Friday, March 02, 2012

Cultural Surprises: London - 2/12

Like 'Culture Shocks', this is 'Culture Surprises'. 'Culture Surprises' is my travelogue and peoplogue. Travelogue to discuss about all my experiences in every new place I visit and peoplogue to discuss about all my experiences with people from different cultures I meet. So, it is not necessary that I talk about only cultures here. It's about everything new that I come across. So, purists... please bear with the coinage of the title!

PART 2

As it was dark before landing itself we could see how the city looks in lights. It wasn't that amazing in fact. It wasn't even as bright as Singapore. But there is much more to London than its lights. London has its own history, right? This used to be the capital of our rulers at some point in time. It is the capital of English people as well as the English language. It was a different feeling when I thought about it - that everyone around us would speak only in English (as opposed to India where English is reserved as an identity for few - the educated upper and upper middle class). It was around 6.30 PM. We landed. We set our foot with a great feeling that we were setting foot in a great city called London. It was all white people around us as expected. All of them spoke English as expected. But there was no dearth of Indians too inside the airport. I saw a lot of Indians working in the airport in Singapore. Likewise, I could see a lot of them in London as well.

Throughout the journey, I was trying to imagine London. It reached the peak when we landed. It was this place that sent people to control the rebels like my grandfather who were fighting against the British rule. It was this place that acted like the second capital for the Tamils who fled the war-torn Srilanka. It was this place that changed the outlook of my uncle Konangi (a distinguished writer in Tamil) after his visit here 5-6 years back. All the stories told by friends who visited London in recent times ran through my mind. I also thought about how I used to think that UK would be a better place for me than US at this point in time because I could learn to speak 'proper' English here. With all those thoughts running past, we came to the area where immigration formalities were being done.

It was little crowded. The queue was big enough to question the great Indian foreign craze. We Indians don't like queues, right? We find it below our dignity to stand in queues. Some of us tolerate it for once or twice thinking that that will get us rid of queues forever and life will become heaven after that. The queue that we were in led us to an officer who had a Pakistani / Middle East face and name (London has a huge Pakistani and Middle East population). He must be less than 40. He had a sharp nose and good features. I had heard that the immigration in UK is not as stringent as in US and they wouldn't ask as many questions. But this strict officer had a grim face and asked many questions in an interrogating style. I don't know what he thought about us!

I have this habit of ending interactions with a smile in India itself. I gave that trademark smile to him as well and thanked him aloud as they like. But he didn't smile back. It was little pricking in fact. It reminded of the conversation I had with a Spanish colleague who was in India one and a half years back. He was saying that Indians are more pleasant than the Europeans. I was shocked to hear that then. I just told him, "It's only with you guys!". Even now I don't think they are worse than us. It's just that it looks odd when someone doesn't smile in a place where everyone smiles.

The formalities were not over yet. The first time travelers are supposed to submit their medical report and chest x-ray. It's a very specific thing to UK. Looks like they don't want to encourage free medical tourism. That's because it is one of those countries that provides absolute free healthcare to everyone irrespective of whether it's a citizen or outsider. If everyone comes for free treatment what will they do? There is no dearth of people that are fond of free anything in this world, right?! We had taken all necessary certificates. There were three white ladies in the area where this examination was being done. All of them looked to be above 40. Two of them were looking unpleasant about something in life. One of them looked pleasant. Luckily we went to the third one. We finished the work and came out. When were coming out we saw a 'big' Pakistani or Middle Eastern family that was stuck because of inadequate certificates. Luckily they wouldn't be deported back. There is a provision to do the tests there itself for an additional charge if what you bring are not adequate enough. Poor guys! They looked very tired of the travel. I don't know how many more hours they spent there.

My family was tired and out too. Long journey in plane is more painful than that in bus. The economy seats in planes are worse than the semi sleeper seats we have in our private buses. You can manage up to 5-6 hours. Not more than that for average bodies. I was wondering how on earth people come back and show off so much after going through all this harassment. It must be past 7.30 PM when we came out of airport.

"Going to London? Don't worry. You will find a lot of Indians there as soon as you land in the airport. Most of the taxi drivers are our people only. Indians or Pakistanis (even they are our people only, no!). You can speak in Hindi itself!", had told my friends last year itself. Though my Hindi is not good enough, I was praying that an Indian taxi drive came to receive us. It's a great feeling when you get out of an airport where you don't find 20 people surrounding you with "Taxi?", "Taxi?" questions with a kidnapping hurry, you know! An old man came close asking, "Taxi?". He was wearing a tie as well. The Indian inside me was reminding me, 'See, those who come your way and offer are the dangerous ones. Beware!'. I just ignored that inner voice saying 'No, it's not applicable in this country!'. He helped us with the luggage. He had a face that is between African and Tamil. 'Maybe he is a Tamil', followed him with this thought.

It was freezing cold as expected. But after seeing worse colds in the next few days, that became nothing. 12 degree is something that we get in Bangalore itself in the night in winters. What is special about London cold is that the smoke that comes out of your mouth when you blow. If you just look around it would look as though everyone around is smoking. It's not that smoking is less there. Women also smoke a lot there. The rest satisfy their urge to smoke by blowing like this I guess.

The parking place in the airport looked more congested than the ones in our place. He had to go back and forth five times to take out his taxi from the parking place. That kind of gave an indication of the kind of population density in the city. Let's see what the reality is in a while.

Once we all got into the vehicle he asked for the postal code. He tapped the GPS. It said the distance immediately (One surprise was that they also use miles only here like in US. I was expecting them to use Kilometers like in India!). I thought it was nearer when I checked in Google Maps during my pre-travel research. But again I told myself that it wouldn't be possible. After few days of extensive research and validation and I found that it was me who had made a mistake. It looked like he also took a longer route around the city. But maybe because it was in peak hours he would have done so. As the distance was too much, I started engaging him in a conversation. But I understood that he is not a Tamil. I was hesitant to even ask where he was from as I was not sure if even that would be inappropriate. He was fully driven by the GPS. It reminded him about every left and right. It's a wonderful technology. When I went to Singapore itself I wanted to buy a mobile phone with GPS. It hasn't happened yet though. In Singapore, I saw that everyone had it in their phones. But I don't remember seeing it in car. It has come to India also. But the usage hasn't reached the masses yet.

As it was a ring road, most of the journey was smooth with no traffic jams. Like in India and Singapore, here also there are a lot of small cars. I was so excited to see a Vagon-R car as my car back in India is a Vagon-R too. 'So, this place is not completely different from ours!' - I felt a sigh of meaningless relief. If my daughter was awake, she would have shouted, "Dad, Vagon-R!". But she was sleeping in tiredness. The road was good. But it wasn't much different from the ones in India. Maybe those who came here 20-30 years back would have found these roads stunning. But these days there are a lot of such roads in our place also. So it wasn't so stunning. But there was discipline on road as expected. This, I am not sure, if we would have in our place even after 200 years.

Many place names that I saw on the way were sounding like those in our place. There were names like Broadway, Richmond and Red Hill, which we have heard in Chennai and Bangalore. Throughout the four weeks of our stay there, we could hear many such names that reminded the master-slave relationship that we had with them. Names like St. Mary's, St. James, St. Joseph, etc. made us feel at home. I won't be surprised if they said it's the same people who founded these institutions there did it in our place as well. Both were their place only, right!

After the long journey, there was a ray of hope. We could see some houses. The British houses that we have seen in pictures. They look so beautiful. All houses have sloped roofs as we see in the houses of those times (the 'British' times) in India. We have forgotten. But they haven't. Why would they? It's their own style. There is another specialty about British houses. It's the uniformity in design. If there are 50 houses in a row, all 50 of them will look the same. It's so fantastic. Many buildings in London reminded me of Bangalore and the Anglo-Indian localities in Bangalore. Especially I was reminded of M.G. Road too often.

See, as feared, we haven't reached home yet. But the second part is coming to an end. Let's see. We should be reaching home soon.

- TO BE CONTINUED...

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