Kuwait City celebrates

Liberation Tower built in 1996 to commemorate the end of the seven month long Iraqi occupation during the Gulf War of 1991

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.


Kid with water-filled balloon









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.

IMG-20180226-WA0003We 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.IMG-20180226-WA0021

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.


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!


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.

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.


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.



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.

bit of pottery from Pachacamac
shell from frutas del mar

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

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.


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.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

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?”


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.

Many years ago, I was 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. PTSD again.

*Dry dock:

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


Augusta, Sicily

Our ship was docked at Priolo on the eastern coast of Sicily. I was on the bridge looking at the volcano, Mt Etna, through binoculars as it was sending out puffs of smoke. Joško, the second mate, came up to the bridge to make a cup of tea. He had been in these parts before and told me it was nothing to worry about. As he had a couple of hours free we decided to catch the ferry to the town of Augusta ten minutes away.

A strange sight greeted us. People were camped out on every available inch of open space! There had been an earthquake in the next town the previous evening, and tremors had been felt in Augusta. An old church, the Chiesa Madre, had suffered mild damage. People had temporarily vacated their homes as they feared another quake.

We had lunch and sat in the restaurant talking over the last bit of wine. It was December of 1990. Those days Yugoslavia – from where Joško, a Croat, hailed – was on the verge of breaking up into several independent countries. There was a civil war involving the Croats and the Serbs. 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. 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!