When the Indian Navy conducted the International Fleet Review in Feb 2001, at Mumbai, in which navies of various countries participated, the motto of the IFR was ‘Bridges of Friendship’. The seas are not seen as dividing media but as the media that unites people of various lands. I retired ten years later after spending 37 years of building these bridges across the seas.‘Join the Navy – See the World; Join the Navy – Meet the Girls’ was the litany when we were in the school. Robert Browning’s Cristina was fresh in our minds:
Young ‘dreamer’ in the Navy
What? To fix me thus meant nothing?
 But I can't tell (there's my weakness)
What her look said!---no vile cant, sure,
 About need to strew the bleakness
 Of some lone shore with its pearl-seed. 
 That the sea feels''---no strange yearning
That such souls have, most to lavish
 Where there's chance of least returning.''

The last two lines have an enigma about them as well as promise of romance. One would think that it is exactly as given in the story books. However, we learnt it the hard way during our trip to Athens way back in 1975 immediately after being commissioned. We were ambling in the Constitution Square when a kind man came to us and asked if we were Indian. He said that he admired Indians and would like us to have drinks in the company of his fair-sex friends. The drinks were nice and the girls were nicer still. We talked about our great nations, our history and heritage, Taj Mahal, Delhi etc (amongst other things, that is) and really enjoyed ourselves. We were under-trainee Acting Subaltern Lieutenants on board. We were convinced that we were smarter, wittier, more interesting company; else, why would the girls be attracted to us as compared to our more senior colleagues from the ship Himgiri? In our megalomaniac trance we did not know that the man who had invited us had quietly vanished and so had our seniors. Later, we were asked to pay an exorbitant bill for the drinks, and we had to part with our entire foreign allowance and more. We were the suckers who had fallen for the obvious ploy. When we returned on board we were ‘ceremoniously’ received with all the seniors lining the gangway and going through the motions of a mock side-pipe.

Thirty-five year later, just before retiring from the navy as I stood at a banquet in Shanghai with a pretty interpreter next to me, I felt I had lost count of the number of ports and countries I had visited and bridges of friendship made with people.
At Shanghai, just before retiring
At the Great Wall of China
But, I am convinced that at the end of it one doesn’t so much remember all the pomp and glory, great places, cities and nations. Quite simply one always remembers people one meets and share their kindness and culture. One also remembers the con-tricks, swindles and hoaxes by them. Both types later become dear because good or bad, these have the flavour of foreign visits. Here are a few more.
Tempo – the type driven by Avtar Singh
I was merely a cadet on the cruiser Delhi when we touched the port of Sabang in Indonesia. It was about 20 kms or so from the city of Balawan. This was where we imagined the fun to be. But, the problem that confronted us was how to reach there. With our meager resources we could not have hired a cab and we were not familiar with the bus routes. As we came out of the port we spotted a ‘tempo’ driven by a sardar. We thumbed a ride. As we sat with him in the front seats he got into a conversation with us about the ship. We showed off to him how the ship was fitted with the very latest in warfare and comfort. He was particularly keen to know about the conditions in the Engine Room. We told him that our Engine Room had the latest in air-conditioned luxury and had controls and sensors to match a liner. After three quarters of an hour’s journey he dropped us at Belawan with the parting shot, “Great to know about your modern ship, Sirs; you did not recognize me, I am LME (Leading Mechanical Engineroom rating) Avtar Singh from your ship. This ‘tempo’ belongs to my brother here in Belawan. How about coming to the Engine Room sometimes and doing a watch with me?” For the next few months we avoided A Singh on board as if he were a leper.

On duty in uniform but ‘liberty’ in civvies


On Himgiri we had gone on a foreign visit to the Black Sea Soviet (now Ukranian) port of Odessa. In foreign ports, sailors generally go out in uniform whereas the officers may go out in civvies. But, so great was the fascination of the Soviet belles with uniform that we found that the sailors managed to make friends with the prettiest of them. As if that was not enough, to add insult to injury, on the second day of our stay whaen a reception was held on board for the local dignitaries and their ladies, one of the ladies enquired of us as to why there was no officer in the reception. It was difficult to get to the bottom of this  because of language barrier. It took us sometime to unravel the mystery. Apparently, a day earlier one of the Petty Officers (the lowest rank amongst Senior Sailors) in uniform, on shore leave, when asked as to why there was a distinction between some of us going out for ‘liberty’ (shore leave) in uniform and others in civvvies had informed them that only they, the officers, with an anchor or two on their sleeves, were “permitted” to go out in uniform. The others had to be content with going out in civvies. And, one should have seen their fascination with uniform.

I still remember the time whe we landed up at Colombo. In order to shop there we had to first convert our Indian rupees into local currency. Just as it happened in Athens, a kind hearted gentleman came and asked us to put our money in individual envelopes that he had brought, write the names and amounts on the sealed envelopes and then he’d go and get the requisite local currency. He took the envelopes from us only to make a list and then handed these back to us. We held on to these whilst he went on his errand.

Courtesy: gamerswithjobs.com
We were confident that this was totally safe since we had the envelopes with the money with us. As time passed and he did not return we reassured ourselves by feeling the envelopes containing our money. However, when he did not return even after one hour of wait we opened the envelopes and found that instead of our hard-earned money these contained newspaper strips. In the evening we narrated this incident, over drinks, to other officers in the wardroom and they made fun of us for not being observant and cautious. The next day the lot to whom we had told the story also lost their money in like manner.But, of all the incidents during foreign trips, this one takes the cake. Whilst walking in one of the ports, knowing that the locals would not know our language, that is, Punjabi, one officer would accost the lovely damsels with the naughty Punjabi line: “D— ke thane jaana?” (Are you willing or should I take you to Thana, that is, Police Station). The damsels, not understanding the question or its import would just smile at him and walk away and all of us would burst in cackles. However, when he asked this of the most beautiful of the girls, she confronted him with, “Thane jaana”. He did not know where to look. That evening we had a reception on board and she happened to be the daughter of the Indian (and Punjabi) First Secretary. Our flamboyant Punjabi officer did the Mister India trick (many years before the movie was released) and tried to become invisible during the party.I end with the incident of my having gone to Italy as a Lieutenant on short deputation. I took a loan from my Provident Fund and decided to take my wife along. Accompanying me, on this short deputation, was another officer. On a weekend, we decided to visit the city of Florence and hired a car from Rome to do so. Florence is amongst the most beautiful cities that I have visited. My wife, being a Catholic, saw the churches and chapels, with works by Michelangelo, with engrossing interest. However, it finally became time to have lunch. Being Indians, we were very concerned about where the driver of our taxi would eat. Primo, the driver, seemed to know no other language other than Italian; we had a trying time explaining to him the places that we wanted to visit and had to literally show him the places on the map.

As a Lieutenant in Florence, Italy

Finally, with all the sights that we were to see, there was no time left for lunch and we discussed amongst ourselves that we’d just grab some fast food on the way. Primo showed us on the map that, with our permission, he’d like to follow a different route for going back to Rome. He made us understand by gestures that his in-laws stayed in a village and it would not be too much of a detour to go via the village. The only problem was that along the way we didn’t come across a single place where we could stop for lunch.

Primo’s people lived in a farmhouse and the entire family was there to greet us. Within no time, they made us feel like honoured guests from India. We, having been brought up with class-distinctions in India, were pleasantly surprised to see them offering us a sumptuous lunch, champagne and wine and finally carry-away gifts.

Until many years later, I kept thinking of what made Primo do so; possibly the lunch and the gifts were worth more than the hire-charges of his cab. I would like to believe that the concern we had shown for his lunch at Florence, even though expressed in a language foreign to him, made the difference. 

Navy is a true international service; it is because most often than not it operates beyond 12 nautical miles of the coast and hence in international waters called the high seas. Our counterparts from the Army and the Air Force rarely leave the country whereas we do it on an everyday basis; in almost every sailing we leave the territorial limits of the country. Navy gave me the opportunity to touch various shores, both by sea and by air. Wherever I went, I never forgot the lesson that Primo imparted us in my grooming years.

Maori welcome in Auckland, New Zealand

I remember Captain of our Cadets Training Ship Delhi addressing the ship’s company before entering the port of Aden; my first foreign port. He said each one of us were the ambassadors of our great nation ashore and were expected to conduct ourselves likewise. I thought to myself: ‘What great luck to be called “Your Excellency” at the age of twenty-one’. In the remaining nearly four decades of being in the Navy, we took our ‘ambassadorial’ duties rather earnestly. And guess what? Everywhere we went, the people responded with warmth and affection. The girls? Well, that’s another story.

© 2012 – 2014, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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  1. “Quite simply one always remembers people one meets…”

    Such a beautiful and an apt statement. A few days back I was generally whining about missing my London days to a collegue at work. The colleague, who was probably sick of hearing me whine about my London days asked me, “Tell me, do you miss London or the people you met there?” I had no hesitation in saying, “The people. It is they who gave me my memories of the place.”

    Wondeful, wonderful post. Loved it.

  2. It was wonderful reading your post..let me tell u what brought me here, the title of the post- Overboard- Overseas. Something told me” Overboard” here has a connection to Marine, and I am happy to not be disappointed.

    Have been working with Shipping Industry for 4 years, surrounded by Captains and Master Mariners. Glad to stop here, coming back for more.

    Looks like u are on twitter too..following u ( dont be surprised to have a follower by name @Archi_palego)

  3. Loved reading this.
    Lucky you. You really lived up to the recruitment slogan: “Join the Navy and see the World”
    Looking forward to more such nostalgic reminiscences.

  4. Reading about sea faring life is an experience itself for armchair travelling like me. Your blog is very interesting to read, and I enjoyed it.

  5. A very enthralling narrative. I really the lives of sailors. One of my office colleagues had been in merchant navy for just 3 years and he has so many interesting stories to tell. As seen from your post, you have much more stories to tell. Really enjoyed reading this.

    1. Thank you. The seas don’t just connect people but there is a romance of the seas, tales and ditties that are so exotic, so inviting. Once you have been in a sea service, you can’t get the sea out of your veins.