Mumbai-London-Denver – September 27, 2008

October 12, 2008

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.

 

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Bengaluru – Day One

September 14, 2008

For those who are interested, I’ll be posting updates on my Indian travels here.

 

I arrived in Bengaluru (yes, I’m going to insist on using the traditional name, readopted in 2006, instead of the more common Bangalore) early this morning. In fact, the plane hit the airfield around 4:45 a.m. IST on 14 September, which was equivalent to 5:15 p.m. MST on 13 September. Since I left Denver at 8:15 p.m. on 12 September, that means I traveled for a total of 21 hours to get here. Boy, were my arms tired.

Actually, the whole journey took even longer. I left my house on Friday at about 3:30 p.m. and drove to my sister’s, which is close to Denver International Airport. I was supposed to be traveling with my boss’s boss’s boss, Eric. He’s an SVP at my company, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to get to know him a bit better. However, as the hours passed in the boarding area and there was no sign of Eric, I soon deduced that he would not be joining me. Almost immediately, I began fretting about my arrival in Bengaluru. I realized that I had completely relied on the fact that he’d be with me, and had consequently failed to gather sufficient details on rather critical elements of the trip, like where exactly we’re staying and how exactly we were supposed to get there from the airport. I also had no contact information for him, and had only my boss’s boss’s cell phone, which was fairly useless, since I knew he was somewhere in Europe and meeting us later in Bengaluru.

Anxiety aside, I boarded the plane from Denver to London Heathrow. It was my first time sitting in what British Airways calls World Traveler Plus, and I can’t say I was too impressed. First class and the hybrid class they call Club World are very cool in a sort of James Bond/Austin Powers kind of space-age bachelor pad way, but World Traveler Plus is just the tiniest step up from coach and probably not worth the added expense, were I paying out of my own pocket, which – and let’s be clear about this – I’m not. Still, the plane was lovely, the accents of the crew were charming, and the flight passed without incident. I watched a shocking amount of TV (mostly British offerings, like “The Mighty Boosh” (oh, how I love that show), “Never Better” and some animated show that makes fun of all sorts of famous Brits, but also “Flight of the Conchords” [my first time], “The Office” [US version, ironically], and that old standby, “Friends”), read a bit, and actually managed to sleep quite a lot. The food was inoffensive, but unremarkable. For some odd reason, as soon as I was on board, I immediately became a tea drinker. Damn, those Brits can be influential in their own quiet, passive-aggressive way. 

After flying through the night, I arrived at London Heathrow at about noon local time. With only two hours between flights, I was concerned that either I or my luggage could easily miss the connection, especially with the new international terminal 5 – which, judging by the seemingly hours-long coach ride to get there, appears to be somewhere in Wales. The terminal is absolutely gorgeous, however, and outfitted with all sorts of fancy shopping options – or shopportunities, as the in-flight magazine boasted – including Harrod’s and Tiffany’s. The duty-free liquor purveyors were even mixing up complimentary cocktails for folks to sip while waiting out their layovers. It’s also remarkably serene, by design. They only make announcements over the PA for final boarding, so there aren’t the usual overhead interruptions that make such a din in most airport terminals. 

When I finally made my way to the gate for the London-Bengaluru flight, the area was packed with folks, and there I ran into my boss, Mike, which was a huge relief. At that moment, I stopped worrying about what would happen when I landed.

“Did you hear that Eric isn’t coming?” he asked as he shook my hand.

“No, but I deduced that,” I replied.

Mike had been in Prague, but had to connect through London to get to Bengaluru. He had also managed to get himself upgraded to Club World, so he got right on the plane. I got on after, watched more TV and movies (including Forgetting Sarah Marshall [like a romantic comedy from a man’s perspective] and Annie Hall), and drank too much London Pride beer and white wine. The German guy who sat next to me ordered two of everything for himself whenever the flight attendant came around (two bottles of whiskey, two bottles of wine, etc.), and the flight attendant assumed I wanted two of everything also. I didn’t end up sleeping much on that leg – partly because of the alcohol, and partly because of the incessantly crying babies back in coach. They had incredible stamina.

Anyway, as I said, we finally hit Indian soil at 4:45 this morning. Customs was a breeze, but baggage claim blew. Just when I’d decided that my luggage had been lost somewhere over Turkey (I’d actually brought an extra carry-on with a change of clothes in anticipation of that problem), my puny suitcase finally showed up on the conveyor, and Mike and I went outside to find our ride. Kumar held a sign with my name and the name of the SVP who didn’t make it. He quickly loaded us into his van and we hit the road into the city as the sky began to lighten.

Everyone I know who has lived or spent any time in India warned me about the roads and the drivers, but I still wasn’t prepared. For some unknown reason, I took the front passenger seat. “I’m already impressed,” Mike said. “It takes a brave man to take the front seat.” I didn’t do it to impress him. I think I might have been sleepwalking. At any rate, Kumar drove as if we were on the way to the hospital to give birth, honking his horn incessantly weaving through lanes, nearly hitting pedestrians (who really shouldn’t have been surprised since they were running across a six-lane highway at dawn), and making really good time. Surprisingly, I didn’t flinch and didn’t try to brake or grab for an oh-shit bar. I just kept chatting with Mike and watching the people, dogs, motorcycles, cars and buses try to mate with our vehicle.

We arrived at the hotel (check it out here) at about 6:45. It’s an absurdly opulent converted Victorian manor, operated by an absurdly attentive and obsequious staff. Mike and I agreed to have a little down time before breakfast. I settled into my room, which isn’t the height of luxury, but has some delightful amenities, like a flat-screen TV (with volume limited to control “noise pollution”), universal wall outlets, and really high ceilings. I made tea, got caught up on emails, read some local tourist info, scraped and scrubbed the filth of 24 hours of travel off my body and watched the news. Last night, there were some pretty brutal bombings in Delhi, which is nowhere near here, but which appear to be connected to the bombings that happened here last month. The news coverage is very British in its sensationalism and drama. It was sufficiently serious that Mike suggested we just stick around the hotel for the day. Fine by me. I didn’t exactly have the energy to sightsee.

The hotel has 5 restaurants and a bar, but only 1 restaurant serves food all day. I went down there at 10 to meet Mike, but he was nowhere to be seen. I wandered around the hotel a bit, discovering two stores, a tower of serviced apartments, and a sign that read “Construction in progress. Inconveniences caused are deeply regretted.” Gotta love the passive voice. I finally decided to eat. The breakfast buffet included traditional Indian fare (like poori chole, vada, pakora), some Asian fare (like mo po tofu) and some traditional Western fare (bacon, omelets to order, donuts). I stuck with the Indian stuff and ate some truly amazing grub. I was particularly fond of the chole dish – the perfect spice. I enjoyed my white tea, but finally had to stop the various staff members from refilling my cup. I don’t know what to do with that kind of attention. At one point, one of the staff asked if I was comfortable. I didn’t even know how to answer that. What was he getting at?

After breakfast, I felt full and decided to go for a little stroll. I gather that we’re pretty close to downtown, so thought I might walk there, in spite of the suggestion that we stay at the hotel today. As soon as I was in the driveway, taxi drivers approached me. I told them I was out for a walk. Once I was on the busy street in front of the hotel, where the horns never stop honking, I was accosted by various autorickshaw drivers, telling me how cheap they were and how fast they were and how much sightseeing I could do with them. One was astoundingly persistent. He’d drive away, and then pull over half a block on and wait for me, giving me a renewed pitch. I think I had to tell him five times before he finally realized I wasn’t going to be a paying fare. I might actually have taken him up on it, but I haven’t obtained any local currency yet.

Eventually, I realized I didn’t really know where I was going and that I probably shouldn’t be out wandering alone today, so I returned to the hotel. I grabbed my laptop and headed out to sit by the pool. Within minutes, I was joined by Mike, who had come out to read. The sun came out, which they say is very good for jet lag, so we sat and chatted until it seemed like a reasonable time for a drink. We then went into the hotel’s Irish-themed bar, where we chatted more, drank many Kingfishers (Mike can outdrink me by about double), ate some crazily-flavored ruffled chips (sorry – “crisps”) and some tasty cheese straw/breadstick things. While we were enjoying our beers, we noticed there was some kind of fashion audition going on by the pool, so we watched the large group of stunningly beautiful Indian youth strut their respective stuffs. All the girls seemed to be trying to look French, while all the boys looked vaguely Italian. When we’d decided we’d had enough, we retired to our rooms for pre-dinner naps.

We ate dinner at the poolside barbecue restaurant, which specializes in kebabs of all sorts. We ate delicious murgh tikka and some other chicken thing that was stuffed with cheese and hot peppers and deep-fried. Mmmm. And, of course, plenty of naan and daal. I wasn’t halfway through my food when I suddenly felt way too full again, and decided it was time to call it a night. Which brings me here.

My main observation about the day has to do with the extreme servility of the hotel staff. Mike tells me they’ve tried to come in and clean his room every time he’s stepped out today. They greet you quietly and respectfully, giving all of them the appearance of being shy. In a couple of cases, I’ve asked people who work here how THEY are, and it was as if I’d insulted their families. They looked all embarrassed and quickly shifted the conversation to my well-being. I wonder if this is inherent in the culture here, or if it was instilled by British colonists who insisted on compliance and obedience. On the other hand, perhaps what I perceive as servile is merely considered polite.

The power has gone out twice since I got back to my room. Not sure what that’s about. And I keep hearing booms in the distance. I have to assume they’re cars or mopeds backfiring – or maybe fireworks.

Here are some photos I took while I sat out by the pool today. This should give some idea of the grandeur of this place where I’m about to sleep.