Europe | United Kingdom (UK), Great Britain | England | London – Starting with a Wallow
Two weeks ago today, two commercial aircraft were intentionally flown into the sides of the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Approximately one hour after the collisions, the towers collapsed completely. 6,333 of the more than 50,000 people thought to be working in the towers at the time are currently missing, along with approximately 200 confirmed dead from the aircraft.
You knew all that.
There is, of course, a lot more to the story, and it continues to unfold, but I thought I needed to include it here for posterity. If only because the facts of the first paragraph are going to influence every facet of this trip for the next three and a half months. I didn’t want it to be this way, and I’ve done my best to try and focus on the reality of the trip over the past few weeks….reading guide books, poring over maps and planning treks is most of what occupied me during the days of my forced delay in New York when I wasn’t obsessively watching news coverage. But whether I like it or not, this will forever be The Time I Went to India After the Attack.
For starters, there’s the flight thing. Everything’s been pushed back ten days because of the airline grounding, so there will be sort of a rush once I hit Delhi (and don’t they say the one thing you must never do in India is rush?). I have to be in Chennai by October 13 to meet up with Suzanne. Rather, I really *want* to be in Chennai by the 13th. I’m old enough to value the ease of companionship over the freedom of independent motion these days, and Suzanne is one of the few people I’ve talked to who’s still excited about India even after all this dust and pain. So this compresses my trekking days in the Himalaya more than I’d like.
The rough plan is still unchanged: a flight to Delhi, a train to Haridwar, a bus to Rishikesh to make arrangements, then another to Gwaldam and 8 or 9 days walk up and over the Kuari pass to Tapovan. There was some thought given to hiking in Himachal Pradesh, further north and west, but this is now The Time I Went to India After the Attack, and allaying fears means staying as far from Kashmir and Pakistan as possible without destroying the fabric of the trip.
The trick is doing all of this and getting back to Delhi in time for the two day train south. There’s the outside chance of meeting up with two more friends in Agra for a day or so, but it’s nothing more than a chance. And of course, despite all my protests that I’ll Be Fine and It’s A Clash Between Ideologies, Not Real People, a tiny avatar continues to whisper warnings in my ear about the dubious wisdom of going to places like Agra, full of Islam and highly visible foreign tourism.
For now, I’m taking full advantage of the peace and kindness of London, staying in a quiet flat in Hampstead with a former co-worker and his wife and two kids, meeting a former travelling companion for dinner last night. It’s my fourth or fifth time here in the city, so tourist activities have been limited to the Eye and an hour’s jet-lagged stroll through the Tate Modern. Lots of sleeping, eating, pubs and newspaper scrutinizing instead.
Still, I’m doing my best to shift into full wide-eyed traveler mode, a transformation that was once so easy, now a terrible chore under the harsh eye of uncertainty. Only a few revelations in the past couple of days, as opposed to the usual hundreds; things like ‘Waitstaff in London restaurants seem to be having a much better time than their New York counterparts, perhaps since they don’t have to depend so much on tips,’ or ‘Appearance-wise, there’s not nearly so much differentiation among London neighborhoods as New York ones,’ quickly tempered by ‘There are a lot more drug dealers in Brixton than in Hampstead.’
Apparently, pot has just been effectively legalized by the Brixton police, a point driven home by the four offers we got in a ten-minute stroll down Coldharbour Lane on a Monday night. They’re a lot more straightforward about it than I’m accustomed to…no slang or whispered phrases in the ear, just simple requests: ‘Hey, you want some marijuana man?’ One went so far as to try and convince us when we refused: ‘Oh come *on*, relax a bit. It’s legal now!’
I’m grateful for nights like that, the sort that make good stories and pin my consciousness in the here and now. It’s only when I don’t have a current task or distraction that I start obsessing over New York’s safety or the future of the Afghani peasant. Even that night, full as it was of good conversation and reminiscences, slid off toward the end into a wallow of despair after discussing the events of the 11th and slipping into silence.
Perhaps India is the best possible place for me to go: I’m told there’s a lot to distract you there. But realistically, I know I’m from New York, and that’s one of the first things anyone I meet will ask, and so nearly every new interaction of the next three and a half months is going to start with a wallow. I just hope it moves on from there.