I can remember, eighteen years ago, when India, for me, was just a mysterious
country, far down on my list of places I wanted to visit. I knew the beautiful Taj
Mahal was there and I'd read novels about the country but I'd never even seen a
Bollywood movie. I had, of course, been eating wonderful Indian food for most
of my life but I didn't have even one friend from that part of the world.
On April 16, 1995, when I boarded the Monarch of the Seas, for a seven day
cruise from San Juan, all that changed. I stopped by the ship's library to donate
the book I'd finished reading on the long flight and noticed the Champagne Bar
across the corridor. I decided a drink was in order and that is when I met its
bartender, Odelio Santos. No one else was in the bar so I stayed for a glass of
wine and a chat.
Much to my surprise, Santos, as his name tag read, was from India. I thought
he was from the Philippines. We chatted about Mumbai, his life and family
there and a friendship was formed. Throughout the cruise, I went back to that
lovely, peaceful bar and got to know him better. Besides that, he introduced me
to at least a dozen more Indian crew. As I wandered about the ship, I realized
several hundred crew members were from India. I thought how difficult it must
be to leave their families for six months at a time, to work so far from home.
I learned a great deal about India, its culture, and its problems from the crew,
many of whom have remained dear friends to this day.
In February 1997, prior to cruising from Thailand to Singapore, I spent ten
days in Mumbai, at the home of Odelio Santos and his wife, mother and family.
I had really not foreseen visiting India and, had I not been invited, I might never
have come to what I now call "the country of my heart.". It was a wonderful ten
days, passing much too quickly. It was exciting for me to experience living at
Sahar Village. I was overwhelmed by the generous hospitality of the Santos
family and other people in the village. I also got to see two other crew members,
Edsel Toscano and Sudhir Pillai, who were home for two months on leave.
The grand finale of that visit was a trip with May Santos, the family matriarch,
to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, one of the loveliest events of my life. Words
cannot describe the magic of seeing its splendor for the first time.
Over the next eighteen years, I sailed eighty times with Royal Caribbean,
renewing Indian friendships every cruise. Those crew members felt like
family and, indeed, they dubbed me "the American mother of the Indian crew".
When I decided to come to India again after my twenty-one year forensic
nursing position ended in massive budget cuts to Public Health, Ode
insisted that I stay with him and his family. I spent four months at Sahar
Village, where people still remembered my first visit. It was great to get
to know Nick, Ode and Lorna's twenty-year-old son, and Jake, who was then
I am now back in India for the third time since my stay at the Santos household.
I spent five months living in Jaipur and, this time, I will be in Mumbai for six
months, living with Rosy and Norman Toscano, Edsel's parents. Never did I
dream that going on a cruise would afford me hundreds of very special friends
and new ones that I've met during my India stays.
I was just over to see Ode, Lorna, Jake ( Nick is working in Dubai ) and, of
course, their dog, Skip. I couldn't believe the welcome I got from him. I
thought he would not remember me but he greeted me so happily, almost
The years have been good to us, in spite of physical changes, of course. Ode
and the whole Santos clan are my first Indian family and I love them dearly.
Because of that fateful day in San Juan, I have actually gotten to experience
India as my home, a place that has firmly embedded itself in my very soul.
Carmen & Ode, a friendship that has spanned almost two decades!
I wish I still weighed what I did when I took my first Royal Caribbean cruise...
but I'm working on that! After 80 cruises and thousands of meals, Love
Connections ( my favorite ship board drink ) and midnight buffets, I'm glad
I've managed to discard forty of those pounds.
With beautiful Lorna, who always worried I wasn't eating enough! She said
Ode told her how I used to eat on cruises! If I had kept that up, I would have
taken two seats on my flight to India!
With my nephew, Jake, who is now in college. When I first visited Ode
and Lorna, he hadn't yet arrived on the scene!
Father and son
Mother and son
and, of course, last but not least,