Layover in London
Thursday, 26 Nov 2009 –Â Four AM of Thanksgiving 2009 comes fast, as two bell boys and a driver are there to get me on my way. I leave fiancÃ©e April sleeping at our resort (Ayurvedagram in Bangalore) as she has a different flight than I. The ride to the airport is the most harrowing yet: a dense fog obscures pedestrians and the small taxis, which we dodge at high speed while avoiding oncoming headlights that suddenly appear out of the fog, sometimes on the wrong side. (Remember, Indians drive on the British side of the road, so it just feels doubly-wrong to an American.)
The Bangalore Aiport — like all of India — is a series of contradictions. The facility is new and modern and clean, yet doesn’t have the radar that we need to be able to takeoff in fog. We have 50 meters of visibility as we board the flight; we need 550m to allow for takeoff. (And even at 550m visibility, takeoffs and landings are spaced by 5 minutes each for safety — extending our wait.) So our British Airways 747 sits grounded for nearly 2 hours before beginning the 8.5 hour flight to London. The flight itself is typically comfortable British Airways … great service, lots of food, and plenty of space in their Premium Economy class. (Even though they were mostly empty, I never did manage to talk myself into their Club World class, with sleeper beds and many other amenities.)
London is a comedy of errors. Getting into the city on “the tube” is easy. I go direct to West End to get show tickets (first choice: Kevin Spacey’s courtroom drama Inherit the Wind; second: Wicked). I’m told that I need to go direct to the theater, so I jump back on the tube (more like walk up, down and around a bunch of stairs) and find my way to The Old Vic, where Spacey’s show is sold out. I figure out where Wicked is playing, jump back on the tube, and arrive at Victoria Station. I’m lucky: after a bit of walking I find the theater and get a fantastic 7th row seat. But from there I go on a desperate and miserable hunt for a hotel room. (Why book in advance; it’s so much more of an adventure to find one by the seat of your pants!)
I walk forever, it seems, looking for a hotel … any hotel. It’s very cold, my backpack gets heavier and heavier by the moment, and my new shoes are starting to dig badly into my feet. The first and second hotels that I find are full. Walk walk walk. The 3rd has 1 room available, at about $350. Walk walk walk.Â The 4th starts at $400/night. Walk walk walk. The fifth — bingo! — has an old man in a crappy building with a Â£40 room (around $75?). But I leave after I’ve filled out paperwork as they tell me it’s cash only — no credit cards. I have no pounds, the musical starts soon, and no ATM is close. Walk walk walk.
The sixth hotel is almost out of rooms, but I get one on the promise to come back later with cash, as again they don’t take credit cards. As I get the key, I’m told that the room is actually in another building … on another block.Walk walk walk. Again. Finally, I climb 3 flights of rickety winding stairs to the worst $120 room I’ve ever seen (and smelled). It’s musty, and as I kick my shoes from my throbbing feet I realize that my socks are somehow, mysteriously getting more and more wet. What?!? Yes, the room is flooded. Seriously.
At this point, I almost don’t care. I ignore the soaked carpet, take a shower, and go seeÂ Wicked. It’s amazing — a must see if you haven’t — and I love seeing it with the brilliant London cast. (It’s my first time seeing Wicked. Not only is the musical great, but the story is genius.)
Since it’s Thanksgiving, I try and call home. But it’s too late to find an internet cafe, there’s no phone in my room, and I can’t get my iPhone to connect to any of the networks in London to get service. I can’t even text message — WTF AT&T?. I eat Brazilian chicken with a tasty peri-peri sauce alone for Thanksgiving dinner, and crash out extremely exhausted at 5:30am Bangalore time … in order to awake in 6 hours for the flight home. (London, by the way, is soo expensive. This El Pollo Loco style joint is nearly $20 for chicken, mashed potatoes, and juice.)
In the morning, at the airport I stop at Gordon Ramsey’s “Plane Food” quick restaurant. It’s also horrendously expensive, but I get a nice little “plane picnic” lunch to enjoy on the plane.
The London to Los Angeles leg is easy. I write 30 pages (!) in my notebook (yes, on real paper), since my laptop has long been dead and BA doesn’t actually supply power adapters for the seats that they claim have power. Between naps and movies, I realize that the impact of the trip probably hasn’t fully hit me yet.
India is vast and diverse, and full of contradictions. At one point, I’m hit with the idea that I’ve felt like I was pretending to be wealthy with all of our drivers and support staff and resorts and spending 1,000 rupees here and there like it’s nothing. (The average college grade makes only 10,000Rs/month, I’m told … and we’ve been spending more than that per day.) And then it hits me: we aren’t impostors, faking wealth … we are wealthy, in so many different ways. We live in a clean, safe, (mostly) democratic country, where our “very poor” usually have more than the average person on earth has. I have love in my life, friends, family, an education, talents, and my health. India — the ups & downs, poverty and culture, chaos and order, full of contradictions — has made me realize just how fortunate I am, how wealthy we truly are.
I arrive back just in time for a belated family Thanksgiving … and am more thankful this year than ever for the fortunes blessed upon us. And although the flight carried me home quickly; the memories and interpretation of this trip to India will take much longer.
Note:Â TheÂ full photo gallery from India is here, with the post above covered in starting at photo #1685 onward. TheÂ other posts on India are here … and the reason why we’re on this trip is the non-profit website we’re creating,Â Creative Offering.
To read all of the blog entries on India, click here. To contact Jason, visit www.28page.com. To offer your own help to the poor in India, or anywhere in the world, please consider making a Creative Offering at www.creativeoffering.org — coming February 2010.