|This is a different kind of trip than what we did last summer. No longer do we have the luxury of packing everything we could conceivably need into the back of a Ford Ranger pick-up ... everything we bring must be able to ride on our backs. That means we must travel light, even though our packs don't feel light at all. It also means we are completely dependent on public transportation for getting around.
Public transit was to be our mode from the minute we stepped out of our house in La Crosse ... except that we missed the bus to the Amtrak station. Our train was running late, and the next bus could have gotten us there on time, but we called a cab just to be safe. Waiting for us at the station was Faith, our spiritual daughter and house-sitter. Her stated purpose for meeting us was to pass along some Dutch money she had left from HER trip overseas, figuring we had more use for it than she did. We think she just wanted to say good-by one more time, and appreciate that she did.
On the train ride to Chicago, we observed that it is much harder to sleep on the train (or plane, in the car, whatever) at the beginning of a trip than it is at the end. It has to do with the adrenaline coursing thru the veins from the excitement of a long-anticipated trip beginning, whereas at the end of a trip one is engaged in quiet reflection while in a state of exhaustion. Anyway, there wasn't much sleeping on the train in spite of several days of sleep deprivation.
And why were we sleep deprived? We had been trying to deal with jet lag in advance. As most of you know, we are not morning people. Our flight to London was scheduled to arrive just after 10am, or 4am Wisconsin time. They say that one should allow one day to adjust for each hour of time change. So during the week before we left, we woke up an hour earlier each day. Our problem was that we couldn't get ourselves to bed any earlier each night ... we kept staying up past midnite. Our last wake-up call in La Crosse was at 6am, even though our final preparations kept us up past one the night before.
Chicago was a different kind of place than it was the last time we were there. Our train arrived at 4:20 pm. We had a room reserved on the north side, but we wanted to have dinner downtown before we went there. Our hope was to store our packs in the lockers at the station. The lockers were shut down ... they were probably afraid someone would put a bomb in one. Isabel, our favorite Redcap (Redcaps are the baggage handlers at Union Station. Tip them generously, and they can be saints ... at least Isabel was) set us up with storage while we walked around the city. We found concrete barricades all over the place, especially surrounding the larger buildings and government buildings.
Our wake-up call Friday morning, Sept 28, was at 5am. Adjusting to London time was cruel and unusual punishment. Obbie found the normally busy streets surrealistically deserted as he took a pre-dawn walk to a nearby discount store for some apple juice and bottled water. Since the check-in counter for our flight wasn't going to open for another twelve hours, we had lots of time to kill. So we drank coffee, lounged around in our room, ate Chinese food, and gazed out over Lake Michigan until three o'clock rolled around. Then we jumped on the "El" for the long ride to the airport.
Bring food to the airport if you're ever going to fly, because the only food available at the airport is BAD. Most of you know this already. After grabbing a bit of bad food, we got into a long line to check in. Carry-on bags were limited to 5 kg (though no one ever asked to weigh our carry-on bags), so our packs had to be checked in ... and passed through a sophisticated x-ray machine. They said that this machine would have no effect on the 20 rolls of film we bought for the trip, but that the machine at the next security check point would be a different story.
After securing our boarding passes, we proceeded to the final security check point. The sign said that "you may request hand inspection of your film." In spite of the sign, they insisted that EVERYTHING had to be x-rayed. They also insisted that their machine would not ruin our film (yeah, right), and declined to back up that assertion with an iron-clad, money-back guarantee. As our bag of film passed through the machine, we explained that the main purpose of our trip was to take pictures, and that if our film was ruined they would have to pay for us to repeat this journey. We still don't know whether or not our film was ruined.
We were understandably apprehensive about flying between the world's two busiest airports (O'Hare and Heathrow), but being on Air India made us feel a bit safer. Most of our fellow passengers were of Indian origin, and the seats were laid out for people of Indian size. There are not many Indians over six feet tall, so the seats were not tall-friendly. After our 747 was launched into the night sky, an attendant passed out little bags of Indian snacks (which were actually quite good), and Obbie was so cramped that he had a hard time reaching his hand to his mouth to insert the snacks into it. As we leveled off and settled down, our meals were served ... Indian food. It was the best airplane food we've ever had, and it outshined anything available at either airport by far.
Somehow we managed to get a few hours of sleep as we passed over the North Atlantic. At about 9 am (London time), Obbie got up to walk a lap around the cabin and stretch his legs. Stopping by one of the doors, he looked out the window at the cloud tops, noticed a tiny island through a hole in the clouds below, and then the cliffs of an actual shore line to the right of that. Land Ho!
Our landing was so smooth, we couldn't detect the actual moment the wheels touched the ground. When the door of that overgrown tin can finally opened, over 200 people who had been cooped up in there for eight hours tried to get out at once. We made our way to "Passport Control" - that's English for Immigration, and then waited an eternity (actually, about an hour) for our packs to appear on the baggage carousel. We followed the signs for customs.
The customs area was a wide corridor lined with stainless steel tables, and nothing else. Expecting at some point to be questioned, we suddenly found ourselves in the arrival area, where crowds of people looked for anticipated familiar faces to appear. We found some chairs and spent time getting our bearings.
First order of business was to get some money. The money changer's worst enemy is the cash machine. With our good-old familiar TYME card, we asked for 100 pounds, and out came 5 colorful pieces of paper with the queen's picture and the number 20 in the corner. Next, it was time to spend some of that English money on a London map. After figuring out how to spend our first afternoon in London, and figuring out how to get there, it was time to walk what seemed like miles of tunnels to the Underground station.
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