45. At Last I’ve Been Dealt the Perfect Hand – and the remains of Friday

January 1959

“What?!”  was all that would escape my brother’s lips.  Both my uncle and brother were clearly shocked by my answer and neither said anything more.  

I can sense my brother wants to ask me why but just couldn’t.  So I offered to tell them both why I said nothing.  ‘I didn’t want to jinx my plans,’ plainly said.

My brother and uncle still wrapped in a fog of disbelief as the rest of the staff came back into the workshop to congratulate me.  I felt a little numb.

I excused myself and went to the boss’s office to inform him.  “Nand I knew you were up to something but I had no idea it was this!  When are you set to leave?”   I told Mr. W that I had to go over to the Union Steamship Company and check for sailing dates and then I’d know for sure.  

‘The sooner the better’ was all I could think.  I assured him it could be as soon as the next few days.

Mr. W offered me leave of my duties and told me he could send my final paycheck home with my brother.  ”I expect you may need some extra time to do a little shopping, spend time with the family and oh yes, pack up your suitcase.”

He shook my hand warmly, other hand on my arm, complimenting me on my work performance and character.  He wished me tons of good fortune.  I was released from my job with his good intentions.

I went immediately across the street to the travel agency -the Union Steamship Company.  I inquired as to the very next available sailing to America.

I was told a ship was due in from the south; the P. & O. Liner Orsova, sailing northeast towards North America.  He double checked his books and informed me there would be a cabin available this Sunday for the 5p sailing.  This cost me £62.

He then told me I would have to disembark in Honolulu, leaving the ship there and head for the airport.  I paid £52 for a one-way ticket on a Pan American flight destined for San Francisco.  

Now that I had obtained my passage out of Suva, I was pretty sure I had all I would need to begin this new chapter in my life.  I caught the bus going straight home.  

C - backyard nostalgia -signed

It’s Friday afternoon.

I took off my shoes, freshened up and then went into the living room.  I sat down and placed the now somewhat notorious envelope on the table and called a family meeting.  The household members gathered.

‘I am going to America.’  I announced – nobody believed me.

My mother said “Why are you saying these things?  You’re always talking of leaving, stop this nonsense!”  

By 4p the entire clan had gathered at my house to say goodbye.  It was an afternoon of mixed emotions.   There was on and off crying going through my family home, especially coming from my mother.  Then my brother came home from work.  There was definitely a sense of sadness about; quite different than the previous times I had left my home.

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31. I Need A Ship to England, Not A Buzzard’s Flight!

There was an international crisis* in the Middle East, now in full swing, which heavily involved the Suez Canal – 1956

While it certainly may seem like I’d been miles away from my quest for transportation to London well, you’d be half right.  To be sure I was distracted yet the thought process of ‘how to’ hadn’t left me for very long at any given point.  I often thought of Hemma and what she might be doing at that very moment.

Strolling past various shops and businesses on my everyday walks about the city, I took notice for the first time, a travel agency.  I must’ve missed it the times before when walking by; talking busily with Jittu no doubt.  At any rate I thought I could enquire in there about a ship to England.  I went inside.

I was greeted by a nice young man who introduced himself as Parwez.  I told him of my need.  ‘One ship to England please!’  Feeling as though I were about to enjoy a cup of tea, we got comfortable in our dialogue of information which began with basic questions about what I needed, my budget and possible travel dates.

This man was of a gentle disposition.  In a more casual tone of conversation I came to find out he was a Parsi fellow and before I knew it, I believed I’d made another friend.  

He told me he’d keep watch for something which would suit my needs and my wallet.  Parwez suggested I should return to his agency in a few days to see what’s transpired from his research.

The next time we met, Parwez informed me there weren’t any ships going to London at this time due to the current crisis.  What?  “Well, yes and no.”  The Suez Canal had become off limits for the ships in the wake of turmoil between England, America and Egypt over the control of the Canal, or something like that.  

I must’ve appeared to have fallen into a jar of pickles.  He continued, “Probably others as well but it’s no good my friend, not right now, I’m sorry.”   

In this fact he added, ships weren’t traveling to Europe at all, unless one took the voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.  The difference of nearly 4,000 nautical miles with a price tag to match was not an option.   

I of course could take an aeroplane however that too carried a steep price tag … I seriously wasn’t going to sell that many theatre tickets!  It didn’t take long to exhaust whatever options there were.

I trusted Parwez to be a fair and honest man so when he looked me straight in the eye and said, “My friend you are here in Bombay for a loooong time!”  I knew this statement to be true.  My heart sank.  

Chin-up!  I’d just had to find another way to leave India but I wasn’t so sure which direction I would be heading next in order to do it.  

Leading up to this point in my life, I realized I had become a bit plucky.  I had youth on my side and I was gaining confidence so I took more chances to make sure my life would become anything but dull.  I held my determination and I just knew I’d come up with something.

I’d still drop in every now and again to visit with Parwez at the agency.  Hoping for some surprise news of travel?  Maybe.  

Going about my business still exploring around Bombay, there was a particular place where I noticed some really large birds; I’m not sure why I hadn’t seen them when I first arrived in the city.   Maybe I wasn’t looking up?  

At any rate it was on a hill where these giant birds swooped, soared and called out their eerie cry.  They kept to this particular spot up there and needless to say, I was intrigued.  

As Jittu and I rode through town in an auto rickshaw or a bus we witnessed this spectacle, seemingly often if we were looking that way, and eventually concluding that we must find out what was going on up there.  

Neither one of us had a clue and we just wondered about it between ourselves.  We didn’t know these giant birds were vultures deeply involved in a feeding frenzy.

One day while I was having lunch with Parwez and for whatever reason, I suddenly thought on the birds so I asked him about them.  He smiled, then looking a little more serious he said, “Matter of fact, I do know.”  

He then went on to illustrate a spine-tingling scene.  Parwez told me what we saw up on the hill was a sacred and private Parsi cemetery.  It was a fairly tall circular structure made of either brick or stone, I can’t remember which and it was the custom of his people to place the dead bodies in there; exposed!

Seeing my puzzled expression, in order to help me grasp the full picture he was painting, he used the phrase ‘open tables’ in order to help define the word he then used; he called it a Dakhma.  I shouldn’t have asked!  Now this will haunt me for goodness knows how long.

🌞  Here they would decompose at the mercy of the sun and be devoured by those scavenging birds; unique system indeed.  I was horrified in fact but I listened anyway.  Oh boy!  I couldn’t wait to share this with Jittu. 

Parwez described to me how the Parsi people’s precept is understood; as the deceased body is deemed unclean and therefore would be polluting nature; offensive to at least 3 of the natural earth elements.  

It was all very disagreeable to my ears but I did my best not to react in any way as with Parwez being Parsi, I did not wish to offend my new friend.  

I certainly could not deny that the world had something new to teach me each and everyday.

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*As you know I am not here to discuss bygone accounts of the world and such.  I share my own narrative so I will merely point out that this course of history and a few others, did indeed affect my own story to some degree and that’s why they’ll show up periodically throughout my memoirs.

Parwez       once again a fictitious name for a true character.

on a hill       came to recognize as Malabar Hill: the very same hill where I’d view the Queen’s Necklace from the Kamala Nehru park.  Of course the cemetery was at a different location of this hill.

private       as in not publicly accessible for photos, curiosity or kicks, nor did I think anyone would want to just ‘visit’ for the heck of it; I knew I didn’t want to see it.

unique system       Not too long ago while watching a travel documentary, I saw that the people of Tibet and a handful of other Chinese provinces did something similar; they take their dead higher up the mountain, chopping the body into smaller, bite-sized pieces (for wild mountain animals) for nature to be fed.

3. Dreams Are Visible Over the Horizon

I am a teenager now.   My curiosity is wildly stimulated not only by my own vivid imagination but seeing those cargo ships coming in near every week and the urbane passenger luxury ships calling to port -at the rate of four to five per month- left sparsely an idle moment in this youth’s fanciful thoughts.

Convenient for me I had a friend who worked for the only travel agency in Suva.  This fellow very much enjoyed the food from my house and so for a few favors I exchanged roti and curries.  Jackpot!

I was now supplied with travel brochures, posters, schedules and best of all, passes to go on board the ships -passenger or cargo- as a visitor, yes passes!  These items were extremely valuable to me and if you’ve read up to this point from the beginning, you know this.

Wherever I would be wandering in my town and for whatever purpose that day, I’d keep my watchful eyes fixed on the Pacific Ocean.  Never mind the Harbor Master being the first to bring in the ships; for me it was my appreciation in what those vessels at port represented and that is how I (metaphorically) brought the ships in to the Port of Suva.

🚢Some of the ships I recall were the U S Flagships, SS Mariposa and the SS Monterey.  The P&O Liners were a constant to the Fiji Islands.  And you can be certain if there was a ship headed this way and I was at all able, I’d make a bee-line straight down to the docks!

Even if it was a cargo ship on a brief overnight stop for supplies on its way to Hawaii, New Zealand or Australia just for example, I could almost guarantee myself a meet with some of the crew.  I’d arrive at port with overflowing eagerness and full of enquiries.

Usually only some of the troupe came ashore.  I was there to greet and be helpful; perhaps recommending a comfortable spot for a perfect meal, steer them to a decent tailor, an honest souvenir trader or perhaps even to the watchmaker-jeweler’s shop where my brother worked!

If I had enough free time in the morning, I’d use my pass to go aboard.  Otherwise I could wait –barely- till the early afternoon.  On the day-only ships, I’d have to off board an hour prior to their 5 o’clock evening sailing time.  That’s all right because I knew another ship was soon to dock within the week!

If these people hadn’t been here before, they’d ask me something about my island and after providing the best answer I could, then I felt it was my turn so I’d ask questions about where they came from.

I’d ask them to describe for me some of what they have witnessed in their travels and well you can imagine how this continued to fuel my dreams!  The majority of these people were only too glad to converse with me; maybe it was my dashing good looks?!

As every day came and went I soon realized this hunger was indeed a zealous fire; one in which I simply had to explore the world surrounding me, no turning back, in order to find any contentment with my life, ever!

My spirited resolve having given birth to a ceaseless passion, I knew I could write my own destiny; at least I’d give it my best shot.  Oh how I coveted a life beyond what I thought was my best dream!

Looking out to the horizon and catching sight of a ship -which looked like a small toy- moved me in such a way that I realized nothing could hold me back from aspiring to my full height.  These lofty dreams were going to carry me out to sea.

For the most part I am now stepping into a different circle from that of my recent boyhood island life.  I find myself making many friends from all over and this gained for me quite a few pen pals as well.  They were mostly from New Zealand, Australia and America.

I had gone aboard the SS Mariposa one morning and I remember an especially kind gentleman; I first saw him standing on deck, uniformed and talking with some fellow officers of the ship.  It must’ve been the way he carried himself I guess, and I remember thinking how important and impressive he appeared, daring to believe he’d make a great friend!

Carefree as I was and not at all shy, I approached them.  They all greeted me and the light communications began.  I recall feeling joy at the fact they made time to speak with me, a young starry-eyed boy.  I continually made eye contact with him as we all spoke, which led to our one-on-one conversation and he introduced himself as *Stéphane Vieuxmaire.   I almost immediately and confidently told him that I knew I could work on this ship someday.

“Of course you could!” he enthusiastically said to this eager heart and with a warming smile to be sure.  This wonderful man eventually became a close friend to the family.  Stéphane was of French descent and he was the 1st Mate, Chief Officer.  With his encouraging reply, I could see myself standing beside them on deck, uniformed and all!

And you know this vision stayed within me for many years: if not as an officer then for sure a world traveling passenger!

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Thanks again for coming around for another dose.  We wish for you all a wonderful gathering in thanks with all your loved ones and at least one delicious meal shared.

And if you cannot be together at this time, please send the LOVE out there to them, to all!  Here’s to my loved one currently deployed: away for his birthday, thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years – come home safely my dearest, all of you!

Until next Sunday night, after the stuffing and cranberry has run out, tune in again for the continuing chronicles!  And I look forward to your comments 😉

*Stéphane Vieuxmaire is a fictitious name to protect the privacy of the very real person in this life history.