All aboard the T/N Sydney
With all the travel documents in my possession, I finally started the first leg of my long journey to America on a small Italian ship, the T/N Sydney. My spirits were high. One of the pleasures of taking a journey by ship was standing on the deck and watching the waves of the ocean. On clear days the sun’s rays reflected from the water, emitting bright light. Sometimes the waves would come rolling toward the ship; other times the water would be tranquil, inspiring moments of reflection on the journey I had undertaken and the anticipated ups and downs — just like the waves. There were more than 1,000 passengers on the ship, but it didn’t seem crowded. We didn’t bump against each other, and were able to enjoy some time alone.
This was my first long solo voyage. When I was in high school and college, I had spent a couple of summers visiting my uncle Nana Mama and aunt Baby Maushi in Bombay. I had travelled from Hyderabad to Bombay by train, in third class, the lowest of the classes of accommodation. The compartments had been crowded to the hilt, and I could barely manage to find a seat. Many a times a personhad to travel in the sitting position all night, without any space to move his legs. Now that I had my own bed in the ship’s cabin, it seemed like a luxury. We had room to sit around and chitchat in our cabins or we could roam anywhere on the ship to alleviate boredom during the 13-day journey.
Our ship, the T/N Sydney was owned and operated by Italy’s Flotta Lauro lines. It was about 493 feet long and 69 feet wide. There were two classes of passengers: first class and tourist class. The first class occupied two of the top superstructure decks while the tourist class was on the three decks below. The first class had a bar, a card room, a promenade deck with lounge chairs with end tables, and a spacious dining room. The tourist class had a dining room, a lounge bar, and a reading and writing room with easy chairs. Both classes had a swimming pool and open-air cinemas.
Reading Writing Room
I wondered how many cabins were on the lower deck and whether all of them had three bunk beds like the one I had. Mine didn’t even have a window or a porthole.
My cabinmates, Mohan and Narendra, were students from north India. I formed an immediate bond with them. Mohan, from Poona, was lean and taller than me and Narendra, from Uttar Pradesh, was about the same height as me, five feet four inches, and wore dark black glasses like me. They occupied the bunk beds below mine. Both were engineering students going for advanced studies in the U.K. It didn’t take us long to become friends and exchange tid-bits about how long it took each of us to make travel arrangements and which degrees we were going to pursue. Mohan was Maharastrian, so sometimes we spoke in Marathi.
When there wasn’t much to do we wandered to the card room or the upper deck. None of us drank alcohol so there was no sense going to the bar. We were also conscious about spending money and didn’t want to splurge. The drinks weren’t free. After a couple of days of sailing, when there was no one around, especially in afternoons, I snuck in to the adjoining bathroom that had two large sinks to handwash my underwear. I didn’t feel comfortable doing this with people around.
One afternoon, Mohan, Narendra and I were sitting together on the deck with some young German passengers. They were men with crewcut hair and appeared to be older than us. They told us that in Germany nobody drank water — they only drank beer. They wanted us to teach them some Indian words. Narendra taught them some Hindi curse words as a joke, which they tried to repeat with funny accents. I felt sorry for them and hoped they didn’t repeat those words, especially in front of Indian ladies.
We stayed together for meals that were served on the upper deck, near a dining room that had small tables, with white table cloths, big enough to hold four to six people. A strong aroma of Italian bread filled our nostrils as we passed this dining room. I wasn’t used to this smell and it nauseated me.
Our dining room wasn’t large, but it had two tables where we sat together community style. A couple of waiters typically brought rice and daal (lentil soup) in big containers and served it on our plates with ladles. At first we thought this was fun, akin to eating together in a university cafeteria. But when the waiters appeared rude and condescending in talking with us, we began to get a feeling that somehow we were being treated differently than other passengers on the ship. Most of the time, it would be just the Indian students in this dining room. One day I found a European man sitting across from me. Perhaps he lost his way or just wanted to try a different setting. When I wanted to add some salt to my food I reached for a saltshaker in the middle of the table. The man slapped my hand with such force that I was taken aback. He didn’tsay a word, but I could seethe disdain on his face. I had no idea what I had done to upset him. I withdrew may hand and continued eating.
Perhaps some other students came across similar experiences. Toward the end of the first week the discomfort overthe treatment of the Indian students in the dining room got to a level that we seriously considered complaining to the captain of the ship. Two days later we did just that. The captain was gracious and promised to look into the matter. Things improved a bit later. For example, during a safety and fire drill the captain stood by some of us to take pictures. I had a picture taken with him. I don’t know why I put on my suit for the picture. We were also invited to attend a Christmas Party on the upper deck.
There were some enjoyable moments during the journey, like evenings at the movies. I saw The Mummy, in black and white, starring Boris Karloff. It was one of those classic movies that I had missed in Hyderabad. More than being scared it was a joy to see Karloff in his memorable role.
The choices to see an English movie in Hyderabad were limited. There was only one small 80-seat theatre, the Embassy near the Hussain Sagar Reservoir, that regularly showed English movies. It was on the second floor of a much larger 400-seat theater, the Liberty, which showed Hindi films. It was here that I saw movies like Ivanhoe and An Affair to Remember. Otherwise, we had to take an hour bus ride to Secunderabad to see a Hollywood movie. Sometimes Rikshawallahs, who often did not understand a word of English, would attend these movies just to see the kissing scenes. Kissing in public used to be, and still is, a taboo in India.
Map of Suez Region Ships crossing Suez Canal
People sitting on the banks of Suez Canal to watch passing ships
Because the canal is not wide enough to allow the passage of two ships, it takes between 11 and 16 hours for the ship to go through.
During this time, we had a choice of staying on the ship during the daylong operation or take a tour of the Pyramids of Giza and then catch the ship on the north side of the canal in late evening.
I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see Cairo and the pyramids, one of the Seven Wonders of the World that I had read about in high school. Early in morning we left by bus. It was a bright, warm, and sunny day. Upon reaching the pyramids I saw about a half dozen people wearing loose-fitting clothes and turbans, lined up near the bus stop with their camels. One of the men approached me and started talking in a local dialect. I had no idea what he was saying. He had his left palm on his left ear and he was waving his right hand up and down as if he was begging for something. It turned out he was offering a ride on his camel. As soon as he helped me climb onto the camel he started his hand motion again. I had seen this in India, especially outside temples where it is nearly impossible to get across hordes of beggars asking for money. I paid him a few European coins I had, which made him happy. The camel ride was bumpy. I went up and down with each step the camel took. Several times I thought I would lose my balance and be thrown off, but the man holding the harness didn’t seem concerned. I was glad the ride was over when we reached the pyramids.
We had an English-speaking guide to explain the intricate structure and design of the pyramids. It was hard to imagine how they could have built the elaborate living quarters inside what seemed to be triangular solid cones from outside.
After the visit to the pyramids we were driven to a restaurant in Cairo for lunch. Cairo was about a half-hour drive from the pyramids. The streets and houses in Cairo appeared like those in India but a majority of people wore the traditional long robes. We entered the restaurant through a large metal gate where we were greeted by a doorman who was tall, dark, and heavy set and wore a green full length robe with orange border. I selected my dishes carefully. I was a strict vegetarian so I only ate rice and vegetables. I was surprised that the spices in the rice tasted as good as in India.
When we returned to the ship in the evening it had already crossed the Suez Canal. A one day outing outside the confinement of the ship was refreshing.
After thirteen days of sailing, we reachedGenoa, Italy, on January 1, 1963. There was a New Year’s Eve party on the upper deck and the Captain had made sure that we were invited. A number of games requiring group participation were played, but none of us participated. We just stood and watched.
Our itinerary included transferring to a train taking us to Calais, France, where we would take a ferry across the English Channel to Dover, and then take another train to London.
“Take all your bags to the upper deck. You will be transported to the train station,” I heard a ship employee say as he went around deck. I noticed my cabin mates moving around and gathering their belongings. I should have done the same thing, but I was sick to my stomach. The strong smell of food from upstairs and the constant rocking of the ship had given me motion sickness. I felt nauseated and I had a headache — I thought I was going to throw up. I was so weak I couldn’t get up. Who could I turn to? I thought I was going to be left alone on the ship. I felt like a lost child in a crowded station separated from his parents.
Mohan noticed my plight and packed my bag. He even held my hand and carried my bag as he took me upstairs.
Once I was off the ship I felt better. We were given packaged food to take with us on the train. It was some kind of sandwich and a boiled egg. I didn’teat anything. I simply curled up my legs and sat in the train until we reached Calais, France. By the end of the train ride I felt good and was able to carry my bag on to the ferry for the hour and a half ride to cross the English Channel and land in Dover, England.
- The description and photographs of the T/N Sydney ship were obtained from the web site http://www.ssmaritime.com/roma–sydney1.htm.
- The names Mohan and Narendra are not the real names. I used these names, for lack of memory, to keep the flow in the story.
- Suez Canal facts are at http://www.touregypt.net/suezcanal.htm.
- The photos of the movie posters were obtained for Internet sources.