December 14, 2010
I woke up and went for a run. The sky was grey, and although it wasn’t raining, the mist was so thick that my hair was completely wet within minutes. I ran along the tow path, admiring long boats and small arched bridges and the leaves fallen from the trees, and at thirty minutes, I turned around and ran back.
Back at the house, I showered and dressed, and downstairs, Ruth told me the game plan. With the weather looking dismal, we decided to skip a pub walk and instead drive into Northampton for some shopping and eating.
Ruth and Paul finished up some last minute business, and we all bundled into the car. Stopping in at a couple of department stores, we made our way to The Malt Shovel pub. Inside, it was well lit and decorated with typical pub paraphenalia as well as some Christmas lights and flickering fire. Ordering jacket potatoes, soup, and pints, we gathered around the table for a warm meal.
Although I had expected to experience a bit of culture shock on our way back from Asia, I haven’t felt too startled or displaced thus far. Nevertheless, eating food that I’m fairly certain won’t make me sick with family in a warm and clean pub is a welcome change, and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal and company.
Back outside, we zipped up our jackets to ward off the chill and drizzle. Ruth and Paul popped into Debenhams to get some last minute stuff for Christmas, and Joshua and I wandered about the Home section, admiring all the nice crockery and cooking things. For a while, Joshua was seduced by the Try Me! massage seat, but I finally managed to draw him away to meet back up with Ruth and Paul.
We returned to the car and drove back to Wharfdale. Gathering in the kitchen and living room, Ruth cooked fish pie (which was fabulously delicious with a glass of white wine) and I tried to catch up on my posts. I must admit: after six faithful months, I’ve been slacking a bit, and I had six days to catch up on. I’m committed to finishing out the full six months, but I am getting to the point where I’m a little tired of the plot. I worry that it’s boring for the reader. After six months, I feel like I can write the events of our days without thinking, and I’m not being nearly as creative. It’s not as rewarding or exciting when I’ve lost the drive to make things funny or interesting, but I can’t say that I regret having written as much as I have or the way I have.
So while my posts may not be as interesting for you or for me in these last days of our travels, I’m still glad that I’ve stuck with it. I’ve loved being able to update friends and family in such a detailed way, and I’ve loved having the opportunity to share my travels. It’s satisfying to look back at the many posts I’ve written, and in many ways, this is my lasting souvenier. I will always have a detailed account of our six months to look back on. What’s more is that I now have the confidence that I can stick with writing, that I can make time, and that when I do, I enjoy it.
So thank you for reading my posts and thank you for the kind words of appreciation and encouragement. Please know that they mean the world to me.
December 13, 2010
We woke up early and tumbled into the car with Ruth. Every month, she has a meeting in Reading, and although she and Gloria, who is Grandma Vivienne’s cousin and also lives in Reading, have had multiple failed attempts to meet up, Joshua and I have finagled a meeting.
The drive from Long Buckby to Reading takes about an hour and half, and once we were there, Ruth dropped us off at a train station. We rode in the rest of the way to Reading, and at the main station, we called Gloria to have her come and pick us up. Gloria is a few years younger than Grandma Vivienne, but her back has recently been causing her problems, and we tried to arrange a pick up that would prevent her from causing undue stress. Unfortunately, although our plans were quite detailed, Joshua and I managed to go to the wrong pick-up parking lot, and Gloria ended up having to walk all the way across the station to come and find us.
I’ve met Gloria a few times before, and on every occasion, I’ve come away with the impression of a very smart, classy lady. This meeting was no different, and within minutes, Gloria had handily steered us back to the correct parking lot. The drive from the station to Gloria’s flat took less than ten minutes, and we arrived at a modern-looking apartment complex.
Inside, I couldn’t help but note each every beautiful element. I loved the living room, with a sleek, gorgeous plum couch, a Chagal print, and dozens of sweet and quirky owl figurines. In the kitchen, blue cabinets matched decor in different shades and tints of the same hue. The kitchen table is both 70s and modern.
Gloria set about putting the water on the kettle and gathering a plate of crackers and cheese. While she worked, Joshua and I asked her about her job and her travels.
Originally trained as a classicist, Gloria went on to get her degree in Psychotherapy from Ohio State. Since then, she’s both taught at University and worked as a consultant. Now, she’s slowly doing less and less with her consultancy, but she’s also taken up Jewish Studies and Art History classes. Twice a week, she tries to go into London for concerts or ballet or the opera, and in the past, she’s gone on a number of adventurous trips to China, Australia, and New Zealand.
We exchanged a few traveling stories and Gloria told us a little bit about growing up and other members of the family. For lunch, we ate flan and veggies, and before we knew it, Ruth was already at the door.
We sat at the table, chatting and laughing. The sun set, and we all had a bit of cake and tea. Just before we left, Gloria brought down a couple old dresses that her mother had made. All three of them were gorgeous, with lovely beaded and lace detailing. We admired the handiwork and all wished that we were half as talented.
Back in the car, Ruth, Joshua, and I continued the conversation, and before long, we were back in Long Buckby. Joining Paul in the living room, we drank more tea and relaxed. By 10 PM, Joshua and I were dead on our feet (even though we hadn’t done much more than sit, drink tea, and eat all day), and we went to bed.
December 12, 2010
In the morning, Joshua’s belly had finally begun to settle down. He took an Immodium for good measure, and Eric joined us in the living room while we packed our bags.
At 10:30 AM, Ruth and Paul knocked on the door. We said goodbye to Eric, and carrying out our bags, headed for Ruth’s car.
Long Buckby is about 40 miles from Oxford, but two Sundays before Christmas, traffic is pretty crazy, and it had taken them a while to drive into the city. Fortunately, they had found their way, and now, we were headed back out. Paul had planned a circular walk with a pub stop along the way, and we drove for about 30 minutes before we reached Fringford, a small but posh village in Oxfordshire.
Walking through streets lined with golden, thatched homes, we entered a pub and asked for their menu. Although it was barely noon, they were already fully booked. We sat down for drinks instead and decided to continue on with our walk. Hopefully, the pub mid-way would have a bit of grub.
Outside, it was grey and cold, but we warmed up as we walked. Ruth and Paul told us about their whirl-wind fall, and Joshua and I were exhausted just contemplating it. After their holiday in Kephalonia, the two of them had jumped back into their consultancy business with both feet. Since then, they’ve been working like crazy to pull off high-profile events and please clients. They both look a bit weary, but Ruth reassures me that she loves her work, and judging by her smile, I decide to believe her.
As we walk along fallow fields and bushes and trees that have lost their leaves, pheasants spring up and fly off, creating an enormous racket. I love their colorful heads and collars.
After a couple of miles, we find another small village and a little-known pub. Ruth and Paul warn us that the owner is a bit mad, and before we go in, we try to remove as much mud from our caked boots as we can. Inside, the man turns us right around and tells us to take off our boots. In our socks, we re-enter the small room, and the man immediately directs our jackets to their proper coat rack.
Finally properly seated in chairs near the fire, we order pints and take in the scenery. The walls are lined in photos and old publican paraphenalia. Old newspaper articles tell about times when pint was a pound, and that was considered highway robbery. Behind the bar, the mad owner strokes his lopsided beard, and locals look at us a bit suspiciously before they go back to their own drinks.
Luckily, the woman of the house does rolls with cheese or ham, and we order a roll apiece. It’s surprisingly hearty and tasty, so we tuck in, and when we’re done, we’re not quite so hungry.
Warmed, watered, and fed, we continue on our way. Paul’s worried about sunset, and the rest of us implicitly trust what Ruth has coined ‘Paul’s Tours’ (said in a posh accent so that it sort of rhimes). Ruth and I link arms, and we catch up on family news. Mine is that Hannah has applied to a ton of colleges, and so far, she’s gotten into all of them. I’m so happy for her, and she’s thrilled that she’s already gotten into two of her top three choices. She’s fashioning herself as a bit of a city girl, and she’s narrowed down her selection into one city in particular: Chicago.
Back at the car, we get in and I lay down. After months of buses in India and Nepal, I’m still horribly carsick. Fortunately, it’s little more than 30 minutes back to Wharfdale, and we’re home before we know it.
Inside the house, small changes are apparent. Slowly but surely, the bottom floor has been completely renovated, and it’s beginning to look quite put together.
Settling in the living room, we half watch TV and half chat while Ruth makes mushroom risotto. Joshua’s still looking a bit pale, and Ruth teases him that he’s left half of himself in Asia. It’s true; when we look at photos from the beginning of the trip, his face looks fuller and his pants fit. Now, his pants flap about his legs, and his jaw is terribly thin.
We eat dinner, and a little after nine, we give hugs all around and head off to bed.
December 11, 2010
It was a long night. Joshua was in and out of bed, visiting the toilet and fighting down nausea. The next morning, he was still feeling very sick, and although he hadn’t thrown up, he felt like he might at any moment. Eric and I slowly got ready and ate breakfast, hoping he might feel better, but by 11 AM, he was still laying in bed and grimacing.
Urging us to go off without him, we tucked him in and headed out. Walking through Oxford, we watched tourists and shoppers swarm the shops and department stores, frantically stocking up for Christmas. On the other end of town, we walked by a few more college campuses and then a residential area. Eventually, we came to a large open meadow alongside a canal.
The weather had warmed up a bit, and we walked the towpath, dodging cows and watching rowers skull across the water. Eric talked about his research and plans for the future, and I told him a bit more about our travels and the farm. It was a lovely walk, and after a couple of hours, we headed back.
With the sun already setting, we returned to the house just before four. Joshua still wasn’t feeling well, but he hadn’t vomitted. Eric looked up Evensong times at Christchurch, and we relaxed for an hour or so before we headed out again.
Christchurch is another one of the more restricted campuses, but Evensong is open to the public, so we were able to walk through the wide and manicured courtyard to reach the lovely, small cathedral. Inside, the detailing was well preserved and delicate, and we sat quietly, admiring our surroundings, and waiting for the choir to enter.
The Christchurch Evensong is sung by perhaps a dozen young boys and a dozen men. The boys’ choir is culled from the boys’ boarding school at Christchurch, and the men singers are traditionally vocal instructors, teachers, and sometimes even Oxford students. Whoever they are and whatever their training, their voices are lovely. Every night, they sing psalms and anthems, and their songs fill this gorgeous old cathedral.
I’ve sung in choirs for many years, and I can read a bit of music, but I’m by no means fluent. Eric knows much more about music, and he tells me that polyphony is a musical arrangement where voices sing different melodies at the same time. Whatever it’s called, it’s beautiful: the choir lines either side of the nave in two rows, and one voice calls out to another. I love when the soloists rise out from different locations in the choir, and the sound seems to pass from one section to another. The boys’ voices are high and clear, and the mens’ are round and controlled. The conductor, dressed in a long, white robe, cups his hand around a sound he can touch. If there is a god, she would hear this.
Most of Evensong is sung, but at intervals, passages are read from the Bible or prayers are said. Mostly, these readings and prayers are overshadowed by the beautiful songs, but the prayer for Evening was particularly lovely.
Afterwards, we walked home. Joshua still wasn’t feeling well, and he made it back just in time for another bout of diarrhea. Eric and I prepared dinner in the kitchen, and unfortunately, the one toilet in the house also happens to be attached to the kitchen. Naturally, it has brilliant accoustics, and as we chopped vegetables, we could hear everything. We all ended up laughing.
Joshua sipped a cup of water while Eric and I ate roast veggies. Eric’s roommates came in and expressed more shock at the sight of Eric eating vegetables and – gasp – volunteering for seconds.
For the rest of the evening, we sat and chatted and looked at photos while Joshua ran in and out of the bathroom. At 11 PM, we went to bed.
December 10, 2010
The next morning, Joshua and I woke up and went for a run. Like Bath, the lovely, old buildings of Oxford are made from soft, golden-colored stone, and after a few days in Delhi, it was refreshing to run on clean, wide sidewalks and cross roads with traffic signals that are strictly obeyed.
England has been experiencing a serious cold-snap, and we pulled our sleeves down over our fingers as we ran. The cold air woke us up, and both of us felt great. Although we haven’t run in a couple of months, our weeks of walking seem to have paid off: we sprinted down the road, feeling very alive and fit.
After 50 minutes, we returned back to Eric’s place and quickly showered. Eric had already left for his college, and once we had dressed, we followed in his footsteps. Just before 11 AM, we met him at the gate to his college, and he waved us up to the modern college chapel.
Sitting in the packed, small room, we waited for the choir to enter. Lined up on the stairs, they began singing ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High,’ and walked in. For the next hour, they sang in acapella, and during one song, Eric even had a solo. It was lovely, and when the choir finished, we all went down to the community room for mulled wine and mince pies. Just in case you were wondering, mulled wine is red wine that has been sweetened, spiced, and warmed, and it’s absolutely delicious. Mince pies are sweet little pastries, and apparently, the two are a classic English pairing.
We congratulated Eric on his excellent solo, and he walked us around his modern college campus. Nuffield, the namesake of this particular college, was a very wealthy philanthropist, and the college is one of the wealthiest in Oxford. Eric took us to see his office, and afterwards, we followed him to the dining hall, were we filled our plates with fresh vegetables and salads.
The food was delicious, and it was fun to see how these elite academians live. Eric explained that Oxford is actually a collection of many college campuses. The colleges aren’t necessarily divided by subjects, and it’s a bit unclear how or why certain students are placed in certain colleges. Almost all of the campuses have their own courtyard, cloister, chapel, dining hall, library, and student housing. Nuffield’s campus was built in the 50s, but many of the other campuses were built as early as the 13th and 14th century.
Once we had finished eating, Eric took us on a tour of the other colleges. Many of the campuses aren’t open to the public, but Eric told us to ‘look like students,’ and we walked in as though we knew where we were going. Eric pointed out Gothic and Romanesque and Medieval detailing as we wound our way through all the old, golden buildings. At All Souls, one of the snottiest and most elite colleges, Eric used his special reader card to get us in and show us a very old, lovely library. With ladders and two open stories, it looked a bit like the library in Beauty and the Beast.
It was a fun tour, and although neither Joshua nor I were aware of much Oxford lore, Eric’s grasp of the history and architecture gave us a pretty good picture of Oxford’s mysterious past and elite legacy.
Although Oxford is a lovely place filled with brilliant minds, not everyone seemed happy. Standing below the tallest tour on campus, we looked up to find a young woman ready to jump. Eric reached into his pocket to call the police, but luckily, they were already there, calling up to her and trying to prevent a tragedy. We quickly walked away, not prepared to see the outcome.
Shaken, we decided to go on with the tour. Eric took us through a couple more campuses, and we peaked into the lovely, old chapels. Apparently, Evensong is held in most of these chapels every night. Eric said that someone, at some point, donated lots and lots of money so that these choirs could sing worship into perpetuity. We resolved to attend before we left.
We continued our walk through Magdalen College (pronounced like Maudlin), and passed by their deer park where they keep dozens of tame deer. It was quiet, and with the leaves on the ground and the sun setting, it felt very wintry and English. We kept walking, and circumnavigating another college, we came to a canal and eventually a pub, where we stopped for a couple of pints for the boys and a Winter Pimms for me.
On our way home, we stopped in at Tescos to buy food for dinner. After months of paying for restaurant food, I’m so excited to cook again. Eric, never one to spend much time preparing food, seemed a bit apprehensive, but we promised him that we would take it easy on him and make simple, quick dishes.
Back at the house, we crowded into the little kitchen and chopped vegetables while we chatted. Eric sliced some cheese, and we snacked while we waited for the food to be ready. Eric’s roommates came home, and they looked shocked to see Eric in the kitchen, cooking. They teased him and opened his cabinet to show us the four tubs of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, and a stock of pasta sauce and noodles. Eric took the ribbing well, and we told his roommates that not much has changed since we lived with Eric nearly five years ago when he lived mainly on a diet of taquitos and tortellini.
After a bit, I took our casserole dish out of the oven. Eric eyed the eggplant bake suspiciously, but he had seconds, and all of us had our fill.
For the rest of the evening, we checked our e-mail and chatted. Just before 10 PM, Joshua started to feel poorly, so we all said goodnight and headed off to bed.
December 9, 2010
From the internet cafe, Joshua and I wandered down the street, choking on the smell of generators and urine. I dragged Joshua into one shop when I spied walls lined with dangly earrings, and we stayed there for a bit while I carefully examined each row and column, selecting half a dozen. At the counter, I paid the equivalent of six dollars without even bargaining. We continued on down the road, walking by a lagoon of piss and shit and dead things. One woman came up to me with her hand outstretched and a child on her hip, and I realized that she must have been a bride burning victim. Every visible stretch of flesh was whorled and knotted with scars. She couldn’t have been older than twenty.
Back in Connaught Place, we crossed the busy roundabout and walked the circular path a few times, just to stretch our legs. A sign announced the Delhi marathon, and Joshua and I wondered how you could possibly run in a city without sewage, homicidal rickshaws, and air pollution so thick you can taste it.
We returned to the restaurant in which we had eaten the night before. Ordering two more dosas, we played our last hand of cards and enjoyed two glasses of fresh lemon soda, which is neither too sweet nor too sour. When our dosas came, we savored them slowly. It’s our last meal in India.
The sun began to set, so we paid and walked back. In some ways, it was almost scarier than the night before; like last night, it was fully dark, but it was also rush hour, and there were crowds and vehicles zipping about everywhere. Joshua took out the camera to take a few photos of what we now endearingly refer to as ‘Gotham City,’ and a number of people gathered around us to stare and point at our ostentatious display of whiteness and wealth. We hurried back to the hotel.
Joshua decided that he’d like a Kingfisher beer on his last night in India, so we walked to the rooftop of the hotel for a drink. Listening to the sounds of chaos from below, we agreed that it wasn’t Delhi so much as it was us: in most ways, Delhi was much better than we had expected. It was dirty and smelled like a spicy fart, yes, but the boulevards are suprisingly wide, the buildings are modern, and the poverty wasn’t so much more startling than many of the other places that we’ve been. In many ways, Delhi exceeded our expectations, but that doesn’t mean that we particularly liked it. And it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t really look like a post-apocalyptic universe.
Back in our room, we packed up, and it was a relief to discover – once again – that everything fit. When we unpack, it does look a bit like a bomb has hit an entire village and the clean-up crew brought all the debris back to our little hotel room.
Afterwards, we stretched out in bed and watched Goldfinger. I fell asleep during the opening credits, but Joshua dozed on and off until the end of the film. At 10 PM, he turned the lights out, and we pulled up the scuzzy covers to ward off the chill.
At 1 AM, the reception desk buzzed up and informed us that our taxi had arrived. Blearily, we loaded our packs on front and back, and opening the door, we were abruptly greeted by a troop of three cleaners. They laughed at our sleepy surprise and wished us well on our way. As soon as we began to walk away, they ran into our room and immediately started whipping it into shape.
Downstairs, we said goodbye to the manager and met our taxi driver, a short man from Rajastan with a pashmina wound tightly around his neck. He took us to his car, and within seconds, we were off. I had that sort of sick feeling you have when you’ve woken up too early, and our driver insisted on darting through the narrow streets at top speed. For a while, he talked to us incomprehensibly about the glories of Rajastan and the dangers of Delhi, and we nodded politely. He flew through intersections without even looking, and at one point, he had to brake quite suddenly for a dozen cows, just chilling in the middle of the road.
At a roundabout, the man nearly ran down an autorickshaw. We gasped in fright, and although the driver seemed unpreturbed, it didn’t stop him from slamming on the brakes, hopping out of the car, and leaning into the rickshaw to beat the poor rickshaw driver senseless.
I had the sinking feeling that we might not escape Gotham City after all. As our driver berated and slapped the quivering rickshaw driver, we shouted out at him: ‘let’s just go! Please don’t!’ He ignored us, but ultimately tired of his bullying and hopped back in the car with a giggle. He chuckled the rest of the way to the airport, and we half-heartedly chuckled along with him, certain at this point that he was entirely mad and he would be less likely to murder us if we shared his sick sense of humor.
In the end, we did survive, but not before our driver had – as they say – ‘opened ‘er up’ on the straight away. The speed dial danced wildly at 120 kilometers per hour while he dodged much larger vehicles, and we sat, clutching hands and praying that we would make it out alive.
The airport felt like a safe haven. Clean and expansive, with plenty of security and orderly lines, it’s a stark contrast to the rest of India. We checked in, and our bags were taken without complaint or extra charge (another relief). On the other side of a thorough frisking and multiple metal detectors, we made the long trek to our gate. While we waited to board, we took out my computer and flipped through some more photos, making yet another slide show to show the folks at home 🙂
On the flight from Delhi to Istanbul, we watched films that we hadn’t really liked the first time around and enjoyed every minute. When the plane flew over Iran, Joshua pulled up the shade, and we peaked out at the rugged terrain. In the distance, we thought we might even be able to see Mount Aratat.
In Istanbul, we disembarked and walked through the airport. Joshua went in search of baklava and Turkish delight while I dozed off in a little corner.
After a couple hours of wasting time, we made our way to the next gate. After a bit of a delay, we boarded a little bus and drove out to our plane on the tarmac.
The plane from Istanbul to London was much smaller, and every seat was full. A somewhat wild-eyed veiled woman made a fuss about sitting next to a particularly large military English man, but when the airflight attendants moved her next to another vieled woman, she began screaming and cussing. Apparently, she didn’t want to sit next to a ‘stinking Arab criminal.’ Heads swiveled about in shock, and the woman proceeded to scream loudly, swearing impressively all the while. When one of the flight attendants tried to calm her down, she just screamed louder. At one point, she stopped screaming and calmly requested to be moved up to first class. When she was refused, she resumed screaming. Somehow, they were finally able to quiet her, but not before the entire plane had erupted into a round quietly supressed laughter.
With the fuss ended and without individual TV sets to entertain us, I fell asleep soon after take off. Three hours later, we landed in London, and although it was only shortly after four in the afternoon, it was already dark. In the airport, we went through immigration and waited anxiously for our bags. Thankfully, they safely arrived, and we were soon able to walk out to the coach waiting area.
It costs 20 pounds per person for a coach ride from London Heathrow to Oxford, and although it seemed like an astronomical price to us after months of cheap transportation, it was very easy. As soon as we were seated in the warm, wide seats, I fell asleep. The ninety minute ride passed quickly, and when Joshua woke me up before our stop, I could hardly believe that we were already there.
Eric, dressed smartly in a black button-up jacket and leather shoes, was waiting for us at the bus stop. We apologized for making him wait – we were nearly two hours later than expected – but he generously shrugged it off and gave us welcoming hugs.
From the bus stop, we walked to Crowley Road, a residential area very near the colleges in Oxford. The main road has plenty of restaurants and shops lit up with twinkling lights, and it felt very Christmassy. We asked Eric how he was doing, and he told us that his backpack had just been stolen earlier in the day. Apparently, he had been sitting in Starbucks with his backpack tucked between him and the wall, and some man had knicked it from right under his nose. It was caught clearly on CCTV, but unfortunately, there’s pretty little hope of apprehending the man or getting his computer, Boise headphones, TI calculator, or reading glasses back.
We felt horrible for him, but Eric seemed to be taking it pretty well. Fortunately, he’s hyper-vigilant with backing up his research, so he didn’t lose his work. As an Economic Historian pursuing his Doctorate at Oxford, that would have been catastrophic.
Back at Eric’s house, we dumped our stuff in his small living room. The petite, two-story home has four bedrooms, and Eric has four other housemates. All of them are in different stages of a degree at Oxford, and Eric says that it’s rare to have everyone home at the same time.
We decided to go out for pizza, and Eric took us to a little Italian place on Crowley Road. I felt a bit of culture shock at the prospect of eating fresh vegetables and drinking tap water; just imagine being able to drink water without treating it for an hour with chlorine or iodine!
The food was delicious, and we cleaned our plates while we caught up. Eric seemed happier and more relaxed, and he told us that his first term had gone very well. At Nuffield College, he has good funding as well as an office. The college also requires their students to eat lunch together in hall every day, and this has been a great way to build community. Research can be a pretty solitary occupation, and Eric is pleased to have built in excuses to socialize. It’s also nice to have an office so that he can separate his work life from his home life. The change really suits him, and he was smiling when he told us, ‘I love what I’m doing.’ We’re so happy for him.
Once we had finished eating, we paid and left. Back at Eric’s place, Joshua and I got ready for bed, and Eric went off to drink mulled wine and eat mince pies with his roommates. It smelled very Christmassy, but after nearly 40 hours of travelling, we were exhausted and fell quickly asleep.