Nov 11, 2005

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. The  must be magnificent, towering over the landscape.
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 stories 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.

I stared at the tube map and realized I had to take a different line now. Tube rocks. SR didn't stoop to refer to maps or ask for directions. Then again, this wasn't his first encounter with the London tube. Within a few minutes, without further mishaps, I arrived at 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 sightseeing 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. A cool breeze whipped at my hair. I took a leisurely stroll looking for the 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. A 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 wasn't 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 fireworks lighting the sky from two different spots celebrating Diwali.

I went to bed pondering about faith and fire.

November 11, 2005