End of the London updates

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Inverness

The next stop was Inverness. I didn’t know Inverness had any history to it. It wasn’t till we got there that I learnt that the Inverness castle was where Macbeth (of Shakespearean fame) ruled from. In fact, it turns out that Macbeth was a really nice king. There was this barbarian who fought him, lost, and turned to the English for help — who of course were delighted, and they killed Macbeth. This barbarian stupidly signed a document saying that Scotland would pay tributes to England, and that’s been the source of all the trouble.

The other thing to see, of course, was the famous Loch Ness monstor, or Nessie as the locals like to call it. We made one mistake, though. We landed there on a Sunday. As we got off the bus, we learnt that no tours operate on Sundays. The tourist information center was closed. I wanted to buy batteries for my camera, and the shops were largely closed. The only practical thing that was open was MacDonald’s, so we picked up a meal.

Fortunately, a guy called Tony Harmsworth came along on his van. He conducts guided tours to the Loch Ness, so we hopped on with about 8 others. Tony was apparantly involved with the Loch Ness centre since its founding, and had in fact headed it. So he was very knowledgeable about the history of the monstor.

Loch Ness in itself is beautiful. It’s a huge lake, very calm, and apparantly very deep. On one end is the sea. On the other end is the Urquhart castle. It’s a stone castle that was destroyed by the Jacobites (who had the habit of destroying everything they saw, actually). I have a sneaking suspicion Tolkien borrowed quite a bit of inspiration from the Loch Ness and the Urquhart castle. It could well be the remnants of Isengard — or the fort of the Uruk-Hai orcs.

The monster itself, of course, is just a myth. The local folks always thought there was a large fish in the waters. In 1933, Mrs. McRoy saw something large — about 6 to 9 feet — that she thought was a whale. Journalists caught on, and blew it up to a monstor. A Mrs. and Mr. Spicer claimed to have seen a snake-like monstor walking past the road. (We drove past this spot.) A vet student told his mother that he broke his bike because he fell off in surprise when he saw a dinosaur-like creature. Since he was a vet student, journalists believed him. A famous reporter found hippo pugmarks. In the end, it turned out to be a hoax using his hippo foot-shaped ash tray. Then this reporter rigs a photograph that looks like a dinosaur peeping out of the lake. That’s a hoax too, using a toy submarine and a piece of cardboard. Many of the other ‘monstor’ photographs turned out to be fakes — in one case, a labrador fetching a piece of stick (see if you can spot the face of the dog). In the 1987, operation Deep Scan searched the whole lake, and found 3 suspiciously large living objects, but they were no where near large enough to be a monstor. Sure, there’s probably some big fish down there, though.

The rest of the evening was at a local pub with some loud music on. Then we hopped on to the bus, reaching London at 7AM on Monday.

In time to get back to class.

Edinburgh

Scotland’s wonderful. We left on Friday night at 10:30PM on a ‘coach’, as they call it. A bus, really. We would’ve gone by rail, except that because of the recent flooding, trains weren’t available to Scotland. The coach was far too uncomfortable to sleep, until exhaustion overcame me at around 2AM. We reached Edinburgh at 7AM. (Incidentally, it’s pronounced Edinburough, though if you heard a Scot say it, you would be forgiven for thinking it’s ‘Edinbarra’)

The cold there is to be felt to be believed. The forecast said 3 degrees, but it could well have been sub-zero. We stood shivering at the bus stop, waiting for the next bus that would take us to the hostel where we’d booked dorms. The place was called “The Edinburgh House Hostel”. So we knocked at 1, Craiglockhart Terrace, and a lady opens it.

“Excuse me, is this the Edinburgh House Hostel?”

Stares a while. “No, this isn’t exactly a hostel. Wait a minute.”

So we wait a minute. A man in underwear appears. “Come in, come in.”

“Excuse me, is this the Edinburgh House Hostel?”

“Uh, well, um, yeah, kindof. Would you like a room?” He had just been woken up, and wasn’t at his brightest.

“We already have a reservation. We would be staying one night.”

“Ah, very fine. That would be 15 pounds, then.”

“But we already booked this place for 12 pounds!”

After that, the conversation degenerated to chaos, and we finally sorted it out. A guy called John, who lives in Canada, and probably owns the place, had confirmed the booking for us over e-mail. The guy in underwear (Tom) didn’t know about it. Anyway, he said “Here’s your room. Here’s the bathroom. Here’s the kitchen. Good night!” and went back to sleep.

An Australian girl called Kim, who stays in the same house, said it was just their house, which they had let out during a festival season, and were now using it as a boarding house of sorts. You could tell. It looked like a normal house, except with bunkers.


Scottish bus drivers are crazy. They insist on having us give the EXACT change, failing which you cannot get on a bus. No cards, nothing. After having struggled with that a bit, we managed to get to Princes Street, the main street in Edinburgh. Edinburgh has these hop-on hop-off tour buses that go around the city giving commentary. You can get on and off at any point. Our first stop was at Edinburgh Castle, where we met William.

William (not his real name, I’m sure) had painted half his face blue, had long hair, and was dressed in armour. He even had a sword. If none of this sounds familiar, you haven’t seen Braveheart. (Incidentally, our tour guide tells us that William Wallace is supposed to have been 6’7″. ) He was collecting donations for children with leukemia, and we donated liberally in exchange for a snap with him. We gave the inside of the castle a skip. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. We went, instead, to a weaving exhibition, which showed the history of the Scottish kilt. The Scottish dress is basically a skirt of sort (the kilt), and a cloth you tie to the shoulder. It started as a blanket that you wore when you moved around, but became a fashion item later. These things cost over 500 pounds today. We also got snaps of ourselves in these kilts at the exhibition.

Our next stop was Arthur’s Seat, which is a hill that has a great view of Edinburgh. Being the great athlete that I am, I could climb up about 30m before I was panting. We did manage to get close to the top, though. The lovely thing about the UK (perhaps all of Europe) is that the colours are so bright that, even when people dress in greys and browns, the scenery is splendid.

It was dark by 4:30PM. The evening was spent window shopping, and in my case, eating anything that I could find. Good, as it turned out that I had to skip dinner. The neighbourhood pub told us at 7:05PM that they served dinner only up to 7PM. Strange country!

What people read on trains

I’m leaving for Scotland tonight, and will be back on Monday morning. Await interesting stories…

While academics has prevented any outdoor adventures over the last few weeks, the underground has been an unending source of intrigue. This morning, for example, I decided to take a survey of what people in the underground were reading. People on the trains would either read something, talk on their mobiles, or listening to a walkman. The last category are uninteresting. The only mobile phone conversation I overheard is too embarrassing to be be printed here. So I’ll stick to what people were reading.

Most, of course, would read the newspaper. There’s a free paper called The Metro which is available in most railway stations. Some would read books, but till date, I haven’t been able to recognize a single author other than Colin Forbes and Arthur Clarke. Quite a few used to do their office work. For instance, there was a black lady who was reviewing the HR policies of her company. The tourists were easily spotted, since they would be clinging on to the railway map and poring over it. Several would be reading books on how to speak English. But these were the normal ones.

The more interesting ones were, for a start, a Professor who was doing his quiz paper corrections on the train. It was a quiz on financial markets, rather like Prof. Srinivasan’s — a few questions, with blank spaces for answers. He seemed to be going at the rate of 1 per minute.

Another one was reading a book on chess problems. Endgames, particularly. I couldn’t tell what language it was in, though, but I did find time to copy a few phrases down. “en zwart gaf”, “verliest”, “weerlegging van de tekstzet”. Sounds Scandinavian to me. This man was so engrossed in his problems that he didn’t even notice me looking over his shoulder.

But the most interesting one was a man I shall call “Piccard”, because he looked quite like Patrick Stewart (who plays Captain Jean Luc Piccard in Star Trek: The Next Generation). Piccard was bald (almost), with blue-green eyes, wearing a jeans, striped T-shirt, and an orange-black jacket (the kind that policemen wear). Which is all fine. What’s interesting is that he was memorizing something from a notebook. It looked like a diary with handwritten notations. It isn’t easy for me to read upside down, but after 15 minutes, I realized that they were names of streets!

For example, one page was titled “Wondsworth Town Hall to Harrods”, and was followed by a whole page of street names. Nothing else. Now, who on earth would memorize street names? One possibility that struck me was: pizza delivery men. Piccard didn’t look like one. Another possibility: terrorists. Quite possible. Piccard was bald and was chewing gum. Very likely. Piccard went on with this right though the journey, even memorizing maps, when they came up. Now I’m absolutely sure. Maybe someday he’ll hit the papers, and I’ll say “I travelled on a train with this guy.”

My memory being terrible, I was writing all this down, lest I forget it. This made the person to my right (whom I’ll call Demi, reasons will be obvious later) extremely curious. I mean Demi sees this person who’s got a tiny Post-it pad, in which he’s writing down stuff in a tiny handwriting, while suspiciously staring at a bald-head in front of him. I didn’t want Demi to know what I was writing, partly because I was writing about Demi too. So we’d play hide and seek. I’d wait till Demi turned around, then quickly scribble a word or two, just when Demi’s head would turn back, and I’d put my pad back into my pocket. There would be a stalemate for a few minutes, and then Demi’s head would turn back again.

The reason I call Demi Demi is: I couldn’t tell if Demi was a guy or a girl. I mean, he/she had a crew-cut hair. His/her face looked slightly feminine, but his/her build was masculine. No ear-rings, no sign of facial hair, nothing. The first image that struck me was: Demi Moore in GI Jane. I would’ve tried to find out more, but something else at the station stopped me. I’ll write about that later.

Photos developed

I got the film rolls developed from Fotango. You can see my photos on Yahoo.

More gale trouble

The gale caused all kinds of trouble to the underground trains. When I got on at Newbury Park, there was an announcement that trains would be running slow today because there were trees on the track. It wasn’t too far after that accident, and the British Rail was running slowly as it is. Looked like the underground would match it. Then there was another delay — signal confusion this time.

But the cake was when they stopped the train because there was a ‘suspicious looking package on the track’. Now, I can’t imagine what brave soul decided to inspect it, before reporting after two minutes that it was ‘no longer suspicious’, but even less, what could have been in there.

The train problem wasn’t local to London. Carlos (another exchange student) was on the ferry from Calais to Dover, and the ferry was rocking worse than a plane in the middle of a big storm. Of course, people threw up on the boat more than the boat threw them up. By the time they reached Dover, the port was closed, and Carlos was stuck at Dover for 14 hours (with barely any food). He ended up a little late to class, unshaven. Apparantly the gale toll was pretty high.

But with all these heady issues, my time in the train was spent observing a character quite unconcerned with these proceedings. A 2-year old blonde boy (blue-eyed) was sitting next to his mother, reading a copy of the Metro (the local newspaper). I say “reading” because that’s exactly what it looked like he was doing. It was on his lap, and he seemed to be staring at it intently. From where I was sitting, I could read the headlines: “Oil Profits Soar to 10-year High”. Future oil-magnate, perhaps. A few seconds later, he lifted the paper carefully, turned a few pages (no kidding — he actually flipped them), came back to the front page, stared at one corner, and started biting it.

Now, that looked like a much more normal thing for a kid of his age to do. It wasn’t until I got off that I noticed what was on that corner of the page.

“Spice Girls Toast Their Ninth No. 1”

Train delays

The gale caused all kinds of trouble to the underground trains. When I got on at Newbury Park, there was an announcement that trains would be running slow today because there were trees on the track. It wasn’t too far after that accident, and the British Rail was running slowly as it is. Looked like the underground would match it. Then there was another delay — signal confusion this time.

But the cake was when they stopped the train because there was a ‘suspicious looking package on the track’. Now, I can’t imagine what brave soul decided to inspect it, before reporting after two minutes that it was ‘no longer suspicious’, but even less, what could have been in there.

The train problem wasn’t local to London. Carlos (another exchange student) was on the ferry from Calais to Dover, and the ferry was rocking worse than a plane in the middle of a big storm. Of course, people threw up on the boat more than the boat threw them up. By the time they reached Dover, the port was closed, and Carlos was stuck at Dover for 14 hours (with barely any food). He ended up a little late to class, unshaven. Apparantly the gale toll was pretty high.

But with all these heady issues, my time in the train was spent observing a character quite unconcerned with these proceedings. A 2-year old blonde boy (blue-eyed) was sitting next to his mother, reading a copy of the Metro (the local newspaper). I say “reading” because that’s exactly what it looked like he was doing. It was on his lap, and he seemed to be staring at it intently. From where I was sitting, I could read the headlines: “Oil Profits Soar to 10-year High”. Future oil-magnate, perhaps. A few seconds later, he lifted the paper carefully, turned a few pages (no kidding — he actually flipped them), came back to the front page, stared at one corner, and started biting it.

Now, that looked like a much more normal thing for a kid of his age to do. It wasn’t until I got off that I noticed what was on that corner of the page.

“Spice Girls Toast Their Ninth No. 1”

Squeezing more time out of life

Sheer laziness kept me in bed till 9:30AM. Then I got dressed, and logged on to the computer, only to be greeted with “I’ve set the clock an hour behind, because it’s Daylight Saving Time. Check if it’s OK.” or something like that. Neat! I truly got an extra hour. I mean, I actually did something useful. So I told Ashwin (an exchange student from UCLA) that I’d gained an hour of life.

Ashwin: “But then, you’ll lose it when the time changes back…”

Me: “No, because I’ll be in India by then.”

Ashwin: “Hmm…. something wrong there.”

Me: “And I can do this for ever — just spending winters in London!”

Took us a while to figure out that we’d be losing time when we were on the flight. But neither of us seemed to mind.

There’s a gale warning. Now, the weather’s cold enough as it is. Wonder what a gale’s going to do to it.

Diwali

It was a rather busy week. Nothing much happened. I realized that I’d been roaming around too much, and that it was time to get to some assignments. Not that much work was done. Understandable, since most of my time was spent reading movie scripts — notably The World is Not Enough.

Diwali was not at all bad, considering that most of it was spent away from home. After spending 10 hours in front of the computer, I walked home from the Ilford station, when I was greeted with a BANG! It was with pure delight that I turned around, just in time to see a rocket exploding. It took me 45 minutes to walk home that night, watching as I was all the sights in the sky. Never, even in India, have I seen such lovely firework displays. The noise was probably a BIT subdued, but I wouldn’t even be sure of that. The place even smelt like home! I did hear the comment that “Indians have to bring noise pollution even here, do they?” Sure. We make ourselves at home. We lit a lamp, and that was about it for Diwali.

There this site called Fotango that develops films for free and posts them online. I sent 4 rolls to them. The deal is that, you put all these rolls in an envelope, and mail it to them (postage is prepaid). After 3-4 days, the develop your film, mail the negatives to you, and put up the snaps online on their site. So how do they make money? Well, if you print out any snaps, they charge you. But they’re also in the process of building online communities and all that. Well, sounds good, but my bet is still on Yahoo!

Oxford

We visited Oxford in the morning. It was a tour with the Indian YMCA. Though I slept through most of the beauty of the English country side, Oxford itself was a classic example. We went up a tower from which we could see most of Oxford. It was a small town, (about an hour-and-half from London) with lots of spires and quite an old architecture. The Oxford University is split into many colleges, Magdalen (pronounced Maud-len) being the most famous of the lot. Lewis Caroll (of Alice in Wonderland) and Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings) hailed from here. We went first to Christchurch college. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as beautiful as the grass there, with the possible exception of Hampton Court Palace. From there, we took a walk along a river to Magdalen college.

The river was practically filled with people rowing. It was a saturday, so I guess everyone was practicing, but even then, there were far too many boats. Looks like EVERYONE at Oxford has an elective in rowing or something. It was fun to hear the coaches shout instructions over a microphone to those rowing. After walking along the river for about a mile, we learnt that Magdalen was somewhere else. Not enough time to see it, so we just walked back. On the way we found this troupe, the Huckleberrys, who were performing on the road, opposite to a MacDonald’s. They were even selling CDs of their album. The music was pretty fast, and nice too.

I stepped in to the MacDonald’s for some french fries. The prices were quite reasonable. That reminded me of one of the World Economy classes. We all know that Purchasing Power Parity should determine the exchange rate in the long run. (Those who do not are advised to attend an elementary course on International Finance at IIM-B.) Now, it appears that the OECD estimate of the Japanese Yen against the dollar says that the Yen is overvalued by at least 60%. A World Bank study says its overvalued by 50%. These studies are based on PPP. However, if you look at the price of a Big Mac in the US and in Japan, it turns out that the Yen is perfectly valued.

OK, coincidence, you say. What then of Thomas Friedman’s “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention” which asserts that no two countries have fought a major war since after both of them have gotten their MacDonald’s? (Yugoslavia doesn’t count. They fought the NATO, so to speak, which is not a country.)

The next leg of the trip was Stratford upon Avon, which is Shakespeare’s birthplace. Being the uncultured bumpkin that I am, the bulk of my Shakespearean knowledge stems from Jeffrey Archer’s “Shall We Tell The President”. Anyway, we strolled over to Shakespeare’s birthplace, but refrained from paying a 5 pound entry fee. Apparantly, in Britain, you pay to see EVERYTHING. They make more money out of tourism than any other single industry. Then we went to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which is the ‘original’ Shakespearean drama company. But the highlight of the trip was the “Teddy Bear Museum”.

Gyles Brandreth had set up this Teddy Bear Museum in 1984, and it had teddy bears from all over the world. Tony Blair’s teddy bear was there on vacation. Margaret Thatcher’s was there. Vivien Leigh’s was there. You name it. It was wonderful, especially since we could cuddle the teddies. They had a teddy library too, stocked with some masterpieces:

Lateral Thinking, by Edward de Bruno
The Goldilocks Conspiracy, by Little Bear
Vanity Bear, by Thackeray
Dr. Spock’s Cub & Bear Care, of the Medibear series
The Hunchbear of Notredame, by Victor Hugo
Bear Watching, by Desmond Forrest
The Complete Works of Shakesbear
Encyclopaedia Beartannica

I’d take up a job there, if they’d offer me one.