Growing up in Gippsland, all Janet Mendonca ever wanted to do was travel. So as soon as she finished her training as an occupational therapist, she went on the trip of a lifetime. Planned as the ultimate adventure, a trip to visit her brother in Sri Lanka changed her whole life.
“I never described myself as adventurous,” 92-year old Janet said. “To me it always felt kind of easy.” Janet sits on her stool next to the window. She has a warm and welcoming voice and she smiles when she tells me about her past. Her room at Rathdowne Place is, like Janet, full of great memories. Some of those memories are contained in an old chest next to her bed. The chest is originally from Scotland, as is her family. When her grandfather arrived by ship in Australia he kept his belongings in the chest. Janet kept the chest and perhaps the travelling spirit that came with it.
As a young girl growing up on a farm in Gippsland, her dream was to see the world. Janet was the youngest child of six in her family. Her three older brothers were in the army, one of her sisters was a nurse and two were at university on scholarships. The desire to travel was common in her family and she knew that eventually her time would come as well.
In 1952 at the age of 27, Janet completed her training to become an occupational therapist and felt that finally, the time was right. Janet had saved money to buy herself a ticket for a long-planned ‘trip of a lifetime’. “Europe was on my list, and much more. I wanted to see it all.” Her first stop was Sri Lanka, where her brother Alex lived and worked as Australian High Commissioner. Janet stayed for one year and made lots of friends. But a chance meeting with a woman from India changed her plans -and her life. “I got offered a job to teach occupational therapy in Bombay (Mumbai).” Her brother persuaded her to take the job and so she left for India.
“I came into Bombay by sea, I saw this huge gateway of India, this massive city. It was busy, it was dirty, but it was marvellous.” Janet’s eyes still shine when she talks about India. “I just loved it there, the food was amazing and the people were so kind.” Janet was offered a two-year-contract to teach occupational therapy at a local hospital 30 miles outside the city centre. She lived in a tiny flat in the hospital and quickly settled in. “I was very outgoing and social and always good at making friends.” With her new-found social circle, Janet explored what Bombay had to offer: “On the weekends we went out, met for dinners or we stayed with friends’. I just thought how lucky I was that I was having this exciting life I hadn’t expected to have.”
One day at work she was asked by a friend if she wanted to be interviewed about her job as an Australian occupational therapist teaching in Bombay. Janet agreed, not knowing that this experience would change her life again. The interview was conducted by a journalist from Bombay named Ralph. “A few weeks after the interview, he called me. He wanted to take me out”, Janet said. “I refused.” But Ralph was persistent and kept calling until Janet agreed. He took her to the Saturday night dance at the famous Taj Mahal Hotel. Remembering being dressed in a sari, Janet still gets swept up in this night “Ralph had this wonderful sense of rhythm, it was a pleasure to dance with him.” The two became a couple and went to the dance every Saturday night.
Janet’s contract was soon ending and the hospital asked if she could extend her stay for another year. Janet agreed and decided to bring her mother over from Australia to India – just in time for her marriage to Ralph. “He was originally from Goa, so we did have a traditional Goan wedding,” Janet said.
After two years in India, Janet’s contract finally ran out, but the next adventure was already around the corner. Janet was pregnant. She had two children, a girl and then a boy. Janet loved her life in Bombay so much that she would have been happy to live there forever. But after almost ten years in India, life took another turn. Janet struggled to find a job and the pay for journalists was poor in India, so the family decided to move back to Australia. She quickly found a good job and Ralph settled in easily and was able to work as a journalist for a local community paper.
Janet has now adjusted to her life in Australia and enjoys spending time with her son and of course, travelling. Last year she went on a trip to New South Wales to visit her relatives. Long distances such as to India are not possible anymore, but the country she lived in for almost a decade is always in her memories. In her room at Rathdowne Place, where she has been living for the past six months, she has a photo from a family vacation in Goa, which reminds her of her adventures. “I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t go on my trip to Sri Lanka many years ago, but I know it was the right decision.”