Thursday, May 15, 2008

The London Vacation Part 1

As the totally unimaginative title of this post suggests, the next series of posts will aim to document our two-week vacation in London, which we are currently right in the middle of. This post is mostly about us getting to London and our first few days here...

Day Zero: Leaving on Jet Plane

I had the most horrendous week at work before leaving. I was told that I had to take on a project from a colleague who was leaving the company and I had all of last week to do that since she will be gone by the time I get back. Which, as you can imagine, completely threw my last week out of whack and along with tying up the loose ends on my own projects, I had to spend loads of time understanding the new project, which happens to be in completely unfamiliar territory. So 12-hours days at work, haphazard packing through the week, guilt about not spending much time with Ayaan and overall exhaustion… not a happy mix.

Anyway, we somehow managed to leave for the airport on Friday night with all our stuff and most of my sanity. Said carefully preserved sanity was then sorely tested at the airport when all hopes of Ayaan simply collapsing in my arms given the late hour disappeared into thin air as he bounced off the airport walls, whilst driving me up the same walls. And then there was an hour’s delay in departure, which at three in the morning with a still hyperactive toddler felt more like three hours.

The flight itself was reasonably uneventful despite the fact that Ayaan did not sleep as much as I would have liked him to. After they served the snack and switched off the lights, he had about three hours of proper sleep and was mostly awake after that. Thankfully, he bought my story about it still being dark outside and consented to lying across my lap and dozing and chatting in alternate spurts, which was relatively peaceful (relative to the normal levels of hyperactivity normally seen in flights and other such confined spaces) but did keep me awake through the rest of the flight. The husband, in typical fashion sat on my other side and snoozed blissfully through the journey. It took all my restraint to keep my elbow from digging a hole in his ribs!!! ;-)

Day One: Surprisingly fun day given the high levels of sleep deprivation

My brother was there to pick us up at the airport and Ayaan correctly identified him as Mamu* and went off willingly to him. I think the fact that the Mamu was willing to carry him around might have added to his allure, since I had completely refused to carry him through the airport, given my dangerously low energy reserves…

We reached my brother’s posh Central London flat (which is definitely not as small as we had been led to believe) where Ayaan had the first bathtub experience of his life. He had a complete ball, to say the least – splashing about, swimming and measuring water in the mug – I had to use all my persuasive powers to coax him out of there eventually. The adoring Patti** rued the fact that the poor, deprived grandson didn’t have any bath toys to entertain him in the tub, something she promptly remedied with a quick trip to the neighbourhood toy shop.

Since the weather was warm and sunny, we headed over to a neighbouring Saturday Farmer’s Market for an al fresco lunch. I had the loveliest fresh hot dog ever and bought some couscous and fish preparation from the Lebanese stall for Ayaan, the closest thing to khichdi I could find. He wasn’t overly thrilled by it but ate a sizeable amount, bribed with the nearby fountain where kids were frolicking. Once he had eaten, I stripped him down to his vest and he went off an frolicked in the water with another kid.

Back home, we all collapsed into our afternoon naps, taking care to wake up after a couple of hours to avoid getting into the wrong sleep cycle. The evening was spent at Hyde Park where Ayaan played on the slides and fed the ducks. He also happily played with a Russian kid, both them chattering in Russian and Hindi respectively but somehow managing to get along. He agreed to leave only once the other kid was dragged away by his mother. Back home, my mum had made some nice Indian food for us which we ate and went off to slumber land.

Day Two: Thank God for Strollers

The weather continued to be sunny on Sunday as well. We went for breakfast to a friend’s place. She has a two-year old son and a room full of toys, which my embarrassing offspring immediately marched off towards without a backward glance at anything or anyone. After we ate, we took both the kids to the park where they promptly ignored each other and did their own thing – so much for a play date!

After that, we went back to her house to pick up the stroller that she’s lent us for the duration of our stay. I was worried whether Ayaan would create a fuss about the stroller but he totally loves sitting in it. The few times that he has protested so far, he has been firmly told that he has two choices – the stroller or his god-given legs; being carried is no longer on the menu! So far, he seems to be buying it…

Jai went off to the British Museum and we went for lunch to a place called Benihana with my brother. It is a really cool concept because you sit around a cooking platform and the chef cooks up stuff for you right there and does all sorts of cool tricks with the fire and the food while cooking it – the coolest one was the one where he created a pyramid of sorts with onion rings of decreasing sizes (see picture below) and then made smoke come out of it, like a volcano. Ayaan was totally thrilled by most of it though the fire did scare him a bit. Also, after many years of trying and giving up, I finally learnt the right technique for eating with the chopsticks thanks to the brother and I managed to eat the whole meal with them!

Ayaan showed his first signs of jet lag and fatigue in the afternoon when he slept right through till 6.30 p.m. and got up in a super-grumpy mood after that. By the time he got out of his blue funk, it was too late to go anywhere so we let him loose in the garden behind my brother’s building for a bit, fed him his dinner and packed him off to bed.

Day Three: Sightseeing, Shopping and a Show

We decided to take the London Bus Tour in the morning since the weather was good. We were on the bus for a couple of hours seeing the big sights of London in passing and then did a short cruise on the Thames. Ayaan was largely well-behaved except for one irritable patch on the bus, which passed once we gave him something to munch on and another tantrum when he spilled his chips on the boat and I refused to buy him another one.

In the afternoon, I finally managed to get a start on my retail therapy part of the trip. There is a Zara just around the corner from my brother's place, where I found myself a lovely pair of trousers and a nice pair of shoes. The pants were a little long for me so I asked them to alter it. And to my not too happy surprise, I discovered that they charge a big, fat fee of six pounds just to hem up your pants and not only that, they give the altered clothes back only after four whole days! Quite a shocker considering that alternation in India is done within the hour and at no extra cost… not that it stopped me from buying the pants anyway ;-)

In the evening, I left Ayaan with the mother and went off to see a musical called Hairspray. It was the first time that I went for a show alone and I have to say it wasn’t so bad. It’s weird not to have someone to laugh with during the show and compare notes with after but since I was the only one who wanted to see this show, it was either alone or not all. The musical itself was very nice. It doesn’t have the grandeur or scale of a Phantom of the Opera (which I am seeing next week) or Cats, but it is a really humorous and heart-warming story told in a typical, over-the-top sixties context with underlying messages about racial equality and 'fat is beautiful'.

Day Four: My Family and Other Animals

We spent most of Tuesday at the London zoo. It was not as impressive as I imagined a ‘phoren’ zoo would be but it had its moments. I saw giraffes for the first time, the gorillas were really cute and they had a butterfly garden that you could walk through with free-flying butterflies and moths fluttering all around you.

Ayaan stayed in his stroller through most of the zoo and looked mildly interested in the animals. There was a petting zoo too but it was a poor excuse for one since there was just a solitary, bored-looking goat sitting there for Ayaan to pat and he too hopped off once Ayaan started getting boisterous with him. So that excitement didn't last too long either.

His high points of the day were quite independent of the live zoo animals. He loved the animal merry-go-around outside the zoo cafĂ© and the walk through Regent’s Park where he had the greatest fun pushing his own stroller.

In the evening, Jai and I went for the Jack the Ripper Walk. We had a Scottish guy as our guide and he really did a pretty good job of re-creating the past for us. He took us to most of the murder sites as well as the church outside which the prostitutes used to solicit customers and also the seedy-looking The Ten Bells pub where they went to tank up on ale, which still stands there at the spot today. It wasn’t particularly spooky since it was still daylight (the sun sets only at 9 or so) and most of the gory scenes happened at spots that are the epitome of modernity and civilisation today but it was a fun walk nonetheless.

The husband had a run of bad luck. In typical, absent-minded fashion, he left his Blackberry on the tube on our way to the zoo. And just when you’d think the man would learn to be a little more careful, he went and lost his Oyster card (with ₤20 pounds loaded on it) on our way back from the walk! So he’s been feeling pretty down and out about the whole thing, not helped by the many digs that I have been taking at him. ;-)

Day Five: Lots of London, some India
After four lucky days full of sunshine, the weather decided to show us its nastier side. So Wednesday dawned cloudy and continued to be so through most of the day though the sun did peep through occasionally. While my mom took Ayaan off to Hyde Park for the morning, Jai and I went for the London Walk. Described as a tour of London’s Brick Road, the guide walked us past Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St. James Park and Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square, with loads of interesting anecdotes, jokes and details. For those of you planning to visit London and are inclined towards these walks, I highly recommend London Walks - they have a host of walks (we are planning to do at least four) from the spooky to the informative and are conducted by really good guides. And they show you a lot of the small details that you would miss if you went yourself, armed with just a Lonely Planet guide for company.

We wanted to have a traditional fish and chips meal for lunch so our guide pointed us to the charmingly named Rock and Sole Plaice, where we stuffed ourselves. I quite liked the stuff though Jai thought it was too bland, but given that this is staple British food, that was only to be expected.

In the evening, cousins of my mom’s took us out for dinner to an Indian restaurant called La Porte des Indes. It was okay at best. I guess it just takes a lot to impress people who eat Indian food everyday. The food here was nice enough but it felt like it had been ‘dumbed down’ to suit the British taste buds – not just less spicy but also less flavourful. Thankfully, they had a high chair so Ayaan behaved himself for most of the meal though by the end his patience was clearly wearing thin and all the cutlery had to be removed from his reach to prevent it from being launched across the room.

So anyway, that’s been our first five days in London. Ayaan has been really enjoying himself, with Hyde Park being his top place to visit. His sleep cycle is slightly messed up though. He sleeps for over three hours in the afternoon but is up at the crack of dawn in the morning. I am hoping this will settle down soon because the five thirty wake-up call is killing me! He is being pretty good with food though – at home there is Indian food (rustled up between my mom and my brother’s weekly help) but outside, he has so far been open enough to experiment with couscous, hot dogs, baked beans with rice and tofu.

That’s it for now. I know this is a lot more detailed and meandering than my usual posts but I am taking this opportunity to record our London trip for posterity and what better place for that than my blog. Expect more of the same for the next couple of posts…

* maternal uncle aka my brother
**grandmother aka my mom