The man at a stall in the wet market in Wuhan held the snake tight in his left hand and swung down his machete on its head. The head was cut but was not severed from the body. The customer standing in front of him shook his head, said something in Chinese, and walked away.
“Why did the customer leave in a huff,” Eldhose Varghese, a quartermaster on a cruise vessel, who had been watching all that had been happening, asked the Chinese man standing beside him.
The man replied something in Chinese but Eldhose who has been around the world several times did not get it.
Eldhose’s cruise vessel which had been touring off China had docked at Wuhan on November 7, 2019. “The passengers went out in separate groups. I reached the market at around 11 am. I saw snakes on the menu. Their heads are cut off and the blood drained out into a cup, which the customers gulp down in one go, just the way Malayalis have their liquor over the counter at bars,” says Eldhose.
“For some reason, the customers will refuse the drink if the snake’s head is not cut off in a single stroke,” he said.
The next day, Eldhose, who is from Thrikkariyoor near Kothamangalam in Ernakulam, returned home for a threemonth-long vacation. He never had an inkling that his vacation will stretch on and on with the pandemic soon breaking out across the world eventually shutting it down.
“More than a month into the vacation, I heard the news that a novel viral disease has been reported from Wuhan. Just like most people, I too didn’t attach much importance to it. As days passed, it started getting worse. Medical students from Wuhan flew back to Kerala by Januaryend. I was supposed to re-join duty by April 2020. But lockdown was declared on March 24,” he said.
There are around 15,000 seafarers from Kerala working in foreign ships and a sizable number of them—around 8,000—work with international cruise vessels. “Those with the merchant navy continued to work. But those employed with cruise vessels had to bear the brunt of the pandemic just like everybody else. Several people on international cruise vessels have been thrown out of jobs. Some have been waiting to re-join duty for almost one-and-a-half years,” said Vinay Kumar Pai, secretary of the Kerala chapter, National Union of Seafarers.
As the seemingly endless pandemic pushed them to the brink, many of them who were employed by renowned cruise companies like Royal Caribbean and Costa Cruise Lines, who were getting Rs 1 lakh-2 lakh salary a month, had to look at other options.
“I am a sous-chef with Royal Caribbean. When I knew that it may take time for rejoining our cruise vessel, I started making biriyani and sold it on the streets driving around in my car,” says Vimal (name changed), a Keralite who was lucky enough to be recalled to join duty recently. The cruise company deployed a chartered flight for him from Mumbai to the US, along with a few other employees.
“I am expecting to join duty after taking the vaccination. I am lucky to fly in the first batch. More than 3,000 Keralites working with Royal Caribbean are waiting for their turn,” he says.
Abdul Fasmil from Thalasseri, who was with Costa Cruise Lines, reached home for a threemonth vacation in January 2020. “I was to resume duty by April but had to stay back as the lockdown had kicked in by then. I went to Bengaluru and joined a restaurant. After more than six months, I put in my papers as I received an offer letter from Royal Caribbean in March 2021. I was asked to complete the physical test and other formalities by June 2021. But lockdown was declared again in Kerala in May,” Fasmil says.
“If the wait goes on, I will once again go to Bengaluru to find a job,” the 27-yearold says.
Mohammed Rishad of Nilambur also shares a similar story. “I was with Costa Cruise Lines in the food and beverages department. For more than a year I have been out of work. In March, I joined a hotel in Kozhikode but then the lockdown was imposed. There are many among my colleagues who face financial problems,” Rishad said.
“Our cruise company is also going through very difficult times. Otherwise, it would have supported us. For berthing their fleet, the shipping lines have to shell out a handsome amount as demurrage fees. Many of the cruise companies are in search of countries with lower demurrage charges. Now, most of the ships are docked in countries like Vietnam where such charges are low,” says Rishad, explaining the crisis that has gripped the cruise services across the globe.
Eldhose still recalls his last voyage. The sea was very calm during the voyage to Wuhan. “When the sea is very calm, we navigators get nervous. It is because we know that it is the calm before the storm. It is not a phrase for us. We have seen the calm sea turning violent without much delay,” Eldhose says.
Is a third wave of infections inevitable? There is no navigating mechanism to foretell what time has in store for thousands of seafarers who are waiting for venturing out into the sea again.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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