Kuwait City celebrates

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Singapore

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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.

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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.

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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 lobed, 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.

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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!

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

raising a toddler on a ship

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Until he had to go to school, my son grew up on ships as his dad’s a captain on oil tankers. As far as he was concerned, the ship was home, and the entire deck with its pipes and companionways was his playground. A sturdy swing had been made for him using pilot-ladder steps. It hung from one of the innumerable pipes running along the main deck.

On transatlantic voyages, where there was practically no traffic, he would spend time on the bridge with Sergei, the second mate, whose watch it was from 12:00 noon to 4:00 p.m. He would eagerly rush upstairs with his collection of plastic balls and he and Sergei would toss them to each other. I would plant myself before the radar screen and keep a watch for stray ships, which Sergei found hilarious, but indulged me nevertheless.

IMG_6622Soon, my son was comfortably calling out “Kedai match” (phonetic spelling, I don’t know Cyrillic) in Russian, meaning ‘throw/catch the ball’. He differentiated between ‘bolshoi match’ and ‘malinki match’, big ball and small ball. In a few days he began greeting people with ‘Dobrevecher’ or ‘Prev-yair’. One day he said “Spasibo fo’ changin’ bubb” to the electrician when he replaced a fused bulb in our cabin! It was amusing to hear him say “Dosvidaniya” in a sing-song voice while leaving the saloon after dinner. He addressed all Russians on the ship as ‘dhyadhya’, meaning uncle, much to their delight. At the New Year’s party he picked up ‘Snoven godhaam’ and enjoyed teaching the Filipino crew to say it. I miss those days so much, it’s almost a physical ache. There’s nothing more fun than watching an excited and happy child grow!

Meanwhile, he spent about an hour at tea time with the Radio Officer and a couple of others in one of their cabins. One day, he came back reciting the alphabet, “A for alpha, B for bravo, C for Charlie, D for delta, E for echo …” all the way up to Z for Zulu! He would have to unlearn this, or they may not let him into pre-school in India, I thought!

An African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. I often wonder how the various ‘villages’ my son grew up in through his nomadic early years have influenced his approach to life. I mean, a large part of his early childhood was about getting up in the morning, peeping out of the porthole and saying “Whe’ ah we today?” We would take him out to Chuck-e-Cheese in ports in the US, mainly for the ball pool he loved, and to various zoos, parks and McDonald’s in other countries. For those few hours he would be like other children, playing with peers instead of adults. Just when he got used to seeing the same view from our porthole for three or four days, it would be time to sail out. The port would get a mournful farewell as it receded into the distance. I still remember his sad, disappointed little face saying, “San Funando, Twinidad gone. Faaaw-away”, and rotating his little hands outwards over and over.

‘It takes a village’ reminds me of Hilary Clinton’s book, which in turn reminds me of how my son regarded the Clintons as part of our family circle. Those days, TIME and Newsweek magazines were, more or less, our only contact with the outside world. We got them once a fortnight or so, when we reached a port. And Bill and Hilary were often on their covers.

Once, when Immigration officers came aboard in the US – as is the usual procedure – to check our passports, my son pointed at one of them and announced “uk ike Kin-thun.” “Looks like Clinton,” I duly translated for the benefit of the man pointed at. Everybody burst out laughing and agreed that he did resemble Bill Clinton, while the man asked incredulously, “He knows Clinton?”

The TIME and Newsweek magazines were my son’s property. He hoarded them in his toy chest with his other books. When we had people over for drinks some evenings he would bring them out and introduce Bill and Hilary to everyone. He called them Biy and Ee-uh-yee, and I often had to explain to mystified people that he couldn’t pronounce ha, la and ra. Soon, he took to explaining, “I can’t say uh, uh and uh, an’ so I ko’ uh Ee-uh-yee!”

Russians, Filipinos, Indians, the Pakistani chief mate, Saad, whom I haven’t mentioned here, the Turkish Mr. Halaq who stayed on board for a few days on official work – they were all one large family to my son. Everybody was an uncle, and he could visit them in their cabins any time and be welcomed and fussed over affectionately. It was a happy life. His problems actually began when he had to continuously deal with small human beings in school!

ships that pass in the night: near-disaster at sea

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It was a night like any other. Our ship was making her silent passage, bow gently cleaving the waters, propeller 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.

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Quoin Islands

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 lovely, thoughtful 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, and 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!

New routes

Tbilisi, Georgia.

Baku, Azerbaijan. Then, right across the Caspian Sea.

Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan. A carpet of city lights spread out below us in the intense darkness of night.

These are the cities we flew over as our British Airways flight carefully negotiated the skies, avoiding all areas of known conflict. Following the route map on the computer screen on the back of the seat in front of me was both fascinating and saddening. Fascinating because of the frisson of excitement I feel while flying over lands that are mysterious to me, and whose names taste like new flavours on my tongue when I say them to myself. Saddening because of the Malaysian Airlines plane that got shot down just four days before, taking 298 innocent people with it. Editorials and articles by experts have stopped making sense. Politics and Religion – of the sort that hurt or kill people – make even less sense.

I looked out the porthole at the night sky. There was a sliver of a moon, and the stars were much brighter from 12,250 meters higher than where I usually see them from.

The Big Dipper was in the distance, sort of behind the plane. Auriga, the Charioteer, was just above the horizon with its big star Capella shining like a diamond. The bow of Perseus was just outside the porthole, and the Andromeda galaxy ‘near’ it was so clearly visible that the light years between us seemed diminished.

We met the rising sun as we flew east over Afghanistan, towards Islamabad. It was a fiery sunrise, all crimson and gold.

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As we hovered over the outskirts of Bangalore it felt good to see the red soil and green fields again. Home!

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Hiking – and waterfalls

Beautiful weather in NJ, perfect for hiking.

We did a short 3.5 mile hike over some of the farms on Monmouth Battlefield state park on Tuesday afternoon, walking through apple and cherry orchards and cornfields.

On Thursday we drove to Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. We saw three waterfalls that morning, each one pretty in a different way: Buttermilk Falls and Silver Thread Falls in NJ, and Dingmans Falls in Pennsylvania.

In the afternoon we walked down part of the McDade hiking trail for a distance of about 2.6 miles – up to a point and back. It was a warm day, though the sun did go behind clouds often enough to give us some respite from the heat. There were a lot of irritating insects that hovered right in front of our faces and tried to get in our eyes and noses, so we had to constantly swipe them away.  At the starting point of the trail there was a warning put up about ticks, so I pulled the sleeves of my shirt down to my wrists and hoped for the best.

Yesterday, we spent the morning walking around Bushkill Falls in Pennsylvania.  2 ½ miles of partly trail and partly boardwalk. Very picturesque. Lots of families with excited little kids livening up the place.

After a short break for food we drove to a point from where we could access a part of the Appalachian Trail. Trekking up Mt. Minsi was good exercise. It was neither too hard nor too easy – just right to give you a sense of achievement. Some of it was flat ground, but there were lots of parts where you had to scramble up boulders too. There were small white paint marks on trees or on rocks at points where you might get confused. There was tree cover almost throughout, and a light breeze as well. Climbing to the top and back down was about 6 miles. A quarter of the way up we met a man called Scott who was doing the whole Appalachian Trail; he had covered 1,300 miles since April, starting from Georgia towards Maine! He had been a jail warden for thirty years and wanted to get all of that out of his system.

The view of Mt. Tammany from the top of Mt. Minsi was “totally worth it” as a bunch of kids we met coming down the hill told us.

When we reached the bottom of the hill again we rested on a bench with a view of  Lake Lenape which had lily pads floating on it, and very loud frogs croaking in the shallow water at the edge.