Friday, November 25, 2005

Auto ride

Caught on auto yesterday morning. It was drizzling. The driver asked me a zillion questions. Where I worked, my marital status, whether I own my home, how much is the rent. He didnt ask my opinion on kushboo's comment thankfully. A bus splashed dirty water all over me. I miss the clean, wide roads and orderly traffic of California more than anything on a rainy day. Translation of a counter point poem.

Asphalt gleams. No
puddles, no troubles.
And no smell of earth.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Tamil culture

I am looking for the guys who wrote this 'agananuru' or whats that 'kurunthogai'. Good god! How could they possibly imply tamil girls had (gasp) pre-marital sex!! Che! I want to file twenty or thirty defamation cases against each of the authors. What a degradation!

Yes, that was a sarcastic post inspired by the cases against actress Kushboo for her statements on pre-marital sex.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Back home

Two more days and I am heading home. This time I should write a travellogue. I wish I had written about my other trips. Not that this is something posterity would remember me by. Its more to remind myself in my old age when I become senile and forget things.

Day 12 : “Allow me to request, Sir, your indulgence”

I didnt have a particular plan for the day now that I was back in London. I thought it would be nice to go to Greenwich.

AC and CC accompanied and off we went. Caught the tube and then a light rail, this was the more modern part of London, I observed. The buildings were contemporary design, glass and steel.

Greenwich was beautiful, it was a sunny day again. What a blessing! We walked in the park, towards the observatory. Took a mandatory picture standing on the greenwich meridian, spent the better part of the morning walking about slowly in the park, admiring the view from the royal observatory. Longitude.

Saw a beautiful globe, but it was more pounds than I could handle - money and weight both.

Got back to a market near shakespeare’s globe theater, wandered a bit, trying the wares. Had lunch sitting on a bench in the banks of the thames watching clouds and the river go by. It was a very inward moment. It was surprisingly not too crowded.

I decided I wanted to walk across the millennium bridge. So trudged along. Thought the St.Paul’s facade they had put up while they were redoing it was hilariously touristy.

Spent most of the day soaking in the ambiance wandering aimlessly, making a memory.

Spent some time near St.Pauls. More tourists there definitely. How awe-inspiring to have been able to design an icon like this.

Went shopping in Oxford street. AC wanted to go to his weekly ISCKON meeting, so accompanied them to the temple. Was amazed to learn that a group of men and women go around the area singing bhanjans every week or something.

Caught a bus back to CC’s house since I wanted to travel by bus, after all the tube travel.

Headed back to India next morning in the official inaugral flight of British airways. I thought that was a nice ending.

I didnt get window seat, so no glimpse of the Tigris. Got out to dawn lights in Bangalore city.

Day 11 : Back to Pavilion

Woke up late the next morning.

Only two more days, and I have to head back to the daily grind. It was a tiring feeling to realize the vacation was coming to an end. I no longer have to say - visiting an English village - was one of my desires. When something you have wanted to do actually comes and goes, it isnt a pleasant feeling, I concluded.

We headed towards Cambridge on the way to London. Stopped in between in one of the houses that acted in ‘Pride and Prejudice’. This was Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s house in the adaptation. I walked about a bit. When I had originally decided to go on this trip, my first thought was to make sure I visited each and every one of those castles or manors that appeared in the Jane Austen adaptations. But when I finally drew up the plan, it had reduced to one or two. In reality though I had dropped most of it in favour of other attractions. There was one more pretty close by - Should I give up the one day in London for it? No, not really, I decided.

Perhaps it was my mood influenced by the impending end of the trip, or perhaps I didnt see the right places, perhaps my imagination wasnt cooperating. I didnt spend too much time in Cambridge. We drove around for sometime, stopped for a few photographs and then decided to head back.

Soon, we caught the motorway and headed towards London. I put my feet up and watched the undulating landscape, peeling skin off my burnt lips, remaining silent most of the trip.
We arrived near London but I managed to misguide and loose my sense of direction. After a few U-turns, finally got it right. A kind black gentleman repeated patiently that we had to take a U turn. So is it politically correct to say black or should it be African-English? Couldnt avoid the congestion fee, but had the experience of travelling inside London in a car during peak hours. It was a piece of cake ofcourse for someone from Bangalore.

I got stressed about how to pay the congestion fee. SR said he would pay it through the internet. Apparently photographs are taken and then matched with the payment details.
Caught a cab and arrived at CC’s house. Warm welcome, warm food. The mild dal was most soothing to my badly chapped, bloodied lips. Went to bed, feeling depressed about the end of the trip.

Day 10 : Strolling down 'The Shambles'

First stop next morning after another English breakfast without eggs or meat was Thirsk. It was a sleepy little village on a cold morning. There was an Abbey here too. I walked about the street, soaking in the ambience.

How mighty the pen is - veterinary surgeon from yorkshire, capturing the imagination of a school girl from the south of India. I made a mental note to read all the books again. There was a small museum, ofcourse.

After sometime, we drove to York. Now we were much wiser, stopped the car in a Park&Ride and got a bus to the town center. York was yet another beautiful town. The market place was crowded, someone was playing a harpsichord on the square, it drizzled.

I walked around following a self guided walking tour map I had got from somewhere. Climbed the Clifford tower for a nice view, walked along the museum across the Shambles to the York Minster. After ten days of fantastic architecture, a beautiful structure like the York Minster still had a profound effect on me.

SR said he liked York the best. The city was walled and the river curved beautifully. It had a unique character. I suddenly realized, despite a certain uniformity or even predicatbility of old buildings, museums, plaques and historical references, I can actually remember and recognize something unique about each city I visited.

Had lunch in a pizza place. It was a buffet, we got a new plate each time we went for a different serving. In India and US one does that for hygienic reasons. Apparently that is not the case in UK, after a few minutes I realized the couple in the nearby table were laughing at the pile of plates on my table. It was thoroughly mortifying.

Post lunch, decided to check out the Jorvik museum. This was a bit different, it was a reconstruction of a Viking village. It claimed every single thing in the museum was genuine. And later I found out that the models were all reconstructed from the bones found in the excavation site. So there is a good chance, the men and women actually looked like the way the mannequins looked. It was like one of those CSI episodes..

With York I had pretty much ciome to the end of the road trip. Ofcourse I had oxford, cambridge, Constable country Chatsworth and all in my list. But I had two more days left before I flew back and I was anxious to spend one more day in London.

I sat in the front of the car, chewing my pencil, staring at the map. It was late for Chatsworth to be open and I had almost a day’s worth of drive before I got to London.

“Lets drive as far as we can,” SR suggested. “Till the sun sets,” AS qualified.

Off we went. We got as far as Nottingham. Crashed in a holiday inn express. Walked over to Marks and Spencers, got some vegetarian sandwiches to eat only pausing momentarily near the Robinhood museum which wasn't very impressive from the outside.

Spent better part of an hour flipping the remote, browsing through the channels. Atleast one channel invariably seems to have some kind of home reconstruction going on. Boy, do they love their buildings!

I pondered about the history of York and then in general about English history. Is history so well chronicled in other parts of the world too? Or perhaps it wasnt as well researched, even if chronicled.

Went to sleep dreaming about earning a lot of money and staying in one of these castles for a few days.

Day 9 : Flat tire in Yorkshire

“Da Vinci Code reference,” I intoned. SR took the wheels after a day’s respite, quite enthusiastically. Another bright day, I inhaled deeply.

“Where are we going?” SS asked curiously.

“Rosslyn,” I answered. SR had just read the book. I was one of the early readers before it became such a phenomenon. It was a gift from SO.

“I am not too sure but it must be this way,” I said.

“Again without directions?” whined AS.

After travelling for a couple of miles, without any clue, I stopped and asked a passer by. She told me to head in the opposite direction! She seemed confident, wiping my doubts and we headed that way. After another five miles, with no clue except the sun, I suggested we stop. “Er.. I think we are heading back to Edinburgh,” I mumbled. “Yes, then time to stop,” SR agreed wryly.
This time the man I asked shook his head in mock contempt. “Roslin! Read the book did you?” I grinned. “Well you are not that far off,” he sighed and almost reluctantly gave me the directions. The right one.

It was such a picterseque countryside. Roslin was much smaller than I expected. Apparently we missed Tom Hanks just by a week or so, they had filmed the climax recently. There is no doubt this was a very different chapel than the others I had seen till now. Symbols and scultputres abound. This is how a foreigner would feel at our temple I thought - bewildered, intrigued, fascinated. But in a strange way it wasnt as bewildering, since though these particular symbols were alien, the idea of a chapel with such symbolism and sculptures is in itself not a confounding concept for someone from South India. Why, the Meenakshi temple from where I.. I really must stop digressing to the temple at every opportunity I get.

I didnt break the code in five minutes as I expected, so I walked out looking for a cottage with Sauniere’s wife, and didnt find any. Only a woman sitting silently.. surely pondering the holy grail.

After wandering a bit in Roslin, hopped into the car and headed in the general direction of York. Next stop was Jedburgh Abbey.

This was something I had circled simply because it was on the way. But I was so enthralled by the huge Abbey ruins. I wandered about for quite sometime, admiring the magnificant ruins in that quiet setting.

We headed back and stopped in a small village on the way. I walkded about idly and a Pakistani came out and greeted me in hindi. I replied a few words in hindi and then switched to English apologizing my lack of fluency. Apparently my hindi is better than I imagine, he said so. We talked about where I was from and about the trip while his wife joined and urged me to speak in “apna zaban”. I smiled and thought about the fierce anti hindi protests in tamilnadu.

I walked into a book shop and found multiple copies of 'Suitable boy' just for 50p. Needless to say, I bought one.

After a hot soup, got back into the car.

“Next stop Hadrian’s wall,” I said. Hadrian’s wall was supposed to be this wall almost in ruins that the romans built to keep the Scots out or in whichever direction you are looking from. We went chasing it for the better part of an hour. We got to a board that said Hadrian’s wall two miles and then thats it. We kept going back and forth and didnt find any wall.

SR and SS thought this was hilarious and kept pointing to the stone walls separating the farms, saying - “Hadrian’s wall. There. There”

After a half hour of circling the area, despite the scenic route, I gave up and suggested we head forward, since it was beginning to be late afternoon.

Growing up, for many years in my early teens, I was in love with two men. I think I still am. Tristan and James. And here I was driving through the Yorkshire Dales! I had dreamt of this only since I was thirteen I think. If we could get to Thrisk and stay there, that would be fantastic, I thought. The other three hadnt read any of James Herriot’s books. What a shame!

It was nearing sunset, and about forty miles to go, but I thought we could make it. Thats when I heard the huge thud. It looked like something like a stone hit the tyre. SR got the car off the road to a bylane and got down.

“We have a flat tyre,” he said leaning near the window, frowning.

It was getting cold and we were not equipped in terms of heavy winter clothes. There were a few houses in what seemed like a very small village, but no one on the streets and no light from the houses. SR checked the trunk. “We dont have a jack”. We looked at each other wondering what the heck we could do.

SR decided to walk a bit and see if there was a B&B or some garage or something. AS surprisingly didnt have any dire predictions.

A lady passed with a huge bundle. Before I got down and tried to call her, she vanished into a side path. I stood there wringing my hands. SR came back and said there was a sign that looked like a B&B somewhere near the horizon. The lady came back, ‘Hmm.., the nearest garage is 30 miles away,’ she said after I explained the predicament. ‘Where are you headed?’ she asked. ‘We are from India, touring. We were heading towards thirsk,’ I told her. ‘ I know someone who might be able to help you, let me ring him. Perhaps I can impress upon him that you are visitors to our country,’ she said and vanished into her house. After a few minutes, she came out driving a car. ‘I’ll go fetch him, he is just a couple of miles away,’ she said.

We looked at each other, unable to believe this. True to her words, she came back followed by a young man in his car. He changed the tyre, while she and I had a nice conversation about her mother, about my itirenary [which she thought was fantastic considering the time. Only she’d have liked me to visit Durham], my english and her son. The young man wished us good luck, refused any money and went on his way.

If you must have a flat tyre, have it in yorkshire…

The next ten miles till Darlington, we were shaking our heads at our unbelievable luck. And their extrordinary kindness.

But our day had not finished yet. After going around for a half hour, we found a single nice hotel which was - fully booked. We spent another half hour, scouting for B&Bs or any decent hotels. None. It was about seven and dark, someone suggested a hotel about ten miles from there and we headed towards that. Each hotel we went asked us to try another, one was available but was a whopping 200 pounds a night.

The stars were out. I couldnt see much except a vague outline of the undulating countryside. There were hardly any cars. We were hungry, we were lost, driving in some narrow roads, looking for a hotel. Everyone was silent.

“This is how James Herriot must have driven late night, when it was much darker, perhaps even more colder to attend to one of his sick animals,” I remarked pumping enthusiasm.

“He would have known the way home,” SR remarked dryly. I pretended not to have heard it and started recounting one of my favourite stories - Tristan pretending to be the ghost. I was laughing helplessly by the time I finished. Ofcourse, as it often happens when you tell a funny story, others didnt understand what was so funny about it. Atleast, before they got much more irritated, we found a hotel. Unbelievably, it was just 8:30.

Northallerton the board claimed. Since we did have a place to return to, we went out to an Indian restaurant for dinner. This was Bronte country a poster announced. Well, literary reference - check, I noted tiredly, climbing onto my bed, later. If it got colder and gloomier than this, forget Heathcliff, I’ll start brooding.

My last thought before I fell asleep was how it stank of roach repellent.

Day 8 : City sights

The weather gods finally caught up with me. It was a very cold, grey and miserable looking morning. It was raining, the same light, drizzle that seemed non-stop. Why wouldnt it just pour down heavily like in India and be done with it?

HMS Britannia, since it was much closer to the hotel was the first stop. I went around, dutifully admiring the various rooms where royalty wined, dined and honeymooned. Only surprise was how small the rooms actually were, the Queen’s bedroom for example. The sun lounge was nice.

Since the plan was to stay only one day in Edinburgh, SR suggested an open top bus, AS had always wanted to ride in one, so we hopped in. It turned out to be a very good idea. We could choose from one of the five different routes. The live guide mentioned a lot of interesting tidbits about the local life and history that I would have missed otherwise. The architecture was amazing. How could they have possibly preserved the buildings for so long so well, I kept wondering. “Obviously they have ordinances that doesnt allow people to rebuild stuff. But how long must they have had it for,’ I exclaimed. The buildings in the old town were at the least 300 years old, but still standing. They do love their old buildings! In India it is predominantly the places of worship that are preserved and the rest are demolished ruthlessly.

After hopping on and off in a couple of routes covering much of the new town, [Does every town have a regents street?] which was ofcourse two hundred years old, SR declared he was hungry. SS seconded, (AS never gets hungry). So we headed towards a mall and got some noodles. Throughout UK, I felt it was quite vegetarian friendly, Scotland malls didn't seem so much so, but I did manage to get something. I sat there absorbing the sights and the sounds. The mall wasnt as clean as one would have expected. The accent was harder to grasp, but it struck me once again how people everywhere are essentially the same - tha family with the young children, the two old ladies probably friends since high school, the working men and women munching down a quick lunch -same fears, same hopes.

The rain had stopped. So I headed towards the royal mile and the Edinburgh castle. There was a splendid view from the top, I clicked a few pictures. Every stone seemed to reflect history, of course more space was given to Mary, Queen of scots. The castle seemed bloodied to me - figuratively speaking. The walls seemed to echo unfullfilled wishes, sadness and failure.

I noticed with surprise someone arranging chairs in a hall - apparently its given out for weddings and such.

Scots played an important role in the Mysore wars. It was fascinating to see Hyder Ali’s sword and a bunch of memorabilia from that time. Col. Baird’s sword - the one his soldiers gave him, to show their displeasure of the inadequate official reward - was beautiful. I saw quite a few regimental museums through out my trip. We hardly have that in India, though some of the regiments have more than a couple of centuries worth of history.

Walked the royal mile stopping in some tartan shops. It was almost time for the last trip and I noticed with dismay we were the only folks in queue. I wondered if they’d cancel the trip, but they didn't, and the guide patiently answered all my questions. We covered a lot of the old town. Saw the stunning and modern parliament.

She talked of a Sikh family’s huge house and the Diwali celebrations there every year. She talked of Harry potter and the school where James Bond studied [”Sean Connery went to this school?” I exclaimed. She gave me a disapporving glance - “Bond, not Connery”]. I asked her about the architecture differences between the new town and old town and she pointed to me the windows, the pillars etc. We crossed the many bridges crisscrossing the city, watched the lights come on, shivered a bit in the cold wind and finally the bus came to a halt.
Later, walked a bit on the streets looking at various statues. Pitt was from here? Christmas shopping had started here too, commuters were rushing home, the wind was cold. My chapped lips looked quite bad, red and peeling all over, I was looking like a female vanara from Ramayana.

I vaguley tried to calculate what day it was.

Got into a regular bus and got back to the hotel. Met CL later and sat up talking to him late into the night. I told him excitedly I did eat the gingerbread. He is so widely traveled, including India and Tibet. It was fun to exchange notes.

I crept up to the room almost near midnight. I am going to have to skip the plan to travel north. SR had mentioned we wouldnt have enough time to get back, otherwise. I sighed looking at the mall from the window.

Day 7 : “Let then the beauty be undisfigured”

Munching the tomatoes from the vegetarian English breakfast without the eggs that was set before me, I glanced the brochures. Too bad the English breakfast didnt have hash browns.

Preston also turned out to be a historical town with old churches, including a mormon one, and a famous battle where the Jacobites - Bonnie prince Charlie, surrendered. I was by now reading words like fifteenth century church, priory from twelfth century, doomsday book etc., without batting eyelids. I might actually yawn if I kept this up I thought.

In one sense lake district was a good break. I had seen too many man made buildings, now I had to see nature at its best. We were off catching the motorway first thing that morning, speeding towards Windermere. Sheeps still grazed, enclosed within stone fences. The black things I had noticed earlier were definitely not any exotic animals, it seemed like giant trash bags actually.

It was so peaceful, it must be a farming community. I wondered the demographics, I had this feeling of meeting more older people once out of London, Of course, it could be the places I was visiting.

Windermere, Ambelside, Grasmere those were our stops. It was a gorgeous day with the Sun shining bright. It was mildly cool without the harsh biting wind. I couldnt have planned a better day for a visit to the lake district. We stopped wherever we wanted, walking, visiting small shops, sitting on benches near the beautiful lake, just enjoying the scenery. Parking was the only sour point.

I had to walk quite a bit of distance to the original gingerbread shop. I usually hate gingerbread and cant stand it, but I had to check off my list - Ate gingerbread in Grasmere. It turned out to be delicious and within minutes I finished a huge piece.

The lake, the tall trees, the mountains behind - it all had a picture in a calendar, unrealistic quality to it. Wandered into the Rydall mount. Literary reference - check. I took a peak from Wordsworth’s window - what a breathtaking view. I could see the valley down below and suddenly could understand how he could have the authority to write the words “I wandered lonely as a cloud”.

AS and SR had gone up to his summerhouse, SS urged me to come along. I trudged up on the slippery path, full of wet leaves smashed to a pulp, stepping somewhat gingerely. I sat on the log platform that he had built himself.

It was late in the afternoon when we set off again. I didnt talk much, my heart was filled with poetry.

“Next stop Gretna Green,” I announced much later. “Heres where they eloped to get married without waiting for license,” I explained to the uninitiated. How many regency romances I had read where this border town played an important part.

‘First shop in Scotland,’ the board announced. Yes, I was in Scotland. After a brief stop, we continued on to Edinburgh.

SR was a good driver. He obviously enjoyed driving. He talks, fiddles with the radio, runs his hand through his hair all in a relaxed manner. “Ah, a scenic route,” he announced and on an impulse, which I dreaded, took a turn into that road.

“There arent many cities in this part of the map,” I said worriedly. “In fact I am not too sure which road we have taken”

“I am sure we will be fine,” he said casually more interested in fiddling with the radio. “Did you notice there arent that many FM stations,” he remarked. “There arent that many cities,” SS responded darkly. There were hardly any houses; one or two in white and brown at a distant point and cars that occassionally crossed. “There are sheep,” I said reassuringly. These sheep had something marked in their rear. The fences were of stone.

“Perhaps they come to check on it once a week,” SR said blithely.

“This is going to be like that night in Bath,” AS was beginning to be worried. “Worse, there arent any towns nearby,” SS agreed.

The good news was sun hadn't set yet. It seemed like we would have at the least another couple of hours of sunlight, we were heading west. So we’d have to come across something, perhaps the sea. There wasn’t a single sign post for miles together except a very rare sign that announced the road number. These numbers didnt make any sense according to my map. It felt like I was truly in the middle of nowhere.

If the car broke down, I’d probably freeze to death. I didnt have any blankets except for a jacket and except for the mobile phone, which was off at that moment, I had no connection with the rest of the world.

Despite the worry, I had to admit the beauty of the place. The landscape was undulating, but these were no hills. These were mountains, wooded with tall coniferous trees. The history I had read so much in the last few days, the wide open spaces and the majestic mountains added such a romantic quality to that evening. We crossed a place called La Mancha. “For I am I Don quixote, the man of la mancha,” sang SS in a surprisingly strong baritone. I joined and soon we were belting out melodies at the top of our voices.

After about an hour, we finally reached Peniquick that I could spot in the map and we got to Edinburgh just as the sun started setting. Our hunt for hotel began. I asked in atleast three to four places before we crached in a holiday inn express. In the process, we must have driven through, more than two three times in some cases, the important parts of the city.

I thought I would by now be blase about old buildings, but I couldnt be about Edinburgh. I have often told my friends I liked cities with character - San Francisco, Delhi... Talk of character! Edinburgh had plenty of it. The architecture was absolutely stunning.

I ate a nice huge sandwich for dinner and watched a TV program. It involved someone buying an old house and remodelling it. Outside the neon lights announced an ‘Ocean View terminal”

Was there an ocean here, I thought puzzled. I dreamt I was near the arctic ocean that night.

Day 6 : Medieval times

I could see through the windows, gray clouds still hanging low, when I woke up. The weather had cooperated till then and shrugging philosophically, I set to get ready for the day. The breakfast table was nicely set and as usual I opted for toast, tea and cereal. AS stuck to a single glass of milk. SR joined for a vegetarian breakfast which turned out to be eggs and tomatoes.

After breakfast, I set off on the walking tour. The previous evening AS decided that she needed an umbrella. “If you run now, you might be able to get it, they are about to close,” a lady advised us. It was just 5:55 p.m. It was about 9:00 now and hardly any signs of life.

SS donned a poncho and AS took out her new pink umbrella which she did manage to buy. SR prefererd to walk in the drizzle. “So this is where Shakespeare lived,” SR said with a teasing look “Or the man who could have possibly written those plays,” He was referring of course to the authorship controversy. Just a few days ago, a new contender had emerged. The half a million people who visit Stratford every year obviously dont think it is relevant.

I had downloaded a very informative walking tour from the web and decided to follow that route. Except for a couple of buildings I couldnt spot, I pretty much enjoyed all the other things listed - the wide straight streets that is mark of the new medieval town, the shakespearean carvings in red, the black and white buildings et al.

I jumped over a puddle and the elderly lady coming toward me smiled, “I didnt expect to swim to church.” It was a Sunday! Thats probably why nothing was open. People in Britain were friendlier than I expected, I wandered off to the Shakespeare Birthplace.

What a wonderful restoration, again the passion and pride was visible in every little object. They had authentic 17th century things or atleast recreations in the same style. They had the baptist records from the church, recording his name, in latin. I am fascinated by the amount of records that are available even from four to five centuries ago. I wonder if this exhaustive recordings of births, deaths, weddings, baptisms etc., is a religious/christian trait or more of a european trait.

I walked through the medieval bedrooms, kitchen, feeling transported to a different time and then onto the gift shop. Bought a jester ornament and fridge magnets of Shakespeare quotes - “There is money, spend it, spend it more”

Walked out enjoying the interesting store names - loxley, marlowe(?!) towards the statues by the river. Falstaff looked very mischievous. The river curved, with the church providing a picturesque background. Geese cackled, it drizzled a bit, we sat for a while enjoying the serenity and beauty.

Had lunch in McDonalds and set off to Warwick castle. By the time I went to Warwick I was beginning to take the restoration and recreation for granted. Indeed appropriately attired dolls were setup in rooms decorated as per the theme and period, according to an event they were depicting, this one had sound effects too. It was a nice touch to have the docents attired in the same period costume. I shepherded out the gang after a couple of hours and we wandered a bit on the handsome grounds.There was a stunning view of the river right next to the castle. Damp, green walkways with the smell of the earth, the medieval turrets, the dungeons, the moat all as usual fired my imagination.

I chatted with an elderly lady about how expensive things were. “Its all those tourists dear,” she said, smiling. “Yes, those darned tourists,” I grinned. She asked about my tour so far and was quite delighted about my trip.

We got into the car and set off. Now, after this point my iterinary had a sort of a blank. I knew I had to get to the lake district, maybe via Llangollen, Wales, how about touching Oxford? “The afternoon is fading,” SR reminded kindly. “I’d like to spend a day in London visitng the dungeons,” SS reminded darkly. I decided we should head north towards the lake district.

This time we took a motorway. I sat marvelling the green grass so close to winter. The land sloped, sheeps grazed, quaint little cottages sped past. England doesnt seem to have any plains at all.

As the signpost [atleast here they had good signs First evidence they do drive extensively in England] for Manchester came up, I agonized over where our next stop should be. We could stop in Manchester, thats a name we have known in India for a while, or we could veer off to Liverpool. “Mahatma Gandhi visited here,” plaque may or may not be there, but I might be able to see eleanor Rigby’s grave in liverpool.

“Lady, make up your mind,” SR urged exasperated when we were about a mile from the exit. SS and AS despite their interest in Rock, weren’t very enthusiastic. “Lets skip and head as far as we can,” I declared. SR pressed the gas pedal enthusiastically.

We stopped in Preston that night in a bed and breakfast. I tried hard to figure out the date before sleep engulfed me.

Day 5 : Land of Austen and Shakespeare

It was a cold morning. I watched the BBC breakfast show for a while not wanting to get out of the cozy bed. Got out finally, had breakfast and became ready to tackle the next day. The hotel, Landsdown manor in the morning light looked beautiful. I walked the long corridor past a ‘Beau Nash’ suite towards the back door to get to the car. This Beau Nash character was appearing again, I made a mental note to look him up.

It would have been such a shame to miss Stonehenge after going that close. Besides it was quite early for the attractions in Bath to open, so we decided to drive back.

And the scenery I missed the previous dark evening unfolded before me. The sloping hills with velvety grass, sheeps grazing leisurely and horse farms, went past in a pastoral haze. The drive had seemed much longer the previous evening, no doubt due to my heightened state of anxiety. I kept looking for the iron age limestone horse or some such, but couldnt spot it. AS claimed she did but I refused to believe her. For a monument as famous as Stonehenge I noticed a remarkable lack of sign posts along the way. It was almost like they didnt expect anyone to drive to Stonehenge and the sign that we finally saw was like an afterthought.

There is a row of tall, stout pillars in my home town. About half a dozen of them that were used for tying up elephants, long ago. If you hunt for them in a street with cluttered houses and two storeyed buildings with their haphazard electric lines and billboards, you migh be able to see it. I got reminded of the contrast when I saw Stonehenge.

By some conspiracy of nature, the land around is slopy enough that you dont spot it till you are within a couple of miles. And by human design there arent any major buildings nearby, just grassy, slanting land and single lane roads, giving it the best, majestic, brooding setting ever possible in the world. A place like Stonehenge has to be approached with imagination. A wonder of how they must have brought these stones from afar and why, should fill your heart, otherwise you’d want to just drive on, cursing yourself for spending your hard earned money.

I shelled out aforementioned hard earned pounds to be able to walk around. The best, ‘most often seen in pictures’ view was from behind. And I got plenty of imagination. I strolled around, pondered about ancient forgotten cultures and the difficulties of transportation of stones from wales. The sky has always captured our imagination hasnt it? ‘Space - the final frontier!’ Fifteen minutes later with my contemplation done, I was ready to head back.

Listened to BBC on the way back, watching those sheeps. There were some bulky, black, shiny objects at a distance, amidst the sheep that I couldnt recognize. I wondered incongrously if it were a bunch of bullocks sitting down. SS thought this was hilarious.

The latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s persuasion has some fantastic shots of Bath. I had thought that there must be a few buildings like that still in the city. How mistaken I was! Only after reaching Bath in day light I realized all buildings were like that. Wherever I turned I could see stunning Georgian architecture, conserved with an unmistakable passion.

“Must be thrilling to walk where Jane Austen might have walked,” SR teased. We walked along the queens square, the circus and many other streets whose name I didn't care to notice. It felt like it could rain any minute. Christmas shopping seemed to have started, the streets were crowded. But for the clothes and the automobiles, if someone had said I was in the eighteenth century I’d have easily believed. It was one of the most pleasant strolls.

We arrived in the Roman bath and the pump room right when it started to drizzle, again another example of something preserved well. There is a neat gadget called an audio guide that they hand out. You press a number thats displayed on the area and you get a nice commentary. Technology rules. AS was completely enamoured by it and listened to it with utmost devotion. The elegant roman military leaders, governors and emperors lined the terrace, as they had done for decades, overlooking the main bath. Britains only natural hot spring looked green and warm. SS sketched the mosaics and the sun god diligently.

I came up to the Georgian pump room where they were dispensing water from the spring. I wondered if it cost similar in the times of Austen. “Its a dollar a glass,” an American exclaimed. “You drink,” he handed it to his lady friend. I was sipping the water at the same time as her. We both took a sip and looked at each other. We didnt need words to communicate our feelings that transcended geographical boundaries. Only difference was she tried desparately to find a place where she could spit it out, while I, made of sterner stuff, swallowed it.

Walked out to a slight drizzle, continued seeing more listed buildings. Ofcourse, I had to see the Jane Austen center. AS and SS werent too thrilled. I wandered off looking at this and that, it was depressing to read about the way she died, her last days of genteel poverty and her fight with the disease. Back in the gift shop, Colin Firth’s portrait getting sold as Mr.Darcy was thoroughly amusing and it helped restore my cheer.

After wandering about some more in the streets of Bath, we set off to Stratford upon Avon. Avon river flows through Bath too I noticed. I spread my map and traced the line fondly. This was a scenic route through the Cotswalds. We drove past, stopping wherever we pleased, taking in the beautiful hillsides with the famous sheeps, picture card cute villages with the honey colored houses and churches to my hearts content. This was the best part of driving. No slave to a public transport that’d stop only where the driver wanted. Bourton on the water, stow on wold, Moreton in marsh and finally stratford upon avon.

It was about to get dark when we approached Stratford and I was afraid of a repetition of the previous evening. Luckily as soon as we came near the town center, a neon light claiming vacancies in a bed and breakfast beckoned. Since we had spent the previous evening in a nice hotel, we decided to spend this one in a hopefully nice bed and breakfast. It was a home business obviously and the teenage daughter asked if I would be willing to pay ahead.

I trudged upstairs, licking my lips. The cold wind has scorched my lips and I realized I was going to have a terrible cold sore.

The room had a vaulted ceiling with two windows through which I saw some fire crackers. I dully wondered if it was Guy Fawkes day and then watched the clouds gather and rain pound on the windows. I went to sleep to the rhythm of the rain drops.

Day 4 : Rain in Salisbury plain

Late – I grumbled to myself. According to my rough estimates we should have reached our first destination by now. And here we were just reaching the Hertz parking lot to start our road trip. “M’am,” SR tipped an imaginary hat and opened the door for me, like an expert chauffeur. I got into the front seat and flipped open my map smiling at all the lines. AS and SS got into the back, SS seemed a little grumpy, perhaps because we had skipped the dungeon in London. “We could have gone there this morning,” I could hear the mumble.

“Left, Right on Buckingham road towards Marble arch and follow Edgware road,” I called out the instructions as we eased into the traffic towards Salisbury. We followed the road for a good part of an hour past Harrods, more shops, yet another museum, a house where Hitchcock lived and then finally joined the motorway. Initially, I had been pretty excited about a board that said so-and-so stayed in this house. I think I took pictures! But after finding so many such boards, I had turned blase. Brits have clearly excelled the art of promoting tourism.

SR got himself comfortable and in a few minutes we were speeding along past Heathrow. I noted the speedometer gaining steadily, glanced outside and remarked worriedly, “I dont see any speed limit board.” “Neither can I,” he agreed cheerfully. I made a mental note to find the speed limits. Despite that, and despite a quick lunch (CC’s delicious Parathas) we arrived in Salisbury later in the afternoon, after a nice drive with grassy hills providing the scenery.

It was cloudy and there wasnt much light, and I didnt have the town map of Salisbury. It was a town full of narrow roads, most of it one way and with my expert direction, we soon found ourselves circling the town going nowhere near the cathedral. The Cathedral spire continued to play hide and seek with me. There werent any parking lots. It began to dawn on me perhaps the good folks of Salisbury didnt like other people driving into their town.

Finally we got near the Cathedral, got to a narrow lane for parking, which was luckily near the entrance and stopped. ‘I wonder how much more harder this would be in summer,’ SR remarked, sneezing.

One look at the cathedral and I knew it was worth the trouble. There are two paintings by Constable of this cathedral I had seen earlier in the gallery. Now, I saw the same spire about 800 years old rising majestically, right in front of me. I stood there quietly admiring the largest Cathedral close in Britain for a few minutes and wandered slowly in.

A volunteer handed me a brochure with interesting information about dimensions [height of spire 404 feet] , material with which various parts were made [jurassic limestone, purbeck marble, oak from Henry VIII], the style [Early english and english gothic], how long it took to build [within four decades] etc. I wandered towards the oldest working clock, headed along the nave admiring the stained glass windows towards the quire. The carvings in the wood were beautiful. I am used to some of the best stone carvings in the world – South India has an abundance of them, but except for a very few palaces in Kerala, I havent seen many wooden carvings. I could see the arches towering above in a style similar to that of the chapel I had seen in London, but much more spectacular here.

Above all this was still a place of worship. AS lit a candle and sang softly kneeling on the bench, SS followed. Rain drizzled outside, candle flames danced a bit. After staring at the blue glass window for a bit, I moved on to the chapter house to admire what was left of the frieze.

Later I stared at the best preserved copy of the Magna Carta – “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” I was looking at the Latin version ofcourse and didnt understand a word of what I was seeing, but nevertheless it felt momentous.

I remembered going to the temple in my town one rainy day a few years ago. The temple towers rose against the laden clouds, rain drops fell on the stone; it was dark. But somehow it suited a place of worship. I stood in the dark confines of the cloisters and watched the rain drum gently on the relatively brighter grassy area in the center. Medieval monks would have walked on days similar to this along the same corridors. Yes, that weather suited the history, majesty and magnificence of the Cathedral.

It was nearing four now and sunset was imminent. I didnt have any map for this part of the journey, so I did the next best thing. I approached a stranger and asked him a blanket question – “Excuse me sir, how do I get to Stonehenge?”

“Hm.. lets see,” He scratched his chin and started giving me the directions. He paused, “You do know that it would be closed now?” “Yes ofcourse,” I answered brightly. No I didnt know. I got back into the car. How was I supposed to know they closed it at four? How was I supposed to know they can even close Stonehenge? I stared at all the maps and the failing light outside, calculated how long it will take us to reach and said in a miserable voice – “Lets head to Bath”

“Do you know the way?” AS asked. She wasnt being sarcastic, she was genuinely worried. We headed out trying to figure out the way when SS first complained of a smell.

“What smell?” SR queried and sneezed again. AS agreed there was a smell. Sort of a burnt smell. Like someone was burning their pot roast, or like the tire was burning. The street went a bit uphill. SR changed gears and started to drive up. The smell became oppressive. “Stop, stop. It smells of something burning inside the car,” I shouted in a panicky voice. “I dont smell anything!” SR responded. “Your nose is clogged. Just stop the car!” I was getting a bit hysterical.

SR stopped it reluctantly and we all scrambled out. I stood there not knowing what I expected. I expected smoke or sparks to come out. Nothing stirred, it was cold, SR looked under the hood and declared nothing was wrong. AS’s lips started chattering. After a few tension filled minutes we looked at each other and decided to proceed.

We got into a single lane highway towards Bath. Cars came in the opposite direction their glare blinding us. Sun set. SR fidgeted with the radio and settled in some FM station. I sat there staring ahead counting miles. AS and SS debated whether the burning smell was there or not. It wasnt as oppressive as before though I could tell for sure it was lingering. I expected something really dire about to happen. How foolish of me to have embarked on this trip in this kind of weather , in a hilly region, in an unknown country.

We reached Bath after what seemed like hours.

“I have a map for the city of Bath,” I pronounced triumphantly.

“Okay where do we go?” SR asked.

“Er.. I dont have a list of hotels,” I mumbled. AS, the back seat Nostradamus started predicting dire things. “Its dark. We arent going to find a hotel. Even if we found one, there wont be any vacancy.” SS had dozed off without a care in the world. The implied trust in my navigating skills touched me deeply.

We cruised along, again no place we could easily park. The good folks of Bath also were not car friendly. Shops were closed, there werent anyone walking on the streets. I accosted a stranger and asked him the way for a good hotel. “What do you mean a good hotel?” he asked not unreasonably. With sudden brilliance, I asked him to direct me to a travellodge. Got back, drove around some more, based on my understanding of his direction, couldn't find any travellodge.

SR stopped the car, walked a bit, came back and said he had found the Jane Austen center. I bit back an angry retort. We drove around again. While I was staring ahead, SR suddenly stopped the car, backed it a bit and turned into what seemed like a hotel. I got down to go and inquire. Yes there was a vacancy. The receptionist quoted a prize. I gasped. He took another look at me and said he will give it for a better prize and quoted something slightly less.

We decided to stay the night there. The time unbelievably was just 7:00 PM. Had chinese take out for dinner. It was a beautiful hotel, probably converted from an old mansion with narrow steps and long corridors. The room was well furnished and decorated. I was too tired. I lay down on my bed, worrying about how to make up the lost time, about the smell from the car and about the lack of maps.

Day 3 : Conqueror’s spoils

My sprain had gone completely by this time and I woke up to a colder and gray day, with just the pleasant fatigue from the previous days walking. I had eaten pots of CC’s dal the previous day and had as usual had a fitful sleep.

Deciding to save the walk for later and caught a cab to the tower bridge first. Walked the length of the bridge, taking in the ambiance admiring the few modern buildings visible on the banks, including the (colorfully nicknamed) swiss re building. SR waved from near the beginning of the bridge and took pictures of me. Pedestrians stopped with an indulgent smile on their face. What day was it? Must be Thursday or Friday going by the smiles.

There were hardly any tourists near the tower of London. The tower is more than a thousand years old, atleast some parts of it. It boasts of royal prisoners and beheadings. The chapel at the white tower, with it’s simple and elegant carvings, the piers and the arches above, was quite enchanting. It had a certain brooding quality about it. Most of all I was impressed with the reconstructions. How much of research must have gone into putting together what seemed like a simple fireplace in King Edward’s room. There were information panels about the constructions methods from various centuries. For a moment I could almost see a maid cleaning the room hurriedly before the King arrived. The huge iron chandelier and the beautiful shape and ceiling of that chamber in the Wakefield tower is still fresh in my mind. The steps were invariably narrow, low and winding. Was it a manner of defense? I was walking in the open, looking up at the towers and mentally comparing the architecture from south India, trying to remember buildings from the period of Rajendra Chola or Vijayanagar, when AS pointed with excitement the way to see the crown jewels.

There was a brief show on the gunpowder plot, (Guy Fawkes day was around the corner) which I watched for a few minutes, intrigued by the way they were drawing parallels and finishing it with how terrorism was always abominable. Then I moved around watching scepters and crowns and assorted jewels in glass cubes. This was the koh-i-nur? I would rather India gets monetary equivalent than this back. Nowhere did it say that it was only a model, which I was sure it was, nevertheless, it sat very ordinarily atop the crown and I doubted the original looked any better.

London eye was the next in the list, SR led the way to a recreation ferry. Twenty minutes later, I found myself on a riverboat cruise on the Thames. Gray clouds hung low, breeze blew cold. I sat on a chair, rubbing my hands, watching the umpteen bridges across Thames and the buildings along the bank. I had somehow had this quite silly idea that there were only a few bridges. And here I was crossing so many – London Bridge, Waterloo, Westminster, Millennium Bridge… There were so many stately buildings and a few statues along the way. London is a vibrant modern city but the history and heritage seeps through. It was so easy to imagine how it would have been a few hundred years ago for example. After a while, when it started drizzling, I went below to see SR and AS enjoying coffee by the bay windows. I got myself a hot chocolate, leaned near a door, trying to get myself a bit warmer.

What can I say about the London eye except that its a giant wheel. The best part of course is that it moves slowly so you get to see various landmarks. I shelled out four pounds to get a map that pointed out buildings. Higher perspective is always spectacular, one doesn’t feel dwarfed.

Planning the trip outside London was mine but inside it was whatever AS and SS had in mind. I proposed British museum but was again voted down in favor of Hyde Park. With St.James Park in my mind, I agreed with some enthusiasm, got down at Marble Arch and walked into Hyde Park. John Nash designed this monument, I read. I wasnt familiar with John Nash and I had heard the name a few times already. I made a mental note to look him up.

SS was most interested in seeing the Speakers’ corner. As we entered a busload of Japanese tourists arrived and one enthusiastic young woman bounded up to uniformed gentleman and asked where the speakers corner was. “This is it”, he replied. The look on her face was priceless. The stress is on the speaker not the corner, I smiled to myself. SS shrugged and moved on.
We walked the length of Hyde Park towards the other end after spending a few minutes by the lake. SR and SS went for a long walk, laughing and jogging. AS was cold, I was terrified of dogs, so we declined to join and sat near a cafe. Hyde Park was disappointing in some ways. Perhaps because I had imagined it with more trees.

Next stop was Piccadilly – named after a frilly collar – circus. I got out of the tube station and walked up the stairs to the statue of Eros looming up. I was suddenly in the middle of a busy, crowded area full of locals, tourists, billboards and electronic displays. After two days, it was the first time I felt like being in a major metropolis. I walked a bit window shopping and drinking in the ambiance. A delicious soup in Eats, eaten lazily was the highpoint of the evening until then.

British museum at last. I was lucky again since it was open for extended hours that day. Though by now I had seen many impressive buildings, I couldnt stop being awed by the front elevation of the museum. Clearly it was an ocean and I wasnt even going to get a chance to wet my feet given my short visit.

The Brits have been everywhere. I came again and again across captions, which implied the object was brought to the UK by someone many years ago, as opposed to being bought. Wherever you are from, you’d find something to fascinate you. I wandered to the Indian section (a 12th century Nataraja!), paused in the African collection, gazed at the wonderful collections of the Islamic section and came upon the Rosetta stone, key to the Egyptian scripts. How much research this stone must have spawned. ‘Universal Translator’, I murmured, scanning the black stone. Someone decides to make an announcement in all three important languages, decides to put it in stone not just papyrus, the stone somehow survives despite being broken and many centuries later the French soldiers who find it realize it is something to be preserved. I wondered how many more such stone inscriptions are hidden.

I felt a bit drained and overwhelmed after walking about for a couple of hours and realized I was wandering rather aimlessly and had arrived back at the staircase to the handsome man, all set to throw his discus. I sat down on a chair near the cafe, my mind strangely blank. A clear case of information overload. A little while later, I spotted AS in the gift shop and SR a little away talking animatedly to a gray haired lady. I stood up deciding to call it a day.

Before retiring for the night, we decided that we should stick to our original plan of starting on the road trip the next day. Despite the enjoyment I was more than ready to leave London. I went to bed – all the places I visited an incoherent jumble in my dreams.

Day 2 : I have been upto London

All pumped up I woke up early the next day. Jet lag also probably had something to do with it.

CC and AC were the most hospitable people I have ever met. They plied me with so much food that I had to thrust my whole body across the plate to stop them from serving further. AC looked really hurt when I declined the sweet after breakfast. I had to make up for it by drinking another cup of chai.

Loaded with a heavy breakfast, I set off and caught the tube to Waterloo station. It was a cloudy day, not as sunny as the previous day, but it wasn’t raining and I liked the cool breeze tugging at my hair and the dull sun hiding behind the mass of gray clouds.

We got out of the station and I had my first look at the Big Ben and the Parliament. The clock tower rising against the gray sky, with the houses of parliament in the background was a feast to the eyes. I walked around studying the Victorian gothic building, which seemed more ornate to me than the other buildings because of the protrusions and the way the windows were set.

Parliament was in session that day. I asked the young lady near the gate if public were aloud to watch the debates and if I could. It turned out that particular day they were expecting twenty thousand people there in the next hour or so to protest against trade practices. I noticed the banners stuck on the quadrangle commenting on war. “Stop killing Iraqi babies,” one of the banners insisted. I saw a lot of press photographers with their state of the art equipment setting up and policemen lining up. Decided I was better off catching it later in the BBC, besides I didnt want to be caught protesting against something without knowing the exact details. I had a vague feeling though it might be something good for third world countries (my friend who reprimands me for that term, please read it as developing countries) though you’d never know.

We crossed the parliament square, gazing at the statues. Ah there he was – Mr.Winston Churchill. Surprisingly I came across a statue of Abe Lincoln too. It was about 10:00 AM, so I suggested we go to Buckingham Palace and watch the change of guards. SR enthusiastically agreed to walking there. I crossed the Westminster Abbey, deciding to go in later and walked towards the palace.

On the way was St.James Park, which I mistook to be Hyde park first. What a delightful place! I walked on the pavement under the shade of an avenue of trees. The fallen leaves made a soggy bed. A few mid-morning joggers were treading softly, geese cackled, ducks swam. This well designed, well maintained park, so close to the top tourist sights, should itself be listed in all the brochures. It sure was a much more beautiful sight than the palace I came upon.

I took a few pictures of the Buckhingham palace, promptly lost interest in the two guards who were walking this way and that and wandered off to the Victoria memorial.

This was a monument to the empire and the virtues and morals of Victorian England. Coming from India, I ought to spend a few minuets there. “So you were the first Empress of India, huh?” I asked her. Victoria Regina Imperatrix seemed to have had a nose job. She sat there regal as ever, ignoring me. The sculptures were marvelous. I took quite a few pictures, especially fascinated by ‘Courage’. I joined the crowd that was patiently waiting near the gates. There was a big board that said the next changing of guards was the next day, but no one seemed to mind it much. I could hear Russian, French and many other languages. Obviously England had a lot of tourists from outside the country.

After about half an hour wandering around that area, watching the occasional car that went past and the dapperly clad men and women who got down, it became pretty clear there wasnt going to be a change of guards. Staring at the two guards would bore anyone and it was a big surprise to see the crowd patiently waiting.

AS decided to stop in the gallery shop. I wasnt keen on buying a teapot with the royal insignia or a ruler with the Windsor family tree in the back. I agreed with SS’s declaration it was time for lunch. After picking up a nice sandwich at TESCO, we sat down on a bench in St.James park. One of the top ten lunch breaks I have had in my life. I was so enamored by this park that I spent time there, probably at the cost of visiting some palace nearby, but it was worth every second.

Next on the list was Westminster Abbey. I walked in staring at the beautiful stained glass windows ahead and after a minute looked down and read what was written. “Here lies..” To my utter horror I realized I was actually standing on a tombstone. I quickly moved afraid I had committed something sacrilegious. But where to move? Maybe to that of the next guy. I slowly realized it was alright and that they actually buried people inside. Somehow I had been completely unaware of this and I was looking around every minute or two to make sure others were indeed walking about. It seems it was an honor to be buried there. After that it was a matter of spotting famous people from Dryden to Newton (Literary reference – check, Da vinci code reference – check). I have never seen so many famous names in one place. I spent some time studying the stained glass windows and the enclave where coronation takes place. The history and personalities associated with the place humbled me a bit. I had to pause when I encountered Darwin and Maxwell for example.

I got out to see it was raining. This was a good time to spend inside some museum. I voted for the British Museum, SS and AS voted for Madame Tussuad's, SR shook his head, refusing to side me, so off we went to Baker street.

Madame Tussad is a rip off. Yes, wax dolls are great and yes, some of them looked realistic, especially if they werent modeled after some famous people. But if taking a picture with Jennifer Lopez (which I didnt) or Will Smith (which I did) isnt your thing, I wouldnt recommend it. Aishwarya Rai was missing much to SR’s disappointment, Amitabh didnt look much like him, much to my disappointment. I did take pictures with the Dalai Lama, Patrick Stewart, Picasso and Einstein laughing inwardly at the way I was showing off. I decided to skip the chamber of horrors since it wasnt my thing. Did a 3-D photo of my face - my own chamber of horror. After coming all the way to Baker street, I had to stop at the Sherlock Holmes monument.

Next stop was Trafalgar square. It happened to be the bicentenary year of the battle of Trafalgar. It was a rainy evening, the pigeons must have decided to hide someplace dry. The fountains and the lights were on. I have been reading up a lot on the Napoleonic wars recently – including some interesting counter point books which talks about England funding countries/groups outside to fight Napoleon and how while talking of the power lust of Napoleon, it was England that was engaged in battles in far away places like India. Whatever it may be, the battle of Trafalgar is an interesting study and Nelson is clearly one of the big heroes in England.

I lingered in the nice square studying the base of the monument and then realized the National gallery was open for extended hours that day. What a splendid bonus, I literally ran in.

Once in, I was actually quite at loss – there were so many of my favorite paintings and I didnt know what to do. I dont think the awe of actually seeing a Turner or Van Gogh subsided sufficiently for me to appreciate what I was seeing. Monet! Constable! Reubens! You name it, you got it! And then ofcourse Leonardo! I could sit and see the Madonna’s face on the ‘Virgin of the rocks’ for hours together. I had recently read about the infra-red detection of a painting underneath and also there was the Davinci Code reference. But all that became irrelevant at the sheer pleasure of gazing at the master’s work.

I wasn’t familiar with the works of Courbet before I visited the National Gallery. His ‘Still Life with Apples and a Pomegranate’ – captured me. I kept going back to it. The fact that he had drawn it while in prison fascinated me even more.

I finished the day off with a nice pasta dish at the gallery restaurant. Walked back in the rain to the tube station. Went to sleep with the colors of the apples and the sunset of “The Fighting Temeraire” filling my dreams.

Day 1 : Next stop – Heathrow…

I am not a morning person and I hadn’t had a wink of sleep the previous night. It was 5:30 in the morning. If I weren't standing in the British Airways queue I’d have been in a thoroughly irritable mood.

As it were, I was. My bags were opened and dug through, young women walked about holding folders, men walked about looking busy. This was the first flight from Bangalore to London direct by BA. Captain C who picked up his bag before me in the security check seemed reassuringly bright.

The flight was half empty. This improved my mood considerably. I could actually put my feet up and sleep if I wanted to.

Captain C announced on the speaker that they had misplaced the flight plan. I yawned hugely. Good beginning! Confident that they will sort it out, I settled down to catch up on my sleep.

When I woke up bright light was streaming through the window. It was a clear morning and I could see the landscape below. What a lovely sight it was - river Tigris, the cradle of civilization, wide and blue curved with a majestic calm igniting my imagination. I stared transfixed. Impaired by my high viewpoint, the snow peaked mountains looked like hundreds of chalky mounds someone left in the backyard. They must be magnificent, towering snow peaked mountain ranges.

Soon we crossed over to the Black sea and Europe. Everybody and his friend had warned me that November was a poor choice to visit UK, that it would rain throughout. It also seemed like many attractions would be closed but there were enough open according to my research that I had decided to take my chances. Now, I cast a worried look at the bales of white clouds billowing without an inch apart between them all over Europe.

However it was a fine day when we landed in London Heathrow. I was stunned to see how green London looked from above. Immigration officials here seemed much more casual than in the US. The lady actually smiled. I walked out to a gorgeous afternoon in London in no time.

SR suggested the tube to get to my friend’s house. A quick ride in the complimentary bus to the underground station and within minutes I was hurtling towards my destination in a mostly empty tube. We went past brick buildings two or three storey tall that looked a bit dilapidated.

I was to get down at Earl’s Court and change over. At Hammersmith, a voice came on the speaker and announced something I couldn’t understand. All I knew was it said quite a mouthful about Earl’s Court. This was a mighty blow to my ego. I couldn’t understand British accent? I needn’t have fretted. An elderly English couple asked the gentleman next to me what the announcement was. He replied the tube wouldn’t stop in Earl’s court. While I was reassuring myself that my ears were fine, it dawned on me I was heading for Earl’s court too. I made a beeline for the door closest to me dragging my luggage, while SR made a dash for the door closest to him. And I got stuck between the doors closing. I didn’t realize at the time there was a button next to the door to get it to open and so stood there one hand on my luggage unable to move either way, and not knowing what to do. The gentleman who had got down ahead of me slammed the door open with his hands and I got out. I was more embarrassed than anything. I might as well have written ‘tourist’ on my forehead.

After thanking him I got to figuring out what to do next. I stared at the tube map and realized I had to take a different line now.The blue colored line actually had a name and there were signs to a different platform. Tube rocks. SR didnt stoop to refer to maps or ask for directions. Then again, this wasnt his first encounter with the London tube. Within a few minutes, without further mishaps I arrived in CC’s house.

CC was very busy, they were having a Diwali puja. AC informed me there was a feast for forty people being prepared in an adjoining apartment. I figured this would be a good time for me to excuse myself. I told them that I’d join for the puja later and embarked on my first sight seeing expedition.

Walking down via Liverpool Street which I guessed to be an active office area by the number of suits I saw, was a pleasant experience. I gawked at the architecture, the roads (petticoat lane?), the cute London taxis and buses. Cool breeze whipped at my hair. I took a leisurely stroll looking for Thames. There it was – dark, silky flowing beneath the bridge. I took in the sight of the marvelous architecture of the buildings around, none jarring, and the other bridges in the fading light. I inhaled deeply. River Thames! Could Shakespeare have crossed the river at that very spot? And what was that bridge across? Could that be The London bridge?

I beckoned SR who claimed to have walked all over London and asked. He smiled and pointed at my knees - actually at a plaque behind me. Turned out the plain one I was standing on was the London bridge and the other one was the tower bridge! The London bridge with the gates where enemy heads were suspended had long gone in the great London fire. Yet another london bridge is in Arizona, USA it seems. No wonder it launched the nursery rhyme.

I walked back slowly drinking every building on the banks, towards the London Monument, the tallest free standing Doric column, whatever that means. Its height is the same as the distance from the starting point of great fire of London, I had read. Fire that destroyed more than 3/4 th of the city. This was designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

I looked up, slowly went around. I was actually looking at, touching something designed by Wren. Commuters rushed home around me, there wasnt any other tourist - the steps were closed, after all. I kept gazing at the stone column thinking of fire and destruction and the monuments we erect to forget. Then trudged back to the tube station clutching my jacket as the temperature began to drop.

CC’s house had a festive look. Both CC and AC were clearly very traditional. She asked me if I’d like to change to traditional clothes for the puja. I took the hint and borrowed a dress. Three swamis or sadhus or whatever they are called arrived from ISKCON to start the Diwali celebration. It was strange to sit in a London living room on vacation from India, and listen to a bunch of Croats singing about the ‘ayodhya vashi’. Later even more surprised, I watched fire works lighting the sky from two different spots celebrating Diwali.

I went to bed pondering about faith and fire.

Day [-1] : The intreprid travel planner

Diwali eve! I was as ready as I could be, I had my visa and ticket, a bag full of clean clothes, even my jacket.

We had had heavy rains in the last few days causing train services to be disrupted. Bombs had gone off in terrorist attacks in Delhi. It hadn’t been a good week but things were improving slightly. The northeast monsoon that had thrashed the southern states seemed to have finally let up. I could hear the crackers going off outside.

I hadn’t done much in preparation other than having conversations with my friends from UK and friends who have visited UK.

JW (UK) : If you are going to Bath you could also go to Cirencester. Roman ruins. Oh and York – Viking center. Wales there are a few great places to visit.

NT( UK) : Hampton court, Kensington palace, Tower of London – don’t try to repatriate the crown jewels. Chatsworth – place similar to that of Mr.Darcy’s.

CV( India): Dont go to this place called Stonehenge. Waste of time.

SRP(India) : You got to see Stonehenge.

Me : Perhaps I could do a Kipling tour, with his connections to India. Oh how about Constable country? And perhaps Wales too? Shouldn’t I be seeing Southampton, after all that’s where the East India company ships docked.

CL(UK) : Lake district. York. Try the gingerbread shop in Grasmere.

My itinerary obviously still looked jumbled. I had concluded that with all these places to visit, I should keep things flexible. So I wasn't going to book any hotels, it was going to be a road trip. SR agreed cheerfully enough to drive, so I didn't have to plan ahead about trains etc. My sprain after troubling me for three days, after multiple pain balms, had subsided into a dull throb whenever I turned side ways. At least it looked like I could turn and see the countryside pass by.

I took my much-perused map and papers scribbled full of notes, stuffed them inside the bag and decided to settle for the night. The crackers were still going off, punctuated by boisterous drunken laughter.

CL from UK had suggested I read Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes from a small island’. I had dutifully picked it up the previous day. This I opened now. It was nearing one and I had to leave around 3:30 in the morning. It looked like they weren’t going to stop any time soon, I might as well read.

Despite my map full of yellow lines, I had managed to not touch most of the places he refers to in the book. That put the first damper. I started reading. He says right in the second paragraph – ‘If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks look knowingly at each other as if to say, “Well now, that’s a bit of a tall order”‘.

Uh-oh. Could it be they were right?

Day [-8] : A journey of a thousand miles

“Your visa is ready madam,” the bespectacled travel agent shuffled the papers importantly. I wrinkled my nose at the strong smell of roach repellent and stared straight ahead at the laminated partitions. I had sprained my neck badly the previous night - staring straight ahead was the only option. Neck is probably the worst place to get a sprain. I was moving about like a badly programmed robot and was generally getting odd looks. I peered at the visa and murmured “multiple entry” to show this was not my first trip abroad and I knew all about visas. Till that moment of seeing the visa, I had thought of the UK trip, thanks to a good deal from British Airways and a gift, rather abstractedly. Now it looked like I was really going. “And where might that be?” a cockroach quirked his antenna from behind a paper.

“Do you have any brochures?” I asked realizing my itinerary was as blank as my stare.

“Just search for it in the internet,” he responded helpfully.

Right. Internet.

After hunting for a good map of the UK and a trip planner in the net for half an hour I gave up. There wasn’t an app to match the folded old-fashioned paper map. I spread it up and armed with a highlight pen and google search, I went to work. I plotted my route, weaved lines, highlighted areas, drew circles, put question marks and was quite proud of the research I was putting in.

The world maps one is used to, skews up the country sizes quite a bit. I knew this, but still when I actually looked at the distance it was a bit of a shock. It looked like Great Britain would fit into just four states in South India. Yet, the Brits definitely know how to promote their island. How could they possibly have so many specialty tours for such a small place.

Jane austen tour, Da vinci code tour, Cotswolds, A train ride in Scotland, Roman ruins, Medieval castles, Victorian mansions, Bronte sisters tour, Harry potter tour, Cricket tour..

A renaissance person like me (Ahem) wasn't going to get tied to one specialty tour. After an hour, quite a considerable achievement considering my sprained neck, I had a map with bright highlighter lines running criss-cross all over the country.
One minor problem. I just needed about a month and unlimited money in my bank account. I actually had about ten days (I decided to worry about the money part later). Oh well, I’d have to pick and choose as I go along.

I stared at the map, folded it carefully and listened to the torrential rain pouring outside. UK here I come.

UK trip

This is a travelogue. A trip to the UK. Please check the links on the archive section on the right to read it.

Last day quote is from Dean Mahomet the first Indian travelogue writer, immigrant, entrepreneur...

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


I cant come up with a single reason why I should remember diwali from school days with fond memories. I'd have to get up very early in the morning, would have to have an 'oil-bath'. This would invariably end with flakes of the shikakai powder irritating my eyes. And I hated crackers. Sparklers were okay I suppose, but I utterly loathed the noise from the crackers that would drown everything else for a few hours. Only bright side was the way it'd invariably rain in the afternoon.

Yet, there was something that I cant pin point. Something that makes me conclude, I did enjoy all those diwalis really. Just the magic of childhood perhaps?

Spending this Diwali in London watching the fireworks outside the balcony window.