I used to always get seasick. Even going over to Skye on the ten minute ferry from mainland Scotland made me queasy. Once, as I went to get the boat across the North Sea to Denmark, the sight of the waves crashing into Tynemouth pier made me ill before I even got on the onboard. But being a compulsive traveller, I’ve learned to deal with it and I was quite prepared to spend the whole of the twenty four hour boat journey from Bombay to Goa, in a horizontal position.
This didn’t look like a bad proposition actually because we had to sleep out on deck and it was either gorgeous warm sunshine or beautiful moonlight plus there were loads of dolphins swimming alongside. There was also the fact that I was very tired –the word exhausted is a bit inadequate. I should mention here that I was very pregnant and there is a kind of tiredness that you only get in the last trimester of pregnancy that feels like the plug has been pulled on any reserve of energy that you may have had – it’s like complete wipeout. By my vague estimation, I was about eight months pregnant and I had spent the previous night sitting up on a crowded train from Allalahbad to Bombay. It wasn’t in the least bit comfortable and I spent most of the time fantasizing about what it would feel like to lie down.
We were on our way from our house in the foothills of the Himalayas to the beach in Goa. I worked it out that if you did this journey non stop, the fasted you could do it would be five and a half days. We had meandered around Rajastan for a couple of weeks and we were now heading to Bombay for the last stage of the journey – the boat to Goa. The only good part about that part of the trip was finding a gas cooker with a grill in Bombay railway station and eating toast for two hours but eventually we got to the dock, located the boat and settled on the deck. I lay down to prepare for the forthcoming nausea and fell asleep. I missed the journey out of Bombay harbour and we were well out at sea when I woke up. Bizarrely, I didn’t feel sick. I sat up – that was fine and after a few minutes waiting for the backlash that didn’t come, I stood up. I wasn’t sick. I walked a few steps and then walked around the whole ship. To my astonishment, I wasn’t in the least bit nauseous – in fact I had my first ever meal on a boat. I was somehow miraculously cured of seasickness and I really enjoyed that evening, feeling this could open up a whole new world of travel.
Next morning, I woke up to a funny little pain which I decided was belated seasickness – indeed I did feel a bit queasy. We were docking soon so it was OK and then the two hour bus journey to Margao took my mind off it, partly because of the scenery as we drove through lush tropical jungle and partly because the road was so bumpy, you lost all sense of having a body as we held on tight. An hour later, after a cold beer, sitting in the back seat of another bus going to Colva, the funny little pain was still there and it was starting to grab my attention.
I thought about it for a while and wondered if my calculations about being eight months pregnant could possibly be wrong – yes they definitely could. The little pain started to change – not go away or get better but just change. I could no longer delude myself that this was seasickness. It seems to me now that on that boat journey, my body was a little bit too busy doing something else to bother about throwing up and a trifling thing like seasickness. My body was preoccupied with its own preparations for what was about to happen in the next twenty four hours.
We had met John in the queue for the boat in Bombay. He was a lobster fisherman from Achiltiebuie in the far North West of Scotland. He was having a adventure in India and decided to tag along with us and he got a little more than he bargained for in the next few hours. Elly who was two, was sitting on Davy’s knee when I gave them my conversation stopper – “I think maybe I’m just about to have this baby today’. It was about 11am and they all just stared at me.
The original plan had been to go to Goa from our little farm in Hamachel Pradesh with about a month to spare before the birth and find an Australian midwife – any nationality would have done but we kept meeting Australian nurses. I was then going to lie around on a palm lined beach and enjoy the last month of the pregnancy in tropical bliss before the well planned, calm and peaceful home birth where Davy and Elly could both be around. Good plan but somewhat delusional – my son had his own timescale.
Colva was a tiny little village right on the sea with a lot of restaurants and bars but in a very undeveloped way. We sat down with a beer and started to make a plan. There was no avoiding the fact that I was in labour but hard to know what stage – it was about 1pm. We decided to stick to the original plan without the Australian midwife so Davy went off with Elly to find us a room. John was a grandfather and familiar with birth so he sat in the bar with me and helpfully timed the contractions. We laughed about the fact that I was about to give birth and we had nowhere to live or even sleep and we knew no-one for about 2000miles around but we couldn’t have picked a prettier spot – among the palm trees and watching the waves on the very tropical looking beach.
Goa is an interesting mix of Hindu and Christian – it was Catholic Portuguese until the 1970’s and life works around Indian apathy and Latin American manyana. It was like having a holiday without leaving India but it felt ok when Davy came back and said he got us a room in a Hindi house. He had sort of mentioned the baby but they were a little shocked when they realised that I was actually in labour. They insisted on calling their doctor – they actually weren’t very happy at the idea of a baby being born in the house – its bad luck and babies should be born in the cow shed.
While we waited for the doctor, I went to the toilet. It was a shack at the end of the garden with steps up to the squat hole and a concrete pipe running outside. Just as I squatted, I heard a loud snorting noise coming from the pipe and I remembered the stories I had heard about the pigs in Goa that eat the human waste. It made me laugh and at that moment my waters broke – that pig also got more that it was expecting.
I was still laughing when I went back in but then the doctor arrived. He examined me and said yes, I was in labour and the baby would be born sometime in the next forty eight hours. I said that I couldn’t imagine holding it in for the next four hours but he looked at me rather patronizingly and left. It was about 8pm.
The family were most agitated that I might give birth in their house so we decided to take a taxi to the nearest hospital about half an hour away. Actually Davy and John decided – I was feeling a little self absorbed by this stage. Sitting in the taxi, Davy kept talking but I had to point out to him that I was really concentrating on keeping the baby in as I didn’t want it to be born in a taxi so could he please shut the fuck up?
At the hospital, Indian bureaucracy stepped in. The man at the desk wanted me to fill in loads of forms in triplicate with no carbon paper, which was a pretty unknown commodity in India generally. I leaned over the desk and asked him if he wanted me to give birth on his desk and at that point, that felt quite likely. I wasn’t panicking or feeling stressful at all –I was just trying hard to keep up with my body which was completely doing its own thing with no help from me at all. I remember feeling quite detached and observing what was happening inside with no memory of anything that was happening around me except that little man with his papers. It was about 9pm.
I was put onto a trolley and rather belatedly I started to remember the breathing exercises I had been taught when Elly was born. Everyone thought I was dying when I started doing the panting thing but it seemed a bit late for it anyway.
In the delivery room, two nurses got me lying down then the doctor came in. It really wasn’t my night for Indian doctors. This one looked at me and asked if I was having any pain? My serene calmness evaporated and I said ‘what the fuck does it look like I’m doing?” he left in a huff and I had about ten seconds of panic as I realized that if I needed him that night, he might not come. But enough of that and back to business.
Those two nurses were wonderful although they were shocked at my words to the doctor. I asked if they had anything like gas and air and one of them opened the window. That made me laugh so much, Alex just popped out. It was about 9.30pm.
Davy had been trying to get in to the delivery room but nobody could understand why he would want to do this. They asked if he thought they might exchange the baby – Alex was about eight pounds with white Celtic skin – not much chance of mistaking him. But eventually he got in for a few moments leaving Elly with John. I fell asleep in that very noisy ward with birds flying around and most women lying two to a bed with their mothers to look after them. As I dropped off, I wondered if I’d be seasick the next time and I haven’t – so pregnancy must be a miraculous cure for seasickness.
I was the centre of attention the next morning. Everyone had a good look at me as they streamed past to go to the toilet, which incidentally was beyond description so we’ll leave that there. They were all really nice and were shocked that I was alone. The system in most Indian hospitals at that time was that medical care was given free but food, drink and generally being looked after, had to be done by someone else – usually a mother, who sleeps on the floor under the bed. Two women took pity on me and gave me things to eat. I was quite enjoying chatting to them when Davy arrived with news of a new living situation and much to everyone’s dismay, I checked out.