Before we commence bravely onwards into the next installment of our UK travelogue, allow me to reminisce a wee bit. For what use is a trip journal if the writer does not a share a little about what he first vidi-d when he first veni-d his destination? No use at all, is what.
The very first time I went to London was about three years ago. A team of three of us went all the way from Mumbai to London for a forty minute meeting that ended in twenty-five excluding tea break and LCD projector downtime. It was a Mashrafe Mortaza-level waste of time, other people's money and effort.
But then those were heady times. This was 2006. Well before bankers everywhere realized that David X. Li's Gaussian Copula model for the pricing of collateralized debt obligations was flawed. Many moons before banks collapsed, Iceland went bankrupt and banker Pastrami was forced to make severe cut-backs to his expenses: no more separate iPod Touches for each decade of Bollywood music, definitely no new Macbook for bathroom browsing and emergency discontinuation of the "Power Yoga" add-on to his Gold's Gym membership.
(Pastrami was not available for comment for this post as he is in Hong Kong for, and I quote, "the weekend".)
So off we went on our 6-month single-entry business visas, landed at Heathrow, sailed through customs before being whisked away to our hotel by one of the most meatiest human beings I have ever met. I don't mean meaty in the sense of "fat" or "obese". Oh no. I mean meaty in the sense of medium height, of almost cubical dimensions with enormous hands, neck and nose. Plenty of muscle to suggest a man with much physical labour in resume. But also enough meat to suggest a lack of enthusiasm for "Power Yoga". When he settled into the driver's car after tossing our luggage into the boot, we audibly heard his suit stretch into a new shape.
I asked him if his accent was Russian in a very, very polite way without looking into his eyes. No, he said, while activating his GPS by pressing every button on the little device one after the other and then solemnly hitting it on the side of the driver-side door till something beeped. He said he was from Georgia. I told him that this was much superior to Russia.
The three of us then sat very quietly for the rest of the forty minute trip to our hotel in Central London. Every few minutes the driver would get a call from someone. They would then chatter away in animated, guttural Russian. Nothing of which we could decipher. Every once in a while he'd mention our hotel, or one of our names, and we'd all stiffen in our seats and look out of the window while surreptitiously texting loved ones ATM pins and safe combinations.
That was also the only time I've ever (been) driven out of or into Heathrow in a car. It's much more convenient, and cheaper, to just take one of the underground tube trains from the station below the airport.
Which makes this a good time to briefly chat about the Briton's obsession with maximizing cash flows. You maybe forgiven for thinking that the British have lost their ability to run global businesses like they once used to. (Indeed, we ask ourselves, what are they today except a nation subservient to the US, with excellent topless women in their newspapers, a bizarre talent for international cycling and a tendency to bestow people with Gordon Brown's orc-like speech skills, high public office?)
Yet you can still sense a glimmer of that famed knack for business in the way they obsessively install cafes and gift shops in museums. And how, depending on how much money you have, you can take not one, but three different train options from Heathrow: regular tube (4 pounds something), the Heathrow Connect (7.40 pounds) and the Heathrow Express (16.50 pounds). In dosa terms that would be the Sada, Mysore Masala and Organic Free Trade Brown Rice Paneer Dry Fruit Special Masala respectively.
Note: If this in any way gives you the impression that you have an inkling of how the UK railways work I apologize. It does not. In fact nobody, as far as I know, knows how the rail system in the UK works. This is because of the complicated web of tracks, routes, companies, lessees and lessors, and what not, that work in collaboration. Examine this lucid paragraph from the Wikipedia entry for the Heathrow Connect service:
To access the airport spur without crossing the fast lines, trains in both directions use the flyover track originally built for Heathrow Express trains heading towards Paddington. This arrangement means Heathrow Connect trains to the airport use the flyover in the opposite direction to normal operation, and trains from Heathrow must cross both slow lines on the flat. If Crossrail goes ahead, the flyover will be rebuilt to overcome these limitations.
Just as James Joyce meant it to be.
Homework: Imagine the above text as a Hindi announcement on the Delhi Metro. Shudder. (Hindi scholars feel free to send a formal Indian Government Hindi version of the above para. Will publish thathtsamay).
But coming back on track (ha!), so in April 2006 the Georgian engined us (ho!) to our hotel stationed on (wah!) Bedford Avenue and watching London for the first time sent an electric (overdid it) sense of joy down my spine. It was all narrow two-lane roads, curling around little green squares with the crispest, coolest weather you can imagine. Sigh. And the plain, no-nonsense budget hotel, the team leader's choice, was just a short walk away from Leicester Square and the British Museum. If you were in Mumbai this was like living in a 1BHK right inside Flora Fountain in terms of centrality.
Expecting to be budget-housed in a cheap, drug den in some far-flung suburb by the company I was quite pleased. Until I slipped my card into the electronic slot, swung open the door into my room, took two steps, and ran face first into the wall at the other end. Considering that I am one of those people who automatically become happy when they walk into a fresh hotel room this was quite a bummer.
This was a hobbit's hotel room. No. A smurf's.
It was astonishingly, mind-bogglingly small. The room was exactly the length of the bed plus another two feet. And in the two feet gap they'd managed to fit in a miniature heat radiator and a weird tubular steel thing I later learnt was used to keep your luggage on. The room was also two bed-widths across and wedged into one corner was a writing table with matching chair. The table had two drawers, one with a hair-dryer and the other with a Bible in it.
The bathroom door was a sliding number that opened up into a space a little bigger than an airplane toilet.
In the first ten minutes, I poked myself in the eye twice and once tipped over the chair which toppled over the dust bin which collapsed the luggage holder which activated the trouser press which flopped out of the wall and hit me on my knee which made me bend over in pain when I hit my head against the door and fell over backwards dazed, and bounced off the chair into the bathroom where I got wedged between the bowl and the wash basin. It was like the infamous Honda advertisement. But with pain. All through the night, when claustrophobia and pain kept me awake, I reached, as always, for my one source of spiritual solace. I often reached across, opened the table drawer and, after a moment of silent solemnity, pulled out the hair dryer. A few minutes trying to inflate a pillow-cover always calms me.
I also noticed after a few hours of loitering around in the hotel and chatting with the staff that London was quite the melting pot of cultures. You already know our chauffeur was Georgian. The reception staff at the hotel comprised one British Born Confused Desi Sardarni eager to visit India and find her roots, and one Eastern European type who's motto was "Service before self if it must come to that". The concierge was a jovial Caribbean, the room service guy was very Arab and some of the house-keeping staff were Filipino. I think the great British contemporary poet Ronan Keating put it best when he once said:
Take a pinch of white man Wrap him up in black skin Add a touch of blue blood And a little bitty-bit of red indian boy..
Curly, black and kinky Oriental sexy If you lump it all together Well, you've got a recipe for a get-along scene Oh what a beautiful dream If it could only come true You know, you know...
How true! London is one such get-along scene. And despite their native cultural variety, somehow the city infuses all these people with a little bit of the stiff British upper lip. Which I will illustrate with a little incident that happened the morning of our doomed meeting. As is usual I was standing in front of the mirror in the mini-bathroom shaving, dressed only in my underclothes (focus on the story ladies) when there was a knock on the door. An Arab man said: "[inaudible] room service [inaudible] excuse me [inaudible]"
I replied: "NO! NO! NO! COME LATER!"
With stunning attention to detail he swiped his card, opened the door, slid in sideways and then stood perfectly still staring into the bathroom while I looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. After a few seconds he said he would come back later as "I looked busy" and left. Without even batting an eyelid. I ran after him to lock the door and then returned to my shaving but not before tripping over a telephone directory and comprehensively engaging a 14-inch TV with side of head.
All these thoughts came rushing back into my (healed) head three years later as I emerged with the missus out of Heathrow and into the waiting arms of Bill, my dearest brother-in-law. The punjabi in him had ensured that he came with bags of sandwiches and beverages for our pleasure. He pounced gallantly upon our trolley, picked up all the luggage himself and chaperoned us into a grim tunnel that led down to the Heathrow tube station. Within minutes we minded the gap and boarded a train (sada dosa). Shortly thereafter the missus and Bill launched into brother-sister re-bonding with cries of "Woah teri!", "Shub-BHAASH puttar-uh" and, of course, "Oy hoy old boy". Meanwhile, equally emotionally, I made my acquaintance with a Marks and Spencer smoked salmon sandwich and a banana yoghurt smoothie.
As you might imagine it was a very sentimental moment for all of us.
Thankfully Bill's flat was right on the Piccadilly line. This prevented any need for painful changing of lines at any station. We could go all the way to Holloway Road and then just pop around the corner, past the Tesco store and cash machine, to Bill's bachelor pad. No more than a brisk five minute walk from the station to the front door.
As soon as we walked in we spotted the tell-tale signs of accommodation of bachelors without frequently visiting female friends. Used socks lay about in three feet high mounds while the path to the kitchen was clearly demarcated, useful in case of smoke related emergencies, by a continuous line of semi-empty Papa John pizza boxes. In the living room what I initially thought was Bill's roommate huddled under a blanket on the sofa, turned out to be just a bag of restaurant left-overs. Largely spaghetti, humus and and pita bread from early February now turned into a thriving child-sized colony of fungus. When I approached it to have a closer look it made a growling noise exactly like, you guessed it again, Gordon Brown.
We dropped our bags and the missus immediately embarked on a cleaning spree, with Bill helping, while I lay back and switched on the TV to watch the awesome Challenge channel. (More on Challenge and the dhol-playing sikhs with the red-shirts later.)
Normally such a night would be spent in all-night gossip and catching up and planning. But alas we had a train to catch at seven the next morning to Edinburgh, the city about which Gerald Butler, the hero of "This is Partha!" 300 movie fame once said:
I sang in a rock band when I was training as a lawyer. You know, not professional, we just did it for fun. We just did gigs all over Edinburgh and some in Glasgow and some at festivals.
Butler is not a man known for his quotes.
We were dog-tired, bones aching from the combined total of some 11 hours of sitting in a plane and the missus and I were just dying to hit the sack. Before nodding off, Bill arranged for a desi radio taxi guy to drop of us off at King's Cross station (that of Harry Potter fame). There we'd meet the rest of our intrepid party and proceed on the four-hour train journey to Edinburgh on a National Rail train service via York and Newcastle. That is, of course, if we could:
a) Wake up early enough to reach King's Cross b) Find our train c) Find our co-travelers who had all the tickets d) Avoid getting killed in the middle of the night by the mysterious fungal life-form in the living room
Therefore it gives me great pleasure to tell you that at around quarter past 7 the next morning the entire party had somehow managed to locate the right train, find the right seats, purchase several bags full of light travel snacks such as Egg Cheese BLT on Rye sandwiches and Venti-size hazelnut lattes from Starbucks, and settle into a comfortable trip to Edinburgh full of merry conversation and jovial over-eating.
Join us next time, perhaps in a day or two, when we discover the merry city of Edinburgh, the little piece of Bombay that sits right outside the castle there, the best sausage roll in the entire world and Irn Bru. Shudder.
Till then, as they say in Morocco when parting from dear friends, [inaudible]!