The Collaborator

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I bring you another one from my journals. This incident also centers in the period of war with Pakistan in 1965. Refer: My Sister Makes A Wish!

We were well into a full-fledged war with Pakistan. And placed where we were; close to an important main road and the railway line that was coming under fire. It was unnerving. Take a seat and come with me to a town in Punjab.

 

1965

It was all about location. We were between two prime targets, the GT Road and the railway line, both of which were the main transit lines for military equipment, troops etc. to reach the northern borders where the fighting was fiercely on. And as mentioned in my earlier post, we weren’t too far from the Air Force base.

For some time we were sitting ducks for stray bombs that missed the target. I didn’t know whether I should applaud or cry… a miss was good for the country but bad for us! Then the bombs began to fall farther away from us but closer to the targets. Fortunately, none caused any major damage.

But this story is not about the fighting. It’s about another side of a war.

One house away from ours lived an elderly couple. The gentleman was known by his sobriquet, Mr. Major. I never learned what his real name was. In fact, I wonder if anyone even remembered it. He liked to be called Major which wasn’t his name, but his rank in the Salvation Army! I’m not sure if anyone ever ‘retires’ from the SA, but he was no longer an active member.

He and his wife, a soft-spoken little lady, lived a quiet life in a small house. They had a patch of green in the front, where they grew flowers and a vegetable patch behind, where he grew amazingly huge snake gourds among other vegetables.

We never met them socially. However, there were cordial exchanges now and then over their garden hedge and our boundary wall. A vacant plot separated our houses.

When the war broke out, the authorities solicited¬†security measures through citizen awareness and participation. Daddy and Uncle Johnny were a part of this special group. They had to inform the people in our residential area about certain things, like how to observe total blackout, and what the ‚Äúshoot at sight‚ÄĚ order meant. This was when we met him and his wife for the first time.¬†

I remember the day Daddy and Uncle returned from a meeting with the authorities in charge of vigilance, security, law, and order. Both looked serious. Along with a few others, they had been given the authority to challenge suspicious persons and shoot-at-sight, if necessary.

Daddy and uncle had defense service backgrounds, they owned firearms too; including the Carbine; a semi-automatic rifle. So they gave the authority to shoot-at-sight to them.

For the first time, we saw the rifles coming out for a purpose other than¬†‘shikaar’.¬†It was unnerving. I watched as they checked the rifles and¬†counted the¬†ammunition.

“Will you really shoot a man?” I asked Johnny uncle who had been a gunner on INS Betwa, a Type 41 Leopard-class Frigate; had seen action against the Portuguese in the liberation of Goa, and was a crack-shot in this family that loved shikaar.

“Yes, Bina, if he doesn’t come clean. In war, we shoot the enemy. But you don’t worry your head about it. We’re here and you are safe. Nothing will happen.”¬†He had spoken too soon.

Something did happen.

From then on, Uncle took up position, every night, on the roof of our house with the carbine. Our house had an elevated structure on the roof and this provided a better and farther view of the terrain around us. Sandbags had been placed around as fortification. Daddy patroled the boundary of the two houses; ours and my grandparents’. He carried a 202 rifle. Grandma would also be with him. She refused to get into the trench even when an air attack was on. Except for one occasion (read here)My Sister Makes A Wish!, I never saw either of them in the trench. A few nights passed without incident. Just as I began to relax, it happened.

One night, I heard Uncle loudly challenging someone. I rushed out of the house only to be hastily sent back with stern orders to get inside and stay in and away from the windows and doors. Uncle informed Daddy and Grandma that there was someone in the field behind our house with a lighted cigarette. It was a dark night, and the glow was bright and clearly visible.

He called out a warning. No response.

“If you don’t come out,” he shouted again, “I’m going to shoot.”

There was still no movement or response. As Uncle prepared to shoot, Grandma intervened.

“Wait!” she shouted, “Give him another warning.”¬†

“I’m counting to three, you have been warned.” He began a slow count… “One… two… ”

NO,” bellowed a voice. A dark shadowy figure rose from the field.

“Raise your hands. Who are you?” shouted Daddy, his rifle cocked and ready.

“Major.”

“Get out here, you bloody S&*%#. And keep your hands up,” swore Uncle.

While Daddy kept his rifle aimed at Major, Uncle made his way down from his lookout post on the roof. By the time Major had walked to a few meters from the rear boundary wall of our house, he was down and ready for him.

Major begged and pleaded with both the men who weren’t satisfied with his explanation of what he was doing in the field with a lighted cigarette when it was a blackout. Twice, Uncle lost his cool and raised the rifle. Twice, Grandma asked him to wait and make doubly sure that he was doing the right thing.

Major had said that he had gone to the field to answer the call of nature! This reason fell flat as their house had an attached toilet. He explained this away with the excuse that his wife was in the bathroom and he had an upset tummy. He kept crying and giving all kinds of silly reasons for not answering when challenged. He was lucky that Grandma was there.

If it hadn’t been for her, he would have been shot that night. But he went home alive. Daddy and Uncle were not convinced that he was innocent; Grandma was not convinced that he was guilty. The jury was divided 2:1.

She kept telling her sons that rural folks differ from city people. They react differently, think differently, and this was a unique situation where one couldn’t expect them to fully comprehend the emergency conditions and the implications of their actions. One should not judge them by a city yardstick, she cautioned.

They resumed their positions on the roof and at the rear boundary wall. But Uncle was on high alert. He suspected something was very wrong. The night wore on. All was quiet. Suddenly, gunshots filled the air as bullets whizzed through the air, barely missing Uncle. He was ever alert and retaliated with a few shots. There was a cry of pain; he had hit someone. The attack stopped as suddenly as it had started. There was the sound of feet thudding through the field.

A heavy silence descended. Before anyone could gather their wits, the siren went off and planes zoomed through a night sky that was dotted with red blobs of tracers and the glow of the sporadic anti-aircraft fire. That was a tense night; the biggest concern being, the security of the family.

We had encountered saboteurs!

When had they landed? Where had they landed? Speculation was that it would have been either before Major was spotted in the field or while he was being questioned. Uncle was sure he had hit one of them.

In the morning, a reconnaissance of the place from where the men had fired at us revealed the tracks of four people and signs that someone or something had been dragged. This incident was reported to the police but nothing about Major was mentioned. He had the benefit of the doubt.

As the events of the night were analyzed with police inputs collected from the inspection of the area, it became clear that the saboteurs knew where to shoot. They knew that the more dangerous weapon was on the roof and the lookout provided a better view of the area. Also, the ‘something’ that was dragged was a body. The police had found a bloody trail too. This gave Uncle and Daddy some consolation.

Slowly, some other truths began to trickle in.

We were informed through anonymous sources that Major was a non-smoker and his wife wasn’t at home that night he was caught in the field. In fact, she hadn’t been home since the war broke out. Also, this wasn’t the first time he had gone into the fields with a lighted cigarette. He used different locations. We were shocked to learn that on a previous night, saboteurs had landed quite close to our residential area.

But it was too late. This information was of no use to us. Major had disappeared, and the house remained closed for a long time. They had been private people, and no one knew where their roots lay; family, friends and general information was nil. The police found no clues to their whereabouts.

Grandma felt awful… not because she had saved a traitor, but that her intuition had been so off the mark! Each one had their own takeaways from this incident. She’d keep saying, “How could I have been so wrong in my judgment of character? Mere ko bewakoof bana diya us Major ne aur uski aurat bhi!”

Mine was the intense fear coupled with a sharp sense of adventure. I had clutched my baby brother close while I munched my way through a bottle of dry fruit that my mother had kept in a makeshift shelter in our half-built house. (it was under construction when the war broke out).

My fear manifested itself when I slept, in nightmares. I’d run around wildly shouting things like, “They’re coming… the bombers are coming!” Or “Look… look the sky is full of bombs. They’re falling!”¬† Then, Grandma would catch hold of me and gently take me to her bed, all the while soothing me with soft talk. That always calmed me down. In the morning, I’d have no recollection of it and would not believe that I had done that in the night! ūüôā

Holding my brother protectively made me brave; I forgot my own fear. Eating… I don’t know how that helped!!

When a ceasefire was declared, I welcomed it with mixed feelings. A big relief, no doubt, but now, I’d have to go to school!

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Glossary:

Shikaar…. hunting

Shikaari... hunter 

Bina… Uncle called me by this name. He pronounced ‘i’ with a short vowel sound.

Mere ko bewakoof bana diya us Major ne aur uski aurat bhi!”… The Major and his wife made a fool of me!

GT Road…The Grand Trunk Road (commonly abbreviated to GT Road) is one of South Asia’s oldest and longest major roads. For several centuries, it has linked the eastern and Western regions of the Indian subcontinent, running from Bengal, across north India, into Peshawar in Pakistan. Today, the Grand Trunk remains a continuum that covers a distance of over 2,500 km. Within India, the major portion of the road – the stretch between Kanpur and Kolkata – is known as NH 2 (National Highway 2),¬† the stretch between Kanpur and Delhi is called NH-91, and that between Delhi and Wagah, at the border with Pakistan, is known as NH-1. Between Delhi and Muzaffarnagar is National Highway 58 which further goes to Dehradoon.

 

 

 

 

 

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Superstitions, Myths, Black Magic

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India is a land of many superstitions. Today, we do not hear much about them, as education and science have played their part in a large way. Having said that, I must mention that all don’t come under this education of the mind. India lives in the villages and in these villages superstitions thrive. 

Grandma was a storehouse of strange stories, superstitions, and myths. She was a strange mixture of cynicism and credulity. She was a firm believer in God, yet, she had a few beliefs that had nothing to do with Him.

At times, I wasn’t so sure if I wanted to believe her or not. However, what I saw convinced me she was right about developing a strong conviction, but not about the superstitions per se. What I saw was not superstition…it was extreme calm in the face of danger.

This courage was born of unshakable faith. When one has an implicit belief in anything, it transfers immense strength to the inner self. This is what I saw and learned. But her stories and actions based on her belief in certain superstitions were, indeed, very interesting; and for that moment, I allowed myself to go with it. It gave me the thrill that scary movies give… goosebumps and white-in-the-face breath-stopping moments!

One of her firmest beliefs was that a snake got hypnotized or, as she put it, got “blinded” if the firstborn child of a family stood in front of it. Since she was the firstborn child in her family, she believed that snakes couldn’t move if they encountered her.

We lived in the country and had a big fruit garden and a vegetable garden so our home was host to many snakes; permanent residents as well as visitors. Many of these unfortunate ones met their end at her hand.

Now, killing a snake isn’t such a great feat as killing a snake that stayed rooted to the spot while she picked a lathi or stood quietly watching the snake while a stick was brought to her! Now that’s something I have never seen or heard of before.

The snakes were quick and agile when any other member of the family tried to nail them. Quite often, they’d make their escape. To explain it further, I’ll recount an incident that left me flummoxed.

Grandma retained the rural identity of her kitchen to the core. It was spacious with an inbuilt Chula occupying the right corner in the north. A chimney over the Chula released the fumes and smoke of this typical earthen cooking place. They used coal and wood to light it.

This corner Chula stayed burning or smoldering throughout the day and half the night. There would always be a kettle of tea on the embers. This was also a constant feeder for their hookah fire.

The Chula was on ground level, so cooking was done seated on pidhis. These are very low stools made of wood with woven jute ropes forming the seat. There were four or five of these around the place. In the left corner, there was a table and a comfortable armchair. The other two corners in the south were occupied by a big grain bin and a hand pump. Grandma would sit between the Chula and the table, with a kerosene stove or an angithi, whichever suited her, on the floor. Her choice depended on what she was cooking. All the meals would be cooked this way. 

One day, I was sitting in the armchair and happily chatting while I ate a hot, crisp cheeni paratha straight off the tava. Suddenly, Grandma put her finger to her lips; signaling for me to keep quiet. I looked at her quizzically but refrained from any verbal query.

She stretched out her arm and got hold of the iron phukni which was lying near the Chula. Then she gestured that I should lift my feet off the ground. By now, I knew it had something to do with a snake, but where was the creepy crawly?

She got up, phukni in hand, and bending down lifted her pidhi and kept it to one side. There coiled up and petrified lay a cobra. I gaped and the next second I felt a scream coming up. Thankfully, it got frozen into silence. Grandma lifted the iron phukni and smashed it down on the snake. She hit it some more to make sure it was dead then called Grandpa to take it out and burn it. Burn it? Why? I wondered. There is another myth attached to that!

I asked her how she knew the snake was there and when had it slipped in. She admitted that she did not know when it had come in but had sensed that there was one under her! She felt sorry that she had to kill a cobra. She had another belief connected to that!

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When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible, for that mind, in its maturity to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I can do it myself.”-Mark Twain

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She repeated her firstborn theory again and frankly, I couldn’t but believe her then. But till date, I often wonder at the power of conviction for that is what it was all about, it had nothing to do with her being a firstborn.

There were many similar instances when we saw her take her time dealing with snakes (poisonous ones too!) that lay quietly like lambs for the slaughter. However, none of these were burned.

There was another weird belief in the villages that cobras carried a picture of their slayer in their eyes; like a negative and not like a positive print. So, if it wasn’t burned, its mate would see the image and then seek revenge on the killer. In the bargain, it would attack many humans until it found the actual murderer!

This was why any cobra that was killed had to be burned! Even as a child, I found this a pretty far-fetched belief or notion. I wonder how people could so whole-heartedly digest this absurd story. We even had quite a few Bollywood movies, in those days, propagating this myth.

Grandma also believed that people used black magic to get even with their enemies or to get something they wanted real bad. I loved to hear her stories. They were spooky and gave me chills down my spine. However, what actually spooked me was an incident that convinced me that people did resort to some practices that could only be termed as ‘Black Magic’ because they had evil intent. Whether these practices had the desired result is anyone’s guess.

We had a teacher living down the road. She had married rather late in life and desperately wanted to have a baby. I am talking about the year 1965. India was a young nation then, and very under-developed. We had no advanced medical facilities and rural women who wanted to have babies and could not conceive visited sadhus and medicine men who would perform rituals to help them while others went to tantriks; the people who perform black magic.

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You¬†never¬†see¬†animals¬†going¬†through¬†the¬†absurd¬†and often¬†horrible¬†fooleries¬†of¬†magic¬†and¬†religion…¬†Only¬†man¬†behaves¬†with¬†such¬†gratuitous¬†folly.”-Aldous¬†Huxley

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One evening, Grandma told us kids and my mother not to allow the teacher to carry my baby brother the next day. We found this odd as the teacher showed no interest in my brother. She was only on ‘hello’, ‘hi’ terms with us. Besides, Grandma was cautioning us about the next day! This was even more unusual.

I asked her what made her expect the teacher and why we shouldn’t allow her to carry my brother. She told me that sometimes it was best not to ask too many questions.

Early, the next morning, I was with my baby brother in Grandma’s garden when the teacher leaned over the low boundary wall of Grandma’s house. The alarm bells went off in my head! She asked me to bring my brother to her.

The sight of her put me on guard. This was bizarre!

Grandma was right, as usual, she did appear and she did show an interest in the baby. I refused to give her my baby brother. Then she asked me to bring him closer so she could play with him. I saw no harm in that, as she wasn‚Äôt going to carry him. I was just ten years old then and quite na√Įve! Not like the ten-year-olds of today.

No sooner had I reached the wall than she leaned over and grabbed him from my arms. I yelled at her and called out to Grandma. She came running and took in the scene at a glance. She snatched my brother from the teacher and for the first time, I heard her talk to someone in such a harsh manner!

The teacher almost ran back the way she had come. My grandparent‚Äôs vehemence terrified her. And truth be told, right then, I was terrified of her too! She looked awesome; like an avenging angel…eyes blazing and wrathful face wreathed by her crown of snow-white hair. ¬† ¬†

I was next in the line of fire. I explained that I had not let the teacher carry the baby; she snatched him from my arms. This was when she sat me down and told me that the day was particularly auspicious and used for magical rites. I don’t recall what day it was. She explained that the teacher had displayed all the signs of black magic rituals. It had something to do with her freshly washed hair; wet, left open and uncombed. There were a few other things she mentioned, but I can’t remember what they were.

Anyway, she called my mother and told her to keep a check on the little fellow; to monitor any change in him. By then we were all highly perturbed and worried. We did not believe in these things but Grandma was so serious about it and that affected us.

Within the hour, my brother developed a high fever. He was taken to the doctor but I don’t think that was of any help because the fever wouldn’t subside. Soon he was throwing up. Grandma came up with all her home remedies and prayers. She prayed and prayed.

Finally, the fever broke; it began to lower and he got well. I can recall, without exaggeration, that my plump little brother became a twig in those four days.

Coincidence? Black magic? I still don‚Äôt know what it was. But Grandma had predicted that the teacher would come and had warned us about it. My hale and hearty brother developed a strange fever suddenly, after being carried by the woman… again something Grandma had feared would happen.

No, I don’t know what to make of it even after so many years. You can draw whatever conclusion you want.

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What¬†we¬†don’t¬†understand,¬†we¬†can¬†make¬†mean¬†anything.”-Chuck¬†Palahniuk

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Glossary
Chula…..it means oven. Coal and wood are used to light it. It is made of clay (soil)
Phukni…. a bamboo or metal blowing-tube (for a fire).¬†
Cheeni Paratha…..cheeni¬†¬†means sugar and parathas an unleavened Indian flat-bread. It is made of layered whole wheat (atta) dough. And fried on a tava¬†(griddle) There are many kinds of parathas. Cheeni paratha means sugar stuffed in the paratha.

My Sister Makes A Wish!

“If you are a dreamer come in.

If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,

A hoper, a pray-er, a magic-bean-buyer,

If you’re a pretender come sit by my fire

For we have some flax-golden tales to spin,

Come in!

Come in!”

Shel Silverstein

 

They say, ‘if wishes were horses beggars would ride.’ Not always, I say. Getting a wish sometimes isn’t quite the “beggar’s horse ride.”

My sister made a wish… and she got it! It all started as a game and became a terrifying reality. But I must start at the beginning.

Daddy had decided to put in his papers and take an early, premature retirement. Premature it was; he was only forty-five and had a long way to go. But his heart was set on dedicating his time totally to evangelism.

So in 1965, he left the service and we moved to his hometown in Punjab. He was going home; we were going to Never Land! Of course, the descriptions differed in each of our minds. I am not sure what Never Land signified for my siblings, for me, it was rich in every way: experiences, adventure, fantasy, challenges, and fun.

My eldest sister didn’t fancy it much I guess because as soon as she completed her Senior Cambridge, she came to the “village” from the boarding school in the hills, and dashed off to Delhi to train as a nurse. Daddy wanted her to join the college in Ludhiana and get her Bachelor’s degree. She didn’t want to stay in Punjab. She had mummy’s support and she joined her nurse’s training course in a hospital in the capital city.

This left four of us kids (my younger brother had arrived by then) with Grandpa, Grandma, Mummy, Daddy, the cattle; cow and buffalo, chickens, rabbits and a dog named Tommy; fruit trees, open spaces, and rolling fields around us.

It was a marvelous new life for my elder brother and me because we had no school to attend (the new session and admissions would start in two months), and we spent the whole day exploring the surroundings. Shooting at pigeons and whatever flew or ran or crawled with our catapults!

I don’t remember how my elder sister spent most of her time, but there were rare occasions when she would join us to spend the afternoons in our treetop getaway. We would carry up some books, a few munchies with lemonade, and while away the lazy afternoons swaying gently in our hammocks that were way up the tree! We had to climb up a ladder placed against the trunk of the Tali tree to get to the hammocks.

Looking back, I admit, it was dicey! Climbing from the ladder into a swaying hammock more than eight feet from the ground wasn’t safe. I was barely ten years old then. Anyway, life was different then. Kids played and survived many outdoor games and activities; things parents wouldn’t allow their kids to do now.

To get back to the story, on one such rare day, the three of us were sitting around in the vegetable garden behind our house and sharing our wildest dreams, wishes, and fantasies. As we tried to outdo ourselves in our imaginings; she blurted out that she would love to see two planes right above us in active combat. My brother and I guffawed. We knew she was right off her track because she wasn’t into these sorts of imaginings. She was very ‘girlie-girlie’ and didn’t dream of such stuff. Besides, we were not at war with anyone. However, we agreed that she had indeed outdone us in ‘bizarre’.

Not much later, we heard the roar of planes and looked up. It wasn’t unusual to see these fighter planes in practice sorties, as the Air Force base wasn’t far in airspace terms. There were two Gnats chasing a plane we couldn’t identify. It was bigger than the Gnats. My brother and I were intrigued. By then, they were almost over us and he yelled.

“It’s an attack! Run! That’s a Pakistani plane. Look at the insignia.”

It happened in the twinkling of an eye. Before we could even digest what he was saying. The air was rent with staccato gunshots. I ran and hid behind a Jasmine bush nearby and watched. The other two stood transfixed and watched. There was a dogfight raging in the sky above us.

I can recall the feeling even today. It was all in the extreme… the fear, the excitement, and the amazement. Then, in front of our eyes, the Pakistani plane took a fatal shot and burst into flames. It careened wildly and began a wobbly descent, thankfully, away from ‘our’ airspace and crashed in a field close to where we were.

Our yelling had brought out my uncle who was on one of his breaks between joining ship again. He wouldn’t believe us because by then the plane had gone down, but the trail of black smoke convinced him. He ran out with the others who appeared from nowhere in an instant. We followed; my brother and I.

I was slower and lagged behind. My uncle who was way ahead, saw me coming and stopped me at a distance. All I saw was the plane burning with huge, angry flames, and a mob shouting and yelling curses and abuses at the dead pilot. It was a terrible sight. But not as terrible as what was to follow. We were at war with Pakistan.

I peered at my sister, later that night, when we were huddled in the trench and our town lay trembling as some flak from attacks on the Air Force base and the G.T highway strayed and fell around us. She smiled wanly. I knew she was thinking what I was thinking but I had to say it.

“Couldn’t you wish for something better,” I shouted to be heard through the cotton plugs in her ears.

She wouldn’t reply. Her teeth were clenched on the handkerchief in her mouth. I stuffed mine back into my mouth as Daddy yelled a warning. A bomb exploded two-hundred and fifty meters away.

This was just the beginning…¬†

 

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Chile Diary – 13

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The lights along the Valparaiso shore as seen from Vi√Īa del Mar

Today, I’ll take you back to the 21st of March 2010 as I move on with the Chile Diary in part- 13.

Flight

Last night as I lay on my bed trying to rest out an abominable headache, I felt a tremor. I was so exhausted and fed-up with the situation that, instead of jumping out of bed and making a dash for the front door, I just got up, sat down and said to myself, “kis, kis se bhagein? Kab tak bhagein? Kis ke pas bhagein?

I was very tired.

The mobile phone rang. I knew it would be Ranjit. He asked me if I had changed into my pajamas. I hadn’t. We were going out for dinner! We went to a place called ‘Wok and Roll’. I wondered if this name was born out of some imagination or lack of it. It did aspire to make the most of punning. The restaurant served Thai and Japanese food.

I was content with appetizers so my meal comprised of two different chicken satays. One, supposed to be Thai was served with a peanut sauce that was not what we were used to having. It was a kind of yellow curry with a few peanuts tossed in. The Japanese one was good. The other dish was shrimp tempura that looked great but turned out to be oily and thick with batter. But, all in all, it was a great dinner. Through the course of the dinner, I was wondering why Manu was having dinner with us when she was dressed and ready for a ‘girls night out’. So I asked.

They told me that she would be joining her friends a little later. It was already midnight by then, but not wanting to be too inquisitive, I quietly speculated on how late “a little later” was. As we waited for the cab to come, I gathered proffered information.

The girls would first go to a discotheque, shake a leg then try their luck at the casino. The discos here began filling up after midnight and the casino opened after 1.00 am! I realized I was out of sync, totally, with the life of youngsters. At our time discotheques closed at midnight and as for casinos; we read about them, we saw them in movies, but we didn’t visit any because there were no casinos to go to!! The hour struck and they dropped me home.

During the week that followed, I made Pollo Pulao (chicken pulao) and Salsa de tomate cocida con cilantro y cebolla (tamatar kuchumbar) for my Chilean friends; Roxanna and her family. They enjoyed it.

They found the arroz (rice) I had used deliciously different. I had used a good quality basmati rice. The rice eaten in Chile is of a thicker grain, starchy and different in flavor. It came as a big surprise to them that I had bought the rice at Lider, a supermarket here.

I decided to give them a taste of a dessert, I thought they’d like – Caramel Banana. I must mention here that this dessert is my own concoction conjured up way back in the 1980s. This is one dessert that has always found favor with everyone barring those who don’t like bananas. So it goes without saying, it was a finger-licking hit. The recipe was asked for and willingly given. Three cheers for the chef!

And as I pat my back, I plan on making some sweet ‘gujiyas’ and ground beef ‘samosas’ for them over this weekend. Both of these are similar to their empanadas. Of course, they don’t have sweet empanadas like our gujiyas, though.¬†

 

The house hunting continues.

We’ve been looking around for apartments on the first level and in the process have seen some very nice ones on the fourth level. It seems the local folk have vacated the higher floors and moved to the lower floors, so it is difficult to find one for ourselves. Let’s hope we get one if not on the first then on the second, at least.

This constant state of fear and my physical problems are fraying my nerves. I read about the earthquakes but given my experiences of earthquakes in India… the most frightening of which was 4. something; this exposure to such intense, terrifying and frequent tremors and quakes is fraying my nerves threadbare. I’ve been wanting to leave and go back to India.

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Rocio, the friendly, homeless dog abandoned by his owners years ago. He had many two-legged friends who cared for him. There are many like him on the streets of Vi√Īa. But all aren’t as friendly as he is.

I had already decided to ask for my date of return to be advanced. So the request was put to the company boss for approval. A day was available: Saturday, 3rd April. I received this news with mixed feelings yesterday.

My stay here, under the present circumstances, is proving to be hard not only on the kids and me but also for Gabriel’s family. They have been playing host to me so graciously for many days. So it provides relief for all that I go back to India.

But for me, the ordeal doesn’t end here.

The happiness of “flight” will diminish when I reach India and another reality hits. I no longer have a home of my own. I will be relying on the hospitality of friends. The only hope that pushes me is, getting my Canadian visa soon. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Right now, I’m planning a trip to the markets on Saturday and Sunday to look for gifts for people back home and some stuff I’d like to carry for myself.

 

Glossary:

Kis, kis se bhagein?……….. How many things will I run from?

Kab tak bhagein? ………….. Till when will I keep running?

Kahan bhagein?¬† …………… Where do I run to?

Kis ke paas bhagein? …….. To whom do I run to?¬†

 

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Chile Diary – 9

Moving on to the next chapter of my Chile Diary. I’m still in the Segura’s casa… but it’s another day and another experience. One that highlights how gracious and beautiful this family is; especially Roxana.

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The serenity, calm and beauty of a sunset… contrasted with the constant fear that nagged at the back of my mind…

18th March 2010

‘Dying’ To Feel Great

I didn’t write here yesterday so will update today. First, I must declare, I had a hot shower in my minuscule shower cubicle! It was getting impossible to bear the itching and abominable dandruff that was growing on my scalp.

My precious hair was already in trauma and falling by the hundreds every minute. For me, not washing my hair every alternate day makes not only my head itchy but also me to feel dirty. So while Ranjit was still around at the guesthouse, I hurriedly shampooed and showered. My eternal fear is that I’ll be in a quandary if the house shakes when I’m in the shower.

But here, the problem doubles as the bathroom isn’t connected with the bedroom and is also too small for me to dress inside. Anyway, I managed and that’s one major accomplishment for me.

I thought I’d repeat the performance this morning but woe is me, I woke up too late for anything but a quick wash and change of clothes. I had barely rinsed my teacup when I saw Gabriel’s white car drive up to the gate.

Yesterday also brought me help to color my hair and trim it too!

A couple of days back, I just happened to enquire if Roxana knew a place where I could provide the hair color I had brought and get my hair dyed. I added that I also needed a trim. She beamed at me with a broad smile and said she’d do both for me!

“You will”? I enquired apprehensively, stressing on the pronoun.

“Aha! me,” she said assuringly.

Javier, who was sitting and listening to our exchange must have heard the doubt in my voice because he informed me that his mother was trained. She was a professional.

“Wow!” I thought to myself, things are getting better.

So yesterday saw me with my L’Oreal dark brown hair color which I had purchased in India; a freshly shampooed head of long hair and more happiness than I ever thought I’d possibly feel for a hair color and a trim!¬†

The color was applied as I multi-tasked; watched TV and also cut out raffle slips (900 of them) for the big Avon raffle today. Roxanna informed me that the color would be left for 15 minutes before washing. I was a bit worried about that. 40 to 45 minutes is the time they kept it on my head in India.

I was quiet for a while. Then I thought that it made no sense to zip my lip and let all the work she was doing go in vain. So I told her it would have to be on for forty to forty-five minutes. Going by the size of her widened eyes, I knew she was pretty shocked.

“Your hair will fall out,” she exclaimed.

“No, it won’t. It hasn’t till now. Indian hair needs more time I think,” I smiled.

She wasn’t convinced.

As she went on with the coloring process, I decided to check out the application information hoping that the application time was mentioned. Hallelujah! It was. I showed her the printed pamphlet. She saw the numeral 45 (minutes) and only then did she believe me. My relief was immense as I relaxed. 

The alarm signaled washing time and I was led to the bathroom. But due to my lumbar problems, I couldn’t bend over the tub, so Gelda, the nana, washed and shampooed my hair in the kitchen sink! Roxanna who had gone out for a while returned and trimmed off about three inches of my hair. It felt so nice. I think it was extremely kind of her to accommodate me in this manner. There are angels all around me.

Yesterday, I also brought some¬†kaju katli¬†(a sweet made out of crushed cashew nuts and milk) for them. Manu’s people in India had given it to someone from the company who was there on a business trip.

Photo curtesy Internet

As expected, the ‘vark’ (very, very fine foil made of pure silver) which decorates all Indian¬†mithai,¬†made them wary of eating it. It took a bit of explaining and a lot of convincing to get them to eat it.

The internet provided immediate information about cashew nuts, the main ingredient used in the preparation of the sweet.

As for me, I ate more kaju katli than I normally would in one go back home. Mithai (Indian sweets), even our favorite ones, would be lying in the refrigerator so long that eventually, it would go to Lolita before it became unfit for consumption.

I suppose just as “absence makes the heart grow fonder”… scarcity makes the taste buds water. Ha! Now that’s an original one from my pen.

On another note; I was surprised to hear there was quite a strong tremor last night. I was feeling unusually tired and sleepy so after Ranjit and Manu had dinner with me and went back to the apartment for some time, I dropped off. The phone woke me up. It was Ranjit calling to ask if I was alright.

He didn’t enlighten me when it became apparent that I had no knowledge of the tremor. I promptly went back to sleep. Even though I woke up late this morning, I’m still feeling tired. I’ll wind up my typing and take a break after I wrap up this chapter. The good news on the house-hunting front is that there is a visit scheduled for Saturday to check out a place on 15 Norte. Let’s see if it’s good.

Martina, the cat, was extra loving towards me today and even wanted to climb up on the table and inspect the laptop. That’s it for today. Cervical vertebras or more aptly the cervical discs are acting up. Need to stop.

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Chile Diary – 5

Continuing with my Chile Diary, here’s the account of the big one that brought so many experiences into my life. I learned a lot about myself as I was learning about the Chileans and their resilience; the way they take things in their stride… and get on with life.

Monday, 15th March 2010

I didn’t get to write over the weekend. My back and knees weren’t doing so well, so I was not up to it. On Saturday, we went out for lunch at the food court in Marina Arauca. After sampling a few Chilean preparations, I decided I’d had enough. The roast pork was fine, teamed with the browned onions. Nothing else was so amazing as to get a mention; average, fair, and that goes for the desserts too.

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Valpo street in Vina

I’ve been rambling on or meandering I should say. I still have to tell you about the big earthquake and the different places I’ve stayed at till now. Well, this isn’t an official record so I’ll proceed according to the thoughts and fancy that capture me. Let’s start with the abodes that have provided me shelter till date. But to get the importance of the roles these places have played, I will have to recount the big terremoto.

The Big One In Feb.

It was a Friday, and a week since I had arrived in Chile. Ranjit and Manu had dinner with me and left for a party at their friend’s place. I was uneasy and couldn’t sleep, so I sat like a zombie in front of the TV, staring at the screen but registering nothing!

One thought kept running through my head – what if there is an earthquake?

Whenever there is something I’m nervous about or can’t handle, I “cast my cares” on the Lord. I told him I was scared to be alone during an earthquake and if one should happen then the kids should be back.

At 3.00 a.m, both returned. At about 3.34 a.m, the big quake rumbled in rattling the house like a giant shaking a matchbox. We had only made it out of our beds and to the front door by then.

Ranjit opened the door and held on to the doorknob with his right hand so we wouldn’t be locked in should the door get stuck while he steadied himself under a beam in the doorway leading to the living cum dining room.

I held on to him and the wall, and Manu clung onto both of us. The quake increased in intensity, and I looked around terrified at the way the walls and the floor were jumping and shaking like a person in an epileptic fit. It went on for 90 seconds; a short period in terms of measurable time but for me, it seemed to go on interminably.

As soon as we felt a slack, Manu and I ran for our passports while Tintin continued to hold the door open. It was a wise thing to do as many doors got jammed and the residents were locked-in as the tremors picked up and continued coming in at intervals of 1-2 minutes. These unfortunate ones walked out only when the concierge and his help broke open the locks. I believe one resident suffered a mild heart attack because of the scary locked-in situation.

I say we were frightened and, certainly, we were, but I speak for myself when I say that on hindsight, I cannot say that the predominant feeling was one of fear. I was so focused on reaching God with my plea for help, I was not consciously afraid. I also recall praising God when I heard Ranjit calling out to Him by name; he doesn’t acknowledge Him openly.

I also know I was quite in my senses because I made a note about where I had kept my passport when I rearranged my closet the day before. This made it easy for me to grab it from where I had hidden it, wasting no time, the moment the quake calmed down for a couple of minutes. Usually, when I keep something in a safe place, it’s so “safe,” I forget where it is! So I realized, though I was terrified, my mind was calm and clear.

Before the next tremor rolled in, we made a dash down the staircase. That’s when I felt the fear. My osteoarthritic knees were trembling. But fear acted like adrenaline and lent wings to my feet. My back and my knees held up.

Although Manu and I were not properly clad for the cold outside, we were better off than Ranjit who hadn’t even put on his slippers; he was barefoot, and he was in his boxers and a T-shirt. It was dark outside, and people were running helter-skelter. Ranjit shepherded us to Manchester, a pub, close to our place.

Here we met Reggie and his pals who made us as comfortable as was possible under the circumstances. The pub was in shambles, but they could give us water to drink and even a cup of tea for me. We huddled in chairs in the garden. They kept reassuring us that the worst was over even as the ground beneath our feet heaved in sort of rolling waves that made me feel dizzy.

I was shivering with the cold and fear and smiled wanly without a mite of conviction. But, I was doubly grateful for a relatively clean bathroom though; I had to be careful walking over shattered glass to get in.

Realizing we needed a few essentials as well as clothes, to protect us against the cold, Ranjit braved it up to the apartment. He got dressed in warm clothes and also brought a few essentials like his laptop, money, wallet, my handbag, and some pillows and jackets, shawls for us. He also drove the car down and parked it outside the pub. We moved into the relatively warmer car. That’s when the pillows came in handy!

I lay down on the back seat. The pillows; under my head and behind my back, provided comfort and helped ease the pain. I said a prayer of gratitude.

The next thing on our minds was our families. With no phone connection or means to contact them and let them know we’re safe, they’d panic as soon as they heard the news. And panicked they were! Anyway, we managed to inform them a little later.

Reggie left to see to his parents and a few of his pals kept vigil while he was away. One of them came to the car and assured us of protection and that we should not be worried or scared about that. That’s when I got to know about the dark side of the situation. Vandalism and looting were real threats. I was relieved to be under their wing until daybreak. It was very kind and thoughtful of them. So we spent the rest of the night in the car parked at the entrance to the pub while the men kept watch.

The morning found us searching for something to eat. No place was open except a small bakery nearby. However, by the time we reached there, there wasn’t much to buy. The next challenge was getting drinking water. The only kind available was ‘agua con gas’ (water with soda), and we were looking for ‘agua sin gas’ (water without soda). Finally, we found a place that had a few bottles of plain drinking water.

Late in the afternoon, when hunger pangs hit, we bought empanadas from Mama Rosa’s Takeaway. She had opened shop and was doing brisk business doling out fresh empanadas; wrapped in newspaper and piping hot straight out of the frying pan.¬†

All this while we were ‘living’ in the car.¬†

By evening, I had to go to the bathroom. The pub was closed and I was loath to climb up and down six flights of stairs to go to the bathroom in our apartment. Besides, the doorway leading into my bedroom was damaged and slanted at one end. If the door had been shut, it would have jammed.

Fortunately, neither was I in the room nor was the door closed when it happened. But, I wasn’t inclined to get in there. That’s when Ranjit rang up an Indian colleague, and we found our way to Sumeet’s house.

This was a small one-bedroom apartment, but it was in a stronger building. While all construction in Chile has to comply with quake-resistant building rules, some buildings are perceived as stronger and better than others. For me, however, it was good as the apartment was on the second level and I wouldn’t have many flights of stairs to run down if another quake hit us.

It was already packed with other Indian employees. This was another lesson in gratefulness. The crowd and the non-functioning WC was no longer a put off for me. I was grateful for the bathroom, running water in the taps and a bed to rest my aching back. We spent the night there and left Sunday morning.

We returned to our building, but I didn’t go up to the apartment. I knew I couldn’t climb up the stairs to the 6th level and down again whenever the tremors rolled in. So, I commandeered one of the sofas in the lounge and lay down. To be honest, I shocked myself. I would never do such a thing in a public place of my own free will! But I was beyond such things as decorum and etiquette. No one objected, and the concierge even supported my action. In times like these, people understand and are compassionate.¬†

Lounging on a sofa was okay. The problem was that I wasn’t prepared to go up to the apartment at all. While I could sleep on the couch, I needed to bathe and change my clothes and do all the routine stuff which I couldn’t do ‘living’ on a couch in the lounge!

Ranjit couldn’t convince me because the tremors kept rattling us at short intervals, and not such small ones either. They were in the range of 5+ and 6+ and quite intense. This became a dilemma for me and for my son. Both of us were tired, exasperated and frustrated.

“Why can’t we get a house on the ground floor?”¬†I lay on the couch praying fervently!

At the back of my mind was the story my mother had told me of how her father, a medical doctor, had died in an earthquake in Quetta. It was a long time ago but she had said that he had fallen into a crack as the earth opened up beneath his feet. There was so much going on in my mind and too much for me to deal with physically and emotionally.

Later, when things had settled, I walked out to get some fresh air. I saw cracks in some sidewalks. And some were pushed to form little mounds… uneven sidewalks. A few roads had shallow cracks running across. A few highrise buildings were damaged severely but not so bad as to cause the loss of life. I saw some old casas which fared worse. But, in¬†Vi√Īa there was no loss of life.¬†

 

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Chile Diary- 4

This day was as scary as the day of the big¬†terremoto in Feb., even though it was lower on the Richter scale. It was bad because it came with warnings of a possible tsunami. What was worse… I was alone in the guesthouse and the kids were at their office in another town. It was not very far about twenty-five or thirty-minute drive away. But given the circumstances, the drive back took longer.

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Beautiful¬†Vi√Īa del Mar

The Chile Diary… chapter 4, March 11-12

 

Terremoto y Tsunami

Two earthquakes in quick succession; first a 7.2 followed by a slightly smaller one measuring 6.9, sent me scurrying out of the guesthouse. With me were the other residents from the apartments above us. We stood gathered on the stairs not knowing whether to walk out of the swaying building or wait it out. The decision was taken out of our hands! 

Within minutes, the public address system blared out a tsunami alert! EVACUATE.

I didn’t know what to do. People began running, and all in one direction. I didn’t know why because I didn’t understand the announcements. I began walking down the sidewalk. It was a painful and slow walk. I was strapped with my back support. The collar supporting my neck was firmly in place as was the knee support around my right knee. The ’emergency bag’ which was rather heavy with; a change of clothes, passport and other documents, plus all my meds weighed me down. This emergency bag was always packed and ready and stood by the front door ever since the big one struck.

A young mother with her baby clutched tightly to her bosom spoke to me in rapid Spanish. I shook my head and said, “No¬†espa√Īol.”

She pointed in the direction of the sea, then to the people, and waved her hand indicating that I should run in the same direction. I only had time to ask, “Tsunami?” before she got into her car. She nodded and I began to walk as fast as I could without hurting my knees and back.

There was pandemonium in the streets. People were making a dash for it on foot and in cars. The roads and pavements were overflowing with panic-stricken folk.

My cell phone rang. It was Tintin, my son. His voice brought some relief. I told him what was happening and that I was clueless about where to go. So he told me to look for his friend Reggie at the pub. I brightened up a bit.

I made my way, huffing and puffing, to the pub – disappointment awaited. The pub was locked and deserted. By now my throat was parched and I was almost gasping for breath. I called back to inform my son.

“Stand there Mama, I’m on my way.”

“I’m not standing here,” I said. “The roads are swarming with people and cars on the move. Noone’s standing. I’m not going to either.”

Although I said that so firmly and decisively, I was not so sure where to move… where was this sea of people headed?

“Please, Mama, stay put in one spot. How will I find you if you move around?”

I could understand the panic my son felt by my decision and decided to stay put. But, once again, the decision was taken out of my hands. A carabinero on a bike called out to me to keep walking. That’s when I noticed the bike-borne policemen on the roads getting people to move and not stand. All in one direction! Highground; further away from the coastline.

I started walking down the street in the direction the whole world seemed to be going.

“I’m walking down 8 Norte,” is all I could say before we lost contact. I tried to call back but there was no network coverage. Now I was really alone. I could feel the tears welling up; not of fear, neither of self-pity, but of sheer frustration and helplessness.

I began to catch hold of people to inquire if any spoke English. Their negative replies only made it worse. I began to talk myself out of the mental state I was in. I repeated portions of Psalms 91, especially the parts that speak about God protecting us from “sudden disasters at noon,” and reminded myself that He “is my fortress, my place of safety” and He would “send His angels to protect me.”

It was reassuring, but the tears were already perched on the edge and I couldn’t blink them back. I kept up my slow, painful trudge. I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I turned to find a young girl, perhaps twenty-one or so. She handed me a small bright yellow card. I took it without bothering to read it. I was keen to know if she knew English.

“Very leetle,” she smiled and I was so relieved that the tears which hung precariously on the edge tumbled down.

“Tranquila, tranquila,” she said softly, over and over again, as she gently stroked my arm. I didn’t have to be a genius to understand what she was saying. It sounded like ‘tranquil’ and the look on her face and her actions made it quite obvious.

“Yes,” I replied drying my eyes.

“Yehwah is there,” she assured me in her faltering English and her hand pointed to the heavens above.

“No, Jesus is here,” I emphasized the “here” with my pointer and managed a smile. Sub-consciously, I had corrected here. Once a teacher always a teacher was the vague thought at the back of my mind.

“Okay. Now I going.”

“Where? Please stay,” I was almost begging.

“I have…go to… umm… my room friend,” I nodded to convey that I understood and thanked her.

I carried on walking down 8 Norte and she turned off right. I was feeling a bit calmer now. But, the tears didn’t stop and my throat was still parched. My mouth was dry and I was choking and try as I might there was no saliva to wet it. This set off coughing spells. My heart was pounding.

All of a sudden, I realized I had come to the end of the road, and it was a long road indeed. I could either turn right or left. I decided to stick with 8 Norte so I crossed the main road it joined and stood at the traffic light on the divider of the two main roads. I was tired and wanted to sit, but there was nowhere I could rest my aching back and legs. So I continued to stand and watch the tsunami of cars and people flow past me. The noise on the roads was loud and irritating.

I was wondering what it was about the honking horns that bothered me. It happens a lot and all the time in India; the noise pollution on the roads! Then it struck me; one doesn’t hear car horns on¬†Vi√Īa’s roads. An occasional honk of an impatient driver would make people turn and stare at the driver disapprovingly. Today was an exception. Just then, I turned and lo and behold, there was the young Christian walking toward my traffic light!

“Hola,” she beamed.

“Hola,” I responded, surprised to see her return to find me. But thankfulness, more than courtesy, kept me from asking. She joined me and a few others who were standing there as well.

“You know… where you stay?”

“Yes.”

“I stay with you.”¬†

“Okay,” I said not very sure what she meant. But, I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt and took it to mean that she’d stand with me. Since she continued to stand with me and also gather the latest information about the situation, I was pleased that I was right. She laboriously translated the important parts for me. The alert had not been called off but the emergency situation had passed. That was something to be happy about.

“Come, I go with you,” and she caught my hand and took me across the road and we walked back the way we had come. I was walking even slower now.

She realized I was exhausted and would stop at every traffic light for a while to give me time to rest. Later, I understood how wise it had been for us to keep stopping at the traffic lights. It was the best way to get seen by the people looking for you.

Suddenly, it dawned on me that I didn’t even know her name and asked her.

“Magdalena.”

“Joy,” I answered and we shook hands and in true Chilean fashion, she hugged me and kissed me on my cheek while I kissed the air around hers!

“I’m sorry, I’m being such a pain,” I said enunciating every word as slowly as I thought would be easy for her to understand. “I have a back and knee problem,” I continued and pointed to my lumbar support around my waist.

“I know. I see it. I am… a… a physiotherapist.”

OMGosh! I stared at her surprised. “Your angel?” my incredulous mind queried. I shushed it.

We had moved on to another traffic light and she struck up a conversation with a youth who had walked up and was waiting to cross the road. She wanted to know if he knew English. Fortunately, he did and better than hers.

She asked him to tell me that I shouldn’t worry as she would take me to my residence. I wondered why she kept telling me that. It made me uncomfortable. But I thanked her once again and added that I knew my way home. I was also uncomfortable that the boy, who she had shown she didn’t know, didn’t seem like a stranger she’d just met. So I told him that I could make my way back home now and didn’t need them to walk me home.

Before she could say anything, Reggie, my son’s pub owner friend who was driving someone to a safe place, spotted me and called out. He told me to wait and he’d be back for me in a few minutes. Magdalena didn’t seem too pleased with this. She shouted out something to him in Spanish and he retorted brusquely. And once again, Reggie told me to wait where I was. She asked me if I knew the man and how well I knew him. After she learned who he was and that he was a-okay, she dropped the topic. I was relieved.

We exchanged email Ids, phone numbers, and she wanted my home address. Once more it unsettled me, however, reluctantly I gave her my ‘home’ address; the guesthouse add. and we parted when Reggie returned.

This was a strange encounter! A total stranger picks me out of a milling crowd and gives me the moral support I need. Stranger still was the fact that she stopped handing out the little yellow ‘Jesus’ cards after she found me. Whoever she was, whatever her intentions, she provided me with the support I needed at a very difficult time. And no harm was done. I was grateful then and I remain grateful to date. Besides, when I didn’t require her assistance anymore, a friend appeared to help. Strange are the ways of God!

I didn’t see her again and neither of us called up or emailed each other. If she visited the guesthouse, she’d have known it wasn’t my home! Reggie told my son that he was glad he found me when he did. It seems that during times like these, a lot of petty thieves are on the prowl. That boy we chanced upon midway who without my permission joined us, didn’t augur well, according to him.

We waited at a prominent place where my son found us a short while later. He was with a colleague, Gabriel, who suggested I stay at his home till the evening. For a split second, I thought I should turn down the invitation as I didn’t know how I’d communicate with the family. They were going back to the office. But, I’m glad I went to his home.

The home was warm and hospitable. Besides, it was full of people so I wasn’t jumpy. The evening saw me leaving rather reluctantly because I was loath to stay the night alone at the guesthouse. But as things turned out, Tintin and Manu stayed with me. Though I did jump out of my bed in the middle of the night or perhaps the wee hours of the morning when my bed was rattled, I did get some necessary sleep.

My body was aching in the morning. The previous day, I was in shock and didn’t realize the wear and tear my body had taken. But today is another story… it hurts.

I’m spending the day at Gabriel’s house in Miraflores. It’s a reprieve from the scary ‘home alone’ situation. I must tell you all about my day stays in the Segura’s casa in Miraflores; the lovely family and pets. But tea beckons and I must go. Ciao.