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Kenya to India: Memories and an Old Friend from the S.S. Karanja

February 22, 2011

You never know what you’ll find these days when you turn on the computer.  Recently my email showed a comment from a reader of The Backpacker’s Handbook.  The writer, a guy named Steve, originally from the UK but who now resided in New Zealand, indicated that he’s been on the Christmas 1975 trip of the Karanja from Mombasa to Bombay and he was wondering if I had been present during the same voyage.

1) The Karanja in 1948, pride of the British India Line (image courtesy of The Ocean Liner Virtual Museum, UK)

I had posted a scan of a document that passengers who booked third class were obliged to sign – although I never did – relieving the ship owners from responsibility pertaining to the mixing of races below decks. The document was a real piece of work and had survived in my possession all these years.

That memorable trip across the Indian Ocean from Africa to South Asia had also included a four day stop-over in Karachi.  Steve remembered me, my friend Tony, another Kiwi, along with a long list of  travelers on the trip.  Amazing.  I do have one picture of a bunch of the people from the ship, taken in Lamu several weeks before embarkation, but since they’re all naked on the beach, discretion prevents me from showing the image here.

The Karanja had started the passage a few days before Christmas,  sailing from the port of Mombasa.  As I recall, she didn’t sail very often and so I had waited out the time for the trip in a remote ocean-front cottage some miles north of the city.

2) View of the Indian Ocean from the house in the bushA plethora of interesting critters called the tidal flats in front of the beach home. Many of them were venomous

The voyage itself was festive enough and included a wild Christmas Eve dance in first class.  Luckily for us travelers the South African ship’s officers were not inclined to enforce the rules regarding the the mingling of races, as long as said mingling was conducted only by whites.  And I still remember the bar in the restaurant. We were able to buy all the duty-free booze we coveted, and the shop was run by a pleasant Indian fellow, whom Steve reminded me was often quite soused himself.

I also recall the lifeboat drill just after we left Mombasa.  The whites scurried to the proper stations with haste, while all the Asians remained on their bunks, wondering what the fuss was about.  It was a great intro to fatalism.

At night we used to go up on deck and listen to the Pakistanis onboard making music under the stars with their homemade instruments, a lovely and humbling experience.

In Karachi we spent the days wandering the city streets, our first introduction to the complexities of the sub-continent. Everyone in the city seemed to be extremely friendly and I quickly became entranced.

The only negative vibes I witnessed during the ten or twelve days it took to cross the ocean occurred while in Karachi, in fact.  Another South African, this one a passenger, couldn’t handle all the “wogs” he saw dockside.  He actually took a bucket of soapy water he found somewhere and heaved it over the side of the ship, in full view of myself and a number of other people, dousing the Pakistani longshoremen below.  An unrepentant racist, he was quickly manhandled by officers onboard and taken to the brig.  I never saw him again.  His vitriol had been non-stop and we were glad to be rid of him.

Finally the ship docked in Bombay and we parted ways from our Indian fellow passengers and from the other travelers. I did run into Steve one time in Delhi, he tells me, but frankly, my recollection of the meeting has been lost to history.

It’s nice to know that the Internet has made the world smaller.  How easily forgotten are the travels and travails of our youth.

3) The Para Ganj from my Delhi hotel room, coffee stains and all

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Brooks Goddard permalink
    May 2, 2013 4:24 pm

    Curiouser and curiouser. My wife and I were on this ship in January of 1973 wen we sailed from Bombay to Mombasa (the ship went onto Durban). We had just finished a three-month stay in India and were on our way to Kenya where I had taught English for the TEA program 1964-1967. We paid extra for “European food” but were booked third class, so we were led up to the second class dining room after second class had eaten to feed. Into the 10-day journey it feel a little like we were getting leftovers. Jeanie has distinct memories of laying in rope coils reading Jane Austen while I put on a “smart” shirt and read in the second class library, ignoring the calls for each class of folks to stick with their own kind. I came to this blog just after reading “Revenge of Kali” by Aziz Hassan which mentions the S. S. Karanja. Who knew?

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