As of Friday, December the 27th, Annamalai Alagappan is no more. Sandesh and I were
It was the morning of the 14th of April. Despite a hurried trip to Manchester, and some late night FIFA the previous day, Nat, Shyam and I decided that we wanted to drive to Stonehenge, and go around London a bit.
The Stonehenge Monument is approximately a two-hour drive from London. We wanted to pick up a rental car on a Sunday and had to return it in the wee hours of the Monday. These constraints meant that our only options were at the airport rental car centers. We woke up by 8 am and took a train to Heathrow Airport.
Although we Indians learned English from the British (sort of), they somehow find it incredibly hard to understand my English. I battled with the Barista and got what the three of us wanted before we figured out how to get to the rental car center. Unlike most US airports, it was nontrivial to get to the place. We had to go to Terminal 2, and catch a bus.
Nat being a Hertz rewards member, we saw his last name "Jose" pop up on the display screens on the bus. Did they have facial recognition? How did they know we were on the bus? It turns out they list everyone who booked cars around that time slot. Would you pronounce it "Ho-ze" or "Jos"? To annoy him, we call him "Ho-ze," an ode to his favorite manager Jose Mourinho.
We got an automatic car. I am used to a knob to change to the drive/reverse mode, or even a stick. But this car, a new model, had buttons to switch. It was not very intuitive, but I told myself I would get used to it soon. All of us were seasoned drivers in the US and didn't want to risk driving stick. The more difficult task at hand, however, was driving on the right (wrong) side of the road. The car had Android Auto; we paired my phone with it and were on our way. The road signs seemed familiar. It was a mix between signs I had seen in India and the ones in the US. I was consistently too close to the curb on the left side of the road; something that scared Shyam at first. Soon enough, I got the feel of the car and was able to drive steady on the highway (they call them the M roads).
After an hours drive following an hours train journey, we were now at the Stonehenge Memorial. They charged 5 Pounds for parking, and it was deductible from the cost of the tickets. We stood in line for almost an hour to purchase tickets to get into the memorial area. I availed the student discount they offered, and Shyam purchased the audio guide to help us through the tour.
It was freezing. Despite having lived in the "Live, Freeze, and Die" state for almost four years now, my thin hoodie was nowhere close to sufficient. It wasn't cold enough to get frostbites, but the wind was annoying enough. We had to take the bus, since, (1) we were running short on time, (2) it was freezing, and walking two miles was probably not a good idea, and, (3) there was not much on the way anyway. We walked around listening to the audio guide, moving from point to point.
They said the entrance matched the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. I barely saw the sun in my 18 days in England combined, what is it they are talking about the sun again? 18 out of 365 is hardly a sample set, I know. We helped an Indian couple with a picture and asked them to take a picture of ours in return.
Stonehenge was slightly underwhelming. It was a bunch of rocks in the middle of miles and miles of meadows. If London greeted me with better weather, I might have taken up on the offer of walking through to Stonehenge, but that was not the case. Something to appreciate, however, is that almost 5000 years ago they carried such large stones from a few hundred miles away to this location.
We purchased some souvenirs and walked back to the car to began our journey back. It was almost 3 pm now. It was going to take us 2 hours to get back to London, and we hadn't eaten. We reached a Mediterranean place to eat some Gyros. As we ordered our food, we realized that they were only then lighting the furnaces of the store. We were again running behind schedule now. It was Nat's first time in the UK, and he wouldn't go back to Germany without seeing some sightseeing locations.
We parked our car near Shyam's house and embarked on our lightning trip around London. We reached the London Tower Bridge and stopped for pictures. We saw a cruise waiting to leave for Westminster, and decided to make a run for it. The person in the ticket counter looked at us and asked, "Tamil yeah?" We nodded. "Me too yeah!", She said. We weren't in a position to exchange pleasantries for long. The last cruise through London was two minutes away. As we boarded the cruise, I had a realization that I was foolish during my two trips to London. The public transport system in London used an RFID card called "Oyster," which I had purchased my first time here. But in reality, you could get by with a contactless credit card. I decided to try something new. I enabled Samsung Pay on my phone and placed it on the reader. Viola! It worked, and I felt happy and miserable now.
We glanced at Big Ben. It was under construction even last time I was around, and the work will continue until 2021. We then took a cruise around London to Westminster. I told Nat and Shyam about my previous trip when I visited the Imperial War Rooms, the rooms where Winston Churchill made important World War II decisions, as we walked through the gardens in Westminster. Nat wanted to take a picture with an iconic telephone booth. Shyam and I thought we'd seize the opportunity by taking a picture with the caption "Hello Dubai ah?" --- a popular Tamil comedy from a movie. Nat, much to our disappointment refused to step into a booth, and we ended up taking a picture outside it before visiting the Buckingham Palace.
We ended our evening at a Shakespeare Era Bar trying the Guinness Draught Extra Cold. It's a colder and foamier version of the Guinness Beer. The old lanes through the older parts of London left us all mesmerized. Every restaurant around this neighborhood was built around the 1500s.
We returned home and discussed our plan to watch Game of Thrones the next morning. It airs at 2 am in Britain. Inconvenient, but we anyway had to make a run for the airport at 4 am. Any trip with these two is always eventful. Manchester, Stonehenge, and London was no exception. There were many firsts. First trip to Old Trafford, the first official game I saw with people I played with through college, the first time I drove a car in Europe.