Tag Archives: Writing by OCs

Memories from the battlefields of Vietnam, R&R in the Korean DMZ and much more… – by Joe Joshi

Joe Joshi (Rivaz 1954 to 1963)

I was in BCS for 10 years beginning 1954, as was my younger brother. My two elder sisters went to AHS (Auckland House School).
My parents, both successful doctors of medicine in Burma, said they wanted us to get a proper education in a British boarding school for children in India. My parents were born and educated in Burma, made a good fortune as a surgeon and doctor of internal medicine. They loved Burma, had many friends and family there. Life was good for us.

I got a good education after BCS, a B.A. degree with English Honors, a diploma in mass communication from Berlin, a commercial and combat pilot license and an honorary M.A. degree for excellence in journalism. I have travelled all over the world several times, having worked in many countries or been there and done that on vacation. I speak 5 languages fluently, have many good friends worldwide and a few ex-girlfriends.

I am a veteran editor in print and broadcast news, now writing a book on my experiences in the battlefields of Vietnam so many years ago that stunned friends and foes. I am sending a preview of that book:

I had to rework some parts of the full package on the fall of Saigon since I first wrote it for The Bulletin newspaper in Bend, Oregon, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
I ran a somewhat similar version, including other thoughts, on another anniversary when I was in Laredo, Texas, and for the Korea Times in Seoul. Yet every time I try to put this together, there are so many flashbacks of sidebar stories I wish to include. But as the years pass, a compulsive guessing game continues to which I fear finding answers.
For instance: where, I still ask myself, is the beautiful woman who has come to symbolize for me the lost world of old Cambodia? Offering a fruit in her hands, sheathed in an emerald-green sarong, she moved with the sensuous grace of celestial dancers carved on the friezes of Angkor. She came one Buddhist holy day to a 15th century temple as late monsoon clouds darkened the sky. Our eyes met fleetingly through a curtain of incense perfumed by jasmine, and then she melted into the vivacious swirl of worshipers.
Where is the lovely girl, who wrenched herself up from a hospital floor in the refugee camp of Aranyaprathet decked with flies and feces to tell me her story? An American pilot had mistimed his bomb drop by a few seconds, so her right arm was now sheared off, the collar bone jutting out naked and already greenish with decay. Her little body trembling with pain, she looked at me and smiled: the fathomless stoic smile I think saved Cambodia from collective insanity — and melted my heart.
And what about Mark Basinger. He was just 17 months old when his father died. He has no memories of the man who left on a train in August 1966 and never came back. His mother remembers, though. And when she recalls Capt. Richard Louis Basinger, her tears flow.
Mark still watches old newscasts from Vietnam and thinks: “That’s where my Dad died.” And he wants to know more. He has pieced together a Web site that pays tribute to his Dad, his more than 350 helicopter combat missions, and his death on May 12, 1967 when his helicopter was hit by an enemy mortar round near a Marine outpost at Con Thien.
Capt. Basinger was 24 years old, 14 years younger than the son who so desperately wants to connect with him. Mark now wants to go to Vietnam. He will, he hopes, visit the spot where that helicopter crashed.
“I’m just trying to feel a part of him,” Mark says. But his mother tells him he need not go to Vietnam to do that. “Look in the mirror, son,” she says, “and you’ll know your father.”
And where, I wonder, is Helen Nguyen — the stunningly pretty mamasan at a Tu Do Street bar in Saigon. She didn’t have any time for me because I wouldn’t buy her the $25-a-shot Saigon tea. Our paths crossed again shortly before the fall of Saigon and she didn’t want to let me out of her sight. She brought a mattress and slept outside my hotel room door.
And remember Ha Thi Tran? I left Saigon three days after the Viet Cong gained total control of the city. Helen joined me and one member from India of the International Control Commission on Vietnam as we made it to Bangkok via Hanoi. Ha didn’t want to go to Hanoi and failed to show up in Bangkok a week later as planned. Neither did she make it to the sprawling refugee camps of Aranyaprathet on the Thai-Cambodia border. She was not on any of the refugee boats in the years to come and I continue to search for her today.
“I am not going to Hanoi because there is more hell in there than the rest of this ugly war put together,” she said. And I understood why Ha, being a South Vietnamese feared going to Hanoi.
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
By Joe Joshi
Senior Editor, Korea Times

On Monday, April 28, 1975, a late-afternoon thunderstorm rumbled outside the open balcony windows of Saigon’s Independence Palace as 71-year-old Tran Van Huong, lame and nearly blind, clutched the arm of an aide and stepped slowly away from the microphone. He had just given up the presidency of South Vietnam after only six days in office. Another aide scurried forward, removed the red-and-saffron seal from the rostrum and replaced it with another, the outline of an apricot blossom containing the Yin and Yang symbol, an Asian sign for the combining of opposites to make up the universe.
Only then did ex-General Duong Van “Big’’ Minh, chosen as president to make a last desperate plea for peace, begin speaking. He appealed, as expected, for an immediate ceasefire, unconditional negotiations and national reconciliation.
Later, as war correspondents stood on the palace steps to watch members of the new “peace government’’ drive away, a correspondent for the Hongkong Standard said: “Perhaps now we can have some hope in this catastrophe.’’
He was wrong. The Viet Cong’s answer came less than an hour after Gen. Minh’s speech when a series of explosions buffeted the city. Communist pilots flying captured American fighter planes were bombing Tan Son Nhut Airport, though no one knew then where the planes had come from or who were flying them.
The heavy flak guns at the palace balcony opened up and there was pandemonium as policemen and soldiers all over the city began blazing away at the sky. The firing lasted perhaps a half-hour and then sputtered out. Soon the nervous city began to move again, its people hurrying through the dusk to get home before the 8 p.m. curfew closed in.
We could not know it them, but the bombs falling on Tan Son Nhut signaled the last battle of the Vietnam War.
Before dawn Tuesday, when artillery, rocket and mortar fire began pounding the airport, government resistance quickly evaporated.
That day, under the guns of Marine helicopters from a naval task force offshore, the final evacuation of U.S. Embassy staff and other Americans began. In the rush to get out of a city going mad, many desperate would-be refugees were seen clinging to the landing gears of the “iron butterflies’’ and babies were thrust at departing Americans by mothers hoping to at least get one child to a carrier of the 7th Fleet.
But most Vietnamese began to lose hope of being evacuated when U.S. Marines and American civilians used pistol and rifle butts to smash the fingers of men, women and children trying to claw their way over the wall of the U.S. Embassy. Those who didn’t make it also saw that helicopters landing on ships of the 7th Fleet were quickly unloaded and heaved overboard to make room for the next one.
Refugees who used sampans to reach the U.S. carriers sets their boats on fire to keep them from falling into communist hands. It was getting dark now and the tranquil waters, as far as the eye could see, was covered with burning boats. It looked like a vision from hell.
Those who made it to the ships, and those who didn’t, wept.
At that point, my life changed… Something died in me. I was on the waterfront with an arm around Ha Thi Tran, my Vietnamese girlfriend. Amid the clatter of helicopter blades, she silently wiped away her tears and I was shaking.
I had seen many horrible things in Vietnam, but could always turn to Ha for comfort. She was a breath of fresh air, a pretty girl of 22 with a quick, natural smile that made others smile. And she loved to wear the ao dai (Vietnam’s traditional flowing tunic over trousers with slits up to the waist). Ha always was so focused on whatever she did and could analyze situations others could not even comprehend. She made me feel there was some hope in this crazy Asian war.
We returned to the Caraville Hotel and sat by the window of our third floor room. I opened a bottle of beer as Ha pleaded on the phone with the operator to get us a line to Washington, Hongkong, Bangkok, Singapore, Tokyo… anywhere.
Amid the chaos on the street below, we could see Vietnamese women offering money, gold or sexual favors for sponsorship promises and refugee documents, but nearly all the foreigners had left Saigon by then.
Ha and I stayed up most of the night talking about how our lives had taken us in different directions since we met in early 1969 under a hot, cloudless sky at My Khe beach near Danang. Most Americans remember it as the GI oasis called China Beach.
We also recalled our daily trips to Vietnam’s media centerpiece, the MACV (U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam) center in Saigon where Ha would translate the daily command briefing which put information (true and false) on the record during the 5 o’clock briefings.
There were several hundred reporters in Vietnam and competition was fierce. There also were would-be journalists, actors, teachers and some characters of dubious background with ambition and a taste of adventure. Many were frequently wounded. In the end, more than 70 were dead or missing.
Ha also was with me a few days earlier when 76 infants were killed in one of the first flights of Operation Babylift.. The C-54 Galaxy cargo plane was loaded with 300 infants, toddlers and caretakers when it plunged from the sky near Tan Son Nhut Airport.
Memories of that tragedy tore at our hearts as we talked about it that night, even though we were already numbed by the war’s horror.
Operation Babylift was authorized to evacuate 70,000 Vietnamese orphans, many fathered by American GIs. Some 2,000 children, with toddlers placed in cardboard boxes along the isles of the aircraft, made it to the U.S. before Saigon was lost to the communists.
Although Ha’s parents were not rich, they helped their only child acquire an education. Ha was studying business administration in Philadelphia.
We finally went to bed exhausted and dreamed of the country she had lost.
The day after that, Wednesday, April 30, Saigon surrendered. The gold-starred red-and-blue liberation flag fluttered over the palace.
After 30 blood-soaked years, the Vietnam War was over.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Filipinas forced into sex trade
By Joe Joshi
Senior Editor
Korea Times
June 2, 2003

Dongducheon – Shirley, a young Filipina, stands in front of the bar where she works in vampish boots and a skirt so short it leaves little to the imagination.

“Work,” she says simply, a helpless smile spreading across her pretty face. “Work, that is why I came. In the Philippines there is no way to make money.”

Prostitution is an old trade but not an honored one, so Shirley prefers not to give her family name. At age 21, she has a plenty of company in this U.S. military base town where bars have names like The Dungeon, DMZ, Sunshine, Papaya, Blackjack, Platinum and Olympia and young women loiter at every corner on the strip.

More than 99 percent of the bar girls are foreign, most of them from the Philippines. Others come from Bulgaria, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. All of them cater to the sex tourism boom in this town close to the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea.

Lina, who is very popular among the soldiers who frequent the club where she dances, put Dongdecheon’s lure simply: “One-zero-zero-zero,” she said laughing, “instead of one-zero-zero” – indicating a chance to earn $1,000 a week instead of $100.

But the laughter can be short-lived, promised money illusionary and the human cost high. Scratch the surface in the bar area and a world of violence, xenophobia, disease and misery is revealed.

For the sex trade, the balance of supply and demand could scarcely be better. “The business of trafficking for sexual exploitation is booming,” said Lee Bong-chol, who manages a neighborhood convenience store. “It is an industry now worth several billion dollars a year.”

Some of the Filipinas come here without illusions, however reluctantly, that prostitution for a wealthier clientele is the only way to feed their families and fashion a future. Others come deluded, lured into thinking they will work as singers or barmaids, but are forced into unpayable debt and deprived of all freedom in the end.

Maria, a Filipina with so many curves, it made my head spin just looking at her, was waiting outside the nightclub for a soldier who had just paid a $200 bar fine for her. Maria told me she saw no alternative to her current work on the strip. Her parents are dead, killed in a car crash when she was 16 and still at school. She took a succession of odd jobs, but they were insufficient to support her 10-year-old sister. Hardship, dead ends, vague dreams of getting married and maybe finding happiness, brought her to this God-awful place.

She stops talking abruptly, saying she has to go, when the soldier comes out and puts his arm around her waist. Of the $200 bar fine, Maria will get about $33. The bar owner gets the rest.

Maria takes a wad of notes out of her bag and hands it to her bouncer who has a distant look, track suit, Adidas sneakers, gold chain and sleeves short enough to reveal the bulge of his muscles.

Lorna, 19, also from the Philippines, is standing outside a nearby strip club. Unlike Maria, she is in the second category of women, those deceived, trafficked and ultimately trapped. She came to South Korea believing she would marry a rich man. Her husband turned out to be a poor farmer.

Lorna says she was locked up 24 hours a day and escaped when she was allowed to see a doctor. She was recaptured by her broker and had her passport taken. She was then told she had been “sold” to the bar where she now works. She has no money, she says. Her gaze is vacant.

Some of the Filipinas at the clubs are undocumented workers, others have three-month tourist visas arranged by gangs that bring them under false promises. Their stories tend to resemble one another. The women may be teachers, farm laborers or unemployed, ages 18 to 30. Often they have one or two children to support. They receive false offers of temporary work and good earnings. Travel and visas are arranged for a large sum of money – the women’s debt to the gangs that organize their transportation and work. After arrival, passports and any money are taken and the women are deposited in small guarded apartments. Then they are told what their real job is to be.

The average rate in brothels is $200, but no more than a tenth of that reaches the women’s pocket. Their “owners” buy food and pay rent, and the debt becomes intractable. The women are terrorized because they are often unable to pay off the debts. And they are paralyzed, afraid to go to the police, terrified the gangs will do something bad to a member of their family back home if they try to escape.

The trade in women from the Philippines has spread throughout South Korea and is increasingly well organized. The gangs that dominate the business are slick, flexible and elusive. Everywhere, women are reluctant to testify because they are afraid.

If they are going to testify, these women need witness protection, often new passports and assurances they can remain in South Korea. But government authorities will not provide this. And the gang members are much more sophisticated than the police.

At age 21, Raquel graduated from college with a degree in business administration and left the home of her poor, widowed mother to come to South Korea and clean the houses of upper-class families.

For years she scrubbed the floors, washed dishes, hung laundry and baby-sat toddlers — all the while cowering as employers called her stupid and sexually harassed her. Now she is a nightclub dancer.

“Many times I had to leave my job because of the sexual harassment,” said Raquel who has no valid travel document or permission to work in South Korea. “I always had to eat after my employers did, on separate plates, as if I were a pet. In fact, I think pets have more privileges.”

She has no pension plan, no social security, no health insurance, working practically in slavery. That’s because South Korea remains in the dark ages when it comes to the treatment of foreign workers, particularly the undocumented ones. This is despite repeated efforts by activists to reform antiquated labor laws and President Roh Moo-hyun’s promises to improve conditions for all workers.

One young Filipina outside a bar who refused to give her name, has a tattoo of a rose on her upper arm and a ravaged look in her big brown eyes. She seemed a waif broken before she could live.

She sells her body voluntarily. At least this is “voluntary” work in the sense that it is the only work that she has been able to find that allows her to make what she called a “reasonable living.” She plans to stop working next year.

“I met an American GI here who is my stable boyfriend and he wants to marry me,” she explained. “He understands why I have to do this. If things work out, I plan to go and live with him in America.”

…..

In continuation….

Sunday..
The quiet day..
I rise with the sun
and hear a multitude of birds..
Is it the dream I had last night
or the arrow that flew as Rush rushed past singing “The Garden..”
I had butterflies in my gut..
weakness in my knees
my body spoke
but did I listen? Ever did?
“ Pack your bags Gypsy-you Gitano-you Ziginare* “ they whispered.. “it’s time to leave, to depart again yet again and now again…”
They smiled at me as I floated down…
Walked with me on the charted path..
through the corridors I trudged my shoes hitting the shining stones where we and you’ve walked..
They opened the doors..
I silently stepped in
so many memories..
and songs of praise echoing all around ..
every moment was precious,
every step was slow and measured..
I reached the Alter..
I stopped and looked and knelt..
staring up at
Our Good Shepherd..
And the voice..
“ The Navigator has come home..”
I closed my eyes as my thoughts swooshed from the mountains to the valleys and shot across the lands arriving at the oceans of the world, zipped over the continents looking down at all those faces who knew me more than I knew them… and in those priceless seconds I was back where I belonged.
It was time to leave, yet again…
I turned and bowed my head as they smiled and I knew..
walking along the passage besides our Chapel to
The Lawrence Gate.. with a heavy heart..
I glanced up and saw Linlithgow and the stone steps leading down to the Irwin Hall, the Chapel and the Dining Hall.
Yes.. I see myself as that five year old coming down those steps in a queue, no sound no whisper..
I stopped and call for you..
Can you not hear me? Read my lips or at least acknowledge my presence..?
My presence is an old man who moved out of your five year old shell.. you look happy my five year old ..
and me your sixty five..
“ I and I we both are.. but I am not leaving this place; I am barely five .. but you must go back into the cacophony of sounds at this age your stage .. for me your young one, I will wait for your return eagerly…”
The steps remain
The corridors remain
everything else is frozen in a time zone .. except myself ..I continue to grow and age..
Whilst my other I, stays…
don’t we both still have the same name ..?”
“Yes yes I plead- no never change even if the clock ticks away, I will hold back time…
And I will but return to meet you .. perhaps then..
you will leave
and
I will stay..”🙏❤️

My School
Living in its own time ..
Vivek Bonnie BHASIN
Lefroy 1961-1970
*gitano-ziginare : Gypsies
Easter Sunday 04 April 2021


– Vivek Bhasin

2020 Christmas Letter / Vivek Bhasin

I managed to climb on top of the highest mountain..
the last married pair of swans
one-white one-black
come swinging in from the north; just swooshing past me
I bloody well jump…
just managed
to land on the black
this graceful elegance..
in flight heading south.
I held on to my pants more than his long neck..
and..
Lo and behold I slipped away like a  well untrained skydiver knowing pretty damn well
I was going to fall
with arms flaying
clutching nothingness
my legs dangling
my eyes popping
my hair dishevelled a mess.

….myriad scenes flashed
some laughter
a few solid drives
immaculate chips
a fine line putt
longing desperation
deep blue lakes
sitting on the beach chair
under the rush of fir trees
drinking caffe
med cinnamon rolls…
yet my mind zig-zagged
never stopped..
I talking to my self
forced to anchor
engines on turning gear
this year.

In case June was the moon
yet not t’was too soon
come August this must be now
yet my bag stayed zipped
forlorn vacant with slow desire
September Simla not just yet
November cold dark yet fresh
inhale moss breath
kantarell yellow still sprout
surprise surprise yet annoying wild to the bone smug too
one slow car meanders..
slim long legged lass
on a two wheeler
following the footsteps of Cézanne
disembarked
her cloth clutch
followed her following to the
Sunday market Provence
Lavender sabon
Butter croissants..

Just leave your dreams…
Yes I just left…

…Gasping for breath
inhale exhale I find my fall
turned to glide
I soar high’n higher
settled stable
increased speed I catch
the jet stream on my tail
a smooth ride..
adjusting my arms
straightening my legs
my hair now slicked
my Sunday suit and I
and stolen polish black shoes..

..and then slow descend
graceful swan am I?

I perch at the Main Gate
The Mitre, The Crest and all else is there..
I now remember
dark nights bright lights
our month
First December…
the sun nearly set
at Tara Devi’s height
The Good Shepherd gently fades into the night.

I’ll just hunker down inside the bare opening
of that great chestnut tree
and think back
on this year that’s been.
No no .. no sarcasm..
no tantrums ..
no frustration..
but squeezed juices of patience.

Sometimes even nothing
makes sense
is relaxing for the brain until
we shall .. hence.

Christmas is confusing
family togetherness
going home
coming to you
logs and chimneys
Mulled Vino with almonds raisins
table fares are individualistic
Candles and Stars
will Santa Claus arrive
will the Three Kings divide?
Is it just this time
we will stay away
just today even tomorrow
like lambs bleating astray?

Yet I still stretch my limbs
and stand tall…
soon December’s fall
will end it all..
will we stay confused
like that lady who nearly socked me, keep distance she screams ..
nor dare otherwise
others many
like the owl wise
and deep ravines
a sudden hidden troll
the new way
under branches fall?

I will sit cuddled in that nook of the tree and kill my thoughts
speak what sits on my lips…
this year’s camera of my eyes
recording slow motion..

Let the quietude
comfort you
Let us take our time
I tell you what
I pray to end upheaval corruption cloak and dagger selfishness
greedy land grabbers..
less jumble in the brain..
and pray the deep green forest approaching the Main Gate
always remains.

A Peaceful Christmas..
strain your ears to pick up orchestral melodies of the next year.. it better be better than 2020’s propellor wash ..
🙏❤️🙏

Vivek ( Bonnie ) Bhasin
Christmas 2020
Wishing Swans
those graceful wings
and
The Wide Winged Albatross
that cast her shadow over me
as I sailed through
The Straits of Magellan;
…my canopy.

Kindest Regards and Best Wishes,

Bonnie/Vivek Bhasin

John Long Gone Moved On..

yet

flying back
I glided in..
soft landing in the courtyard
amongst my brooding friends..
We all ..
Birds of one feather .. the pigeons and I
the only grey..
walking amongst the lot.
I find my way amongst the
hustle
and
bustle
to where he was sitting ..
every morning..
‘Fore sun up
he was there …
perched on a rickety wooden chair
staring at nothingness
blowing smoke rings
up towards the heavens..
he never smiled nor sang two words
and hardly looked at us wings..
Just quietly sitting and forming rings …
as we arrived in droves..
a few stray hounds,
and three wild cats..
even a lonely mongoose
were there…
Our congregation swarmed towards him
not sure why..
‘Cause he never fed us seeds
nor crumbs nor morsels..
yet we looked at him..
and I coo’d ..my grey reputation.

But today … the chair was there .
But he not..
But why..? But where ?
But still did he need his part of the share ?

…Only the strum of guitar
…then a distant song..
If I was a carpenter…
A beautiful song …

I now sit on another perch
and wonder about that beautiful song ..
And where is John..?
Long Gone …

Bonnie Bhasin
On Robert Plant &
John Whitmarsh Knight
15 Nov 2020

That Green Hamam soap vs Head & Shoulders shampoo…

Every couple of days I wrote on a little slip.. Hamam Soap, Forhans Toothpaste, Toothbrush, Cherry Blossom Shoe Polish, Boff and Face Vaseline.. handed the chit to Lefroy House Master Mr ( Baku) Malvea to sign off at inspection; then headed to the store room that lay adjacent to the Garam Pani Kamra to get my supplies (that for some reason dwindled to nothing, zilch  in less than three days …).The deal with buddies was to loan boff measured as two bed lengths with an I.O.U to get the similar length back when mine was over ..😁

Back to the Pani wallah emerging from that blackened room stacked with koila (coal) for heating, this hard core khadu, resembling a chimney sweep hauling two steel buckets of steaming hot water hanging from a wide shoulder bow; staggering with the weight, bow legged he walked slowly towards the Master’s residences….Hot water for them… frikin ice water in the showers for us rascals( no sprinkler rose on the shower  – who the fcuk broke-it-stole it ?) just a bleedin pipe spurting water…hard cold water doused us POWs that definitely toughened us, and that bloody awful Hamam soap*.. the only respect I had for that bar was‘cause it was a shade lighter than Lefroy Green..!

I guess Hamam soap started this one …

In Command of the Ro-Ro / Container vessel MV CARTAGENA I sailed out one fine summer evening from the Port of Cartagena Colombia ( God! I love that country ;my vessel was named after that very cool city .. the folk, the cuisine, the salsa and merengue clubs, the naughty boys and girls…. every two weeks Cartagena was one of my ports of call…..).

But now I was heading north towards Jacksonville, Florida With a near full container load of cavendish Bananas and a few containers of frozen shrimp for US markets.

The voyage was approximately 1400 nautical miles and at a moderate speed of 15 knots it would take me 94 hrs to cover the distance; my intended route was to skirt the western edge of Cuba, take advantage of the strong Gulf Stream, a warm ocean current heading north along the US East Coast; off North Carolina it sweeps right heading transatlantic in an easterly direction to the UK keeping that Island’s climate pretty mild compared to the European Continent and Scandinavia.

Hence my route with the help of the strong Gulf Stream passing Cuba pushed the ship’s speed upto 19 knots; for the Chief Engineer a negative slip ((advantageous)) meant less strain on the engine, increased distance on same fuel consumption. 

My crew was Filipino, thorough professional seaman, short in stature but hard core, taking everything in their stride. They were dedicated, faithful and I respected them. They were happy go lucky souls in spite of being on board, away from home for months on end sending every cent ( well nearly every cent! )back home. The boys worked hard and when dashing ashore partied hard with their meagre balances ! Colombia was their beat and they enjoyed the booze, mariscos, the night clubs, the beaches and the mermaids ..!

I had warned them, read them the riot act, even put the fear of God in them to the dangers of greed… Colombia was known for the “white stuff” and cheaply available, but if caught with the stuff  in the US, penalties and punishments were severe and extremely expensive. A wrong step could jeopardise careers, lives and even the shipping business of the company. The boys understood and stayed clear of the trouble spots, dark alleys of the ports of Santa Marta and Cartagena but having a good time on tierra firma before clambering up the gangway for another day of blood sweat and tears.. I loved my crew; respected them and they reciprocated.

Two days into the voyage and still navigating the Caribbean, approaching Cuba, alarm bells sounding just after breakfast, I rushed up to the Bridge to confront the Third Officer to query the alarm. Switching on my walkie-talkie I called the Chief Officer who was on deck; he reporting a huge hulk of a being was seen in no:1 hold by some crew members who were doing maintenance to the cooling water systems.

They hit the alarm button.

Six crew members including Rudy Bocala the Boatswain went into the hatch and after a massive struggle managed to shackle the hulk, twice the crew’s height, and pulled him up on deck. It took more of a Herculean effort to haul him up to the Bridge where I was….struggling ..he was very tall, muscular and looked like one of those wild and demented boxers who gamblers bet on in a snake pit.

A Colombian Stowaway!! 

Goodness Grief. Besides Drugs, desperate folk from South and Central America were always trying to smuggle illegally on board ships bound for the USA( right to a land of milk, honey and the Big Bucks; a better life). Once discovered the Master had myriad obligations, stress and more to inform US Immigration, US Customs & Excise ( after 9/11 now renamed the Department of Homeland Security), ship’s agent, vessel owners, charters and ship managers at the next port, of a stowaway on board, sending maximum details, photos, finger prints, copies of any papers in possession; often they board with no papers to make Ship Captain’s lives more miserable; many apply for political asylum and do not reveal their identities nor nationalities and stuff attempting political asylum and some get to remain on board a vessel for years as no country accepts them without solid proof of their nationality (on an earlier vessel also bound for the US, we discovered fifteen stowaways on departing Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic; these sorry souls had been stuffed inside a container on chassis loaded with pineapples.  The electrical containers were plugged on at departure and cooling of the pineapples commenced at 13 C. The blighters, including a pregnant woman started shivering and started jumping out from a hole under the container.. that’s another story..and an earlier one where my entire Chinese crew jumped ship in New York and vaporised into Chinatown …)

…So I got on the job… pretty upset, as we had carried out a thorough stowaway and drug search with Colombian Police, sniffer dogs and even underwater divers prior departing Cartagena after all shore side stevedores and other personnel had disembarked; nothing  found!. .. and now this dude !! Bringing an illegal alien(s) into the US calls for heavy fines imposed on to the carrier, penalties on the crew, not to mention delays in cargo handling and more additional costs to fly these critters back to their homeland with US Marshals.

Questioning this hulk : Fernando Luis Sagrada Xavier was the bugger’s name.He had a Colombian passport and also! Yes also!! a valid US driver’s licence, a New York Yellow Cab medallion! He had photos of a gorgeous looking woman, his American girlfriend he said and a stash of around two thousand American dollars in his torn jeans. Meaning he had been living and working illegally in the US, had been caught by immigration and deported earlier, which he admitted to, and was now making MY life miserable by trying to enter the US again ..O N    M Y    S H I P ! 

I was enraged but maintained an outward cool expression, knowing if we unshackled /un cuffed him he could probably throw us all overboard to the sharks and hijack my ship.

Diplomacy was key here…..The man smelt like a skunk, was tired and hungry, AND angry too for having being caught. He spoke pretty good English with an American accent ..” Hey Skipper” he tells me …” please let’s just do each a favour Sir… I will behave, won’t riot, no revolt; you can lock me up in a cabin. All I ask is as per rules for stowaways….Head and Shoulders shampoo, a perfumed bar of soap, your best deodorant, a clean set of clothes and a full roast chicken with loads of potatoes, a few cans of Miller Beer and clean bed to sleep in. And use of some 10 kg dumbbells to keep fit. Once you arrive Jacksonville, after the Immigration and Customs leave the ship stamping your passports, cargo commences with the arrival of shore stevedores, look the other way..I will just walk down the ramp and disappear into the cacophony of America. In that way life would be cool, no hassles,no stress,no big fines Capi!”…. looking at me .. “and you will never see me again ..so just look away …what’d ya say Capitan?”.

I must admit for a brief second I felt tempted but as Master in Command I had to play by the rules. There was no way I would succumb to the schemes of Señor Sagrada Xavier.. I had to do what I had to do. And did just that ..

“Now listen carefully Fernando; I  cannot accept anything you say when it comes to you slipping away into America’s heartland.. you have been discovered and you have to be documented, reported and are to be returned to Colombia. In fact I will have to keep you on board for the next twelve days until we return to Cartagena as my company will need to save the expense of you flying back to your country with two armed US Marshals with a return ticket and all other expenses. So no tricks, no pressure; I will provide you your comforts, Head and Shoulders shampoo and French Lavender soap, ( I wish I had Hamam in my dry stores to give this guy…)my Gillette MAC 3 razor, a spanking new toothbrush, a boiler suit / overalls as your size is only available in the Big & Large stores in the US; we have no size on board that will fit you, great food, sorry no booze. You have the freedom to roam the vessel, but any smart moves and you’re locked up in the paint store..all luxuries over, finito.. Is that understood ? Comprende?”.

The man was not happy with a perplexed expression, his silent words emanating something like “Capitan I’m doing you a great favour.. no hassles, no great fines, it ain’t no big deal”. “Sorry olé’chap” I conveyed in telepathy to him; “be grateful we are the humane type. Some other crew may have shackled you heavier and sent you to Davy Jones Locker ( they want no hassles, they take no prisoners ..and mums the word”.

Two days later we docked at Jacksonville.. I had no option but to lock up Fernando Xavier in a cabin. An armed US marshal was posted right outside in the alleyway; all fines and expenses had to be paid for bringing in an illegal alien into the USA. I had to sign an undertaking accepting full responsibility and consequences if Xavier escaped and I was committed to return him to Colombia. Of course the local newspaper Florida Times arrived, so did the Port Chaplain to Bless my crew ( and the stowaway ..) and even Amnesty International wishing to investigate if Fernando was being treated humanely.. ! I

mean Head & Shoulders, Lavender Soap and even Chicken Tikka Masala.. the same grub we all ate on board.

That was the story of the Colombian stowaway.. we kept him secure in ports and let him free to roam the ship when out at sea though keeping a sharp tab on him; although he made it to America he only saw the country from my ship and surely felt forlorn, dejected but on the other hand he had calmed down and behaved himself … my orders were to first call the Port of Santa Marta in Colombia and then Cartagena where he boarded, and where I was to disembark him. But this time the hulk reduced the length of my stress. He pleaded if he could get off earlier at Santa Marta and not Cartagena two days later “as Cartagena Cops and I go a long way” he said, “ I can dodge my way out from Santa Marta cops..”.

The Colombian authorities agreed I could release him in Santa Marta and the local Harbour Police would be on board.

We docked at Santa Marta around 1100 hrs; after immigration and customs formalities, the hulk was handed over to the local police. Before leaving he was escorted up to my office where I handed him all his personal effects. .. looking at me ..” Thank you for your hospitality Capitan” … no no there was no sarcasm in his tone … “ you take care Fernando, and please don’t try to snuggle yourself back on to my ship” I said… he smiled and handed me a crumpled note and turned away with the Colombian harbour police. 

As he was led down the ramp, I saw the cops having a brief chat with him and then let him go… he looked back at the Bridge where I was standing; he stopped, smiled and freely walked out of the gate… just as he wanted to do in Jacksonville USA..( some crew members reported whilst ashore in Santa Marta they saw him in a bar have a cerveza Cristal, the local beer..waiting to jump on to another US bound ship…I assume.

That’s the last I ever saw of Fernando Luis Sagrada Xavier…. I was trading on that route for the next four years with good fortune, following seas and no stowaways…and no drugs.

(( I looked at the crumbled note Fernando had handed me… …..a scribble of a telephone number in the US: “+ 1 800 609 8731 / ask for Fernando Xavier”…..I checked .. it was the toll free number of New York City Yellow Cabs…))

Kindest Regards and Best Wishes,

Vivek Bhasin 

World Travels of a Lefroyian  

Old Cottonian ( 1961-1970)

21 Oct 2020

*Hamam Soap: 

then : awful foul smelling and worse… 

instead of palming it off to others like Sanawar, Doon, Mayo…

today :it’s a blend of neem, tulsi and aloe vera extracts.. and Lefroy Green with Hindustan Lever adding more mileage to the green bar, targeting safety to women and girls in their latest communication strategy campaign #GoSafeOutside.. 🙏

Well – Well, all’s well that ends well…