It was 7 pm, and still broad daylight of course. It was broad daylight when I went to sleep at 10 and broad daylight when I woke up at 6-ish the next morning. Of course I’ve experienced days that never seem to darken in previous trips to Europe as well, but, having lived almost my entire life in India, I’m still not used to a day that never sleeps.
I’m not a person who never sleeps, not even occasionally. Quite to the contrary. I’m very regular in my sleep habits. And my body was still on India time, which meant it was after 11 pm, really. And, just to put that in perspective, you should also know that I’d left home around 6 pm on Friday and now it was Saturday. True, I’d had a seven-hour layover in Mumbai, but that’s really not as undisturbed as it sounds. First, my flight left an hour late, so that full-night’s-sleep layover got truncated to six hours before I’d even started. Which was good, because it meant that I got an extra hour with the family, which we spent at a McDonald’s near the airport. Not that Mac-Dees is our favourite fast food joint, or even close – but the day had been as rushed as all departure days are, and it was nice to get a brief time to just sit, chat, and not have to – or not be able to – rush around throwing last minute things into my bags.
So anyhow, a six hour layover. Then I spent an hour in Mumbai waiting for the shuttle to take me to the international terminal. By the time I got through immigration and found my way to the departure gate, I was down to four hours before boarding. Which is also good enough, better than nothing. But my brain refused to cooperate. I did find one of those lounge chairs that you can stretch out on, and it was in a somewhat quiet and dim place. But still. “I’m cold,” said my foggy brain, a little petulantly. “I’m hungry. Thirsty too. And I refuse to be quiet and go to sleep.”
So I got up, drank water, put on my emergency t-shirt (for in case my luggage didn’t reach when I did), ate a well-past-midnight meal, and wandered around till I couldn’t walk anymore. Then, around 4 a.m. I settled down to read. And, of course, promptly fell asleep.
Thankfully, my tennis alarm woke me up faithfully at 5.15, or this story might have ended here.
From that point, it was merely a matter of staying awake till boarding time. I snoozed a bit on the nine-hour flight and watched two movies (Life of Pi and The Grand Budapest) and downed two servings of red wine and then we landed.
It was never really on my agenda to see London before I die, but now, believe it or not, here I was. I got (or rather, stumbled) through all the rigmarole of changing currency, buying a SIM card, and finding my way via the tube to the youth hostel. The wrong one, of course; there are two in central London. I had made a detailed itinerary that told me exactly where I was supposed to go and when, but in my sleep-deprived state I had neglected to so much as glance at it, so obviously I landed up at the wrong one and had to trudge all the way back to the other one, which was naturally much closer to the tube station I’d come out from.
At any rate, by 4 pm, I’d found my bed, showered, and was ready to start exploring. And by 7 pm, I was ready to drop.
But… How? London beckoned. My youth hostel was in Oxford Street, possibly the poshest area in London and therefore entirely inappropriate for backpacking tourists. Nevertheless, I immersed myself in the stream of posh Londoners and hip tourists and allowed the tide to carry me along, unwieldy and uncool as I was in my ancient cargo pants and bulky camera bag. There was a light rain falling, which meant juggling an umbrella along with a map. Yes, paper maps are still used. I was handed two, one by each hostel. And they served me well, not being subject to the vagaries of network connections as the other kind of maps are.
Buckingham Palace first, of course. I had a very short shortlist of places I wanted to see in London. There is much too much in that mother of all cities to see in half a day, so I selected stuff that was nearby and well known. Hyde Park was on the list, but Buckingham Palace was higher. There was a road called Queen’s Walk, which sounded evocative, so I found my way to it, wandering past Sotheby’s and Tiffany and coming upon the meeting point of Old Bond Street and New Bond Street in the process and feeling rather Alice-in-wonderland-ish about it all. It was just starting to sink in that I was actually in London after all.
Queen’s Walk was just a road through a park – green and pleasant, not spectacular. At the end of the road was Buckingham Palace. It was a bit of a so-what experience, actually. A square box of a building, with those funny guards standing outside. Tall gates you couldn’t go through. It really wasn’t very impressive at all. Or maybe that was just the sleep deprivation showing up. It could be.
Time to go home. I walked along St James’ Park, intending to take a slightly different route back, when I spotted Westminster Abbey on the map. Naturally, all by themselves my feet turned in that direction. So what if it was about 30 hours since my last full night’s sleep. One doesn’t come to walking distance of Westminster Abbey and then turn away just to get some sleep.
And thank goodness for that. Westminster Abbey was beautiful.
Not only that, the Houses of Parliament also just took my breath away. With Westminster Abbey, I hadn’t known what to expect, but I expected something. The Houses of Parliament though, I hadn’t given them a second thought. They weren’t even on my list of things to see. How could they possibly be so lovely?
And then there was Big Ben, which was nice too.
I walked up to the river and gazed across its dirty grey-green water. And then it really was time to go back to the youth hostel. Dinner, at 9 pm, was cold meat, yogurt, and fruit from Sainsbury. It was 2.30 a.m. India time when I finally lay down. I was in a 4-bed dorm. Others came in while I slept – they must have, because they weren’t there when I lay down and they were there when I woke up the next morning. Did they move around, talk, change, brush? Did they open and close lockers or go out to the bathroom? Did they turn on the lights? Well, they could have lit firecrackers under my bed for all I know. After more than 40 hour with very little sleep, for eight hours straight I was quite quite dead to the world.
* Ok, so that’s not a very original title. I also thought of “The London Reporter” or “Roving in London”. And all of them suffer from the sin of inaccuracy in the extreme. I spent very little time in London. But whatever. This is part 1 of The London Diary, which is likely to run to six or seven parts. Watch out!