Main Page

Other Articles



A Neophyte’s “Passage to India”  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. 

We spent 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.   

On arrival 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. 

I left 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.  

Since we 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. 

Our first 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.   

I promptly 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. 

Finally, we 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 649. 

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 into. 

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

Main Page

Other Articles

© 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.