London, UK: Part 1 of 2
Living in India, there really isn’t a great reason to visit London for a short 4-day weekend. It’s about 12 hours of flying, one-way; not that much longer than flying from Los Angeles, California. It’s true, I could’ve made this trip at any time in the past from my homeland. Somehow though, I get the feeling flying into London while living in India, has a completely different impact on the psyche, than does flying in from Los Angeles. Ok, it’s more than a feeling. It’s a fact. The contrast between India and England, is something like the contrast between Mars and a bird. (Please feel free to make up your own non-sensical analogy if you didn’t like that one).
The impact Bangalore-to-London had on my mind was definitely profound. I found myself staring in amazement at intersections that actually have traffic lights, cars that really stay in their lanes, and restaurants that serve non-poisoned food. On my first night, I stood outside a bar, amazed by the fact it was 11:00 p.m., and still open (bars close early in Bangalore). I would later stare in awe at the subway system, the buildings, and almost started weeping when I stepped into a taxi cab, and the driver spoke fluent English. I even found the Apple Store on Regent Street, and felt embarassed at how much I missed walking into God’s store on a Saturday afternoon. My London souvenirs on this great day were a music keyboard, some music software, and an external hard drive. Walking around Soho, Picadilly Circus, Regent St., and all the surrounding neighborhoods took way too much time. I suddenly had that rushed feeling one gets when they realize too much time was spent on the museum’s first exhibit. Yes, I had turned London itself into my own personal museum. Everything I saw and everyone I spoke to was stared upon like a treasure piece on display for my eyes to behold. I eventually decided to name this museum the Natural Modern Life Museum. Can you imagine how I felt when I saw buildings of actual historical significance on this trip? The short answer is, I was blown away. I would’ve been fine running day one on repeat for a couple of weeks. However, I felt I should experience London’s attractions out of obligation to being in a city I’ve never seen before. Good call.
Day one was spent staring at buildings, streets, and people. Day two, the skies were hand-painted with pure white brush strokes, on a bright blue canvas. A gentle breeze, perfect temperature, and walking shoes that were ready for miles of work had me in great spirits. With my camera in one hand, and Starbucks coffee in the other, I was excited and ready for the day. I soon found myself standing outside Buckingham’s Palace, watching the changing of the guard. I thought about how this event has been happening for hundreds of years, and I was honored and flattered to finally be watching it in person. The history of this event is interesting if you pause and think about it. Let me repeat. You really have to pause, and you definitely must think about it. I don’t really need to see a dude dressed in a red furry coat swap positions with another dude in a red furry coat, again. The real guards are dressed in black, carry machine guns, and are constantly staring at you, making sure your camera doesn’t self-assemble into a destructive weapon. The government rookies in the red coats look like local interns, punished for being too young, and overwhelmingly lame office monkeys. They are not protecting their country’s most prestigious member. You should see the changing of the guard in London, much like you should see the Statue of Liberty in New York City, or walk down Lombard St. in San Francisco. Afterwards, you will have a feeling of happiness that you experienced it. You are in London after all. I just feel that once per lifetime is enough.
I proceeded to walk through the beautiful St. James Park, bull-dozed my way through an Indian protest at Parliament Square, and found myself in the city of Westminster. Yes, I said Indian protest. India’s presence is strongly felt, even in lands far away from their home. Indian cuisine is also the preferred food of choice, as it definitely feels like there is an Indian restaurant on every corner. However, these particular Indians weren’t serving, or even eating, food. They were fasting for days on end, and were protesting that Britain get involved with the war in Sri Lanka. I decided to do what I often do in interesting circumstances: insert myself into the situation, and take pictures. This decision proved to not be a very popular one. Far from the happy Indians I’m used to talking with in Bangalore, these London Indians were angry, and ready to fight the Sri Lankan war themselves. If facial expressions were capable of inflicting physical harm, one man’s face would’ve blasted my human existence into a dimension light years from this one. Another man approached me, and notified me that “this was not for my amusement,” and asked me to turn off my camera. I explained to him that I live in India, and support his cause. I’m quite sure he didn’t believe me. I turned off my camera, and decided to go stare at a clock instead.
The iconic symbol of London is the Big Ben clock tower. It’s located in the City of Westminster, rests along side the Thames River, and is connected to the Parliament Building. Hanging around Big Ben will allow you to experience a rare lifetime moment. That is, you will finally be excited to hear a clock sing a song, and then make a few loud banging sounds. Yes, in London, it can be quite exciting observing guards that stare into space, and watching clocks tick. It seems true that if you add enough time to any repeatable event, it eventually becomes a famous part of that country’s culture. This means that 1000 years from today, tourists will pay money to watch men urinate on the side of the road in India. Well, maybe not. I digress. The historic buildings and natural beauty of Westminster would compel me to return many times over the course of the weekend. I loved the area so much, I spent at least a portion of every remaining day walking around, gazing at the sites. I would repeatedly lounge around Parliament Square, stare at the Parliament Building/Big Ben, relax by the river, walk over some of the bridges, and ponder the history of the Westminster Abbey cathedral.
Speaking of Westminster Abbey, if you’re going to see only one site in London, look no further than one of the most famous cemeteries in world. Built around 970 A.D., almost every king and queen until 1760 A.D. has been buried here. King Edward the Confessor was the first to be buried, back in the winter of 1065 A.D. My parents didn’t even know each other yet. In Westminster Abbey, you get to see a thousand years worth of England’s most prestigious members. My preferred moments were visiting musicians George Frideric Handel, and Henry Purcell, and writer Charles Dickens. I especially loved seeing the giants in science, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Speaking of Darwin, I found it extraordinarily interesting that a Catholic mass was being conducted next to the grave site of the father of evolution. Every creation vs. evolution debate I’ve ever had, ran through my mind seemingly all at once. I found this visual conflict of interest, an inspirational sight. I love that a Catholic priest can quote from the Bible, while standing next to Charles Darwin. To me, it symbolized my belief that religion and science are in no way related to each other, answer completely different questions, and can indeed co-exist in the mind of a human being without some explosive aneurysm taking place. If it wasn’t for the hundreds of surveillance cameras, and a guard that apprehended me for simply removing my camera from its case, I would’ve taken a photo. Putting all this aside, even if you’re not interested in looking at coffins, reading plaques of dead famous people, or hearing priests quote the Bible, the cathedral itself is one gigantic piece of beautiful architecture. This building is definitely a must see.
God Save the Queen
London, UK: Part 2 of 2
As the last day’s sun settled upon the horizon, I already felt nostalgia for a trip that wasn’t even over yet. I knew all that would remain of this weekend would be a blog entry, some photos, and my memories that may or may not fade with time. I spent the entire day walking along the Thames River. The skies were, once again, painted by someone who obviously cares to use Earth as a piece of art. Overlooking the river were many cafes, stores, and park benches. I relaxed into each of them as often as I could throughout the afternoon. The last day’s walk was one of the many great highlights of the weekend.
When the night all-too-quickly arrived, I had decided that enough tourism activity was experienced on this trip. It was time to hang out with the locals again. I had done so on a previous night, and loved it. Getting away from the bright lights and tourist traps, in all major cities on this planet, is one of the best things you can ever do on a vacation. Trust me. I never quite fell all the way in love with New York City, until I started visiting places away from Times Square and the South Street Seaport, for example. On this trip, it meant getting out of central London. With some great advice from the hotel staff, I found myself in South Kensington eating amazing Thai food on Beauchamp Place Road (Patara’s). The food was great, and the staff was even greater. I blissfully sat at the table, reading through a book I had just bought in Soho, hours earlier. Having the option of hanging out in bookstores, coffee shops, and then eating a dinner, had me feeling like I could actually be home again. Even my experience in the bar across the street, Ciro’s, reminded me of Los Angeles. Literally. Every square inch of every wall was filled with pictures of Hollywood, American movie stars and films.
It was getting late. 10:30 p.m. on a Monday night doesn’t leave one with very many options. On the way back to the hotel, in the taxi cab, I spontaneously decided this story shouldn’t end just yet. I went to Westminster, again. I would take photos of all those now overly familiar sites. This time, however, the backdrop was a dark sky with thousands of pin-sized holes, perfect for letting light sneak through heaven’s veil. The universe acknowledged this was a good decision, by handing me the nicest taxi cab driver I’ve ever met in my life. An amateur photographer himself, he volunteered his time and drove me to his favorite picture-taking vantage points throughout the city. He actually turned off the meter. For over an hour, we talked politics, the economy, and terrorism. Every now and then the car would stop, and I’d snap a few photos. When the ride was over, I tried tipping him what I thought was a good amount of money. He refused the majority of it, and explained to me that he didn’t do this to take my money. After the trials I had experienced with cab drivers in Cairo, I honestly was at a loss for words with this London man. Sometimes, the most beautiful things on planet Earth are not sunsets, rivers, or historic buildings; but the human beings that live here.
A long walk along the Thames, bookstores, coffee shops, Thai food, a pleasant bar experience, and a cab ride from another dimension. This last day was a storybook ending to a novel I had been writing the entire weekend. Although I’m pretty sure this London novel is not going to be a smash hit with audiences world-wide, I wouldn’t revise any of my choices from the weekend. Visiting London, from India, was all about filling my running-on-empty, western-life reserve tank. Mission accomplished. I now feel ready to, once again, face the many life lessons southern Asia has to offer.