Wednesday, December 10, 2014

DAYS 76 to 80 – 30 August to 3 September 2014; In London and back home – Part II

At the time of planning the road trip to London I had mailed the various Indian Embassies, Consulates and High Commissions en route. One of the first responses I had was from Ranjan Mathai, the Indian High Commissioner to London. He had expressed concern that he would be unavailable till 31 August – my original schedule was to return to Cochin on 30 August. However, with the slight change in schedule I was given an appointment to meet His Excellency on the morning of 2 September. Being a working day, Lal and I had to shell out nearly GBP 46 apiece for the return tickets as compared to just GBP 16 apiece just a few days before, which was a holiday. We had a most interesting time with the High Commissioner, who displayed a lot of enthusiasm to understand our journey. Aldwych House is a historic building in Central London. Vivek Thampy, Social Secretary to the High Commissioner, who coordinated our meeting with the High Commissioner explained a few important plaques in the building and also gave us a copy of the coffee table book that vividly explained the heritage building.

Ali, our benefactor from Kazakhstan, had requested us to spend some time, if possible, with Anandam Chechi. What an experience that turned out to be. She gave us explicit directions to reach the train station closest to her house, even changing a train en route, where she picked us up. The sprightly 80 plus entertained us over an hour with her life experiences. Some of them would even seem too bold for the present generation! Before dropping us back at the train station she gave us copies of the excellent books she had penned. She had been through a lot of emotional trauma in the recent past, losing her favourite son, which she said was restraining her from putting pen to paper. We spent more time than we should have to get back to Hayward’s Heath as we took a train in the wrong direction and reached London Bridge! Lal got into a flap since he was yet to complete packing. In the end we did reach the Kingsley home in time for the final bits and pieces.

We bade farewell to Julie and the kids before Anil drove us to Heathrow. The journey was done in better time than was anticipated and we reached the airport with a lot of time to kill. Before checking in we decided to get the check in baggage wrapped and paid a bomb for it – GBP 10 per piece! The check in was smooth and we got a window and aisle as we wanted. While moving away from the counter I realised that my shirt pocket felt light. I had lost something that had been a permanent fixture in my shirt pocket for over 8 years – a picture of Our Lady, the prayer to St. Jude and the photo of my parents. They were in a pouch and that pouch was missing. I was almost inconsolable for I believed that I had lost my Graces. I walked around the complex, all the places I had been inside the airport for almost a half hour. I could not find it. Later I rationalised that possibly it was His means of telling me how the Graces had worked over the past years and it was the right time to take leave of them. New Graces, new meaning to life; maybe!

The flight from Heathrow by Sri Lankan was on schedule and I spend most of the time partaking of the airline hospitality and watching movies. The connection at Colombo was met without any hiccups and the final leg of the journey to Cochin was largely uneventful. Trans Asian Shipping Services Pvt Ltd organised a grand homecoming with almost the entire top management turning up to receive us – they even wanted to organise a press interaction, which Lal was not in favour of since a section of the media had been most unfair in reporting the break up with Baiju. The highlight of the reception was the ‘Chenda Melam’. Maya, Ajay and Eva formed part of the family reception at the airport. The Press did not turn up at all. The drive from the Cochin international airport to my home in Alfa Serene was the most stressful of the past 80 days. It took us nearly 2 hours to cover the distance, albeit including a short diversion to offer thanksgiving at the St. Joseph’s Church at Thevara.

The epic journey had lasted 75 days –starting from Hotel Crowne Plaza, Cochin on 16 June and ending in Tavistock Square, London on 29 August. When I got back home I had realised yet another dream that had its roots in 1997. It drove home the fact that dreams, however big and dubbed impossible, can be realised if they are broken down into smaller practical units and pursued with unwavering passion.  Not much time elapsed before I was asked if I had planned any other road journeys! It was a fact that I have outlined many. They need to be fleshed out and sponsors found to help. Amongst others, I have planned to travel extensively in USA and Australia. I have even made out an itinerary to drive solo to London and back. Then there is this trip to Indonesia by road! One of the trips I want to do, not far from now, is an 80 day trip around the world mimicking the Jules Verne classic, “Around the World in 80 days”. I consider the protagonist of the novel, Philleas Fogg, the first modern backpacker! Thus, there is no shortage of dreams and I have plenty of time on my hands to invest on them. But, availability of funds is another matter. Good Samaritans reading this and out there are most welcome to lend helping hands and shoulders.

DAYS 76 to 80 – 30 August to 3 September 2014; In London and back home – Part I

At the start of the trip an overwhelming worry was that we would fall short on finances to complete the trip. When the trip was concluded in London on 29 August 2014 such thoughts were farthest from my mind, for we had been hosted by friends and family, including the Indian Railways, for a total of seven weeks – we stayed in paid accommodation only for 31 days of the 80. The wonderful hosts that looked after everything that we wanted from washing machines to shopping to home cooked food made sure that we were most comfortable. The journey would not have been as memorable but for their contribution. The Kingsleys in London exemplified that experience.

When we were on the journey Boby George, a Facebook friend, had got in touch to volunteer hospitality in London. After many discussions it was agreed that accommodation would be arranged in Hayward’s Heath, with the Kingsleys. Last evening we drove more than an hour in failing light to reach the warm confines of the home of Judie and Anil Kingsley. I wondered then if I had made a mistake, for the place seemed so far out of London where I had scheduled to be in at least for two of the four days that we were there. Every minute we spent with the Kingsleys and Boby drove any such thoughts away from the mind. I felt as if I was back at home amongst my own kith and kin. Not for a moment did I feel that I was meeting them for the first time. To be honest they treated me as an older brother and I did not at any time feel that I was any different. Julie had the most important role to play in that. The way she cooked and served meals and snacks transported me back in memory and experience to the lifestyle of the Upper Kuttanad area of Kerala. The simplicity, warmth, genuine friendship and graceful offer of hospitality floored me. I treated the home as my own and raided the kitchen whenever I wanted, especially for the innumerable cups of ‘Nescafe Gold’ coffee. The four days that we spent with the Kingsleys – Sunil, the twin of Anil, joined us on 31 August from Robin Hood country (Anil and Sunil are married to twins Julie and Judie) – and Boby George were the right way to wind down the epic journey that had seen us wend through 27 countries in 2 Continents across 24796 kms in 80 days using nearly 3000 litres of diesel fuel.

Boby George took the responsibility of conducting us around Stonehenge, Lacock and CastleCombe the day after and the evening was spent with a few Keralites in the neighbourhood, friends of the Kingsleys, who wanted to capture golden moments with their idol Lal Jose and share our experiences of the drive with them. Everywhere we have been I witnessed and experienced how well the Indian diaspora, particularly the Keralites, have done in alien environments. They adapted extremely well to the transplanted countries and areas. Most of them possessed houses in Kerala, which they used on their vacations. It was rather disappointing to note that none of them wanted to resettle in Kerala, particularly as professionals. It was indeed a sad commentary of what the country and state had to provide them and the future generations. I was even more saddened to hear experiences of some who, out of emotional bonds, relocated to Kerala and in a short while were back to the country of adoption. Most of them were shocked by the way society treated them as resettlers as compared to occasional vacationers!

I decided that I would have a day all to myself in London to reminisce the fond experiences of 1995-96. I was fortunate to get cheap return rail tickets from Hayward’s Heath to London on 31 August. The entire day was spent, mostly walking, from Victoria to the sights that abound in the neighbourhood. After spending considerable time at the historic railway station I walked to the Buckingham palace and was engulfed in a sea of humanity. For a while I did not know why so many people had aggregated there till I was told that it was to witness the change of guard. Security was tight and it was not easy to move around to occupy a vantage position to experience the various elements of the noted ritual. However, I eventually got to position myself at the statue of Queen Victoria. I was there for almost an hour and was fortunate to get close to the parade. Thereafter, I walked to some of the more noticeable landmarks of the area such as the War Rooms, No.10 Downing Street, Trafalgar Square – where the statue of a huge blue cock hogged more attention than the fountains and the Nelson column - National Museum, London School of Economics – Oh! How much she has changed in nearly two decades with new buildings and facilities, including the renovated and modernised Lionel Robbins library - Passfield Hall, where I had stayed for a year with some fascinating younger friends. I took the Underground to explore the Old Scotland Yard, Baker Street, the Lords cricket ground – where a match was in progress and entry was restricted - and Marble Arch.

One of the major items of expenditure I had logged prior to the start of the trip was shipping the car back to Cochin. I had varying estimates for the same; most disturbing was that I did not have anyone reliable who could be handed a ‘turnkey’ task. Again He intervened. Prior to the start from Cochin we were invited to many functions. In a function that I could not attend Lal Jose requested a producer of one of his movies, Zulfiker Hasis, to contribute to the journey in some measure. Zulfi, as he is affectionately called, being the owner of DGL which provided Shipping and logistics services worldwide, based out of Dubai, offered to ship the car from London to Cochin at his cost. Throughout the trip what I experienced the myriad ways in which people have extended support and help. Here was Zulfi doing his bit. Lal told me about the offer of Zulfi a few days before we were to leave from Cochin. I heaved a sigh of relief that one of the loose ends could be tied up thus. However, the issue of our flight back from London to Cochin remained. I broached the subject to Zulfi requesting him to consider footing the bill of our return to Cochin. On the long distance call to Dubai I could make out that Zulfi did not even pause to think how much it would cost him. That’s genuine support. Zulfi agreed to reimburse our travel agent once the tickets were booked. He was more than true to his word. Immediately as I confirmed from London that the tickets had been booked his office wire transferred the amount to Akbar Travels, Cochin that did the booking.

Zulfi’s office in Dubai coordinated the despatch of the car from London through the Port of Felixstowe. I was asked to coordinate with Gary of Hemisphere Freight Services to drop the car off on in a warehouse in Ipswich. Before that I wanted to shop some so that I could send it in the car along with the clothes and other items. I only wanted to retain what was required for the journey to Cochin. The morning of 1 September was devoted to shopping. Accompanied by the Kingsleys, Anil and Sunil, I hopped from shop to shop in quick time and picked up some stuff. In one of the shops, a lady at the check in counter even asked me if I would not be able to get the stuff in India! By afternoon the car was loaded. I had planned to drive to the warehouse all by myself and return to Hayward’s Heath by public transport. Anil and Sunil would not hear of it. Sunil tailed us in his car, which we used to return form the warehouse.

I was amazed at what little documentation was required to hand over the car to the logistics company that was in charge of the shipment. Having been exposed to the hassles and the mountainous documentation that are faced in India I was even worried that I may be asked to return from Cochin to London to complete the documentation! In less than an hour the formalities were completed and, grief stricken, I handed over the spare key of the car to the warehouse manager. KL 29C 2131 had been my trusted companion and virtually a home to me over the past twelve weeks. Not once did she fail me. Not even a puncture or air leak. Some people back home did not believe that the journey was totally trouble free. The glorious endeavour in the Endeavour had ended eventually.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

DAY 75 – 29 August 2014; Swansea to London

Google maps showed that the 300 odd kms to London from Swansea could be covered in under 4 hours. Give or take an hour, I had programmed the termination of the journey in Tavistock Square, London between noon and 1 pm. When I was a student in 1995-96 in London School of Economics I stayed at Passfield Hall in Endsleigh Place. Everyday I walked from the Hall of Residence to the LSE to attend classes, study in the Lionel Robbins Library and keep the body fit in the Sqaush Courts. The daily walk took me past the Tavistock Square and many times I have been inside to pay obeisance to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi. The statue was erected under the aegis of the India League and was unveiled in 1968 by the then PM of Britain. I never imagined that I would one day drive a car to the Square from India when I made those many trips past the Square. During the planning phase of the journey I decided on the start point of it as the MG statue in Kochi and the end point as the MG statue in Tavistock Square, London. The journey was nearing its end and Tavistock Square beckoned. I was not sure if I would be able to get anywhere near the Square in the car. In this I was helped by Anu, my wife’s cousin, Anil Kingsley and Boby George, who offered us hospitality in London. Anu filed the London congestion charge online and helped me avoid any possible harassment en route to London. Last evening, in Thankachan’s house over dinner, I was told that I would be stopped on the motor way for sure because of the registration. They took me through the drill of what should be done in case of such an eventuality. The cardinal part of it was that I was not to disembark from the car until I was asked to by the police officer. Since they had been sure that I would be force stopped I went through the drill in my mind many times before I started out on M4.

We had decided to set course for London at 8 am. By the time I was ready after the check out a family that had driven overnight to meet Lal had arrived at the accommodation. As the experiences were being shared and the photo and autograph sessions were on it started raining. That forced us to start 15 minutes before schedule. Once again the Navigator helped us ease out of the city and on to the Motorway. A group of Keralites in Newport, some of whom had met us in Swansea, got together to meet us in a park in Newport. Within an hour of leaving Swansea, from exits number 28, we were piloted to the park where we interacted with the group and shared a cup of coffee with them. It was wonderful to know firsthand the interest that the journey had generated, particularly among the young. One of the main reasons why I had undertaken the journey is to enthuse the young to travel, for I believe that travel broadens the mind and increases levels of tolerance to alien environments, cultures and traditions.

I experienced, on the drive from Swansea to London, two incidents that I had never experienced in the entire journey leading up to this day. In the first, when I was driving in the driving lane at the prescribed speed of 70 mph I was overtaken by another car, the driver of who indecently gesticulated for me to move out to the extreme lane meant for slow traffic. I could not fathom the reason for such action. Later I reasoned that the man must be out of his mind for he started annoying other road users by jagging in and out of lanes for no apparent reason. In the second incident I was on the slow lane when a biker moved in front of me and started using his fingers and deliberately slowing down in front of me to provoke me in any manner he could. Such instances never happened anywhere else and possibly is a pointer to sick minds in the erstwhile ‘Heart of the Empire’

We stopped at a refreshment point about 50 miles short of London and had a light meal. I banked on the Navigator to get me to Tavistock Square. Anu, Anil and Boby confirmed that they were at the end point. A few friends of Lal would also be there. A few youngsters, who had got in touch with me on Facebook, also messaged that they were waiting for the Champion Car at the Square. Excitement, a sense of achievement and other mixed emotions started entwining in my mind. If I were alone I would have cried aloud, more out of expression of thanks for many hundreds who helped us with their prayers, hospitality and encouragement as also the Guardian Angels I experienced during the journey. I held back my tears with extreme difficulty because, as Lal says, men are not expected to cry and express their feelings. Instead, I do not know what happened to me, I pulled Lal close to me and hugged him, while still driving the car! Soon I was near some of the landmarks I was familiar with during the stay in London 18 years before this. Then the Navigator went wrong because of extensive diversions due to road works. What should have taken 10 minutes took us over 40 minutes. But in the end, we reached the Tavistock Square a few seconds before Big Ben announced the hour after noon. It was a most beautiful experience parking beside the Square, being received by friends old and new and family. Prajeesh had brought bouquets to be placed before the statue, which formally ended the journey that spanned, as planned, 2 Continents, 27 countries in 75 days logging 24,796 kms. I was most happy about the meticulous planning having paid off. There had been motivated reports in the Press back home of how the journey was easily undertaken once a travel agent was appointed in New Delhi. I pity the people who make such specious statements for they know not what it takes to do what only a serious traveller can undertake. When I was General Manager of DP World in Cochin between 2005 and 2010 I was insistent that all the employees of the Company should appreciate the Vallarpadam terminal in its construction phase. More than 80% of the work in developing the terminal cannot be seen once the construction is over for it will lie under the surface of the terminal, out of sight of the user and the customer. This journey also is similar to that – the hard work in planning every detail of it and the discipline with which it is executed will be forgotten and out of sight of the small, petty men who feel that it could have been done anyway.

Lunch was hosted by Rasa restaurant. Athul and the rest of the Raasa team laid out the red carpet for us. I had a fantastic chicken biriyani and rice payasam. It was close to 4 pm when we parked the car near a friend’s house and walked to the Westminster boat quay for a Thames cruise. On the way we took some time to appreciate the MI6 building, the Abbey, the Big Ben and the Parliament building. I had been on the Thames Cruise in 1996 and hence, wanted to relive that golden experience. But this time I found the commentary woefully short of the previous one. I looked forward to getting updated on the newer developments of the last two decades. It did not happen. Besides, the changed landscape on either side of the banks is an eyesore and the clash of styles is too much to appreciate positively. The London Eye is foremost in that – it may fetch the authorities enough revenue but the landscape has been spoiled beyond redemption. We got back from the trip to Greenwich in light drizzle.

The journey is over but the experiences right from the first days of it linger. Many faces have faded slightly in the memory, but their help, support and hospitality remain uppermost in the mind. Most importantly, help of the Almighty and prayers of well wishers and family have been the most important ingredients in the successful completion of the journey. Many dreams have sprouted in the meanwhile. I pray to Him to operationalise them in time. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

DAY 74 – 28 August 2014; Rosslare to Swansea

Last evening when we checked into the Rosslare Port Lodge the young Punjabi girl at the reception told me that it would be enough if we started for the port by 8 am since it was just a short drive from there. Breakfast was on board the ferry, Lal and I decided. I woke up early to complete the blog posts. The Lodge offered free WiFi; it was available only in the reception area, though. Moreover, I was under the impression that the lounge would be available to do my work without disturbing Lal and the thought that coffee would also be there send me downstairs by 4.30 am. The lounge was closed and coffee was not available. Hence, I sat down in the reception area and worked without any disturbance for a couple of hours – two of the three pending posts were completed and updated. Only Day 73 remained, which I would be able to complete on the ferry I knew, for the crossing would take about 4 hours.

After we had got ready and loaded the luggage I went to the lounge for a cup of tea where I met the Punjabi girl from Ropar, who had taken up the work at the reception as a summer job. She lived with her husband, who was working with the Metro, in Dublin. The summer job provided handsome money to support their studies and stay. The Lodge remains boarded up in the winter months for lack of business. She mentioned that jobs were not easy to come by in Ireland, particularly after she had moved there a couple of years back. I thought she was quite happy to be living in Ireland despite the fact that they have not been able to set aside anything for a rainy day or start a family. They valued their anonymity and independence. She hoped to undertake a journey in Kerala soon.

By 8.15 am I joined the car queue in the Rosslare Port. After the booking was confirmed and the check in completed I was directed to drive the car to a lane that was already loading the Isle of Inishmore to Pembroke. So many cars and freighters had lined up to be loaded for the crossing that I wondered how they would all be accommodated in the ferry. The cavernous ferry decks with mezzanine levels serviced by hydraulic ramps loaded more than 500 vehicles. The crossing service by Irish Ferries is popular only in the summer months. I carried the laptop and other accoutrements to the passenger deck and settled in a vantage location from where we would be able to appreciate better departure and docking of the vessel. The ferry was not overcrowded, by any means; there were many holidayers on board. A couple of buses carried elderly people who seemed to be visiting UK after many years – their conversation suggested my observation. On board the first task was to get some breakfast. After ‘shopping around’ I realised that the full breakfast option would be the best; bacon, sausages, hash potato, scrambled egg, toasts, baked beans and coffee. Lal and I had a leisurely meal, surfing the net on the free WiFi on board and taking in the sights as the ferry service left the shores of Ireland.

I got busy on board updating the Facebook page of Record Drive and Day 73 of the blog. As I was completing them the shoreline of Pembroke came into view. The timing could not have been better. The small city looked picturesque from the waters. Disembarkation did not take long. As we drove out of the ferry we were waved down by a few Keralites based in West Wales. It did take us by surprise, for I knew only about the reception arrangements in Swansea. The reception in the Milford Haven Port did not take much time, thanks to their consideration. I was supposed to be in Swansea by 2 pm, but was getting delayed en route due to road works. Vinsu, who was liaising with me for the reception suggested that we get to the Hall where the reception was to be held and later go to the Hotel. We reached the venue by 3 pm and a fairly large gathering had aggregated despite it being a working day. The formal function was organised by YUKMA – an umbrella organisation of over 100 working units. A shawl and three mementoes were presented to us by various organisations. After that and a long photography session we were treated to some amazing Kerala food – beef ulath, fish patichathu, cabbage thoran, vann payaru, papadam, pickles and on and on. I wished I had not stuffed myself with the full breakfast on board the vessel.

Vinsu took on the responsibility of showing us some parts of the City after we had checked in. The accommodation was not up to the mark. The room was tiny and the en suite arrangements meant that one of us had to stay out of the room for the other to use the toilet and bathing facilities with self respect! I asked the elderly gentleman if he had another room we could rent; he politely recused himself from the task! The only saving grace of the accommodation was the location and strong WiFi connection.

Vinsu dropped his family home and came back to the lodging to pick us up. He drove us to the Bracelet Bay from where panoramic views of the coastal city could be had besides enjoying views of the Sea. It was quite windy but otherwise the weather was great. The city is supposed to be one of the earliest settlements in Wales. Experiencing the old buildings and understanding local traditions and systems while walking the lovely walkway along the Bay was the right way to spend the evening prior to attempting the last leg of the journey from Swansea too London. We spend some time in a café on the Bay to flavour some local ice cream. Later Vinsu drove us through to the Fendrod Lake; en route he pointed out the many war memorials. The swans and ducks provide a serene environment that has to be enjoyed quietly. The park around the lake is popular with those wanting to remain fit and maintain their health.

During the reception we had mentioned that we preferred local cuisine to Indian food because the latter we would get anyway once we get back home. Hence, Vinsu, Joji, Binu and Thankachan decided to get together in Thankachan’s house for specially cooked Welsh food. The evening went on till an hour before midnight with a few more Keralites dropping in, a website being inaugurated, networks and connections established and partaking of wonderful Welsh food. Starting with leek and potato soup, going through to the main course of veggies, potatoes, beef slivers and sauce and winding up with the lemon sponge cake and custard was a huge gastronomically challenging journey. I felt sorry for having wasted some of the main course, for I consider wasting food to be the biggest crime one can commit in a society. “Take what you eat and Eat what you take” is a golden rule my mother had taught me and never permitted to violate. It was not easy taking leave of the kind souls who had looked after us with such care and affection. Not for a moment did we feel anything than being at home. All good things had to come to an end. And this one did too. Vinsu and Binu dropped us back at the accommodation to spend the night before the 'assault'.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

DAY 73 – 27 August 2014; Dublin to Rosslare

It was time to move on from Dublin. 8 am departure was set. Baby would accompany us from Dublin to Cork via Limerick. Ireland has a large population of Keralites. There are over 2500 families in Dublin itself. Most of them are engaged in the medical field. The St. James Hospital in Dublin has 500 Keralite nurses on their rolls! Similarly Limerick and Cork too have substantial Keralite settlements. The boom in Irish recruitment in the medical profession happened in the early part of 2000. It has considerably slowed down since 2010. Baby had organised meetings with Keralite families in Limerick, Cork and Cobh and also with the priests Manoj and Jose in Dublin. The many that turned up have been huge fans of Lal’s films. The hospitality was overwhelming and straight from the heart. It was truly moving and inspirational. The kids were there in large numbers too. The enthusiastic ones in Cobh presented us with a signed postcard each, which I will cherish as one of the prized effects of the journey.

Before we left in the morning, Manoj, who I met at the reception last evening and the nephew of Mani C Kappen (the sportsman turned entrepreneur turned politician), came to the house with Basil, an excellent artist in who Lal sees a good future. Manoj connected us to Mani, who felt that the journey had not received its fair share of publicity. He has not been alone in voicing such thoughts. The journey was never about publicity. It was about adventure and goodwill. Whatever publicity has been generated has been for the sake of the sponsors who have made this journey happen through their support, financial and otherwise. The journey has not been to satisfy egos either, but to achieve the unique distinction of driving from Cochin to London in a four wheeler. The journey was never meant to be a picnic as someone thought it to be; it was for the tough to experience the tough conditions. The journey was meant to test the best and not please the petty.

The meetings in Limerick left us with little time for sightseeing, though we did drive around to see the Castle and appreciate the River Shannon. The St. John’s cathedral has Ireland’s tallest spire. We dropped in there for a short prayer and appreciate the lovely chapels and the ornate spire complex. Baby’s brother, Shaiju, lives in Nenagh (pronounced, Neena) and works with Johnson & Johnson in Limerick, which is the third most populous City after Dublin and Cork. I learnt from him that J&J have one of their largest factories in Limerick where they manufacture 200,000 pieces of contact lenses per shift of 8 hours! Raw materials are mostly imported for use in the fully automated plant and the finished products are shipped to USA and Europe, besides servicing the local demand. I was told by Lijo that Limerick is also known as ‘Stab City’ for the gang wars that regularly break out in the City between two traditionally feuding families. In fact, a lady who stood witness against one of the Dons has a posse of the Garda – Police – guarding her 24x7.

We had a buffet lunch in Cork in a traditional Irish Pub; the buffet consisted of ham and potatoes of different types, cabbage and apple tart with cream. From Cork we moved to Cobh. This was the place where the Titanic made its last call on 11 April 1912 before it hit an iceberg off the Atlantic coast and sank. The wooden quay from where the tenders sailed from with 123 passengers to board the Titanic at outer anchor and the stormy waters of the sea gave me a good feel of what it would have been like on that fateful day. Cobh also has the hurtful distinction of the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine torpedo near her coast on 7th May 1915 in which 1198 passengers lost their lives. The Cobh Heritage tour is a must to appreciate the history of the City and its contribution to the traditions of Ireland. The statue of Annie Moore and her two brothers outside the Heritage Centre receives a lot of attention from visitors. They were the first immigrants to be processed in Ellis Island, USA when it was officially opened on 1st January 1892. I learnt that a similar statue can be seen on Ellis Island too which pays tribute to the many Irish who have embarked on that same journey. The harbour also has the distinction of sending 30,000 men and 9,000 women prisoners on ‘Convict Ships’ from Ireland to Australia between 1791 and 1853. The St Colman’s Cathedral overlooking Cobh harbour is built in the shape of a cross and holds within it 13 centuries of spiritual history. It has the second biggest spire in Ireland, after Limerick, and the largest carillon in all of Ireland. Facing the large Cathedral is a set of houses, painted in bright colours and popularly referred to as the “Deck of Cards”.

En route to Rosslare we passed the ancestral connection of President Barack Obama – Moneygall – and Dunganstowan in Wexford County from where the JFK derived his roots. In squally weather we arrived Rosslare, a one horse town. Save the harbour and a couple of shops the place had very little to offer. The Rosslare Lodge, booked by Mirus, our travel agent, was comfortable. We had dinner at the nearby Harbor View Hotel before turning in for the night.

The day had been eventful, with such spontaneous outpouring of affection and motivation. We had reached the final 48 hours of the journey – have travelled 27 countries in 73 days across 2 Continents and done slightly more than 24,000 kms. In the next two days will travel to reach London on schedule, in 75 days.

DAY 72 – 26 August 2014; In Dublin

Life in Dublin began as two separate settlements, “Atha Cliath” and “Dubh Linn”. The modern name of the City is derived from these two names – Dublin is the internationally recognised name while “Baile Atha Cliath” is the Irish translation. Research has established the fact that Vikings were the first settlers of the city around the 9th century. The city is steeped in history and has a turbulent past. Ireland was under British domination and rule for over 750 years; the Anglo-Irish treaty of 6th December 1921 ended that when 26 of the 32 counties gained independence and formed the Irish Free State, which is presently the Republic of Ireland. I wanted to flavour some part of the past in Dublin, weather and organised schedules permitting.

As it panned out, the weather held for most part of the day, even though it was overcast and threatened to rain any minute. Dale and his wife gave us excellent Dosa and Sambar to start the day. Weather had interfered and made a mess of their annual holiday plans. Before we ventured out for the day another interview was done with Beji, a freelancer based in Dublin. Interviews and features are his hobby. Joji had confirmed appointment with the Indian Ambassador, Ms Radhika Lal Lokesh, an IFS officer of the 1982 batch. I had been told that the visit would be for 20 minutes. But that stretched to almost an hour. Before leaving the Embassy we handed over the souvenir mug to Her Excellency and got her to affix green stickers on the car signifying the visit to Ireland.

It was about 1 pm by the time we moved from the Indian Embassy. The next function, to be attended by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, was scheduled for 6 pm and we had to be at the venue a half hour earlier. This gave us very little time to flavour the city. We parked near the National Museum and walked about a bit before having lunch of fish and chips. During the city tour we saw the birthplace of Duke of Wellington, the eternal flame opposite the National Museum, old bridges across the River Liffey, traditional retail markets, monument of Jim Larkin, the tall Spire, etc. then we went to the Guinness Storehouse to flavour the Guinness experience. The brewery has been the pride of the place since Arthur Guinness signed the famous lease for the 50 acre property on 31 December 1759. The amazing visitor experience includes a tasting and brewing session as well as the complementary pint of Guinness. The museum takes one through the process and history of the biggest beer brands in the world. I got to understand the importance of malted barley, yeast, water and hops in the entire process. The museum also has a wide variety of souvenirs one can buy. The view of the city from the 7th level of the museum is awesome, to say the least. All the major landmarks are signposted on the glass windows such as The Liberties, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity College, St Patrick’s Tower, St. James’s Gate Brewery, Ushers Island and Phoenix Park.

The reception by the Malayalee Association was in a venue inside the Phoenix Park in Dublin. The park is considered to be the largest in the whole of Europe – 1760 acres of green in the heart of the city. The park includes the residence of the President of the Republic of Ireland and the Dublin Zoo. Pope John Paul II had addressed 10 lakh people here in 1979, a year after he had become the Pope. A huge cross was erected at the site on a mound created for the purpose. Deer can be seen in plenty in the park. The turnout for the reception was huge – it took me by surprise. The Lord Mayor arrived just a while late and the kids put up an amazing display of dance, done to the tune of popular Malayalam and Hindi songs. The reception was grand in attendance and content. There was a welcome address, felicitations, address by the Lord Mayor and the two of us followed by the vote of thanks. The function was intended to last just 20 minutes and when it wound up because we had to vacate the premises it had lasted close to an hour and half. Once the Lord Mayor left the function, proceedings continued informally in Malayalam and Lal regaled the crowd in his inimitable easy style laced with humourous anecdotes and observations during the journey. Photograph and autograph sessions were cut short by the security staff asking us to vacate the premises. It was wonderful to experience the enthusiasm of the young, the attention of the seniors and the curiosity of genuine travel enthusiasts. A huge thanks go up from Lal and me to the organisers and the attendees of the function.

Baby and Sunil then took us to the latter’s house. It was a marvellous half hour we spent there. The home is filled with happiness, love and contentment. All through the two days I was with Sunil never did I hear a negative thought translated to words by him – he saw positives in everything and everyone around him. I found that his wife and kids had the same energies around them. May their tribe increase. In these times when negativity has taken a vice grip of our lives it is people like Sunil that bear the torch of hope and courage in adversity. Lal and I were amazed by the talent of Sunil’s daughter, Medha, who is an expert with clay – the kind of things she had made took our breaths away; they were miniatures of things we use and see daily life like Pizza, Book, Oyster with a pearl inside, Ice Cream cone, and many, many more in graphic detail. With no formal training and skills picked up from her mother and encouraged by the father this girl is an amazing talent, about who we will hear more in the future.

It was getting to kitchen closing time when we reached the traditional Irish restaurant for dinner. I had an Irish Steak and a couple of shots of Malibu with orange juice. The discussion at the dinner table with Pradeep, Justin, Joby, Rajan, Baby, Sunil and Ajit on a wide range of subjects would have gone on and on had it not been for me being the wet blanket. 9.30 pm is bedtime for me! Especially when the next day involves travel I like to be in bed early. Therefore, regretfully, I requested that the party wind up when it touched 11 pm. I was almost sleep walking and talking robotically by then.

DAY 71 – 25 August 2014; Belfast to Dublin

It had rained heavily overnight. And it was cold, though not blustery. When I came down with the luggage Sijo John was waiting for me. The previous day he had contacted me to know when we would be leaving Belfast. He lived almost next door to the B&B we were in and hence, could easily make it to the place before 8 am. Over breakfast he told us how he came to UK and landed up in Belfast for his management studies, where he has been for the past 4 years. He now works as an in executive in the Delhi Lounge and looks forward to residency soon. He shared his ambitions and future plans in UK. Andre, owner of the Botanic Rest Queens Quarter B&B on Cromwell Road, had been a guide in Asia and Africa prior to coming to Northern Ireland to do business. He has done fairly well in the hospitality business. I got Andre to attest the log sheets and put his message on the Campaign Poster. Andre said that he has never had customers who had travelled thus far to stay at his facility. Breakfast at the B&B was a choice of various set main courses. I chose the one with the Potato Bread, Bulls Eye, Bacon, Baked Beans and Mushrooms. The potato bread, in particular, was super. Andre and Sijo bade us farewell from Belfast after a photo session with the car.

As I was driving through a part of the City, which had Union Jacks flying from almost every roof in the street, I recollected the conversation I had last evening at Restaurant 25 with Malachy, owner of the place. He had described in vivid detail the troubles in Belfast and the strong face off between the Catholics and the Protestants. He told us that as he was finishing school he was told by his teachers that he would not find a job in Northern Ireland because he was Catholic. The job opportunities available in the ship building, construction, police, civil service and teaching were the exclusive preserves of the Protestants. This resulted in young Catholics moving out of Belfast and UK. Moreover, till recently the Catholics had no vote and could not run for Office. The deep rifts in society resulted in frequent violence into which the young were sucked in. Malachy confessed to having been involved in many ugly incidents in Belfast. But, those were the times. He sadly said that only the surface had changed to give an impression of peace; the undercurrents were strong and bubbles up time and again, as it did last July when the City was under siege for over three days. Possibly due to the uncertainty and possibility of violence police vehicles in Belfast are armoured and heavily armed. The last time I saw this was in Shigatse and Lhasa, in China. Sijo narrated an incident where a riot was set off when someone threw a pet dog a bonfire!

Baby Pereppadan was to be our host in Dublin. He had got in touch with me a few weeks back when I told him that he would have to coordinate with Joji Abraham, who was coordinating the meeting with the Indian Embassy. Before embarking on the journey, one of the major tasks had been to obtain Visas for the countries that we had planned to visit en route. Accordingly 6 Visas had been obtained for China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, UK and the 19 Schengen States. The Irish Embassy website mentioned that Visa would be issued on arrival for those who held multiple entry Visa for the UK. Armed with this information I wanted to know from Baby how long the visa process would be at the Irish border, for that would determine when we would be in Dublin. He told me that there is no such arrangement at the land border. To quell my anxiety he cross checked and confirmed what he had said earlier. I looked up Google Maps and marked Newry and Jonesborough as the possible border locations of UK and Irish Republic. On the approach to Newry, in blinding rain, I noticed a Customs and Excise post. Since I did not have anything to declare I drove past the post and very soon was in Ireland. There wasn’t any border post even though the Navigator stridently warned of the approaching border crossing. I did slow down in the area to present the car and selves at the border control. Very soon I was at the outskirts of Dublin without a valid Irish Visa!

The meeting point set by Baby was not difficult to find; it was a large shopping complex. In the light drizzle we met Baby and his friend, Sunil. Since the weather was not conducive to sightseeing then we decided to go to Baby’s house for a cup of coffee, where we met Baby’s wife, Jincy, who worked in a hospital in the vicinity and their daughter, who was still enjoying her vacation. In a short while, as the coffee was being served, arrived Joji Abraham. He had been tasked by the Indian Embassy to liaise with us. Since the weather conditions stubbornly remained inclement we decided to go in Joji’s car to the Hill of Tara. The poor weather did not permit us to enjoy the lovely meadows and the views of the City from the remarkable site as well as we would have liked. But the mist and the non-stop humorous asides provided by Sunil made even the gloomy atmosphere enjoyable. Historically the Hill is best known as the seat of the Kings of Ireland and is an important site since the late Stone Age for powerful settlements of the Vikings. Exciting excavations continue to bring up new information about the importance of the site.

Through hills and dales we drove for long till we reached the seaside resort of Bray. The City is famous for the number of nursing homes – 18, said Baby. I was keen to visit one of the nursing homes since they basically cater to the aged. Kerala, in particular and India, in general has to deal with the issue concerning geriatric care. What has been done in Europe to deal with the issue could have practical take-aways for those intending to address it in India. However, time was short and the notice shorter than required to visit these facilities. Instead we went to the Porterhouse Inn located on Bray’s picturesque Strand Road for lunch. The Inn boasts of boutique rooms, restaurant, night club and a busy bar. The Inn also boasts the largest collection of bottled beers anywhere in the world – if empty bottles are testimony – and 9 of its own brews. The Inn boasts that customers get integrated service in there from snacks to night life! A peremptory scan of the menu indicated that they had everything to suit varied palates. Lal and I revel in sampling local cuisine; thus, it was Irish stew for us. It was yummy, yummy. The meat, potato and carrot stew with butter on multigrain bread was heavenly. It was so filling that the initial feeling that the stew is not a main meal was soon dispelled.

After lunch we went to the house where we were lodged for the two days we were to be in Dublin. Sajai and his wife whose home it was was arranged by Baby as our dwelling in Dublin. Dale, the neighbour of Sajai, was at hand to make us comfortable in the house. The first priority was washing. Dale insisted that the washing machine cum dryer should be used. Hence, Lal used Dale’s facility while I used the machine in Sajai’s house. Dale also brought us milk to us with the coffee ‘pilfered’ from Sajai’s provision storage. Sabu and Shankar arrived at the house as we were getting things organised. Sabu, an excellent singer/artist, has been a close family friend of my uncle, MK George; they have done many stage shows together. Shankar is a cartoonist and contributes to Manorama publications. Reji of Irishmalayalee online publication arrived for a chat and interview. Plenty was spoken about the journey and future plans.

By the time we had all this done it was time for dinner. Baby had arranged that in his house. Therefore, with Sunil we went to Baby’s house and met with his son, Britto, there for the first time. Dinner was not just a meal, it was a feast. Drinks, starters and the food was too much to call a dinner. once we tore ourselves away from the dining table Joji called us to his house, where we met with his family and a few other Keralite families who lived in the same apartment complex.

There had been more than a little disappointment in being billeted indoors due to the rain. However, that gave us the opportunity to get to know Baby, Sunil, Dale and Joji and their families better. Everything happens for a reason.

Monday, August 25, 2014

DAY 70 – 24 August 2014; Edinburgh to Belfast

A few days back when I Googled the route between Edinburgh and Belfast I mistook it to be 133 miles. I had attempted to book online for the ferry from Toorn to Larne and was completely unsuccessful. Knowing that there are just two services a day – one at 11 am and the other at 7 pm – I was keen to get on to the morning ferry so that we would get some time to move around the city of Belfast. With the distance of 133 miles and the ferry remaining unbooked I confirmed with Lal that we would move out of the Hotel immediately after breakfast at 7.15 am. Prior to reaching the restaurant we loaded the luggage into the car and checked out. As soon as the doors opened for breakfast we were among the first to be inside. There was a fairly wide selection of hot and cold foods. I stuck to the standard scrambled eggs, baked beans, bacon and bread combination. A large cup of coffee was the chaser. I saw a large number of young boys in the restaurant with Delhi University track suits on. I joined a couple of seniors and introduced myself as an old student of the University. I learnt that they were part of the University hockey team that was on an experience tour of Scotland, as part of sports and cultural exchange between the Universities of Delhi and Edinburgh.

When I got into the car and set the Navigator for Belfast it showed the distance to be covered as 133 kms! Anyway, I was relieved that the problem of covering the distance was solved with enough and more time with us. The remaining issue was the ferry ticket. In bright weather we drove to Troon harbour to board the P&O ferries to Larne. The drive was incident free and comfortable. We did the distance in about 2 hours. I was a bit anxious when I reached the gate of the P&O ferry terminal. I need not have been. A friendly man at the gate directed me to a lane to buy the ticket, which suggested that we could be on the ferry after all. When I reached the drive in counter the lady spent a lot of time wanting to know about the journey and explaining what we could experience in Belfast – she hailed from Northern Ireland. The ferry cost GBP 156. I then drove in and was asked to park for security check where the car hood was opened and examined and I was subjected to a body check – after seeking my permission for the same! I must confess that the accent of the Irish completely baffled me. I had to strain every bit of functional auditory nerves to understand pieces of their conversation. I guess I made the grade quite comfortably for they requested me drive ahead and park in the appropriate lane and await boarding announcement. We had more than an hour to kill which we spent in the passenger lounge of the terminal. I completed the blog post and other left over documentation when it was time to board. The ferry was small and could possibly take about 200 odd passenger cars. The low height did not permit the loading of commercial vehicles, or at least I did not see any of them. The ferry took close to 2 hours to reach Larne. The sun deck of the ferry did not offer any great views – it was more of a smokers’ lounge - since it was in the middle of the vessel with view obstructed by accommodation and signal equipment of it. View from the window was hindered by salt tints. Hence, bored with little else to do I slept soundly for an hour.

On shore before 1 pm I reached the Bed & Breakfast location in the heart of Belfast in less than three quarters of an hour. Being a Sunday people were everywhere and I could not locate a parking slot near the hotel. I double parked and sought the advice of Andre, the B&B owner. He asked me to park anywhere I could find a place for all of them were for free. I found a slot not very far from the hotel and brought in the luggage and checked in. The room was yet to be cleaned. Therefore, we left the bags in the appointed room and went to Restaurant 25 around the corner of the busy street, a place recommended by Andre, for lunch. He had first suggested the Moghul restaurant next door thinking that we would be keen on Indian food. We had a long wait for the dish ordered - Penne Alla 25. It was worth every minute of it; the chicken and ham dish delighted as also the sticky toffee pudding. The restaurant was full when we were there and was operated by just one Manager, a young girl, and the Chef. The girl was clearly overworked and too busy to actually service customers in time. When I brought this to her attention she was extremely apologetic about it and said that she would be joined by other staff later in the evening.

The delight, despite the small accommodation, was the hassle free WiFi access. Once we were through the social media updates and a short nap we set out for what was becoming the routine – walk to the city centre. The aim was to cover the Titanic Memorial and City Hall and whatever fell in between. A feature of the city, I soon discovered, was that there was excellent description of historic buildings and culturally important places right beside them. During the walk that lasted about three hours some of the main attractions we enjoyed were:
BBC House – operations of British Broadcasting Corporation were shifted to this 6 storey building in 1941 after they had functioned since 1924 from a linen warehouse. Extensions have been done to accommodate the growing business since 1975.
St Malachy’s Catholic Church – the focal point of the parishioners, and in my view a symbol of Catholic assertion against the dominant Protestant, has been a place of worship for over 170 years. The church looks like a Tudor Castle on the outside and is ornate on the inside.
Belfast City Hall – one of the most iconic buildings in the City, is the civic building from where the local administration is carried out. A notice on the front door paid tribute to the lives lost in the recent Gaza conflict. Apart from a stately statue of Queen Victoria the grounds of the City Hall features a number of monuments and memorials.
Ulster Hall – this place played host to Charles Dickens, Lord Randolph Churchill and Caruso in the first 50 years since its commissioning in 1862. This entertainment centre even entertained American soldiers during the war when they were billeted in Ireland. Orchestra, boxing matches and music shows are the like are all held here.
The Belfast Waterfront – is a large complex purpose built for conferences, arts and entertainment. The modern construction has been busy hosting events since 1997. Just in front of the road leading to the waterfront is the Royal Courts of Justice. The old building and its modern extension are worth a visit.
Thanksgiving Square – the female form represents various themes associated with aspiration and hope, peace and reconciliation. Her position on the globe signifies a unified approach to life of earth. The aim of the sculpture is to bring people together and to bring hearts and minds together – to build bridges across divides in community and societies.
W5 at Odyssey – where they seek to answer whowhatwherewhenwhy questions. It is a science and discovery centre in the Titanic Quarter and on the way to the memorial. The centre is meant to unlock curiosity and quench the thirst for scientific information.
Titanic Belfast – the city is the birthplace of the famous RMS Titanic, where she was built by the skyline dominating cranes of the Harland & Wolff shipyard. The Titanic experience is located in an iconic six floor modern building that showcase the four hulls of the ship as its façade. The Titanic experience from conception to launch can be experienced at the centre.
The Big Fish – just at the point where the Lagan Wier – where Belfast’s shipbuilding history began - walkway ends the 10 meter Salmon celebrates the regeneration of River Lagan, the history of Belfast and the historical significance of the confluence of the River Lagan and Farset. The external ‘skin’ of the Big Fish is made up of ceramic tiles. Behind that looms the large Custom House.
Albert Clock – beside the Custom House is the Albert Clock, which was said, in jest, as Belfast’s answer to the Pisa monument. The tall 113 ft Gothic structure was built in 1865 on reclaimed land and hence, it started tilting and was corrected in a recent renovation.
Grand Opera House – is Northern Ireland’s premier theatre, which was established in 1895. Just before it we passed the grand Presbyterian Assembly building which is the headquarters of the Irish Presbyterian Church. Just ahead of it was a church that was under demolition!
Crown Liquor Saloon – the historic traditional pub is revered for its range of real ales and classy pub food. We were given to understand that what makes it stand out is the famous Irish hospitality in the pub. The Crown is a favourite of Belfast and is considered one of the greatest old bars of the world. From the outside the bar is an architectural masterpiece and a visual gem.

By now the feet were near protest and we reached the hotel. Fortunately a parking space had become available in front of the hotel and I shifted the car to that place. Andre and his friend were amused to see the car. Dinner had to be at the Restaurant 25; we loved the food at the place and hence, did not want to experience anything else. After a couple of shots of Malibu and Smirnoff Red we had the Gamberoni Picante – king prawns in white wine, garlic butter and fresh chillies – for starters and Branzino Asparagi – fillet of sea bass, basil whipped mashed potato, wilted spinach, pencil asparagus, sun dried tomato and basil infused butter – for the main course. After the heavy meal we decided against a dessert. Once the meal was over I chatted with Malachy, the owner of the restauarant, and Naomi, the Manager cum waitress. I congratulated Malachy for having someone as efficient as Naomi who cared for the customers and worked hard there. He told me how he was near closing down the place ten weeks back and how hiring her had changed his fortunes! He passionately explained to us the problems Belfast had seen in the past and the uneasy truce that prevails in the city. The 65% Catholic population feel that they have been given the short shrift by the Protestants. Underneath the apparently calm surface is a definite simmer.

Before I fell asleep I ruminated about the 10 weeks that we had been on the road and the destination being just a few days away. 

DAY 69 – 23 August 2014; York to Edinburgh

The Holiday Inn Express, where we stayed, is a budget hotel of the IHG Group, which has within its fold brands such as Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn. The Express properties normally do not have restaurants attached to them. They are set up in close association with a restaurant chain. So it was in York.  The Toby Carvery is a large franchise in the UK and in many locations both the facilities goes hand in hand. When we walked to the restaurant last night it was almost near closing time. The Carvery had run out of the carved meats and hence, we settled for less exotic stuff. During the checkout in the morning I had a long chat with Elizabeth and David, two youngsters who were on reception duty. They mentioned to me that if there is one thing that is “Yorkshire” it has to be Yorkshire pudding. Elizabeth explained how it is made and why it is so typically Yorkshire – she said that one could get Yorkshire pudding in the rest of UK, but it would not be as good as it is in Yorkshire! It is not a pudding in the real sense; from its description I got the feel that it is more related to the pie family and less to the pudding.

England has 87 counties, also known as ‘shires’, of which Yorkshire is among the largest. Having been an avid follower of English county cricket in the formative days the many shires like Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Worcestershire, etc are familiar. The shires are erstwhile Royal hunting grounds, mostly belonging to the medieval era. When I drove through Nottingham yesterday on the way to York I also recollected the legend of Robin Hood. Therefore, when I passed a sign board that said “Sherwood Forest” I was overcome by childlike glee and adolescent curiosity. From the age of the Major Oak in the Sherwood Forest, which is associated strongly with the legend, it is thought to be over 1200 years old. The Forest pulls in almost a million visitors annually. The TV serial of Robin Hood had much to do with that, it is understood.

The Navigator took us through the smaller roads to Edinburgh. That way we avoided the Motor Way and got to sample the wonderfully romantic landscape of wide open farmlands, meadows, small villages, quaint towns and a vast sea of the Yorkshire Lavender fields.  The small villages and towns are extremely neat, quiet and orderly. Not many people were seen around. One of the bigger towns we passed was Gateshead, which has an International Stadium. In the short time that we drove through the town we could also make out that it has lovely architecture. The Millennium Bridge across the River Tyne is truly iconic. The ‘border crossing’ between England and Scotland is a hit with tourists. We stopped at the location too, which is on the Whitelee Moore National Nature Reserve. Bus loads of tourists arrived as we were having a hot dog and coffee. It was difficult to take photographs as it was that crowded. The two middle aged women running the small mobile eatery told us that the Season runs from March to October, after which it becomes too cold to operate from there. Snow is an added threat to the business. Almost at the border lies Jedburgh, on Jed Water, that has been inhabited for almost a 1000 years. the town is dominated by the ruins of the Abbey, which was peopled by Augustinian monks from the 11th to the 17th century. Border wars left the Abbey in ruins. The town also boasts of Mary, Queen of Scots’ House and the Jedburgh Castle Jail, which are now museums.

We got into Edinburgh before 1 am and reached the Masson Hotel reception without losing our way in the town! At the reception we were told that we would have to wait till 2 pm for the room to be ready. The Hotel looked more like student accommodation than a regular hotel. On the premises were student accommodation too that converted to general accommodation during the holidays. I was fortunate to get car park inside the premises that was free for guests. I was also assured that the parking area has CCTV cameras and regular patrol to ensure that the vehicles are safe and sound in the open area. We took the available time to have a buffet lunch in the restaurant of the Hotel. The spread was impressive, but I thought that the combination of the foods could be better. There was a large choice of fruits and beverages too. By the time we returned from lunch the double room was ready. We put the bags into the room and got busy on social media and mails.

Just before 4 pm, when the weather had turned for the better we decided to foot it to the City centre. The lady at the reception, who was in a big hurry for there were many in the queue with various reasons to be serviced, helped us with a map and suggested a where the major sights were. It was just a 30 minute walk and we decided to enjoy the weather and the city leisurely, which we did. The first item on the ‘To Do’ list was to get postage stamps for postcards - Lal sends four of them to family and friends from almost every country we have been to. The chirpy Bangladeshi at the counter chatted us up for a while before the queue behind us made us walk away. Edinburgh is a city with grand buildings and history written all over them. Without adequate time to explore and understand their significance it is unjust to just stare and walk away. But, with the limited time with us, we could only do that. Even then it was illuminating. Thus, to walk along the Royal Mile was fascinating in itself. The Royal Mile appeared to be the busiest place in the entire city. It is a succession of streets that form the Old Town of the City. The road runs for a Scot’s Mile (1.8 kms) between two historically significant parts of Scotland – the Edinburgh Castle and the Holyrood Palace. Each of the streets that make up the Royal Mile such as Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate and Abbey Strand have so many attractions that it will take at least three days to do full justice. I was enthralled to see the church in which Adam Smith (the creator of “The Wealth of Nations”) was buried, the house in which he lived and his stately statue. The Old Calton Cemetery holds the memorial of David Hume, the philosopher and historian. The Nelson monument on Calton Hill can be seen from most parts of the Old City. The monument to Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, on Regent Road, Old Parliament building, New Parliament, Palace of Holyrood, Scotch whisky and Single Malt experience, University of Edinburgh, St Giles Cathedral, etc received attention in varying degrees. The Edinburgh Castle, which is now a military establishment, was admired from some distance for we did only one half of the Royal mile walk. Weekend had truly set in with many street performers enthralling milling crowds. Most of them involved the crowd, particularly the young. Every August Edinburgh hosts the Military Tatoo festival. We gave that also the short shrift for we had to leave Edinburgh early for Belfast.

As the feet got weary we decided to turn back for the Hotel. On the way we explored options of various cuisines in the City; one thing that surprised us was the number of Indian restaurants in the city centre. In the end we thought it better to eat at the hotel restaurant, which offered both a la carte and buffet options. Before the food it had to be Russian Standard Vodka and Malibu Rum lightly laced with canned orange juice and plenty of ice. I ordered a honey glazed pork belly dish and Lal took on the pan fried salmon. By the end of the meal we were in the right frame of mind for a long night’s rest, with the senses appropriately fine tuned by the spirits.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

DAY 68 – 22 August 2014; Calais to York

Even if I have nothing slated for the early morning I get out of bed by habit. When I did this morning I wanted cause as little disturbance to Lal as was possible. I picked up my laptop and tiptoed out of the room with the intention of working on the blog in the reception area. When I got there I found that all the chairs and tables had been moved to the restaurant and locked. When I was pondering the next step I found an elderly gentleman standing outside cursing the afterhours check in machine. It was raining and I saw there were more people in a van. I opened the door for him and disappointed him, I think, when I told him that I do not work at the hotel. He got on the phone and woke up the receptionist, who came out and checked the group of 8 in and handed over the room keys. She refused me a chair till the reception was officially opened by 6 am. I sat on the steps of the stairway and completed my work, reflecting on the journey thus far across 25 countries spanning nearly 22,650 kms in 67 days. And I had successfully negotiated driving the right hand drive car on the right side of the road for 57 days – since leaving Nepal on 27th June.

I had been a student at the London School of Economics in 1995-96. During summer vacation in 1996 I backpacked for a month in Europe travelling to Belgium, France, Germany and The Netherlands. The low cost journey was facilitated by Sister Gilda, my aunt and a nun with a Belgian order who was then stationed in Brussels, and Kamalamma Chechi and Bernie Chettan who were in Hengelo. I travelled by the Eurolines bus service with student concession and trains that offered hospitality arrangement for railway officers from other countries. The first leg of the journey then was the trip from London to Brussels. I was astonished to see, as I am even today, the big ferry that consumed the large bus I had taken from London. The 45 minute experience was wholly new and not for a minute did I sit down in the floating Palace on Water. The most unforgettable experience aboard the P&O ferry in 1996 was capturing on film a seagull picking a peanut from my outstretched hand. What was I going to experience today?

We were booked for the 9.50 am ferry and hence, left for the Terminal by 8 am after a decent breakfast. The queue was fairly long for the immigration at the port of Calais. Fortunately, a new lane opened up and I benefitted from it. Dating the Schengen visa exit was done quickly. However, the official at the UK Border Agency gate was intrigued by the ‘multi-coloured’ car, as he put it to one of his colleagues and asked us to pull into a parking lot to complete the formalities in the office rather than at the gate. In light rain we ran to the office and got the matter done soon – we were technically admitted into the 26th country of our journey. Since it was only 8.30 am I hoped to get on to the 8.40 ferry. However, at the check in gate I was told that the gate was closed for the 8.40 and hence, had to wait almost an hour in the designated lane to be boarded for the 9.50 am crossing.

The service left Calais Port almost on time. The views of the receding Port brought thoughts of the wonderful time I had on that side of the Continent. The sun deck offered good views but it was windy and cold to stay there for long. I completed a few tasks of updating information on my phone and wandered around to check prices to compare them with what the Euro Zone offered. Prices for breakfast, coffee and drinks in GBP were the same as that in Euro – Euro 1 was GBP 1. Therefore, I found items costlier in UK. The price of fuel is another case in point – in France a litre of diesel oil was Euro 1.35 whereas in York, UK it was GBP 1.36. While Euro is approximately INR 81, GBP is INR 101 – thus, on an anecdotal calculation, costs are almost 25% higher in the UK. It takes time to get used to the costs and comparison against Indian currency. I decided on tap water to bottled water based on such a comparison.

The Dover Strait crossing was scheduled to be completed in 90 minutes and we were almost bang on target. By 11 am, when I was up on the deck for a change of scenery, the White Cliffs of Dover came into clear view. The cliff faces are fairly steep in some places, rising to almost 350 feet. It is said that the Cliffs can be seen from the shores of France on a clear day due to its peculiar façade that is composed of chalk enhanced by streaks of black flint. The Cliffs have romantic and poetic significance as they face Continental Europe at the narrowest part of the English Channel, due to which they have been threatened by invasions and against which the Cliffs have stood guard over centuries. The sight of the approaching Cliffs have provided hope to travellers in the days of the glory of the Empire.

While disembarking from the Pride of Canterbury I was slightly apprehensive about ‘switching sides’ on the road. Lal comforted me by saying that the deep ‘DNA’ imprint would help acclimatise quickly. However, I took to the road gingerly and after driving on the right side for 57 days I did adapt soon to the new conditions. Moreover, at regular intervals there were warnings on the road to drive on the left. The maximum speed was 110 kmph and the road conditions were not a patch on what I experienced in the Schengen States. To me the road infrastructure was below par and the congestion unacceptable. For instance, ahead of the Dartford crossing the queue of vehicles was nearly 3 miles long. At this point the operation of the toll gate is reminiscent of the unscientific manner in which it is done in India. I wondered why the ‘sticker’ option was not adopted for UK so that the traffic could move smoothly. Additionally, at every major point on the route like Canterbury, Cambridge, Stamford (just to name a few) congestion was endemic. Traffic stops, crawls and then trickles. It took me more than 7 hours to get to York from Dover, a distance of 450 kms that should have been covered in about 4 hours as per European standards. The creaking road infrastructure, its maintenance and operation made me put the Indian experience in its proper perspective – after all, we learnt from the Babus of the Empire!

Mirus, my travel agent in Delhi, had booked us into the Holiday Inn Express in York. The information I keyed into the Navigator took me about 15 kms away from the location of the hotel. However, we considered it a heaven sent that we missed the route. We drove through the premises of Castle Howard to Slingsby. When I reached that village I knew I was in the wrong place. I stopped when I saw a car turning on to the main road from a bylane. I sought the young man’s attention and asked if I was anywhere near the hotel. He parked the car and I walked across to him. He explained with the help of a map that I was at the very least 20 minutes away from the correct location of the hotel. He was certainly placed there for us to get the correct information for there was no one in sight for miles; a Guardian Angel, surely. We retraced the path that we had travelled to Slingsby. En route we once again enjoyed the fabulous blind summit drive which gives a feeling of a roller coaster. The Castle Howard is the 300 year old stately home of the Howard family, the Earls of Carlisle. The castle has featured in television serials and films. The massive estate of the 7th Earl covered over 13,000 acres across 5 large villages – there is a monument to the 7th Earl in one of the villages. The estate was also served by its own railway station till the 1950s. it is on the drive back that we appreciated the North frontage of the castle across a large lake populated by ducks. The summit drives took us through the narrow Carrmire Gate and Pyramid Gate. There is also an Obelisk near the entrance to the castle.

On the way back from Slingsby I spoke to the hotel reception and got an address that the Navigator understood better. Without any further misses we reached the hotel and realised that we had overshot it on the way to Slingsby. While planning the halt in York I had in mind visits to the Cathedral and the Railway Museum. However, late arrival into York, thanks to the road condition and congestion we could not make the visits. Lal and I took it that we lost our way a bit in York to appreciate something typically Yorkshire, the blind summit drive and the Castle as also to meet a Guardian Angel in Slingsby.

Friday, August 22, 2014

DAY 67 – 21 August 2014; Antwerp to Calais

There wasn’t much of a distance to be done this day and very little scheduled in Calais. Hence, a late start was decided upon with nothing to be hurried with. I did get up early to finish the blog post and some documentation. Apart from that I had to make sure that the Navigator was ready for guidance out of the city. By 8 am we went down to the street to look for suitable breakfast. The first shop to the left of the hotel advertised “All Day Long Breakfast”, and that caught my eye. It was an interesting enterprise of two shops – one sold breakfast and the other beverages. Together they offered breakfast on tables placed outside their shops. It was a bit windy and we chose to sit inside the cosy restaurant that served the beverages. Moreover, the young lady serving in the shop was extremely friendly and welcoming. The coffee we ordered there was served with a biscuit, cream and sugar. The breakfast ordered next door arrived soon. A plate full of sliced cucumber, cabbage, grated carrot, a huge crusty bun, thick slivers of bacon and three eggs appeared in a large plate! We were certainly hungry, but not so hungry as to take all that down. However, large though it was it did not remain so within a half hour. After I had finished the third of the eggs that was served sunny side up I wondered if I had eaten it all. Once that was settled we walked out for a few more pictures in the square of the Ferris Wheel, the Central Station and entrance to the Chinatown. When I leave a city I often wonder if I will ever come back there. I had been back in Antwerp this time after 18 years.

During the journey we have been most careful with the water that we drank. It was mostly bottled water. I had tried tap water in many countries as also public taps in some of the city squares. It had not upset me in any manner. We walked into a store and picked up bottled water for the journey. The person who facilitated the check out in the hotel gave me clear directions to leave the city – he asked me to follow road signs for Ghent. Since we could not locate anyone suitable to affix stickers for Belgium Lal and I completed the formalities and shifted gears from the garage. Car parking cost Euro 15 after 25% discount offered by the hotel. The consolation, however, was that the car and its contents were safe. We had been fed some horrid stories about crime in places like Amsterdam and Antwerp. The problem seemed to emanate from immigrants, or so I was given to know.

The drive from the city did not pose any problems, more so because the Navigator seconded the directions given by the person in the hotel. The weather was bright too and it remained so right through the day. The drive to Antwerp took us past the Belgian cities of Ghent and Bruges and the famous town of Dunkirk in France. We reached the outskirts of Calais in about 2 hours; there were some delays thereafter due to road works. Locating the hotel was a bit tricky for the address I had mentioned it to be at the intersection of two roads and the Navigator was blind to such instructions! In the end we located the Balladins Hotel without much ado, navigating through narrow roads and challenging road crossings. Two ladies were at work in the hotel reception when we arrived. We had to wait just a while before the room was got ready. The twin bed room was really small with hardly any standing space. Using the table and chair was a challenge with my belly in total disagreement with the space provided! We had to spend the night there and that was that. The strong WiFi signal negated some effects of the small room. Once the Facebook, WhatsApp and Gmail were done we asked the ladies at the counter to affix green stickers on France. They were, as usual, surprised to hear of our story of travel from India by car. With that done there were only two more red dots to turn green. We had covered nearly 7400 kms in 19 Schengen countries in 29 days as against 15250 kms in 6 Asian countries in 38 days. It has been path breaking and deeply humbling at the same time. The experiences, the people, the places, the food, the weather have all been amazing.

My first task was to book for the ferry to cross the English Channel the next day. I was told by the receptionist that the Ferry Terminal is just 2 kms from the hotel. On the way there we saw some police action. Many young boys and girls of African origin were lounging on the road close to the ferry terminal. Some were even running with police guys trying to round them up. What it was for we did not know, but we surmised that they could be in the country illegally.  We soon got to the parking lot of the P&O Ports Ferry Terminal. The business was taken over by DP World with its acquisition of P&O Ports in 2007. The lady at the booking counter was extremely happy to hear that I had worked for DP World in India. She was shocked, to say the least, that I had driven to France in a car. She soon took my passport and took details of the car to find me a slot in the 9.40 am ferry to Dover. She asked me to be early, at least by an hour, to complete the immigration formalities. She did also mention that in case I complete the check in and immigration early I could find place on the ferry that departed an hour earlier at no extra cost.

Despite the large breakfast before leaving Antwerp the stomach started its protest once we spied the Ferry Terminal restaurant. At the entrance to the restaurant was advertised a buffet lunch for Euro 9. Lal and I plumbed for it. I asked for ham, potatoes, legumes, fries and sauce. A huge helping of each found place on a plate that I could carry only in a tray. Without knowing the size of the helping I had ordered an apple pie too, which came with another coconut cake! Cold water was provided free. Lal opted to have the Lasagne. With single minded devotion I attacked the food and finished it without leaving many traces in the plate. I walked around the large restaurant a bit to settle the food. The views of the terminal were amazing from the glass fronted 2nd floor restaurant.

It was siesta for a while after that. Once we woke up the receptionist suggested that we could go to the beach since the weather was glorious. She gave us directions but we ended up driving around the old city and landed in a large area full of super markets. We walked around there a fair while before getting back to the hotel. Once in the hotel we opened the bottle of Suntory whisky Rajesh had presented us in Den Haag. The smooth drink was helped down with peanuts and olives in brine. I ordered spaghetti and ham for dinner while Lal opted for the Salmon meal at the hotel restaurant. The package came with a bottle of beer and a dessert. I took the option of Apple Pie with cream. The food portion was just right and we enjoyed the meal. We would be exiting the Schengen territory early tomorrow. It has been a remarkable experience. 

DAY 66 – 20 August 2014; Den Hague to Antwerp

Musthafa had scheduled a visit to FloraHolland in Naaldwijk to experience the flower auction. Accordingly we were to be at his residence by a quarter past seven in the morning. A combination of factors delayed us. While checking out there was some confusion with the charges to be paid. Finally when the amount was decided the net connection went on the blink and delayed the card transaction. All was well when we hit the street. However, a wrong turn almost cost us in dents and fines. I turned into a one way street with vehicles rushing head on. I managed to find an exit just at the right time before the traffic police could arrive. High beams and gestures from the drivers of the vehicles told their side of the story!

Holland was the crucible of floriculture development and trade, where it became an industry over the past century and more. While floriculture is being increasingly internationalised and spread across the globe Holland retains its primacy. Acres and acres of green houses can be seen all along the way where flowers and plants are cultivated in controlled environment. FloraHolland is a conglomerate of auctions of cut flowers and plants. It is the largest of its kind in the world and brings together the cooperative efforts of buyers and growers. Apart from providing a platform for demand to meet its supply and vice versa the organisation also provides valuable and reliable market information to both parties. This makes FloraHolland the gateway to International Trade in floriculture. Without knowing where to go we wandered into a large warehouse where pallets of carefully packed and packaged cut flowers were being expeditiously towed into containers for shipment. Our presence in the warehouse did raise some eyebrows among the workers there a security guard came by cycle and gently told us that we were trespassing! He did tell us where to go for a tour of the premises. Since we had enough time to appreciate the goings on we skipped the rest and set course for Delft, where Shihana would be dropped at her workplace in TNO.

Delft is a hugely historical city in that it is reportedly inhabited for the past 800 years and gained in importance as the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company that traded between Europe and Asia since 1602. William of Orange settled in Delft and led his revolt against Spanish domination and won freedom for what is now The Netherlands and a substantial part of Belgium. Upon his assassination in 1584 he was buried in the New Church in Delft and his successors to the throne who still rule The Netherlands are buried here, continuing with the tradition. Delft is now a popular tourist destination in Holland as it lies between The Hague and Rotterdam on the Rhine. It is one of the oldest technical Universities in Europe. The 13,000 plus student population from all over the world testify to its prominent position in today’s educational environment. The Blue Pottery of Delft is one of its main exports and revenue earner. Vermeer, the famous 17 century painter, is a proud son of the city.

In Delft, apart from looking up the churches and the railway station, I also got time to exchange currency, which the Western Union counter did effortlessly. Before leaving the city we had a second breakfast in HEMA, which is popular with the locals for the excellent offer of a full breakfast for under Euro 2! The place was full to overflowing. Thereafter, we drove to the outermost point that led to the highway leading to Antwerp. After another cup of coffee at the fuel station we bid goodbye to Mustafa and his son. He and his family have been a great support for us and will always remain dear to us in our hearts.

The drive to Antwerp in mixed weather conditions was mostly eventless. When we entered the City of Antwerp and neared the location of the Hotel the Navigator became quixotic. It did lead me around a bit till I saw a parking garage that had the name of the street where the hotel was located. Apart from large number of 4 wheeler parking spaces the garage had almost two levels exclusively for bicycle parking! We parked in the garage and went on an exploratory walk to locate the hotel. It was indeed most interesting to discover that the hotel was just 10 meters away from the exit of the garage! The Hotel, booked by Mirus our travel agent, was centrally located, almost diagonally opposite the Central Railway Station. The hotel also promised a 25% discount on the parking charges of Euro 20 for 24 hours. The hotel room was small – we had booked a double room – but was adequate. The hotel did not have a restaurant but there were many eateries around the hotel. We decided to look around after putting luggage in the room. After scouting around a bit we decided on the Dragon restaurant. We ordered a shrimp fried rice and another with chicken. It was supremely tasty. A feature of the meal was that the water cost almost as much as a Kriek beer!

Once the siesta was done with we spent time in the Antwerp Zoo and the grand Central Railway Station, which were a few meters away from the hotel. The Zoo is one of the oldest in the world, having been established in 1843. The unique architecture of the Central Station emphasis the vibrant life in the city. The historical railway station with its 75 meter dome constitutes an important tourist reference point of the city. The platforms are at three levels with another two levels exclusively for passenger circulation. The magnificent station was named as the fourth most beautiful in the whole world. I personally felt that the Giant Ferris Wheel in front of the Central Station ruined the façade of the station building. Around the station is the heart of the Diamond quarter. The trade of diamonds in the city, I understand, is now monopolised by Indians.

Afterwards we walked along the main street from the Central Station to the Old City. Along the way were the statues of David Teniers, the famous Flemish painter and Van Dyck, the renowned Dutch baroque painter. Peter Paul Rubens, the Flemish painter par excellence, built his home and studio in Antwerp. The stately building and its courtyard was his design. It is now a Museum, which was closed at the time of our visit. Rubens is buried in the Jacob Church, not very far from his home. The Cathedral was closed at the time but the Leonidas, the famed Belgian chocolate maker, was doing brisk business.

The 16th century City Hall is one of the central pieces in the Great Market of Antwerp and is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site. The legend of Antwerp is moulded in bronze in front of the City Hall. It is said that the passage through the River Scheldt was at the mercy of the giant Antigoon who collected massive fines from ships passing by. Those refusing to pay had their hands cut off and thrown away. This practise was stopped when a Roman soldier, Silvius Brabon, slew the giant and threw his severed hand into the River Scheldt. The name of the city is also derived from the act – Hant (hand)-werpen (to discard). The granite severed hand in the city centre is also a recollection of the legend. The elaborate guildhalls stand testimony to the flourishing tradesmen of the day.

After that we walked along the water front admiring the River Scheldt in low tide. A short walk away is the Hetsteen, the oldest building in Antwerp. The 9th century fortification has been a defence establishment, a living quarter, a prison and a museum along Its history. The Port of Antwerp, the majestic building that now houses the pilot station, old buildings that have seen the tumultuous happenings of the past and a few beers later we retraced our route back to the hotel. On the way we stopped by at the Kellys Irish Pub, where I met three Indians who were doing diamond business in Antwerp. Youngsters all three, they were keen to know details of the journey. The fish and chips portion was quite good and so was the waffle with strawberry and sugar. 

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...