Anando Asbei

Finally! I wrote this article on the 18th of March, but due to wordpress problems, I am only able to publish it today (even though the justification button still doesn’t work… -_-)

It is difficult to resume the past five days in an article. Rather impossible. So much has been experienced, so much has been seen, so much has been felt in the soul and in the heart…- Where to begin?

I have had the great chance to experience the Dol Festival in Kushtia, Bangladesh. And it blew my mind and my heart away.

Let’s talk about the man to whom the festival does tribute to, then. Lalon, (লালন) also known as Lalon Sain, Lalon Shah, Lalon Fakir was a Bengali Baul saint, mystic, songwriter, social reformer and thinker. Considered an archetypal icon of Bengali culture, Lalon inspired and influenced many poets, social and religious thinkers including Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, and Allen Ginsberg albeit he “rejected all distinctions of caste and creed”. Widely celebrated as an epitome of religious tolerance, he was also accused of heresy during his lifetime and after his death. In his songs, Lalon envisioned a society where all religions and beliefs would stay in harmony. (…) Every year on the occasion of Dol Festival, thousands of his disciples and devotees assemble at Lalon Akhrah, and pay homage to the departed guru through celebration and discussion of his songs and philosophy for three days. In 2004, Lalon was placed at number 12 in the BBC’s poll of the Greatest Bengali of All Time. (Thank you Wikipedia – read the complete article about him here.)

The festival, for me, has been a melting pot of discoveries, laughs, spiritual enlightenment, food testing, new friends making, crazy-lovely-twisted experiences, all covered by lots of love and music.

I’ve road a big wheel without engine nor security, I discovered the countryside of Bangladesh, I swam in its’ rivers, traveled by its’ crazy means of transportation (on a plank of wood pulled by a electric bicycle!), I admired the work of some craftsmen, I stepped into an authentic Bangladeshi kitchen, I communicated with some wise men without speaking the same language they did, I enjoyed my new friends concert sitting on the stage behind them, I tasted countless new types of food and sweets (no idea what they were called or made of, I would just try all these new flavours), I payed my respects to Lalons’ sepulture, I observed weird looking and behaving folks wandering happily and freely around, I shared meals with 15 other guys sitting on the floor of the living room of the flat where we were hosted, I realized I was the only westerner around (!), I tried playing different traditional Bangali instruments under the supervision of a 10 years old genius, I danced in the sand, I learned some Bangla words, I wore a sharee for the first time, I enjoyed Baul music everywhere, all day long, all the time, I did some yoga, and above all, I lived, laughed and loved. So much. So so much. I felt so alive. I felt so welcome. I felt part of it. I’ve got the proof that even if you are from a different country, a different culture, that you speak a different language, you can bond with people. In a truly deep way. “Anando Asbei” means “Happiness will come” (Lalons’ words). Everybody kept singing it during the whole festival but for me, happiness was each and every moment I got to live in Kushtia.

I am so blessed. SO BLESSED!!!!

 

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My friend Priota made me wear my first sharee!

 

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Conversations with the wise – even though we didn’t speak the same language <3

 

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Honoring Lalons’ memory

 

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The wise singing some of Lalons’ songs in front of his sepulture

 

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The band on stage – Priota and I sitting behind them

More photos and videos in my instagram – follow me! @hit_the_road_girl

About hate, and what do we do about it

The photos featured with this article are not mine, they have been downloaded from the member of Parliament of Bengal Derek O’Briens’ Twitter account.

About a week ago, a terrible hate crime occurred in Kansas, United States. It was perpetrated against 2 Indians engineers (read the New York time article here). Only one of them survived, leaving the entire Indian community in grief. The president of the United States remained silent, but not the people around the world.
In Kolkata, I just happened to be walking on Park Street, close to Mother Theresas’ statue when I saw them: A group of people had gathered together with signs and candles. When I approached them, curious, a man told me they were protesting against politics of hate, and asked me if I wanted to join. Of course I wanted to join. Here, there, everywhere: I do not support politics of hate.

Some travelers told me (in other occasions, I was alone that day) not to get into protests in a foreign country, because… shit happens. As you already know if you have been reading a little bit my blog, I am sick and tired of the “shit happens”. Shit happens everywhere, even in your one house. Period. And injustices and atrocities are happening everywhere and we have to do something about it.

So suddenly there I was, on the front line with a sign in one hand and a candle in the other, remaining silent and serious under the flashes of the journalists, except for when they asked me to speak on tv (!)

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Because being a nomad doesn’t mean I got rid of my opinions as I got rid of most of my material belongings. Not at all. There are stronger than ever. And I have always been pro activism, I always felt necessary to raise my voice to protest, and I will keep on doing it. I cannot stay silent in front of injustice. And now I have a new tool: my blog. My travel blog. Because traveling is compatible with activism, with art, with social issues, with fun, with everything. Traveling is life.

Good girls go to heaven. Rebels go wherever they want

One of the things you hold on most when you are traveling is your passport. Oh how I hate when checking in a hostel they want to keep it “safe”! Even if it is just an hour in order to make photocopies, I get nervous knowing it lays in other hands than mine. So just imagine leaving is to an embassy for 24 hours! (it happened to me in Sri Lanka for my Indian visa)

And now imagine being separated of your only identification form for 10 DAYS in a foreign country… It just happened to me. 10 days wandering around Kolkata undocumented (!)

The procedure to get the visa to Bangladesh was really unclear, but in the end everything went very smoothly (when I think about the Bangladeshis willing to travel to Europe, I feel like crying of shame). I got my passport back yesterday evening, and after paying for it, I finally discovered the visa between its’ pages as I was standing in the middle of the crowd on the street. I started tearing of happiness. I got it. Visiting Bangladesh is my dream, and it is going to come true.

But the majority of westerners always ask me: Why Bangladesh? Why are you so obsessed with this country? What is there to see over there?

And obviously have they thing to say about it… Don’t go! Go to Nepal instead! Go to Bhutan! Go to South East Asia! Or just stay in India! You’re crazy! It is not safe! Are you going alone?? You’re a girl! It’s a muslim country! Don’t go, or at least don’t go alone!

When people tell me not to travel to Bangladesh for X reasons...
When people tell me not to travel to Bangladesh for X reasons…

The others always know better. None of these people have never stepped a foot in Bangladesh, but there are afraid of it. Because it is the unknown.  It doesn’t have such a tourist infrastructure like the countries around it, it is off the “Gringo Trail”, it is not backpacker friendly and because no one ever speaks about Bangladesh, not even the medias. The forgotten little country surrounded by India and Myanmar.

That is why I am going there. I want to see it. I want to witness it. I want to write about it. I want to feel it.

So YES, I am a GIRL and YES, I am traveling ALONE and NO, I am NOT AFRAID!!!

’cause shit can happen anywhere. Shit can happen in your own country, in your own town and even in front of your own house.

’cause I am not afraid of other cultures or religions.

’cause I beleive people are good.

’cause Bangladesh is full of inspiring people. I can’t wait to meet The Flag Girl, and I will do my best to cross paths with Shahidul Alam and Taslima Akhter.

’cause good girls go to heaven, and rebels go wherever they want.

A little bit of Kolkata

Kolkata, from Kalikata: the field of Kali, Goddess of Time, Creation, Destruction and Power. My favorite. If I had to “kiss some gods’ arse”, as Aravind Adiga says in “The White Tiger”, it would be Kalis. Maybe does it influe in the fact that fell in love with the City of Joy. Or maybe not. Maybe is it just because of all these wonderful people I’ve got to meet here, of the smell of the amazing (and amazingly cheap!) food that follows me wherever I go, of the sweet chai I drink in every corner in clay cups, or of the artistic and cultural events that take place everywhere, at anytime 🙂

Flower market
Flower market

 

Workers of the Victoria Memorial
Workers of the Victoria Memorial

 

Having a break
Having a break on the street

 

Ma'am! Please take a picture of me with this rose!
Ma’am! Please take a picture of me with this rose!

 

Flower market
Flower market

 

Morning bath in the Hoghly river
Morning bath in the Hoghly river

 

Casual
Casual

 

Lost in the city, this man offered us a seat, a bottle of water and his precious advices <3
Lost in the city, this man offered me a seat, a bottle of water and his precious advices <3

 

Workers from the port having a break
Workers from the port having a break

 

sabir
Conversation with Sabir <3

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The funny trip

About traveling from Chennai to the Andaman Islands by boat

1. Getting on the boat – India and its ridiculous bureaucracy

We had booked our tickets one week in advance. On the 2nd of January, we traveled from Mahabalipuram to Chennai and got to the shipping company just in time, 3 hours before departure, as recommended. we were left there without any other information than “they would come for us”. So we waited. And waited. And waited. I counted 5 westerners apart from Matthew and myself, 4 young men and 1 young woman. But nobody said a word. Not yet. It wasn’t the time yet.

And we waited. In silence we waited. One of us would sometimes get up and go to the desk to ask what was happening. But we all got the same answer: “someone will come for us”. An immigration officer. And he finally came! We had been waiting for more than an hour. He rushed us out of the office, without our bags, to the immigration office. I didn’t get it really. Immigration office? I thought the Andaman islands belonged to India? They said yes, but I needed to go through immigration anyway, and hand over 3 copies of our passports and 3 others of our Indian visas. So we sat in the immigration office, and waited. The massive TV screen was playing an American movie, which we’d been able to follow for a little while (how were they able to work with a movie on and the volume turned up (very) loud remains a total mystery). We’d been called one by one to sign what would be the first of many notebooks with our details handwritten in it. We were then sent back to pick up our bags and then to wait for a bus outside.
Time for the presentations had come! I officially met Paul (UK) traveling with Oskar (S), Carl (UK), and Cern (UK) traveling with his girlfriend Leah (D). Once the bus arrived, we manage to sneak in between some other passengers and all their luggage. People transport a lot of stuff from the continent to the islands, from jewelry to sell to vegetables and big bags of sugar. We had to pay for the bus, which was unbelievable AND PAY A TAX FOR OUR LUGGAGE. Seriously?
Yes.
A (very) short ride later, we were at the port. The boat is huge. I can’t stop thinking about Titanic, but Matt assured me that there were no icebergs in the Bay of Bengal.

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The shore is packed with people, a lot of women wearing red saris, and hundreds of military men.

Time for security check! Once again, I realize Indians don’t know how to queue. And they have no idea about what personal space is – they will literally squash against each other! I’m in the middle of this huge amount of people and not feeling very happy. Luckily a man tells me I have to go to the end of the room to the women’s queue. Ah! Much better. Especially because there is hardly anybody here. It goes very quickly. But once the check is over I have to hand over my passport once again so they can write down my details (most of them wrong actually, the passport number they write down doesn’t match with the real one, and my nationality, as well as Oskars, the Swedish guy, had all of a sudden been changed from “Swiss” to “Shuish”, a new hybrid country between Switzerland and Sweden) and ask me to sign another notebook. I don’t understand, but I follow the orders. My philosophy is: save yourself a headache, don’t try to understand the Indian bureaucracy.

Once all the europeans have passed security check, we board the boat. And are sent directly to the information desk. Where they tell us we have to give them our passports for the time of the journey… They are seriously starting to get on my nerves.

After turning around for a while at the bottom of the ship, we finally find our beds. We quickly drop our bags and, in order to avoid the crowded-noisy dorm, climb up to the upper deck to see the boat departure.

Bunks

Unfortunately, it is not happening. We heard there was a technical problem, so we might not be able to leave tonight, we will have to wait until tomorrow morning. Shit.

2. The captain is a coward

I went to bed that night praying to wake up the next morning being rocked by the waves. Cruel deception when I woke up and felt that… we hadn’t moved an inch. I went to the toilet for the second time since I boarded the ship (I avoid drinking in order not to have to go, I’m still not used to the very poor hygiene conditions). We were commenting with the other westerners that we would probably neither change nor shower for the duration of the trip… I actually slept fully dressed.

We met Paul, Oskar and Carl for a chai on the deck after breakfast, after that we returned to the dining room in order to charge our electronic devices.

Matthew and I were doing some writing while Paul was watching a movie and Oskar was listening to some tunes. Leah and Cern had disappeared since we boarded. We were a little worried (especially Paul who actually went looking for them around the ship but it is so huge that he came back the way he had left: alone). We thought they might have left the boat. Or their dead corpses might be lying somewhere around… No. Get out of my head, mental images!!!

The hours spread for what seemed an eternity until lunch time. After the meal, we tried to get some information about the current situation, but the information desk was obviously closed, and the rumors went stronger than ever among the passengers: we will be sailing within an hour/ two hours/ the trip is canceled/ we will be sailing by dusk/ just half an hour more to wait/ etc.

We started watching 12 Monkeys until the heat made us escape the dining room: there was no fan working and no air con, so we fled to the deck seeking out some air. That’s when Matthew decided to climb up to the captains’, all at the top of the ship, while I walked down with Paul and Oscar to the information desk, which was, unbelievably, open. The first officer assured us: we are going to sail tonight. This was happening! We were going to sail!! The guys were very skeptical but I am a very positive person by nature so I was already giggling around. Leah and Cern appeared shortly after that, which made us feel much better too.

After dinner, I rushed the guys to the upper deck, or at least the only one who would believe a tiny tiny bit in my positive attitude – Matthew. I told him we had to hurry, not to miss the view of the port getting smaller and smaller. He was very cynical all along, but he tried to believe, maybe not as strongly as I was believing, but somehow he got affected by my eternal positivity. The deck was quite crowded. There were people everywhere, and you could feel that the energy had changed – it was like a tension of hope, so real you could almost touch it.
Suddenly, members of the crew where checking the life boats. We were told that the surveyor had to complete his checking of the boat’s condition and deliver the authorization to sail, and then we would go. I started jumping around, shouting that it was happening, that we were going to sail, and rushed Matthew to go for a walk around the boat, on the lower deck. We walked around the boat, made jokes, laughed, climbed back up and waited. And waited. And waited. And all of a sudden, it hit me: we were not going to sail. Not tonight.

I was feeling exhausted, because all at once my positivity, which was keeping me up and happy and excited had abandoned me. We were not going to leave tonight, I knew it in my bones. I felt sad, and very angry at the same time: we have had no official information. There had been no announcement since we boarded the ship. We had been kept in the dark all this time. They wouldn’t let us leave the ship. Nobody was allowed to. We were trapped on this boat in the port of Chennai without moving at all. Trapped like rats. They didn’t really care about us. The hygiene conditions were getting worse. We (Matt and I, winners of the Nobel Price for Organization 2017), had no drinking water, no snacks, and very little cash, that we would mostly spend on chai and bottled water. I actually had only 40 rupees left at that point. But there were people that were much worse: families with small kids, old folks, people with no money. And the captain had made no official announcement. Not one. He’s a coward, hiding in his tower above us. Saruman the traitor.
We went to bed, with the hope to wake up on the next morning in the middle of the Bay of Bengal.

3. Woman sisterhood power

I had just got into my sleeping bag when it happened: I heard shouting, female voices arguing, and a few seconds later my neighbor, two beds away, shouted at me:

“We no sail! Canceled!”

Whaaaat?! I tried to ask him for some more details but he didn’t speak English. I looked at Matthew who sneaked his head out from the top bunk and we jumped onto our feet: let’s go!
We climbed to the upper deck and from there spotted the origin of the noise: something was happening in the area of the ramp. We climbed one deck down and bumped into Paul, Oskar and Carl. They were speaking with a member of the cleaning crew. He said that although he was a member of the crew he had no idea what was happening, he had not heard anything about a cancelation, but had no idea if we were going to sail or not. Matthew asked him if he knew where the captain was : he said yes, that he could show him. Oscar and Paul wanted to go too so they left. I didn’t want to speak to the captain, I was too interested by what was happening amongst the “common people”. I leaned against the barrier, and saw dozens and dozens of women, in their red saris for the majority of them, on the shore, waving to the passengers still aboard the ship, inviting them to join them outside. My blood was boiling: I asked the men around me what were they doing. The only answer I could get was: “doing a strike”. ?? OK. I’ll find out myself. I ran inside and climbed down the stairs as quickly as I could and hurried to the main entrance. It was packed with people, or precisely, packed with men. The only women that were around were walking straight down the ramp to join the others. Fascinated, I made a few videos, of the women on the shore and the men just observing without moving from the main entrance, and I thought for a second that I ought to remain on the boat, they’ve got my passport, things can get complicated. I spotted some policemen with guns on the shore – what am I going to do if things turn sour?

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I thought about it a whole minute. Maybe even more. And I looked at all those women standing together on the shore, and I knew my place was amongst them. You could feel the power of their sisterhood bond filling up the place like a shield. I walked down the ramp, and the shield let me in. As I stepped on the shore, I felt part of it. I had no idea what they were doing, but at that moment I already knew I was their sister, and that I was going to stand with them, no matter what. The crew members could throw my passport overboard, I couldn’t care less.
I put a big smile on my lips and approached the first group of women:

“Excuse me, do you speak English?”

No luck. They didn’t. Next group neither, they were looking at me with big smiles and sorry faces. But when I reached the 3rd group and asked my same question once again, they all started giggling and speaking in Hindi as they surrounded me. My Hindi is, after 2 weeks spent in India, in a Tamil speaking province, almost inexistent. I memorized a few words, a couple of sentences and that’s it! So we started the strangest conversation ever, using the few words of English they knew and the few words of Hindi I knew, plus a lot of body language, of signs and imitations, and we managed to understand one another (luckily a couple of them were almost fluent).

At first, they wanted to know who I am? Where am I from? How long have I been in India for? Do I have babies? Am I married? Where am I going? What do I do? I answered all their questions with a smile, half broken English half broken Hindi, we laughed, a lot. And I tried to get to know their situation, their stories.

Getting to know each others

They told me their frustration, their feeling of impotence in this situation. A big group of them are from the Andaman islands, they came to Chennai to visit the Golden Temple for some Hindu celebration, and now they are stuck here, separated from their husbands. The hygiene conditions are getting worse. Sometimes there is no water in the toilets and the bathrooms. Or there is too much, they get flooded. There are no fans, no air conditioning. All the vegetables that they are transporting to the islands are rotting. Flies are taking over the place. It is starting to smell. Some of their children and their mothers are getting sick, with fever. They are fed up. They need answers. That’s why they are standing on the shore, that’s why they got off the ship although it is prohibited. They had had enough.

They asked me to tell the world.

Suddenly, they decided it was time to sit. So they all sat down at the same time. Me too. I sat on the dirty shore, wrapped in my pashmina to protect me from the cold, just like them. They thanked me for my support. I am the only foreigner who has left the boat at that point. I can see Matthew, Oskar, Paul, Carl, Cern and Leah on the deck. I wave to them, for them to join us. I don’t think they’ve seen me, or maybe they are being a bit shy/scared/impressed by the power of this sisterhood bond. Maybe they just need a bit of time.

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I stay there, on the ground, receiving the blessings of some elder women, the laughter and snuggles of the teenagers, pressing hands into mine all the time, listening to their stories, answering their questions, laughing with them, waiting for something to happen. Something is definitely going to happen, no one can ignore such a powerful energy.

4. The captain remains a coward.

Matthew joined me on the shore. He had been able to talk to the captain, but the only answer he got was that “there were some technical problems and that he was going to make an announcement in one hour”. I informed the women about it. And decided to stay with them. I was feeling at the right place, so I left Matthew chatting with some men further away.
10 minutes later Oskar and Paul walked down the ramp. We were now 4 foreigners on the shore, and I could see on the women’s faces that they really appreciated it.
All of a sudden, something was happening: there was some agitation. The captain and the first officer were walking down the ramp. They stood at the end of the ramp, two old folks with as much charisma as a teaspoon, and began to make the announcement. It was all in Hindi, of course, or maybe in Tamil, I’m not sure.

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What I am sure about is that I didn’t catch a single word. When they were done I ran after the guys to see if they had any idea of what was going on. Luckily, they had managed to find a guy who was fluent in both Hindi and English, and that could summarize the captain’s speech. Which was not much. Technical problems, we will have to wait until tomorrow morning and see.
We didn’t learn much, but at least we got a confrontation face to face. Time to go to bed and try to find some rest.

5. But anyway, thank you captain!

On the next morning, we woke up because of some shouting before 7 am: the boat would not be able to sail before 6 or 7 days from now on! We were feeling very confused at breakfast, and everybody was making plans. We were going to ask for a refund of course, and the other guys were already looking for flights. Personally, I cannot afford to fly, and I don’t want to neither. After the bond and solidarity I felt for these Indian ladies last night, I cannot abandon the ship. I look at Matthew. Our paths might split earlier than we thought…

“Matt, I’m staying. I’m not leaving this boat.”
“Me neither.”

He’s the best. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better travel buddy! We inform the others about our decision. A little while later, as we are wandering around the ship, we are told that everybody must get off. It hurts me a lot, but I am somewhat relieved. I am not committing treason, but I don’t have to stay on this filthy ship without cash for the next week. While we wait (a few hours) for the immigration officer on board, we get to talk to some other passengers and discover some interesting stories and facts:

Carl was asking Charan, a 27 year-old military guy, if such an incident had already happened in the past. He came up with a very interesting anecdote of what happened to a boat a member of his crew was on a bit more than a year ago:
“While sailing in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, they suffered a major electricity problem. They had absolutely no way to get in touch with the ports, so they floated in the middle of nowhere for more than a week. Obviously they ran out of food and out of bottled water, then they ran out of drinking water, after which they had to drink the toilet water, which eventually came to an end too. Everybody was sick and there was no water left on board. They were literally on the floor, crying when they finally reached Port Blair!”

We’ve also been aware, somehow, that our captain (the coward) was the only one to blame for not sailing. Because survey authorized the ship to sail, but with only one engine working instead of two. Which means, we’d rely only on one engine. If it breaks down… Well, we might have ended up drinking toilet water then!
The captain refused to take the risk. So even though I am still a bit angry for the lack of communication: Thank you captain, oh my captain!

It takes guts to stand against your company’s pressure.

6. What is the government doing?

The shipping company belongs to the government. That is what the women are telling me on the shore. Because of the lack of maintenance this situation happened.
Later on, I discovered via Carl that the government takes 70% of the profits of the shipping company, and leaves only 30% to the company. Only 30% for the maintenance of the ships, the fuel, the crews salaries, running the ships, everything. That is way not enough. This boat, the “Nicobar”, was built in Poland in 1991. It will turn 26 years old this year, but it looks 50.

Once again, the main responsible of this kind of situation is money. Money, money, money. It is beyond my understanding why the government leaves only 30% of the profits to the shipping company? Where does the rest of the money go? The money that should be used for having a fleet in good condition and, that way, take care of the passengers’ lives. Because, after all, THAT is really what it is all about: there are lives at stake. Around 900 souls per voyage, and God knows none of them wants to end up drinking toilet water.

7. And now what?

After a few days spent north of Chennai where we failed at breaking into the Satish Dhawan Space Center, we went back to the port on the 7th of January, ready to give this trip another try. It didn’t have such a promising start: the boat was delayed for several hours. It was supposed to leave at 14:00, but we’d been told to come back at 17:00 so we went wandering around in town for a while. After what it took ages to actually get on the boat, but we were surrounded by the paramilitary crew and some red saris ladies, and that gave us a very nice feeling: it was like we were meeting some old friends again!
We finally boarded the ship and went for a walk around. Matthew had his second dinner of the evening (I sincerely wonder where does he manage to put so much food), after what he decided he wanted to go and talk to information, because, once again… We were not moving an inch. And there we went. Bad idea: Matt asked 2 simple questions: When are we leaving? and Where is the captain?, and the officer exploded: I could almost see some smoke coming out of his nostrils and ears while he was shouting at us and threatening to kick us off the ship. We kept quiet and disappeared in a blink of an eye. We had managed to smuggle some whisky on board in my water bottle, so we went to get it and climb on the upper deck in order to enjoy it and to have a good laugh about the exploding-dragon-first-officer. Around midnight we started moving, and finally could admire the port of Chennai slowly disappearing behind us.

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Long story short: we spent approx. 80 hours on this ship (we suffered an engine problem (of course we did…) in the middle of the Bay of Bengal that let us float around for at least 6 hours) but time went by quite quickly. We both did some writing, watched some movies, read a lot, chatted with the other passengers, posed for selfies (I think 3/4 of the passengers have a selfie with us on their cellphones!),

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drank a lot of chai, ate very well (the food was unbelievably good!!) and we eventually got there.

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If I had to summarize this trip, I would say it was fun. It really was.

Life experience: I underwent surgery in a Sri Lanken public hospital

After a very long time without Wi-Fi connexion, I am finally able to update my blog. Today I go back in time. Back to Sri Lanka (I am in Kolkata, India at the moment) to tell you about how is it to undergo surgery in a Sri Lanken public hospital. It has been an amazing experience, one of those you only get while traveling! I can still feel the vibes of the hospital under my skin and the kindness and caring of the other patients towards me. I can still see their faces, their smiles and their dark eyes. Their glances reached my soul. I will never forget them.

16.11.2016

I don’t know what I was thinking about on that day. I really don’t know why I stepped into Negombo’s public hospital instead of going to a private clinic like all the other tourists. Maybe I am just too communist at heart. I don’t know. I just don’t want any special favors because I’m white/young/fromafirstworldcountry, or any other reason. I just want to be treated like anybody else.

I actually wasn’t sure it was a hospital when I first entered the place. I had never seen anything like it. The main hall was as crowded as though the Rolling Stones were about to perform a free show at that exact place. And there I was, like a white whale in the middle, trying to understand the logic of the many queues all over the place. I approached a desk and shouted (you had to shout to be heard in this place) that I wanted to see a doctor, a gynecologist. They pointed to a corner of the room where 2 tiny tables with a man and a woman sitting at the edge were facing each other. Once I found the right queue, I waited patiently for my turn, trying not to breathe (it seemed like all the diseases available on this planet were present in this hall).

After a short time waiting, it was my turn to talk to one of the doctors sitting at a tiny table in a dusty corner. She asked me a few questions (Your name? How old are you? What is your problem? Are you on your medication? Are you married? (!)), filled in a form and sent me to ward 11, the gynecologic section. I had no idea where it was, and could hardly understand her English, but as I was the only foreigner around, everybody wanted to help. A nurse guided me through the hospital (it’s HUGE, there are a lot of different buildings). He was nice, but as I had a limp, he wanted to put me in a wheelchair. That was not going to happen.

When we got to the gynecologic department (a big hall with approx. 25 beds), silence fell at once. All the patients and their relatives around them were staring at me. The reception nurse walked me down the room to a cabin closed by a curtain. I could feel dozens of eyes following me as I was shyly following the old woman dressed in a uniform as if she had popped out of the 40’s.

Gynecologic wing
The “cabin” was actually just a 2 squared meter space surrounded by curtains that unfortunately didn’t even close properly… so while you’re half naked everybody can enjoy watching your anatomy.
She handed me something between a beach blanket and a table cloth, and made me understand I had to take off my clothes and underwear and tie this thing around my waist. Then she rushed me to “sleep” (lie down). Sleep was actually the only word she could say in English. Otherwise she told me a lot of stuff but I didn’t understood a single thing.

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The table only had old, nasty sheets on it but I lied down anyway and spread my legs when she ordered me to do so (it sounds traumatic, I know. But it’s actually worse writing about it than it was in real life…)
She had a look, nodded and disappeared. Five minutes later she was back with the doctor, his four interns and the surgeon.
He had (they all had, unfortunately…) a look, he touched it (the others didn’t, fortunately), I screamed out loud and he confirmed: “Yes yes, it’s an abscess. We have to put you to sleep and do a cut.”
-“To sleep??! You mean general anesthesia?!”
-“Yes, it’s impossible to do a local anesthesia”.
-“Hell no. I’m not having a GA.”
-“But you hardly let me touch you…”
-“I’m not having a GA.”
-“…”
-“Pleeeeease…?”
-“Oh well” (deep sigh) “we will try a local anesthesia, but if you can’t bear the pain we’ll put you to sleep. And no screaming, eh!”
-“I can bear the pain. I’m strong. Just give me something to bite on.”

He didn’t seemed convinced. As he was walking away with his crew following him like a good breed of domesticated sheep, I shouted:

-“Wait! Sir! How much is it going to cost me?”

He turned around and replied:

-“We are a public hospital. We won’t charge you.”

!!!! Well that’s good news. Let’s do this!

The nurse rushed me (what’s with the rushing in this place, can’t they see that I’m in great pain at every step I take?) to the bed number 8. Which was already taken. So I switched to the bed next to it. Number 7 is well known to be a magic number. I’m not a superstitious person, but I really needed to hold on to something at that moment, so I took it as a good sign.
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I’d been sitting on this bed for hours, not sure how many… 3, 4 hours, maybe. And although I strike myself as being a strong and independent woman, I must admit that I looked around me enviously: every patient had some relatives around her. And I didn’t even have a book. Nor a teddy bear. I think the only reason why I wasn’t crying then is that I was too busy observing everything. I hadn’t slept much the previous night because of the pain, so sometimes, especially when I got fed up of smiling to the whole room, I would let myself lie down, and close my eyes. I never fell asleep though, this moment was to be remembered, I could not let myself slip away to the land of  dreams. I had to stay alert.

There is this girl. A teenager. She seems 15 years old, but I guess she is a bit older. Anyway, not more than 20. She sometimes looks at me, and always gives me a bright, sincere smile. She is so beautiful. She has a perfect face. A perfect skin. It seems that the sunshine has been caught inside her, because she glows. And she looks really sweet.
Suddenly, while I was writing, she walks to my bed and hands me a bottle of fruit juice:
-“You like mango juice?”
-“Oh, no, no, thank you”
-“Take. Drink!” she says as she puts the bottle in my hands.
-“Thank you, thank you so much!!!”

I was so touched! That was so kind of her! I was really thirsty, and slipped the juice down straight. A few minutes later, my next bed neighbor took out a packet of biscuits and some industrial creamy cheese, and ordered me to eat, but the nurse told her I was not allowed to eat before the operation. She seemed really sorry for me but I smiled at her, thanked her and told her that anyway I wan’t hungry (liar liar).

It’s raining really hard right now, and some drops are dripping on my left arm…

Just before 15:00 the nurses started wiggling around me, because I had to get prepared for the operation. I’d been told I had to wear white clothes, so they gave me a white shirt, and a white sheet (not, they’ve forgotten) and 2 cuts of bandage. I had to change, and then they asked me if I was shaved. Nope. So back to the cabin with the bitchiest of all the nurses who started to savagely shave me (she cut me in a couple of places) – that was the most traumatizing moment in this hospital. And the more I was complaining, telling her to be careful, that it hurt, and the more she was insulting me in Sinhala. Great. I’ll kill her someday. But later, not now, I have to undergo surgery.

She rushed me back into the room and there they realized that I had done nothing with my hair, I was still holding the 2 pieces of bandage in my left hand. So my two next bed neighbors got up and started combing my hair in two plaits, tying them with the bandages and then fixing them together above my head. I joined another girl dressed all in white with a ridiculous hairstyle just like mine sitting on a chair next to the reception, and we waited. They took some blood from me, they made me sign a paper in Sinhala so I had no idea what it was about (they said it was that I accepted to be operated but it could have been an agreement to give away my kidneys that I wouldn’t have noticed) and then 2 men appeared. We followed them downstairs, out of the building, walking barefoot. A table on wheels waited, and the men told us to sit on it. So there we where, 2 bloody cinderellas on our royal carriage pulled by two nurses across the gardens and the different buildings of our kingdom.
We got to the operation room and sat on a bench in the hall, waiting to be called inside. I was looking around. It didn’t seemed sooo dirty after all. Just abandoned. And the door didn’t close completely… The other girl was the first one to be called. I kept repeating to myself that everything was going to be fine, that dozens of women were operated every day in this exact same operation room and they were doing just fine.
10 minutes later they called me in. I was still barefoot (all the medical team was wearing big boots) as I walked into the operation room. A lonely surgery table was standing in the middle of an empty room. No sheets. I lied down, legs up. Horrible feeling. Luckily an anesthetist was fluent in English and she tried to distract me all the while. They disinfected me (or maybe was it only water, who knows, I couldn’t see) and then the surgeon tried to apply the local anesthesia. I screamed like I had never screamed in my whole life. The pain was beyond everything I had experienced (and I had once broken my nose with my own knee). So they stopped everything, and the lady tried to convince me to take sedatives. I said no. They all looked at me. She said just a little, it would help me feel more relaxed and feel less pain. I agreed. Who was I fooling? I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stop crying. Boom. It was a lie. They gave me a GA. End of story. But I still have both my kidneys.

I woke up as soon as I was back in the room and directly wanted to go back to the hostel were I was volunteering, but I was groggy for hours. The perfusion in my arm wasn’t dripping fast enough. I wanted it to end as soon as possible so I could go. Unfortunately, that was not going to happen. I tried to get up, but the bitchy nurse kept shouting at me: “Sleep! Sleep!” and I kept shouting back to her that I wasn’t tired, and that I wanted to go home. So a lady two beds away stood up and came to my bed to help me sit down. I was sitting there, trying to order my thoughts in my mind, and repeating that I wanted to leave.

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I begged the doctor to call the hostel. But she spoke very little English so it took hours until she understood. Meanwhile I was eating the plain biscuits my next bed neighbor had left me, and an old woman approached me with a packet of chocolate biscuits and handed it to me with a shy smile.
“Bohoma istuti, bohoma istuti (ndrl “Thank you very much” in Sinhala),I kept repeating.
It was dark outside, and I had no way to get in touch with Shehan (the receptionist) who had no news from me since I had left around 10 am. I tried to borrow a mobile phone from someone in the room but no one seemed to have any credit.

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When the doctor came back I begged her again to call the hostel, and to talk to Shehan, that I had no sheets, no toothbrush, no clothes to change into, and for the first time, she seemed to understand. I handed her the number, and she said she would try and call when she finished checking all the patients. Apparently, as soon as she rang, Shehan and the owner of the hostel, Manju, hurried to the hospital with some of my personal stuff.
They arrived quite late, and the visiting time had already ended. I was fast asleep. They only let one of them enter the room, so Manju brought me 2 plastic bags full of clothes, a towel, my toothpaste and toothbrush, flip-flops, and… my swimmers (?) I guess they thought they were underwear, but a sporty swimsuit, really? I had a good laugh discovering it the next morning (I could hardly remember Manju standing beside my bed so I discovered the treasure only one hour after awakening).

After waking up around 5:30 am, I just grabbed my headphones and started listening to some tunes while everybody was busying themselves. All of a sudden, the bitchy nurse realized I was awake and shouted to me something that sounded like “GOWASHUFEIS”.

???

The girls around all started repeating: “Go to toilet, wash your face!” (???)
Ok, I can do this. I walked to the toilet as I could (the bandages were bothering me) and washed my face with water and no soap. Only when I came back to my bed I found the plastic bags Manju had brought me (and some of my memories by the way) so I grabbed the towel, my toothbrush, a clean t-shirt and my bra and went back to the toilet.
When I got back to my bed I put the sheet on it and sat down in the same position as the others. An older nurse came by and started speaking in Sinhala looking at my sheet (I had made my bed 5 minutes ago with the sheet Manju had brought me). The other patients then started talking all at the same time (they sounded like as if they were arguing) and she walked away. I asked the girls around if there was a problem, and they told me that my sheet wasn’t white…!!!
“It’s the only one I have… but should I take it off?”
“No no it’s ok”, they said. So then we all sat in silence until they realized I hadn’t combed my hair… So they started acting like as though they were combing their hair until I got it. I didn’t have a brush with me but what I did have was a lot of knots, so I tried to brush my hair with my fingers until the beautiful teenager got up and came to my bed with a comb in her hand. She ordered me to turn around and started pulling my hair backwards into a tight pony tail and went back to her bed. And so we waited. Everything seemed surreal. I was trying to remember all that had happened during the 24 past hours.

The doctor has arrived. She takes me to the “cabin” and takes of my bandages. She says it’s ok. The operation went pretty well. Sends me back to my bed. Half an hour later, the chief doctor  appeared surrounded by his usual breed. When he reached my bed, he asked me if I had let the surgeon do the operation without an anesthesia. I hated to admit he was right, but when he told me I could go I forgot all about it and started packing. I went to say goodbye to all of the patients one by one and walked out to take my bus back to Katunayake under the burning sun.

7 Days in Cuba

Cuba… The Pearl of the Antilles. Viva la revolucion! Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Celia Sanchez, Camilo Cienfuegos! Salsa dancing, cigars smoking and rum drinking! Rock climbing, horse riding, jazz music listening and much more!

Here is the link to the article I’ve written for Travelicious a few weeks ago. You will find there tips and anwsers to frequent questions you may have before traveling to Cuba. I hope you’ll find it usefull 🙂

http://travelicious.world/jazz-cigars-and-rock-climbing-welcome-to-cuba/

 

Well hello there!

Good morning, afternoon or evening 🙂 You have just landed on my blog.

Welcome, my friend! I am glad you decided to take a look over here. This is my very first post. Yes, someday, somehow I had to start writing.

So first of all, let me introduce myself: My nickname is Chela, and I think I might be one of the happiest person on earth.

I love traveling, getting to know new places, new people, new cultures, and I am very fond of arts en general. I also have a special interest about history,  anthropology and alternative medicine.

I will keep this blog updated on my past, present and futur travels, from South to North and East to West and the other way round, in order to give you the best advices possible and amazing stories about traveling in this wonderful world.

Keep smiling!

Watching the Mayan ruins of Palenque, en Mexico
Watching the Mayan ruins of Palenque, en Mexico