Saraswati Puja, Chance Encounters and Delays – My trip back to London

22nd January 2018 was the date. It was the end of my holidays, I dreaded this day, it meant I had to go back to work after over a month of relaxation. I didn’t take a month off, this being just post the Christmas Holiday season, I didn’t have much work then and when the world returned from their holidays, I decided to take mine. No, it wasn’t some sinister planning I had put into play, just the timing. Bihu at home meant much more to me than Christmas.

Coming back to the day I was writing about – it was Saraswati Puja, an Indian festival dedicated to Goddess Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom/knowledge. In Guwahati, it is a big celebration wherein all school kids dress up and go about. The girls drape themselves in Saris and the lads try and be as fashionable as possible trying to impress them girls. Now, I had to get to the airport and due to the festival, the streets were going to be packed. So, to catch my flight to Delhi at 3:30 PM, I decided to leave home by 12 Noon and take the National Highway which goes around the city and to the airport, a lot longer but would be faster due to less traffic than having to go through the city and make my way through the crowded streets/roads and traffic. Boy, was I wrong! The highway wasn’t empty either, we kept inching towards our destination at snail’s pace. Mum was freaking out, she was pretty sure I was going to miss the flight, I had thoughts running through my head – Is there another flight I can book if I miss this one? What if this was the only flight to Delhi today? There should be other flights. I don’t have to bother about my connecting flight to London from Delhi as it is at 2:30 AM, there would be plenty of flights to get there before then. My brother was the one who kept his cool and kept joking the whole way, keeping the tense atmosphere in the car at bay.  

We managed to reach the airport just in time, said my goodbyes and headed in, go to the Check – In counter and then, funnily enough, the flight was delayed by 2 HOURS!!! So, now I get to sit in the airport for 2 hours, doing nothing, just people watching. Only after I reached London, I saw the text stating that the flight was delayed, I wasn’t using my phone back in India, so I never knew. I sat there, plugged in my earphones, listening to the limited music I had on my phone, music I hadn’t listened to in ages – thanks to Spotify and YouTube.

People watching was the best thing I could do to pass the time, there wasn’t much else. I was done browsing through the books in the little book store. It felt good to see quite a few backpackers at the airport, Northeast India was always a backpacker’s and adventurer’s paradise, but was only now getting discovered by the rest of the country. My eyes shifting from one person to the next, making observations in my head and jumping to my own conclusions about the person, assuming backstories etc., my eyes then shifted to this person walking towards the direction where I was seated. In one glance, I saw who he was, but surprisingly, not many people realised. Walking towards me was Papon, quite a celebrity by now. He had become a household name nationwide gaining popularity due to his contributions to Bollywood and also in the folk music scene. I wasn’t awestruck, no. I had seen him earlier in concert, this time it was different. He felt like one of the crowd, just any other person. Don’t get me wrong, almost all of us Assamese people love him, his music. The term Axomiya Pride may be more apt here. I think I have something with this airport and Assamese celebrities – the last time I was at Guwahati Airport, I saw Joi Barua, another Assamese singer who is also doing well in Bollywood.

Finally, it was time to board the aeroplane. I made my way patiently to the boarding gate and beyond. I had already booked my seat almost a month back and so was able to get a seat right in front, well, the second row. I looked out the window, it was getting dark. I could feel a tinge of emotions, I was leaving my home till what could possibly be another year. My train of thought was broken by a conversation that happened to fall on my ear, I looked up. Another chance encounter! This time it was a politician, an union minister who had come to inaugurate/ participate in a Silk Convention.

He was interesting. I was now paying attention to what he was saying, there were a few people flocking to either have a word or introduce themselves to him. They worked for the government, weren’t local. You could tell they had come to Guwahati not to visit, but for some official purpose.  At the end of my trip, I couldn’t tell if he was really the nice, down-to-earth person he seemed to be or was just too good a politician but he for sure, wasn’t the politician that is showcased in every Indian (doesn’t matter which language, they always are the same) movie, the antagonist. The only thing that made him look remotely like them was his dress, he wore Khadi but given that he was there for a textile convention, it seemed appropriate. One of the people who came up to him happened to go to the same school he did, that led him to reminisce on how they used to take a shared taxi to get to school. He wasn’t one of those born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he belonged to a middle class Indian family, like most of us in the sub-continent. It was time to be seated, a member of his entourage asked him to take a seat in one of the Business Class seats that were reserved, which he promptly refused and sat down in the seat in front of me in Economy. Was it him trying to show the public he was one with them or was it how he was? If I were him, I would have seated myself in Business Class without a second thought. It could’ve been the fear Social Media has put in him/them, where now everyone has the chance to judge or even make mountains out of molehills. I don’t mind if it helps keeping things in check.

The flight to Delhi was 2 hours, 10 minutes long, we were nearly there now. It was about 2 hours into the flight when there was a PA Announcement. More delays! There was too much air traffic in Delhi and so the Air Traffic Control set the landing time to an hour later. So, as we flew around in circles above Delhi for an hour, it was clearly visible as to why it was one of the most polluted cities in the world. You could see the layer of smog, static, above it like a protector, but only doing harm. My 2 hour long flight was now 3 hours long, glad we didn’t run out of fuel mid-air. Guess they prepare for things like this. 🙂

The rest of my journey was mostly uneventful! Made it to London with no issues.

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Margery Wood and The North Downs Trail

We were off to a late start. The plan was to do the Norths Down Ridge Circular Walk but we ended up exploring on our own, getting lost in the process and using the GPS on the phone in the end to find our way back. Nevertheless, it was a really beautiful day and we did end up with a walk longer than we had planned/anticipated.

We started off at the Margery Woods Car Park and headed off to the Margery Woods. Bluebells, more bluebells! As we walk through the woods, we then come across the bridge over the motorway.

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More Bluebells

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Cross the bridge and a few trees, you come across this beautiful view of open skies and the green slopes of Colley Hill. This is where we ditched the Norths Down Ridge Circular Walk trail and headed down to the North Downs Way trail on the right, we weren’t aware of that at the time.

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The path was filled with Dandelions, Wild flowers and rabbits.

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In the end, it was another beautiful day in the Surrey Hills.

The Thames Path – Walk 1

Lambeth Bridge to Tower Bridge

It was Boxing Day 2016 and I was longing to see the city and what better way to do it than walking along the Thames? This was my first walk and to motivate myself, it had to be one with the good sights. I chose to walk the South Bank starting at Lambeth Bridge all the way to Tower Bridge which is roughly a 5 km walk. It was a slow one, for starters because I was admiring London at night as I went along and I managed to stop at a few pubs along the way. 🙂

I must apologise for the really poor photography here as all I had was a shitty smartphone camera to work with.. (I am not a good photographer either :p )

It starts off with Westminster Palace across the river and the Big Ben at the backdrop and the Westminster Bridge all in sight.

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Continuing along the south bank, we go past the London Eye and then approach the Waterloo Bridge. Walking on the south bank can never get boring with the buskers in the South Bank. On reaching Gabriel’s Wharf, you get to see few Fire Jugglers on the bank. I spend some time over there watching them play around. The OXO Tower is just up ahead.

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The OXO Tower and Blackfriars Bridge

After this as I continue my walk, crossing the Blackfriars Bridge, I approach the Millennium Bridge standing on which you get a straight view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe is right there as well.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral from the Millennium Bridge

My next stop was the Anchor Pub, which is one of the ancient historic pubs of London. After a couple of pints, I continue my walk towards London Bridge and the HMS Belfast.

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HMS Belfast

There is a beautiful, well lit Christmas tree outside the City Hall. From there I reach the end of my walk as I go to the Tower Bridge and then walk back to London Bridge to take a bus back home.

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Tower Bridge
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The Walkie Talkie, Gherkin and the Tower of London
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City Hall & The Shard

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The Thames Path – Route Map

The Thames Path is a walk that goes along the River Thames right from it’s source in the Cotswolds to the Thames Barrier at Greenwich. The entire length spans 296 km (184 miles) and I plan to cover this entire span in bits and pieces. I decided to start off with first walking the path within the London area before moving towards the source, Thames Head but in no particular sequence.

This is where I start, so here goes!

Walk 1 – Lambeth Bridge to Tower Bridge

Distance: 2.9 miles / 4.7 km
Date: 26 Dec 2016
Post: The Thames Path – Walk 1

A short hike on Leith Hill – a spring delight

Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!’ – Robin Williams

It sure felt that way when we went up to Leith Hill for a hike this beautiful spring day.

Leith Hill is in the Surrey Hills which is towards the south west from London. It’s not just a beautiful place for short hikes for beginners like myself but also a delight to the eyes in spring. For those who are suckers for history (or watch/follow the TV show “Vikings”), this is where Ethelwulf defeated the Danes in 851 AD.

There are 4 trails that you could follow:

  • Woodland Trail (Orange)
  • Etherley Loop (Purple)
  • Heathland Trail (Green)
  • Frank’s Walk (Pink)

From the car park, we headed over to the summit, where there is the Leith Hill Tower and from there we started our hike after spending some time enjoying the view from there and some refreshments. We took the Woodland Trail which is 2.5 miles and all along the trail we could see the ground covered with beautiful Bluebells.

It was a day well spent amongst nature!

“I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees” – Henry David Thoreau

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The Leith HIll Tower
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View from the summit

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Bluebells

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8 Days Under the Italian Sun

Italy had been under my radar for a while now and I knew my first Euro trip had to be Italy. I usually do a bit of research when visiting places and this time was no different (but I guess I wasn’t thorough… will get to that in a bit). Easter was approaching, a long weekend, so I could afford a longer vacation and it was set. The plan was to be in Italy from the 15th of April till the 23rd.

Day 1 – Roma

I flew in from Gatwick to Rome and reached Rome by noon. It was warm, good to be away from the cooler London spring. A friend of mine was to join me later in the day from Saarbrücken (her flight was delayed and she didn’t show up till later that night). This meant I had the day to myself, being a tourist in Rome.

It was planned, the places I would visit, an offline map and everything. After my first few steps, I forgot all about the plan and was just wandering, lost among the hordes of tourists.

Tip: Avoid Rome during Easter, it is VERY crowded!!! This goes back to my point on the research I did, I overlooked this, but either way I had no choice and Rome wasn’t my main destination. I had other places in mind. The best time to visit Rome would be towards the end of May or in September/October.

The plan I had drawn up was

  1. Start: Happy Rome Hostel
  2. Spanish Steps
  3. Piazza del Popolo & Villa Borghese
  4. Trevi Fountain
  5. Pantheon
  6. Piazza Navona
  7. Castel Sant’Angelo
  8. Largo di Torre Argentina
  9. Altar of the Fatherland
  10. End: Happy Rome Hostel

Rome Map

I did cover all the places I intended to but not in the order as planned. I first ended up at the Trevi Fountain (La Fontana Di Trevi). The legend says if you throw a coin into the fountain, it guarantees your return to Rome. The coin should be thrown with your right hand and over your left shoulder. The movie “Three Coins in the Fountain” may have very well been the reason behind the myth. In the movie it says, if you throw a coin, it guarantees your return to Rome, the second coin ensures romance and the third ensures marriage. I stuck with one.20170415_144927.jpg

From the Trevi Fountain, I headed over to the Pantheon, unfortunately there was such a long queue to get in that I have saved this for my next trip to Rome ( I threw a coin and I was coming back). From the Pantheon, the next stop was the Spanish Steps (Piazza di Spagna) and then to Piazza del Popolo. Close to the Piazza del Popolo is the Villa Borghese. If you want to visit the gardens, it is good, but even otherwise the view of the city from there is breathtaking.

From Villa Borghese, I headed over towards the Tiber river to Castel Sant’Angelo. There is no shortage of music talent in Rome, you will find people doing covers of bands like Metallica, Pink Floyd, Greenday, R.E.M. to name a few at all the tourist locations. I was particularly impressed by a musician doing a violin cover of Greenday’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams at Castel Sant’Angelo. The next stop was Largo di Torre Argentina, which are Roman ruins but now is the home to the many cats that have settled there.  After spending some peaceful moments here, I headed over to the hostel stopping by the Altar of the Fatherland and taking a peek at the Colosseum from the outside. It was time to call it a day.

Tip: The area around Roma Termini isn’t too safe to loiter about especially late at night and do take care of your belongings and beware of phone snatchers.

Day 2 – Roma

The second day was going to be the Colosseum, Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill and it does take up a lot of your time.

Tip: It is best to book the tickets in advance which is EUR 4.00 more expensive, but definitely worth it. There are really long queues which could take up half your day if you do not have pre-booked tickets. The website from where I booked the tickets was http://www.rome-museum.com. They also have tickets for the Vatican, for which again it is recommended to pre-book.

We started off at the Roman Forum and were really glad that it was a cloudy day as otherwise it could get really hot. Either way, it is good to carry a bottle of water and do keep in mind that water from all fountains in Rome is drinkable. The Forum could easily take up 2 to 3 hours of your time.

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The Roman Forum

From the Roman Forum, we headed over to Palatino from where there are really nice views of the area around. After a big, fat lunch we then headed over to the Colosseum and this was when we were glad to have pre-booked the tickets as otherwise we would have missed the train to Naples.

The Colosseum is as majestic as it sounds and is a must visit.

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The Colosseum

We then headed over to Naples for the night. There are 3 types of trains that operate, Freccia (the fast and more expensive ones) which take 1 hour to Naples, the IC (Intercity) which takes 2 hours and the REG (Regionale) which takes 3 hours and the least expensive of all.

Day 3 – Napoli

After a quick breakfast, we headed over to the Archeological Museum of Naples. The importance of this is there are a lot of artifacts from Pompeii, Erculano, Palatino etc. and would be of significance if you plan to visit these places and we were heading over to Pompeii the next day.

From the museum, we then headed over towards the sea and stopped by for lunch at one of the numerous pizzerias. It was Naples and pizza was the only thing we had in mind! 20170417_155059.jpg

After lunch, we headed over to the Naples Underground tour (Napoli Sotterranea). This was a completely different experience and not quite popular among the tourists but is a must – do. This was the best thing in Naples for us (except of course the pizza!). At EUR 10 per person, a 90 minute tour and a very fun tour guide, it was an awesome experience. If you are claustrophobic, get over your fears, this is worth it.

At the end of the tour, it feels like you emerge from a different era, back to the hustle and bustle of today. We then headed over to the Bay of Naples and the Castel dell’Ovo.

Day 4 – Pompeii

We headed off to Pompeii in the morning. There is good train connectivity from Naples to Pompeii. The average time spent at the ruins is around 3 to 5 hours. The Lupanare (Brothel) is one of the main attractions, look out for the paintings in there 😉

Other main attractions in there are the Amphitheatre, Forum, House of Faun and the cast of the bodies excavated from the site.

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This is where Pink Floyd performed the famous ‘Live at Pompeii’ in 1971

Towards the evening, we then headed over to Salerno.

Day 5 – Paestum

We decided to spend the day at Paestum because of the sandy beach there and we were going over to the Amalfi Coast which does not have any sandy beaches or even beaches as such. The other attraction at Paestum are the Greek ruins.

Paestum was a quiet and tranquil town. It was the perfect setting for the peace we needed after a hectic 2 days at Rome and the day at Naples.  We took a train to Paestum, do lookout for the train schedules as the frequency isn’t a lot. We had spent a decent 2 hours waiting for our train.

At Paestum, the ruins are a short walk from the train station. There isn’t much to see there, but it is really peaceful and good for a nice stroll. There is a small museum too where you could buy the tickets to visit the ruins.

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The Temple of Hera at Paestum

The beach is a 20 minute walk from the ruins and there are a few campsites and restaurants by the beach. Very few people, clean, the warm sun, cool water and the sand, what more could you ask for. We sat there staring into the sea till sunset.

Day 6 – The Amalfi Coast

Getting to the beautiful towns in the Amalfi Coast from Salerno is very convenient. You could take the SITA Bus or the Ferry. If you do suffer from motion sickness, avoid the bus. We took the ferry, for the love of the sea and also for the great views of the coast.

Tip: If you decide to take the bus, there are no tickets on-board, so remember to buy your tickets from a Tabacchi (tobacconist).

We took a ferry to Amalfi which is a 20-30 minute ride. The sight is mesmerising, the turquoise waters, the houses on the cliffs, it was all so beautiful! We went for a short hike towards the Ferriere Valley and later returned and stopped for lunch at Ristorante Il Mulino. This is a small family run restaurant and the food was delectable. I tried the grilled fish and it was one of the best fish I had in a while.

The next stop was Positano and we took a ferry to get there. This was a longer ride and Positano was even more beautiful. It was a very colourful town.

 

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Positano

There was a beautiful art gallery in Positano. The paintings and sculptures were really amazing. We were to take a bus to Sorrento from here and so we had to climb all the way to the top. The views are too good for you to get tired of walking up the hill 🙂

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A panoramic view of Positano

We reached our camp site in Sorrento later in the evening and called it a day.

Day 7 – Sorrento

Woke up to the best view ever! The camp was huge and we spent most of the time till lunch exploring the camp site. They even gave us a map, good because we would have been lost otherwise.

After lunch, we headed over to the Bagni della Regina Giovanna. This was a 10 minute walk from our camp and one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. It was serene, peaceful and to me, it was paradise.  It was a sunny day, but cold due to the breeze. That didn’t stop me from taking a dip in this beautiful cove.

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View of Bagni della Regina Giovanna from above

After the swim and then spending an hour or so gazing at the sea, just sitting there in peace (the sweetness of doing nothing, truly) we headed over to a bar, the Lido la Solara. This was a hidden jewel, you approach the place via a boardwalk and it opens up to beautiful views. We sat there in the sun, beers in hand enjoying the sunset. We must have spend at least a couple of hours there. The place had very friendly staff and the people there were all locals, very friendly as well. Everybody knew everybody. It was such a happy place!

Day 8 – Capri

I didn’t want to leave Sorrento, a part of me stayed there I’d like to think 🙂

We took a ferry to Capri. The trip was coming to an end and we wanted to end it with a bang. We were going to Capri with all the excitement of a 10 year old, we were excited about the Blue Grotto.  We reach Capri, only to find out that the Blue Grotto is closed, for a year, the person said. Not sure about that though.

So we did the next best thing, took a boat tour around the island. The water was blue like in a painting. It was all so surreal. The boat ride takes you to the Green Grotto, White Grotto, the Faraglioni among others.

After spending the day in Capri, we headed over to Naples from where we left for Rome. We reached Rome at about midnight and left for the airport to catch our early morning flights.

The memories of this trip will remain etched in my mind.

It is good to learn a little basic Italian, because you would be fine in Rome and maybe even Naples, but in the smaller towns, it would become difficult to communicate in English. I had to resort to Google Translate on several occasions.

Below are a few words I picked up during my trip and used abundantly

  • Thank You – grazie
  • You are welcome – prego
  • To ask for the bill at the restaurant – il conto per favore

And of course, Ciao and Buon Giorno!!

This is the first of other trips to Italy, will be going back soon…

A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority – Samuel Johnson