On a Wing and a Wave

 Many years ago, wanting to break the long flight from Sydney to London, I decided to stop in Goa, on the west coast of India. The Oberoi Hotel at Bogmallo Beach had been a comfortable base and while Goa was delightful, the stop-over was not as restful as I’d anticipated.

 My first mistake was not to fly to Goa, but in Bombay I had caught the night bus, a 17-hour journey taking longer than our flight from Down Under, but only the start of encounters with local transport.

The former Portuguese colony is best known for the great Bom Jesus Church enshrining the body of Saint Francis Xavier, canonised by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. Ancient churches, forts, paddy-fields and palm fringed beaches were other attractions, but sightseeing was a challenge, if not a veritable expedition.

In daily sorties from the Oberoi, I had travelled on 21 buses, 5 punts, two motor-scooter taxis and a taxi-cab. Now ready to depart, to avoid returning overland to Bombay, I had booked a passage on one of the old Mogul line steamers plying the Malabar Coast.

“Goa-Bombay 24 hours,” said the agent handing me a one-way ticket on the 2000-ton Konkan Shakti. Perfect, I thought. I will arrive rested, with ample time between 8am when we dock and my London flight, at 12.20 midnight.

Awaking early, I ate a final mango and enjoyed a shower. The stage was set for a peaceful departure although I still had to catch three buses to reach Panjim, Goa’s mellow old capital on the Mandovi river.

I knew the Bogmallo bus left at 7am because I’d seen it on morning walks.  Today the receptionist declared it came at 7.15 am, but the night porter disagreed. The first bus to Panjim goes at either 7.30 or after 8.30 depending on when the driver finishes breakfast, he told us.

As I waited outside the hotel, a passing fishermen added his own version of the timetable. The bus definitely went at 7.45am because I send my fish on it, he insisted. Urgent honking proved everyone wrong when pouring smoke, the bus roared up at 8.15.

Throwing my backpack on the roof, I found a seat between two Raponkar women  nursing baskets of  prawns. Barefoot, they wore red scarves, gold nose-rings and floral-patterned saris. I was in sandals, a denim hat, blue shirt and white linen shorts pressed especially for the trip by the Oberoi laundry.

Bumping along the road we reached the old commercial port of Vasco da Gama for our first change. This bus was full, but thirty passengers off our bus managed to squeeze on where a sign said: 19 Standing Passengers Only.

At the Zuari river I jumped off to board a punt. I had made this journey several times during my stay, but today the motor failed in midstream.

I imagined a small paragraph in the Daily TelegraphSeventy Goans and one tourist, believed Australian, washed out to sea, but just as abruptly as it had stopped, the engine sputtered to life and on reaching the far side, we leapt off  and  rushed for bus number three.

The dock in Panjim was packed with passengers and stacked with mountains of baggage and the only foreigner in my clean white shorts, I retreated into a café for a cup of tea.

Just as it reached my table, everyone stood up, grabbed their belongings and charged out —the Konkan Shakti had arrived and dropping anchor, she swung round on her chain and hit us with a stench of urine.

As soon as she was close enough to the quay passengers swarmed off like ants. Cabin trunks, bicycles, school desks and a sewing machine were handed down and trussed crabs, bags of rice, boxes of mangoes and bed rolls were handed up.

Joining passengers rushed up the gangplank, but I followed a statelier group using stairs to the Upper Deck where a uniformed officer examined my ticket and located my cabin, starboard, aft.

Clean, if basic, it had a red plastic rose stuck in the mirror and a picture of Gandhi on the wall. Shutting the door, I switched on the fan and collapsed on my bunk as hooting mournfully the Konkan Shakti slipped downstream and out to sea.

At Fort Aguada, we set a course due north. I sat in a deck chair reading and looking up to wave at the occasional fishing boat. I reflected it was likely that neither our Captain, nor even God himself knew the number of passengers, but we were twenty Upper Deck, all Indian except myself, feeling vaguely like Dame Peggy Ashcroft in the circumstances.

At three o`clock we heaved to off Deogad, one of four obscure ports of call along Goa’s 65-mile coastline where more passengers were rowed out in long-boats. Afternoon tea was wheeled out at four and at five o’clock, to my great astonishment, a loudspeaker announced a game of “Housie-Housie”.

Dinner of mulligatawny soup, chicken curry and bread and butter custard was served at seven o`clock and after a stroll around the deck, I retired early in preparation for the day ahead.

Crewmen hawking over the side disturbed me periodically throughout the night and just when I had dropped off to sleep, I was awakened by the falsetto voice of an Indian child singing “Old Macdonald has a farm-Ei-Ei-O`.

Passing the Gateway to India, we nudged into Bombay at 8am, exactly as the ticket agent said. The child`s mother pointed out the bus for passengers in transit to Bombay Airport Hotel where I retrieved my suitcase from the left luggage-room and took out a tracksuit for weather in England described as a ‘severe cold front’ in the Times of India.

The hours passed slowly until 21.00 when I took the hotel bus to the airport only to find my flight, AI 101 was overbooked.

“But we can route you via Moscow to Birmingham,” said the Air India Manager helpfully, but the thought of catching another bus — from Birmingham to London —overcame me and I sat down on my case and smoked a cigarette which you could at the time.

One hour later, airline staff suddenly discovered a seat available. I must hurry up! AI 101 is departing for Delhi, Dubai and London! Last call!

Flopping into seat 51C, I decided to sleep until Dubai where I would get off and buy duty free. But it was not to be when approaching Delhi, we were requested to de-plane taking all our hand luggage.

“What`s the problem?” I asked a steward.

“Captain has message of a bomb on board,” he replied.

AI 101 circled New Delhi for twenty minutes in preparation for an emergency landing, but we set down smoothly and I descended the steps into a ring of fire engines.

We were mothers and babies from Uttar Pradesh, promised brides from Maharashtra, Sikh students en route to Canada, one stretcher case and a grim-faced businessman who had missed a seat on British Airways.

360 passengers off AI 101 filed into the airport and filled orange plastic chairs in Delhi Transit Lounge. Two hours later, given cards for free refreshments, I studied the man making tea.  He dropped fifty tea-bags into a large chrome jug, added a tin of condensed milk, poured in hot water and beat it like a carpet.

Could I have a cup without sugar, I asked quietly?

“All have sugar”, he wagged his head.

“Diabetic,” I lied.

“Diabetic, diabetic,” the word was whispered around the transit lounge and after an animated debate in Hindi with interjections in Gujrati and Punjabi, I received a cup of tea, with milk and no sugar, kindly sent over by the bar.

Carrying it carefully to a corner, I peeled a banana from Panjim. Then spreading out The Times of India, I lay down on the floor but crying children and boarding calls made sleep impossible.

“This is the final call for Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Kathmandu,” was repeated like a litany until suddenly the same voice announced “Royal Nepal Airlines regrets to announce cancellation of flight to Kathmandu. Passengers to re-present next week.”

Feeling fortunate I was not going to Nepal, I pushed up my eye mask and saw our flight  posted for 10am, so standing up, I stepped over other passengers to go and wash.

The Ladies had been kept clean all night by a woman attendant hurling buckets of water over the lavatories. She handed me some paper, studied me cleaning my teeth and folded my last rupee in the tip of her sari. I was applying lipstick when screams in the transit hall indicated our flight call.

I joined the crush in the departure lounge where we confronted three security women who said they couldn’t check us through because they had lost their rubber stamp.

Distraught middle class Indian memsahibs around me made dreadful comments about bureaucracy and the state of India in general and taking this cue, I told the security women that one must look for their stamp, another should check us in and the third should prevent more women squeezing into the cubicle.

Thankfully it worked and in my warm tracksuit, I stepped out into the searing heat of June in north India. A coach took us out to identify our luggage under a wing, but we sat on board for another hour waiting for passenger Shrivasutra to identify his suitcase.

When he doesn’t appear, we leave it on the tarmac and taxi out for take-off to Dubai and London.

On reaching a cruising altitude of 37,000 feet, the captain apologised for the delay and offered us drinks courtesy of Air India.

A stewardess placed a large cognac on my tray and nine hours later with 29 buses, 6 punts, 2 scooters, a beaten up taxi-cab and a steamer behind me, I landed at  London Heathrow.


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Traders on Ocean Road in Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania

CNN was part of my old travelling life. I have watched its broadcasts in everything from five-star hotels to Uzbek tea-houses; even in Bedouin tents on a television plugged into a generator.

CNN provided entertainment when it was unsafe to go out in cities such as Beirut or Karachi and its coverage of the Gulf War made dramatic viewing in Bombay, but for novelty value nothing matched the circumstances of its transmission of the Clinton tapes in Dar-es-Salaam, the former capital of German East Africa.

The venerable YMCA is still there

Unable to find a reasonably priced western-style hotel, I was staying at the YMCA. It was central and cheap—only  $7 single or $12 double —and it was scrubbed from top to bottom by a team of women on their knees.

And they accepted women guests!

Good, I said. At that price, I’ll take a double room, but please bring me a towel, a glass and a mosquito net with a few less holes.

The recent bombing of the US embassy has seen a big drop in backpackers said the boy who brought my suitcase upstairs on his head. I had the bathroom to myself and unpacking after the eleven hour flight from London, I went down to watch the news.

The Askari Monument, memorial to African soldiers who fought in the British campaign against the German Army in East Africa in World I.

It was the night in 1998 that CNN broadcast President Clinton’s testimony in the Monica Lewinsky saga and while I may have been the only guest at the YMCA, half of Dar-es-Salaam was crammed into the TV room.

Office workers, curio-sellers, street sweepers and taxi-drivers, even a policeman had popped in for the occasion. In the front row of chairs sat the YMCA manager, the accountant and the night watchman heads craned to get a better view of a television screwed some ten feet up on the wall.

As Mr. Clinton recounted his version of the story, some of the audience had made comments in English and since Swahili is the lingua franca on the coast of East Africa, I assumed they were for my benefit.

Most African traders would sell their soul for an office or a shop

What is all the fuss? asked the YMCA receptionist who looked all of twelve. Men will be men chuckled someone else and turning, I asked of no one in particular, would he do that in his office? That is the point I repeated for emphasis.  It was in the Oval  Office.

To Africans forced to conduct their business on the sidewalk an office is almost sacrosanct and whispered around the room, the word left a palpable shock which saw us watch the final hour in silence.

Street scene in Dar es-Salaam, old German capital of Tanganyika

‘Why is your TV so high up?’ I asked the manager on my way to bed.

‘It will disappear otherwise. Good night Mama,’  he replied.

 In transit to Ngorongoro or Mount Kilimanjaro, most travellers skip Dar es-Salaam   but I found ‘Dar’ as it was affectionately known, a colorful, laidback old port.

Bureau de Change

With a population at that time of some 2 million, it clustered around three central districts: Kivukoni its old colonial heart, Mchafukoge the business hub and Kariakoo, a miscellany of markets and slums.

Lutheran Church, with Gothic spire and terracotta-tiled roof straight out of a Bavarian village

It was especially notable for a number of German colonial buildings of which the Ocean Road Hospital built in 1897 was the grossartige alte Dame of Dar-es-Salaam and I learned to have been born there carried considerable kudos.

Ocean Road, a long avenue lined with coconut palms, passed the hospital and the Moorish-style State House ending at the Fish Market where I soon discovered people hated having their photograph taken.

Crowds waiting to board the old car ferry in Dar es-Salaam

Boys wandered about carrying trays of octopus tentacles, women fried cassava chips on charcoal stoves under the Indian Almond trees. Others roasted cashew nuts and corn cobs and while Jambo!   – the Swahili greeting – was on everyone’s lips, definitely no pichuz!

Appalled by the cooking in the YMCA, I used to walk down Azikiwe Street to the New Africa Hotel for breakfast which cost the same price as my room. I also liked the Gamblers High Tea —tea, cup cakes and jam roly-poly served in its casino between 4-6pm.

Octopus and chill dip, a popular snack in the fish market

Now, more than two decades on, unsurprisingly everything has changed. Gleaming glass skyscrapers have risen above Mchafukoge, a little park has been created around the Askari monument and hydrofoils whisk tourists across to Zanzibar in the blink of an eye.

In catching up to the modern world Dar es-Salaam has lost some of its charm and having decided long ago not to return to places I liked, it joins a  long list of others  visited, some of which are unrecognizable.

Lady enjoying cup of very black tea


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MEMORIES OF RANGIROA, sans touristes.

One of my most treasured travel memories is of a visit to the great atoll of Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Archipelago of French Polynesia.

It was 1969. There were no tourists because there were no hotels. I stayed with Tahitian-French friends who monitored the seismographic station. I had just completed six months work at the Club Mediterranee on Moorea. Responsible for a team of five lazy Tahitian hostesses who spoke no English and several hundred tourists, mainly American, who spoke no French. On learning it was not Club Med policy to carry luggage, one lady even flew straight back to LA. At Christmas the housemaids went on strike and it was left for me to deliver fresh laundry to the guests. It should have been a dream job on an island paradise, but it nearly did my head in and when someone suggested Rangiroa at the end of season, I booked a flight from Tahiti the following day.

Few people had heard of Rangiora before Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki raft grounded there following its epic voyage from Peru in 1947.

The largest atoll in the Pacific, its 300-mile-long coral reef encloses a lagoon, sometimes turquoise, sometimes jade, or aquamarine and literally teeming with fish. On a visit to the Tuamotus, the French marine explorer Jacques Cousteau declared Rangiroa’s lagoon the most beautiful aquarium on earth.

Life was very laid back when I visited in the sixties. Coconuts dropped off the trees and needing to eat, locals plucked a lobster off the ocean side of the reef, or speared a fish in the lagoon. To me, all those years ago, it offered a glimpse of the simple life immortalised in Gauguin’s paintings of Polynesia.

Today, predictably, there are hotels and dive centres so rather than spoil my memory of Rangiroa, I shall find another atoll in the Tuamotus, as yet untouched by tourism…

Roads exist in Rangiroa’s two small villages, Avarotu and Tiputa, but outside these communities, transport is only by boat within the great lagoon.


The sweet scented tiare, or Gardenia taitensis, grows on Rangiroa. and is woven into flower crowns by local Paumotuan women.
A scene reminiscent of a painting by Paul Gauguin taken on Rangiroa in the sixties. Population today is estimated at 2,700 mainly Paumotuan. Note the small dog.
Tropical storm clouds gather over Rangiroa’s great lagoon. The dark patches in the water are coral. You just dive in straight off the reef which is what I did, every day.
Sunset over the great lagoon of Rangiroa, with fish rising.  The Tuamotu Archipelago, is a French collectivity scattered over the Pacific north-east of Tahiti.
I don’t normally post pictures of myself. But here I am, way back in in the sixties, enjoying the simple life in French Polynesia.


Copyright photos: Christine Osborne Pictures

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