September 27, 2008 – Traveling home and London
I had really hoped to stay awake during both of my flights back home. Flying westward from one side of the world to the other is a freaky experience because the clock is just not your friend. My flight was scheduled to leave Mumbai at 2:50 in the morning on Saturday, and I was to arrive in Denver at 6:30 in the evening on that same day. However, in reality, more than 24 hours would pass between departure and arrival. That’s just weird. Anyway, since I was going to be arriving in the evening, I thought it would be best to make sure that I was really tired and in need of sleep when I got there. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men…
Once I was on my first flight (Mumbai to London) and realized that I had pretty much exhausted the entertainment options and wasn’t that interested in reading my R. K. Narayan book, I found myself getting very sleepy. I managed to struggle through Adam Sandler’s Zohan movie (I don’t recommend it – it’s like a 10-minute SNL sketch, stretched to an hour and a half – but John Turturro is great in it) and was asleep by the time the credits rolled.
When we landed in London, it was early morning (7ish) and the fog was so thick that the crew had to land solely based on instruments. Visibility was practically nonexistent. In fact, once we were on the ground, if you’d looked out the window, you would have thought we were still in the clouds. The London fog was that thick. As we taxied to our gate, I thought about my layover in London. My flight from London to Denver wasn’t scheduled to leave until 3:45 that afternoon, and it seemed truly silly to waste all that time sitting (or shopping) in Heathrow Airport. I checked out the in-flight magazine and found that there is underground (aka metro, aka subway, aka “the tube”) connecting Heathrow to central London. When I was last in London, almost exactly 15 years ago, that didn’t exist. Once I saw that, I decided I’d spend the time sightseeing in London and squeeze in a little more travel. After all, I’d already slept, so I needed some activity before being trapped on a plane for another 10 hours.
By the time I actually got off the plane, changed terminals, got through security, made sure it was ok to leave the airport (US passport = A-OK), got some local currency, left my carry-ons at the left luggage counter and found my way to the underground, it was a little after 9. The underground was actually mostly overground for its 45-minute journey to the city, so I got to see a lot of suburban London as I rode. I’d grabbed a little tourist pamphlet at the Heathrow underground station, so I reviewed that during the ride to plan my whirlwind itinerary. Fortunately, most of London’s major sights are within about one square mile, so I knew I could take in quite a bit.
I got off the underground at Picadilly Circus and was delighted when I came to surface. Picadilly is undeniably London, and I found myself having one of those moments that I often have when I’m traveling. “I can’t believe I’m here,” I thought to myself.
From Picadilly, I high-tailed it over to the National Gallery, where some of my favorite paintings in the world reside. I stepped inside (the museum is free), grabbed a map and headed over to visit the paintings of Jan van Eyck. His “Man with a Red Turban” and the Arnolfini wedding portrait both hang on one wall in the Gallery. To me, these paints are legendary. I could soak in their brilliant details, deft brushstrokes, clever composition and subtle colors for hours. Unfortunately, I really didn’t have that kind of time. I quickly realized that what sounded like a whole day in London could really only be a few hours, allowing for travel time, getting through security and any unforeseen difficulties along the way. So I paid my respects to the works of Mr. van Eyck, spent a few minutes with some Robert Campin pieces, dashed through some Vermeers and headed back outside.
The National Gallery sits on the edge of Trafalgar Square, an area where I spent a great deal of time when I was last in London in 1993. At that time, the square was filled with the disgusting winged rats that people call pigeons. They were drawn there by all the tourists who insisted on feeding them. Well, I supposed it’s a pigeon-and-egg scenario. The pigeons probably came to the square for the fountains, but then they came and stayed in droves because people fed them. Anyway, there are no longer any pigeons in Trafalgar Square, and several signs order tourists (well, at least those that can read English) not to feed the pigeons, should they appear, so it’s a much nicer place to be. By now, the fog had burned off and it was warming up to a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning. Tourists roamed the square aimlessly, gazing on the beauty of the National Gallery, Nelson’s Column and the nearby Church of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields. I hung out there for a bit, and then headed toward the Thames.
As I slipped down a narrow street, I stopped into a café for a cup of coffee and a sausage-and-egg on a roll to eat while I speedwalked through the city. Damn, that sandwich was good. The sausage was not a typical American breakfast sausage, but more like a bratwurst. Mmm… And it set me back one pound and 80 pence, which is nearly four dollars. Yikes. But it was delicious.
Once I reached the Victoria Embankment along the River Thames, I was right next to Charing Cross station and the Golden Jubilee Bridge. I walked out on the bridge to get a great view of the landmark skyline. There, still somewhat enrobed in fog, were the London Eye (gigantic ferris wheel that didn’t even exist the last time I was there), Big Ben, Westminster Hall and the Houses of Parliament. I soaked in the sight, and then decided to descend back into the city for a closer look. And that’s where my marathon of sightseeing really began.
I swept past Big Ben, then went around to see Westminster Hall and the Houses of Parliament. The streets were absolutely crammed with Saturday morning tourists. Oh, like me. I then went past Westminster Abbey and considered going in, but the crowds deterred me. I wove through narrow streets until I reached Buckingham Palace. I then followed the Mall along the northern edge of St. James Park, where there were a million lounge chairs set up. There was also a petting zoo (see photos) on the northeastern corner of the park. All along the way, I was snapping photos, eavesdropping on conversations in a million different world languages, and maintaining an impressive and exhausting pace, especially considering that my feet were already sore and blistered from days of walking in India.
I cut through the area around St. James’s Palace and passed through Picadilly Circus again, making my way through the West End theatre district (at least, I think that’s where I was along Shaftesbury Avenue (which still makes me think of Bill Hicks’s bit about how England doesn’t really have crime, just hooligans), where I spotted a stage adaptation of Rain Man and the famous Spamalot. I then dropped into a fantastic little coffee shop called Caffe Vergnano 1882, right near Leicester Square on Charing Cross Road, for an iced cappuccino. With coffee in hand, I headed into the Leicester Square underground station and boarded a train back to Heathrow. Riding that train, high on caffeine, I couldn’t help smiling in a self-satisfied way. Many people would gladly have waited out their layover hours at the airport, but I got out and saw the city. Good for me.
Getting back through security and all at Heathrow ended up being much easier than I’d expected, so I had time to pick up a few English candy bars (I love by foreign candy – why is that?) and enjoy a pint of John Smith’s before I had to board again.
The flight from London to Denver was, once again, phenomenally boring. I resorted to watching The Incredibles, which was mildly entertaining, and fell asleep again. That might have been helped along by the fact that I kept insisting on a can of London Pride whenever the flight attendant came around.
Once in Denver, I more-or-less breezed through immigration and customs without incident, was met by my generous sister, and taken back to my car, which I’d left at her house, thus ending my adventure.