The Man Who Taught Me To Travel

 

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The corrugated edges of the cardboard box snapped open and he lifted out a sphere coloured a tea-stained yellow. I sat there and watched him unwind its’ lead, place it gently on the floor and plug it in. He pressed the switch. The sphere burst into life, beaming and glowing, like a golden orb of sunlight. A patchwork of jagged edged, pastel coloured shapes was strewn across it, some of it curling around the tilted axis and leading to more on the other side. Neat, cursive calligraphy named each shape and floated above the empty spaces of yellow, signposting foreign waters alongside ornate little illustrations of what I thought looked like pirate ships. The whole thing reminded me of a lost, weathered treasure map.

Madagascar…. Kazakhstan… Colombia… these were all new to me. (I tried my best to remember them, in case I played the categories game again with Mum later.)

I was about five or six at the time.

‘Can you find where England is?’ he asked me.

I furrowed my brow and scanned across the clumps of patchwork that made up the continents. Standing bold and proud I could see Russia straight away – India was there, Australia, North America… where was England?
He twisted the globe slightly and pointed to a tiny, squiggly thing that was just a little bigger than my thumbnail. It seemed to have a bump on its’ right side.

That’s England. See how small we are?’ Dad said. ‘And see how big the rest of the world is? Look at how much else the Earth is made up of.’

***

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My last trip abroad was a few weeks ago with my friend Ivy, who in need of some foreign escape and frivolity, took me along with her for a pretty last minute 4-day trip to Berlin. On our last day there, fully carbed up from chomping on pretzels, kebabs and currywurst for the last three days, we decided to carb up some more over a lunch of gorgonzola drenched pasta and, for a change, a glass of red, because as well as overdoing it on each and every bready delight, the last three days also comprised of some pretty unflagging beer swigging too. Anyway, I digress.

We talked about everything and anything, and the conversation turned to my travels and living abroad. A year ago, I had come back to the UK after three years of living in Jakarta, Indonesia.
‘None of it scares you though does it – heading off to a new place?’ Ivy said to me. ‘I guess you’ve always travelled and had lots of holidays.’
‘Yeh, well I think it’s all because of dad really,’ I said. ‘He always encouraged us to go out and see the world. Travel was one thing he never said no to.’

***

I stood at the front of the lab facing the rest of my class. The topic for presentations; Marine Animals and How They Have Adapted To Their Environments. My chosen marine animal; the Moray Eel.

I was about thirteen at the time.

Nervously shaking the notes I held in my hands and looking ahead at the twenty-five blank faces resting on resigned palms in front of me, I began my presentation and informed those blank faces as best I could. I told them how moray eels had long, stream-lined, finless bodies to hide in rocky crevices and move through water more efficiently. I told them they had sharp teeth for catching their prey and a second pair of jaws to help them swallow. After dishing out a few more life-changing facts, I picked up my glossy A4 photographs that he had printed out for me specially.

I had about five of them and passed them to each row, leaving one for my Biology teacher. Some were up close and some were taken afar, but each photograph showed a blue, murky, pixelated world (this was a time when underwater photography was still in its infancy, far before GoPros and macro lenses) with a single green-grey ribbon twirling and spiralling, suspended in the middle of it. A single white marble with a black dot sat beadily in the eel’s head, staring at the person taking its’ picture.
The photos were passed about through the class and upon seeing them, the blank expressions transformed into faces of intrigue.
My biology teacher held one and turned to me. ‘Where was this eel, Saira?’
‘Near Kenya,’ I replied.
‘And who took these photos?’
I beamed up at her with unabashed pride. ‘My dad.’
***

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Parminder Bahia came to England from India at the age of about nine. He went to school, learnt English, studied hard and got good grades, went to university and qualified as pharmacist. He bought a home and his own pharmacy in Derby and didn’t leave the country again until he was thirty years old, a couple of years after marrying Mum. They went on holiday to America and it must have been after that, that the travel bug bit him.

Once I was born, and later my brother and sister, he worked and worked and worked, not only to make sure we had a roof over our heads, but also to ensure we had a family holiday every year. To ensure we were all able to grow up seeing as much of the world as possible. He treated himself too, especially after getting into diving and packed in as much as he could; China, The Maldives, Malaysia with us, and Egypt, Antigua, The Philippines for his diving – to name just only a few. As we got older, he let us do our own explorations; I lived in Morocco for a year, my brother lived in Hong Kong also for a year, my sister spent a year travelling Asia and Central America and I moved to Jakarta for three years. Like any dad he would worry about us and tell us to be safe, but he never once told us not to go.

In 2014, he sold up shop, not to retire but to take a break for a bit. He wanted to rest up and see the world some more. After over twenty years of working 6am-8pm, six days a week, he deserved it.

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***

My visa was up. I needed to get out of Morocco and renew my tourist visa.
‘Instead of coming back to England, let me meet you somewhere nearer?’ he said to me.
We decided on Paris, booked a hotel for the weekend and reserved our flights.

I was eighteen at the time.

Scanning amidst all the busy bodies and speedy suitcases rushing about Charles De Gaulle Airport, I could see him facing the other way. I ran up to him, my battered little suitcase struggling to keep up with me, and gave him the biggest hug. I hadn’t seen him in four months, which at the time, had been the longest I hadn’t seen him or any of my family for. He jumped in surprise and hugged me back.

That weekend we visited the Mona Lisa at the Lourve, took pictures in front of the glittering Eiffel Tower at night, but mostly we traipsed the streets of Paris, loitering with no particular destination in mind, just enjoying the stroll in a new, foreign place.
One evening we sat in a cosy, dimly lit restaurant with candles in wax-dripped wine bottles on each table. We ordered a good bottle of red. (My dad was by no means the budget backpacker type and never scrimped on enjoying the luxuries in life.)

We had finished our mains and were counting the number of different countries we had been to. I counted fifteen, and he counted twenty-one.
‘You’ll overtake me one day,’ he said.
‘I hope so!’
‘You kids are so lucky. Your school takes you on trips abroad, you go on holidays with your friends. You get to learn so many languages. I didn’t do any of those things when I was your age!’

I can’t remember how I responded, but I do know I wish I’d said thank you to him more and I hope I said it then. The school I went to, the holidays with friends I had and my interest for languages…all my luck was because of him.

***

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Dad sold the pharmacy. Him and Mum came out to Indonesia – she visited me in Jakarta while he went diving in Bali. He found diving a little more difficult than usual this time; he’d been getting pains in his back and ribs and seemed to be only managing sparrow-sized portions at dinner.

The pains got worse and his eating became less. Three months later he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The doctors said he could have anywhere between three months to five years left. And being the bitch it is, pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest survival rates.

After some months of him insisting that I go and continue my life in Jakarta, for the first time in his life, he asked me to come home. I had been waiting for him desperately to say so. I got on the soonest plane back to England.

He got thin. Despite all the medication and chemotherapy, the pain and the tumour were still there. Getting up and down the stairs became difficult. Everything hurt so much that a hug meant hovering an inch over him and resting only the edge of your head gently on his shoulder, just for a second or two. Energy had become a novelty to him – and despite all this, there was still one thing left he wanted to do; go and travel, one last time. And he was going to do it in style.

***

He could only go a few metres before getting tired. With each step the sea lolled in and out, making a lazy hushing noise each time. We walked slowly and our feet made mellow golden imprints behind us. We were in the Seychelles. Dad surprised us all by checking us into first class and booked us in at one of those crazy luxury hotels – the kind where you have your own butler service and get little buggies to the restaurant.

I was twenty-five at the time.

We saw Mum back at the villa, waving.

‘You’ve done so much, Saira,’ he said. ‘You’ve got the whole of the rest of your life ahead of you. Make the most of it. And if it’s teaching or writing you want to do or whatever, you’ll figure it out. You could do anything you wanted.’

He was looking out to the sea, and I could tell how much he was longing to just jump in and dive one more time. The equipment would be too heavy for his frame now.

‘Going away put things into perspective,’ he said. ‘We’re very lucky, you know.’

We stopped and I asked Mum to take a picture of us.

‘I would just happily stay here,’ he said. ‘This is pretty much like heaven here already.’

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***

Ever since I was young and until my sister got a bit older, Dad and I would always sit next to each other on any plane we went on. The first half of the journey back from the Seychelles would be the last time we sat next to each other whilst travelling. Two months later, he passed away. He was fifty-seven. It was two weeks before I turned twenty-six. During those two months after the Seychelles however, amidst all the pain and anguish, we all said, and still say, countless times, how glad we all were to have gone when we did and didn’t leave it a day later.

This may not be the most typical way of starting a new blog and may seem a little somber particularly with something so colourful as travelling, but with a new year and (hopefully) a wiser me, I could not mention travel, which is such a big part of me, without mentioning my Dad. A year on, I miss him sorely, all the time. But enough time has passed now for the sad things to fizzle out and become distant, weathered tea-stained whisps and leave only the glowing, golden memories and lessons at the forefront. Memories like the ones I’ve just recounted, and lessons like open-mindedness, tolerance, gratitude and patience that weave their way through every conversation we had, and through every one of his actions. It is through his example that I learnt those things, and it is through his advice to travel that I started becoming some of them too. Fingers crossed, long may it continue.

 

Thank you for coming to my new blog and for reading, I know it was a long one to start things off so I thank you for bearing with me! With that, I’ll end by saying; here’s to you, here’s to Dad, and here’s to leaving as many lesson-filled, worldly footprints behind, and ahead of us as possible.

Happy travelling, you intrepid person, you,

 

Saira    x

 

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