I lived the life of a hermit till I left Portugal for Switzerland. A message arrived from a journalist through my lawyer to go underground as I was in danger.
In spite of being emotionally crushed, I tried to keep myself occupied. Being alone was a gift. I was not responsible for anyone else. I only had to take care of myself. It was a relief.
I lived in the village of Paderneira, two kilometres from Nazare on the Atlantic coast. I did not speak Portuguese but I managed to survive. Unfortunately, no one in the village spoke English. I had bought an English-Portuguese dictionary to take care of the basic communication involved in buying eggs and bread at the local shop.
The owner of my hut rented rooms for tourists. When he had English-speaking guests, he would call upon me to translate. Not that I spoke good Portuguese. It was only with the help of my dictionary that I was able to communicate. I was known as Senora Englesa in the village.
One morning, the owner called me to translate from English to Portuguese. To my surprise, the two men I was to translate for turned out to be two police officers from Oregon. I was surprised that they did not recognise me.
What luck! This gave me hope; perhaps Existence did have a plan for me. It gave me courage that my legal situation would not cripple me. I badly needed something positive to survive.
A few days later, I met a young Japanese girl, Mayumi. She was twenty-five and a writer. She had taken a year off from her life in Japan to write her novel. She was having a difficult time in a place that she had rented.
I asked her to move in with me. She was happy to do so right away. It helped us both. We developed a close friendship. Even today, I am in touch with her; our friendship has survived the test of time. It was encouraging then and heartwarming today.
After three quarters of a year, I again received a warning from my friend that I was in danger. There had been further accusations against me in Oregon. This news got me worried, and I decided to go to Switzerland for my safety. I did not know what lay ahead of me. It was like walking in the dark but I did not wish to give up. I was desperate and hoped to finally find peace and protection.
On my way to the US to study at the age of seventeen, I once flew over Switzerland and had been fascinated by the beautiful Alps; I had, in my heart, decided to live there one day. This wish came true now. I packed my things and took a bus to Switzerland. I arrived in Basel in the middle of the night, expecting to meet my boyfriend. I did not know that I was in for another shock. After hours of waiting, I realised that he would not come.
I arrived in Switzerland to a new crisis, though Switzerland was a safe place for me. My second husband, Dipo, was Swiss. Through him, I had obtained Swiss citizenship. Switzerland does not extradite its citizens.
My reality was grim. I had only 100 Swiss francs in my pocket, no friends, no relatives, no place to stay. But I know that even if I had friends or relatives, my pride would not allow me to bother them with my difficulties. I was emotionally and physically exhausted.
Deep within I knew that everything in my life was happening at the right time in the right place. First, I had to find work and a room. At the age of thirty-eight, I started from scratch. Gradually I let my inner feeling guide me. What work could I do without understanding a word of German? My heart was heavy. Out on a walk in Basel, I sat on a bench under a tree. I noticed a signboard for an employment agency. I went over.
A young woman at the agency understood me and was helpful; she asked me to come back in the afternoon because she had to get some clarifications. On the other side of the building there was another employment agency, which arranged an accommodation for me in a women’s shelter. When I went back to the young woman in the afternoon, she offered me a job to work with her grandparents. They were looking for someone to take their dog out. I would be paid 10 francs a day.
I was relieved. I could survive for the next few days. The young woman helped me fill all the forms which were important to be able to live in Switzerland. I liked her from the start. I could pay the costs for the overnight stay in the women’s shelter with my first salary in Switzerland. I had a roof over my head, a clean bed and a shower. I shared the room with another woman. This was far more than what I had in prison.
My first walk with the dog was a real adventure. I did not know anything about animals. The dog plonked itself in the middle of the street and refused to move. Cars came from all sides and sounded their horns. I did not know what to do.
I begged the dog and said, “Please come, Barry, please come to the other side with me.” People looked at me and pointed their fingers at their foreheads. They surely thought to themselves, “This woman is crazy, doesn’t she know that she can just pull it over on the leash?”
The dog was my guardian angel. It helped me to survive. Barry and I became friends. He let my heart blossom after all the hard times I had been through. Meanwhile, I kept looking for work because I could not survive on this salary. I had always enjoyed caring for others, so I thought I could work as a housekeeper.
As soon as I made the wish, it came true. The old couple whose dog I took out was looking for a housekeeper to live with them, because their present housekeeper was pregnant. The couple spoke English, which made it easier for me to interact with them.
Finally, after a long time, a semblance of normality returned to my life. I was paid 16 francs an hour. I slept well and had enough to eat. I felt safe with the old couple. The man was a lawyer and was always ready to help me. It was time for me to leave behind the hardships of the last few years and recover. I enjoyed the work I was doing.
After paying for the health insurance, telephone costs and some cosmetics, I was able to save quite a bit. I was a frugal person and very careful with money. During our evening conversations, the couple often talked about the fears of getting old. I began to understand the problems of old people.
After eight months, it was time for a change. We parted as friends. While I was eagerly looking for work again, I could tell by the reactions of the people that they knew my face from the media. None of them had ever known me personally or spoken to me, but nobody was willing to give me a chance.
Meanwhile, I was longing for my parents and my daughter; I had not seen them in more than three years now. I wanted to bring my parents to Switzerland as soon as possible. When I was in prison, I saw my daughter regularly. She visited me often. She lived with my brother Rohit and my sister Maya and went to school and to university in the US.
Now she is forty- six years old and is a mother of a daughter. We are in regular contact. We have an understanding that when she is not doing well or is hurting, she must connect with me.
Excerpted with permission from By My Own Rules: My Story in My Own Words, Ma Anand Sheela, Ebury Press.