Neophyte’s “Passage to India”
Text © 2006 Yvonne Snow.
Text © 2006 Yvonne Snow.
It was a sunny, late summer afternoon in 1958 when my friends saw me off at the old Ottawa Railway Station, on the first leg of my twenty-five day journey to New Delhi, India. After a comfortable overnight trip, I arrived at Grand Central station in New York. In those days it was more common to travel by ship than to fly to overseas postings. So I took a taxi to the Pier, to board the S.S. Christoforo Columbo - the sister ship of the Andrea Doria, which you may recall was sunk off New York a few years earlier when it collided with the S.S. Stockholm.
Upon boarding the ship I was
informed that I would be traveling cabin class, which turned out to be pretty
luxurious accommodation - far superior to all classes of airline travel.
The Purser and staff on passenger ships allocated the complement of the
ship’s guests to their dining tables, using some in-built intuition as to the
relative importance of the individuals involved.
As I was listed as a member of the Department of External Affairs
(Foreign Affairs), it was presumed that I was some kind of VIP,
and my table companions turned out to be two haematologists and a nuclear
physicist. It was difficult
at first to find common small talk subjects as my knowledge of nuclear physics
was somewhat limited, and I thought haematology had something to do with milk
pasteurization. We soon overcame
this and in the next few days we all became fairly good friends.
about ten days on this magnificent liner to Naples where, upon arrival, everyone
scattered and went their own way. The
nuclear physicist went off to Geneva for a Conference, as did the two
hematologists . As for me, I was to
be in Naples for a couple of days before continuing on to India.
at Naples I was met by an individual whose job it was to ease the way for me on
my continuing voyage. One of the
first questions was : “Do you have formal dinner wear”, to which I replied,
“yes, I’m wearing them”. He
suggested that since the next phase of my 12- or 13-day journey to Bombay would
be first class, it would be prudent
to have two dinner jackets and the accoutrements.
At that time the only “accoutrement “ that I had that might fit this
criteria was a pair of black shoes, which upon inspection he diplomatically told
me would not be suitable for formal wear.
I told him I was in no position to put out a lot
of money; he said: “don’t worry about it. I know you are with the Department of External Affairs and
that you will, in due course pay the tailor for this.
So away we
went to the tailor shop, where I
was measured up for a white dinner jacket, black dinner jacket, black dress
pants with a satin stripe down the side, white dress shirts, cummerbund,
bow ties, and black silk socks. Oh,
he also suggested I get a better pair of shoes !
So within a few days, after a few fittings, for the first time in my life
I was the proud owner of a complete set of formal clothing.
Naples on the MV Asia and we sailed
out into the Mediterranean. About 4
o’clock that afternoon, (I was
now traveling first class), a knock came to my door.
A Steward presented a small engraved envelope on a silver platter.
I looked at him - I wasn’t quite sure what this was all about;
he looked at me an said, “Go ahead and take it”.
It was an invitation to the Captain’s cocktail party that evening.
And it suggested evening attire be worn.
were in a fairly warm part of the world I decided that the white dinner jacket
would be the thing. I showered,
shaved, put on my black pants, cummerbund, white dress shirt, new black shoes
and black bowtie, and slipped on my
white sharkskin dinner jacket. I
stood there for a few moments and then decided to have a look at myself in the
mirror. Well, I thought, “Fred,
here you are - you’ve arrived. You
go out there dressed like this and somebody is going to ask you to fetch them a
drink“ . A drink seemed like a
good idea. So I poured myself a
couple of fingers of scotch, which kind of gave me the courage to walk out the
door, to the promenade and into the exclusive lounge where the Captain’s
cocktail party was in full swing. Lo
and behold most of the male guests (as well as the waiters) were dressed like
me, and I said to myself “Fred, you’ve come a long way since you left the
Rock!”. I soon felt right
at home at this, my first cocktail party. I
relaxed and fit right in.
stop was at Port Said on the western end of the Suez Canal, where we waited
about 2 days for enough ships to gather that would make up a convoy to pass
through the canal. During this time
I became aware of a small Canadian flag flying on the upper structure of the
ship. I wondered briefly whether
they were flying it because I was on board (as by now I was beginning to feel
quite privileged and important)! Alas,
this was not the case. I learned
from the bartender that there was a Canadian Ambassador aboard on his way to his
post in, Djakarta.
His name was Mr. Irwin. I
suggested that he be pointed out to me if he came into the bar, which he did
later that evening.
sashayed over to the Ambassador and his wife,
and introduced myself. Looking
back on it I think I would probably have introduced myself in a more
“diplomatic” manner, instead
of “Hi, I understand you’re the Canadian Ambassador”.
He said, “Yes I am”. “Well”, I said, “I
work for the same outfit as you and I’m going to Bombay”.
I suppose I did work for the same outfit as he did, but over the years I
realized that I might have phrased my greetings slightly differently.
Nonetheless we became quite friendly, swimming together and occasional
drinks as well; we talked about the Department and I learned much from him about
the operations purpose of foreign affairs.
arrived in Bombay. My God!
Dust, heat, smell and what appeared to be utter confusion with everybody
milling and rushing madly about trying to get off the ship, trying to get
through customs, immigration, health and what have you.
When I finally reached the dock there were thousands of people including
coolies, longshoremen, beggars,
customs officials and God knows who all, clamoring
and hollering. Eventually,
out of this chaos I managed to hire a couple of coolies to carry my two
bags. Away we went down the dock,
hustling and running. These guys
were pretty happy - they had work to do and I expect they knew they had a live
one. I got to the end of the pier
and out to the taxi rank, and wondered how much to pay them.
I picked off a couple of ten rupee notes and gave them one each, later
realizing I had paid them ten times more than I should have.
These two coolies went dancing away from me as though they had won the
The drive to
the Ambassador Hotel cost about half of what I had paid the coolies!
Now it was time for a shower, and what a terrifying experience that turned
out to be. The shower
contained a device called a geyser, which was gas-operated and was intended to
heat the water as needed. It was
mounted on the shower wall and was about the size of a refrigerator; hence it
left little room for me in the tub enclosure.
Since I was pretty sweaty after the trip from the boat there was no
choice but to follow the instructions as best I could, and turned it on. Well! It was an
experience. It damn near
scalded me to death. I readjusted
it and the water came out cold. I
fiddled around with it for a while, and eventually got it at a tepid
temperature. I stood there with my
mouth and lips tightly pinched together to make sure that I didn’t get any of
this water into my mouth, which according to health experts and others in Ottawa
, was to be avoided at all costs. I
didn’t want my first days in India to be spent catching some exotic tropical
disease since by all accounts this was bound to happen if one drop of unboiled
water was to pass my lips. Halfway
through the shower the top of the geyser blew off, steam shot toward the
ceiling, and I jumped towards the door.
When it finally subsided I cautiously approached and turned it off.
The next day
I left for Delhi by train, which was an overnight 24-hour trip.
The hotel in Bombay had provided me with a cooler full of food, and
hopefully, boiled water. The
only recollection I have of the food was that there were boiled eggs; whatever
else there might have been I’ve forgotten, although I’m pretty sure it was
all western food - or as I later came to think of it - Christian food.
Once again I
had a private compartment. I sat in
there and when I was hungry, ate my
eggs and sipped what I fervently hoped was boiled water.
Occasionally, to stretch my legs, I went out of my compartment and walked
up and down the other connecting aisles. I
was astounded to see all the people on the train eating their lunch without the
benefit of knives and forks. They
dug into these great dishes of food which I subsequently discovered was commonly
known as curry in this part of the world. I
thought, “My God, here I am amongst savages eating with their hands”.
My culture shock knew no bounds. I
scurried back into my bunker and decided that I would go out only when it was
absolutely necessary, and stayed there until I reached Delhi railway station. The confusion at both Delhi and Bombay station was on
par with that at the docks, and I was now wondering what I had gotten myself
I was pleased to see a few white faces at the station, some of whom looked familiar. I had obviously seen them around the East Block in Ottawa. They had come to welcome the first Technician at the High Commission in Delhi. They all seemed genuinely pleased to meet me which made me feel better. I hired just one coolie this time, who took my two bags to the car, where I paid him a rupee, which he accepted without any semblance of having won a lottery … I was learning ! The Admin Officer commented that the rest of my effects were probably arriving by ship later. I informed him that everything I owned in the whole world was contained in those two flight bags. I checked into another Ambassador hotel, just twenty-five days after leaving Ottawa. I lived at this hotel for the first four months of the best posting I ever had.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Editor’s Note: Freddie worked on this draft the evening before he left us all. Over the 2-½ years in India, Fred toured the Kulu valley on his lambretta, with Jim Smith, communicator; was Jim’s best man at his wedding in South India; played a “weary but cheerful British soldier” in the J. Arthur Rank production of Flame over India, starring Lauren Bacall and Kenneth More; went on several hunting and fishing trips; and made lifelong friends with the local staff at the High Commission.
Photo credit: Raymond Fortin circa 1971
Flame Over India: image provided by Hewitt (Hugh) Elliott
© OFARTS Canada 2006 Old Foreign Affairs Retired Technicians, Canada The opinions expressed here are those of the contributors. Accuracy of facts has not been verified in all cases.