1956 was the year that marked a sea change in my life. I had to leave a private grade school to attend a public high-school that was so poor that our classroom only had three walls, the fourth being chicken-wiring that prevented the children from leaving but let the cold air in. It was also the year in which a plastic surgeon of Hollywood fame tried to mend my broken nose by removing a bony bump that prevented me from breathing and replacing my mangled septum with some dead person’s cartilage. It was the year in which I learned that the word virgin did not only refer to Guadalupe, the dark Madonna revered by Mexican Catholics but also to me on account of my intact hymen. That was also the year that confirmed that I was tone-deaf when our new music mistress, a Mezzo-soprano from the Mexico City Opera, while classifying the voices of her new charges shook her head rather hastily when I predictably struck the wrong note. That was also the year in which I lost the only home I had ever known when my mother traded it for a passage on a slow boat to India where my father awaited us to start a new life.
The biggest change got a jump-start when we boarded the SS Francesco Morosini in Veracruz, a cargo ship that picked up sugar and molasses in the Caribbean and took it to Italy to be converted into rum-flavoured gelato, or so I liked to think. It was a crossing that would take us forty-three days, during fifteen of which we would not sight land.
There were only six passengers on board, including my mother, my older sister, a middle-aged French woman, and a Belgian sex-pot who would be unceremoniously dumped off at the nearest port for disturbing the morale- or was it the morals ?- of the crew. I also remember a man in his eighties who swam every day to keep fit while his nurse-companion hovered around the tiny swimming pool ready to provide assistance. The swimming pool doubled as the cargo hold opening when the ship docked. I often wondered whether the sea water and our sweat could filter down making those molasses taste like taffy.
I got my first tooth abscess at high seas. The Captain sent me to the engine-room mechanic who was also the on-board nurse. At first I was not averse to the idea of his pulling my tooth since I was eager to meet this man with the swarthy skin, curly hair and soulful eyes. He led me to his cabin where he opened a glass cabinet full of medical equipment. And that is when I got a good look at his hands blackened by engine grease and I politely declined. By the time we got to Italy my gums were so soggy that the Egyptian dentist who extracted my tooth did not even have to use anaesthesia.
There was nothing much to do on board except swim in the tiny pool, eat, drink (if you were an adult) and stare at the sea. I would observe the dolphins that accompanied us on our journey and when they were absent, I would stare into the depths of the dark waters. One day a sailor warned me off since marine lore has it that the sea can hypnotise you and lure you into its bosom. I heeded his warning and dropped my favourite pair of earrings into the water instead.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. The sea can be cruel. On the 25th of July the SS Andrea Doria, the pride of Italy’s passenger fleet, send out a distress signal after it collided with a Swedish vessel. Our own ship made an abrupt turn and went full steam ahead, but other vessels had arrived before us to provide succour. Another near miss was a giant whale that narrowly escaped the Francesco Morosini’s propellers.
That was also the year of my first love. I was fourteen and he was 24, but our age difference didn’t matter since he was completely oblivious to my crush. I became Giancarlo’s confidante, though, and he would sometimes whip out the picture of his Egyptian wife and their blond curly haired boy while he told me how much he missed them.
I made another friend whose name was Scarlatti. He was an old sea hand who had been travelling back and forth between the Caribbean and Italy for so many years that he no longer knew where his Italian ended and his Spanish began. I helped him paint the ship during the fortnight that we were at high seas. He repaid me by making me fluent in Spanish-flavoured Italian.
We docked for a week in Casablanca which gave the passengers plenty of time to visit the city. My mother, the French woman, my sister and I visited the Kasbah by ourselves, to the horror of the sailors who warned us of the dangers that lurked in the Arab quarters. Nobody bothered us there, but a young boy grabbed my leg while we were sitting at a sidewalk café in the French Sector. He insisted on polishing my shoes, which certainly wanted some buffing, but I refused, jerking my leg away and hitting him accidentally. He let out a string of curses in Arabic but the French soldiers sitting next to us pretended not to have witnessed anything. Later that day, while returning to the ship, two policemen tried to arrest my mother for attempting to kidnap “two Arab girls”. My blonde, green-eyed Belgian mother had to produce our passports to prove we were indeed her daughters. They had taken her to be French. Morocco had recently obtained home rule and then full independence but tension between former colonizers and the colonized was still high.
Our ship docked in Naples at a funny angle on account of a mine left over from World War II.
After three weeks in Italy we boarded a passenger ship headed to India via the Suez Canal. While the ship waited in the locks some passengers took tour buses to visit the pyramids but my mother stopped us from accompanying them because “something was about to happen”. She was right. When we reached Bombay we discovered we had narrowly missed the shutting down of the Suez Canal by Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser in retaliation for Anglo-French policy in the region. The cold war was heating up.
When we docked in Bombay I caught sight of my father who looked so small in the huge crowd. Many seas separated me from my birthplace and life would never be the same, but I had finally arrived.