“I see we don’t have life-jackets,” my friend Bernie said, grimacing. We were high school classmates from Tanzania on a summer holiday and we had been planning our reunion, with husbands in tow, for about eight months—Bernie from Canada, Meenakshi from Singapore, Asha from Malaysia, Meena from the UK and myself from the United States. We let some aspects of our trip remain last-minute whims—as that glass-bottomed boat in Mauritius, which started out calmly enough, by our resort at Pointe Aux Piments in northwest Mauritius.
Half a mile out on the Indian Ocean however, gigantic waves buffeted it and Bernie expressed her concern just as I too began worrying about safety. If, in the United States, I had boarded such a dinghy—the word originates from the Bengali dingha meaning “boat”—I would have had to wear a life jacket. Many miles away in Mauritius, I suppose the law and the mindset was as variant as the time difference. As I sat there clutching the rails, I was oblivious to another definition of a dinghy in the Merriam Webster, one altogether less comforting: “a small rubber boat that is used by people escaping from a sinking boat.” But risk elevated a trip into an adventure. I held my breath and hoped for the best—on the boat as well as the rest of our two-week vacation.
Two days later however, on a cool afternoon deep in the forests of eastern Madagascar, Meenakshi tripped and twisted her foot while walking on a craggy pathway towards a brook. As she howled in pain, the men of our group helped ferry her from van to washroom to a chair. Meenakshi rested at the guide’s quarters, leg outstretched on a ledge as her foot swelled up mimicking a chameleon’s jowl, while the rest of us went on a nature walk looking for geckos, frogs and like creatures sunning on the leaves of pandanus trees.
That week, we discovered how everything that we took for granted—health, weather, roads—could capsize in seconds during travel. Some of us introduced problems where there were none. “Darnn, the Wifi here is so spotty,” my husband said, at least once a day, to the consternation of musician Mark, Bernie’s husband, who collected guitars back home in Toronto and lived untethered to Facebook. For these husbands, some of whom had never met one another, our trip was an opportunity to make new connections.
For us girls, the reunion was a renewal of our friendship as much as it was a rehash of the eccentricities that had brought us together forty years ago. Many times on that trip, I felt the happiness of a child—unadulterated, unmarred, unearthly almost—that seemed to have dissolved at the altar of adulthood. On one of the days, Bernie brought out her autograph book from 1975 that each of us had signed. To a question about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had written: “Air hostess.” Guffaws reverberated across the sands. “Others said lofty things like “doctor” and “lawyer” but one brilliant person in our group wanted to be a flight attendant when she grew up,” Bernie said, her face keeling into a scowl. I pretended to be mortified by my former self. Days later I admitted, sheepishly, that I’d practiced recording, over and over, “Ladies and gentlemen, Pan-Am Flight 532 will make its descent into Heathrow Airport in one hour,” on a National Panasonic recorder that I had bought on a trip to Kenya long ago.
Where goal-setting was concerned, Asha was indeed the only one who had accomplished her dream of becoming a doctor. Under Asha’s compassionate eye, Meenakshi trekked with us through Andasibe-Mantadia national forest the morning after her injury. We plowed through the forest warning one other of slippery roots and tracks as we followed our guide and stopped to scan for lemurs that swung high up in the trees where bamboos arched over the forest canopy and vines throttled mature trunks.
Before we flew out to Seychelles, we shopped in Antananarivo where Meena—whose clipped British accent always made us accord her the respect one gave the queen of England—stood by the roadside, a patrician bag lady, clutching five handmade bags. Unrelenting when she wanted to accomplish something, Meena drove a hard bargain. Bernie observed how nothing had changed. “We’re all the same since we were 15, can’t you see?”
On our last leg, we boarded speed boats to hop between three different islands in the Seychelles. The boats were many times larger than the dinghy we’d boarded in Mauritius but August currents made the waters choppy and menacing. We laughed together, at once excited and fearful, as the waters of the Indian Ocean roared and crested, drenching us in salty bliss.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.