MY HUSBAND, E.V.RAMAKRISHNA, MARINE ENGINEER
AL MAQAL PORT, BASRA, IRAQ
My bindi and white colour organza saree with sky blue colour designs attracted open stares from passengers in the transit lounge of Karachi airport. . Realizing that I presented an uncommon sight of a typical Hindu woman in the crowded airport full of Pakistanis I tried to quieten my racing heart beat.
My husband and I were headed to Basra, Iraq to join the shipping vessel, M.V.Prabhu Gopal, a bulk carrier. My husband was taking over as second engineer in the vessel M.V.Prabhu Gopal which was berthed in Al Maqal Port, Basra, Iraq.
Oblivious to my discomfort, my husband was in a serious discussion about his work with another officer who travelled with us. A whole lot of crew and engine/deck side officers travelled with my husband and myself to join the vessel in Basra. It was actually a big group of crew and officers in which I was the lone woman.
The flight from Mumbai to Karachi was exhausting after the sleepless night preceding it. I was hungry and longed for hot rice with my favourite vegetarian dishes. Trying to shake off the tempting images of food I reached into my handbag for the packet of cream cookies I bought in Mumbai airport.
I shifted restlessly and after long procrastination I gathered enough courage to get up from my seat. Feeling nervous and shy of all the attention I attracted I lowered my gaze to stare intently at the floor till I reached the ladies' restroom. My back prickled as I sensed curious stares from everybody. There were few women inside the restroom. Trying to conceal their curiosity they turned to smile at me politely and I smiled back nervously.
After what seemed like an expedition I sat down next to my husband with a great sense of relief.
Shortly afterwards the boarding announcement came crackling on the airport speakers and we got up to board the flight that would take us to Baghdad, Iraq. The flight duration between Karachi and Baghdad was roughly around 3 hours.
My heart skipped many beats in excitement. At the same time a sense of fear ran up my spine at the thought of my bindi and saree. I couldn't find solace in the repeated assurances of shipping agents and other officers that everything would be fine and Iraqi authorities in Basra port would not question me about my saree or bindi.
BAGHDAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
The airport looked more like a palace with lovely wall designs in the sprawling halls with high ceilings. It was a culture shock for me and I temporarily forgot my hunger as I stared at the tall, handsome women walking elegantly in the airport. I had never seen such well built and tall women. The female ground staff of Baghdad airport had heavily made up beautiful eyes and fair, clear skin. Most of the women passengers were covered from head to toe in their traditional attire.
Waving at our group exuberantly a friendly shipping agent rushed towards us. After exchanging pleasantries he directed us towards the lounge where we were served hot, delicious tea and biscuits. I drank in my surroundings with my eyes, fascinated by the Iraqis and my surroundings. I gazed at the large glass-carved doors on my side. Outside even the sky presented a different picture, or was it my imagination?! I had never seen a sky so purplish orange!! It looked enchanting. Till date I haven't forgotten the strange colour of sky at 2pm in the afternoon!!
THE BUS RIDE
Our group boarded a bus specially arranged to transport the engine/deck side officers and crew to join the vessel, M.V.Prabhu Gopal in Basra.
It was an old, non air conditioned and very badly maintained bus that rattled its way through the desert like area between Baghdad and Basra. To make matters worse the road was not a proper one. The uneven and rough stretch made the bus jump up and down. We were almost thrown out of our seats by the heavy jerks of the bus and had to hold on to the seat for fear of falling all over ourselves. The heat and dust that invaded the bus worsened the agony of the travel.
I was close to tears with hunger, body aches and tiredness. My husband's consoling looks at me and loving gesture of holding my hand reassuringly through out the ride acted as a soothing balm.Despite the discomfort of seating and travel I was keen to look outside . There was a stretch of white sand everywhere with palm trees and hut like structures here and there. I saw women fully clad in black carrying pots filled with what I thought was water.
The ride took nearly 4 or more hours. Loud Arabic music blared from somewhere within the bus. The audio had a surround effect and I could not find the speakers.
I tried to divert my mind from the pain of jumping along with the bus by concentrating on the Arabic music that pierced my eardrums. My first challenge was to find the "Sa Pa Sa" of the tune. For the life of me I couldn't identify the scale nor the rhythmic pattern of the Arabic song. I made a mental note to play Arabic music on my Veena sometime in future.
AL MAQAL PORT, BASRA, IRAQ
At a point when I thought I would collapse the bus glided to the gateway of Basra Port. The place swarmed with Iraqi military personnel. We were guided to the ship, M.V.Prabhu Gopal amidst tight security.
The huge vessel berthed on one of the jetties of the busy harbour of Basra posed another challenge. The prospect of climbing up the steep gangway onto the ship in a saree made me cringe. I opted to be the last one to climb with my husband climbing closely behind me. The steps were oily and slippery and I held the pleats of my saree taking care not to trip on them. Midway and at an alarming height my steps faltered and I gasped loudly! A hand reached out to me from the person ahead of me. I clung to the hand for dear life and managed to reach the entrance of the ship. Entering the ship I rejoiced in the air-conditioned coolness of the ship. Steadying my breath I thought to myself with a smile - 'yet another dimension in life'!!