blue flower in cubbon park

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“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time.” 

Georgia O’Keeffe.

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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.

after ten years

Ten years have passed.

This is what I had said to Geetha Rao, a reporter with The Times of India, in Jan 2007.

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What has changed since?

The ridiculous term, eve-teasing, seems to have thankfully become an anachronism. You don’t hear people use it anymore. Indians now call it sexual harassment just as the rest of the world does.

img_5469Girls no longer seem to take the blame for ‘attracting attention.’ You hear of girls and their parents filing complaints at police stations without worrying about what their relatives and neighbours will think. It’s just an impression. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the press reports only on people who file cases. Perhaps the percentage of girls taking action has only increased a little, and maybe many still don’t file. Police records may not reflect reality.img_5470img_5470

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More parents seem to be conscious about giving sons and daughters equal opportunities, and fewer parents seem to be staying within the gender roles assigned to them by tradition, at least in Bangalore. I won’t go into the topic of honour-killings, etc. taking place all over the country.

It seems that movies glorifying guys who stalk unwilling girls and ‘win’ them in the end aren’t being made anymore. If I am right, this is major progress, considering two-three generations of boys grew up thinking stalking was a normal courtship ritual.

In this article in 2007 I mentioned “teaching little boys about gender equality.”

In the Times of India, Bangalore dated 9th Jan 2011, I said “each child has to be raised right” with reference to another case of sexual harassment.

I’ve subsequently realised that’s easier said than done. There are so many external influences that shape a child’s character. Parents have to be alert to small changes in a child’s behaviour all the time, without making the child feel watched and controlled. They have to nip potentially dangerous behaviours in the bud by taking away the source of the behaviour, for example access to adult sites on the internet that a child might have stumbled upon. Parents do come for consultation regarding such situations. And then too, there is no guarantee that the child can be straightened out if the habit has become deeply entrenched, or personality development has been severely impacted, for example a teenaged boy who was  sexually abused in childhood.

Bringing about change in society seems a mammoth task to me as my work deals only with individuals, and my sphere of influence is limited. A sizeable proportion of the citizenry seems to believe that women shouldn’t expect to be safe if they want freedom to go out at night. However, public discourse on the topic of sexual harassment is now more open and some citizens are looking for ways to draw the attention of the government and the police to this issue. We might still get there.

unsafe in the city

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In the ­­­last post I wrote, I had inadvertently put myself in harm’s way. I was in a foreign country, I didn’t know the language and I was walking alone on a deserted road with the sun sliding rapidly towards the horizon.

https://drshyamalavatsa.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/may-god-be-with-you/

The walk would have been wonderful if I had felt safe. There was no traffic noise. The pavement was wide and even. The cool breeze and the mellow light of the setting sun added to the sense of comfort and peace that the nuns had instilled in me. It was a perfect evening. But for the silly man prattling away behind me and giving me the jitters, it would have been a perfect walk. He completely ruined the experience for me, and caused me to have nightmares for days thereafter.

Newspapers often carry stories of women being accosted or molested or having their outings and peace of mind ruined by men whose attentions they don’t want.

In my city, Bangalore, I have encountered men who stared, or violated my personal space, sometimes even completely obliterating it, by passing too close on the sidewalk for example. Last month, at the Metro station, I noticed a man standing hardly fifteen feet away, staring at me. And there was nothing wrong with my clothes either, just straight cut jeans and a long, loose, full-sleeved printed cotton shirt.

These men are known as miscreants to police, perpetrators to crime investigators, perverts to the general public, creeps to girls, and frustrated losers to married women who expect to be left alone by virtue of their mangalsutras or wedding rings. To psychiatrists they are known as people with paraphilic disorders. Some of them could be diagnosed as personality disorders, impulse-control disorders or compulsives of a sort. But the issue is not tidily sorted. Controversies exist in the mental health field about classifying and managing them.

These are men who will never understand #i will wear what I want. They will see it as a challenge. They may crack risqué jokes about it. To them, every female is fair game. Some of the worst abuses in Hindi and English probably reflect the existence of such people.

I’m aware that there are deviant, depraved and even frankly deranged people around. Just as people with anti-social personality disorder – more commonly known as psychopaths – exist and should be avoided, I believe deviants should be avoided too. They are an ineradicable section of human society regardless of country and form of government. Personally, rather than make myself vulnerable, I try to avoid places where they are likely to operate. Of course, they often strike in the most unexpected places as any Bangalore girl will tell you. I used to think there was safety in groups, but I realised later on that when a mob runs amok, groups get broken up and stampedes and free-for-alls can follow. So I don’t go to crowded places at all. Nor to deserted places. This works for me as it suits my lifestyle. But I know this cannot be a solution for everyone.

I think there is a limit to what the police can do because a large amount of security would be needed to protect vulnerable individuals in a crowd. As paraphilics show no outer signs of their intentions, and commit crimes with their bare hands, what sort of security measures are possible? The US Department of Homeland Security is apparently working on something called Project Hostile Intent to improve airport security. Maybe we need something like that.

Even when a complaint is filed, the victim is often unable to convey information clearly or identify the perpetrator; prima facie evidence is not always sufficient to implicate a perpetrator; cctv footage, when available, is not always clear; forensic evidence may be unavailable, depending on the type of paraphilic behaviour indulged in by the miscreant. And the police have to be fair to the accused and cannot assume he is guilty.

Women are trying to address this problem through various campaigns. Protest marches help raise awareness in an evolving society. They draw attention to the lack of safety in public spaces and the consequent distress women go through. Men are supporting these campaigns too. But everybody has to agree that wanting to feel safe in a city is a normal expectation, and that culture and tradition will not be eroded if women feel safe and free to go out at night. That includes ministers, cops and people who don’t see the need for the sort of freedom being sought by the campaigning groups. Maybe therein lies the rub.

Hopefully, laws will be laid down – and implemented – to check miscreants, and society will gradually change. Or rather, soon change. One day, hopefully, people will learn to live and let live, and not make value judgments about others.

(Photo by Chandrika Rao)

‘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.