree has large pentate, flamboyant leaves that look free and happy, while the adult tree sports small, sedate leaves of a conventional shape. Just like the difference between the imagination of small children and us adults, I thought.
Singapore does care about it’s trees, plants, animals and insects. On our way back we dropped in at the tiny butterfly park in the airport and managed to see a few that hadn’t yet snuggled under leaves to rest, though it was late by butterfly standards as per the notices in the park that said they would be active only between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.