13th June 2008

leena will be leaving london and going to los angeles for the rest of her course. in her words, “london as an episode will be over!” so she and i decided to go for a small tour around kent.

left for canterbury by the national express bus from victoria coach station. but not before a lot of huffin-ana-puffin-ana-blo-yer-house-down, because leena arrived at the underground station minutes before the bus was supposed to leave. not wanting to miss the bus like our last trip to bournemouth, we half ran to the coach station and got into the bus at 9:30.

the journey was good. buses usually irritate me, but with such beautiful countryside outside, i hardly had time to feel crabby. vast meadows with sheep and horses grazing contently, old village style houses and roads lined with trees…reminded of my innumerable trips to my native place. arrived in canterbury in two hours. the bus station was in the middle of a very contemporary town center, full of brands that i usually see in london.

bought film and food at a nearby shop and walked to the hostel, munching on butter croissants and cheese twisties on the way! the hostel is actually in a converted victorian house, with a nice homely feel to it. we kept our bags in, took some maps and travel guides and set out to explore the town. went to the cycle shop to ask for rentals. they told us that we could have any cycle in the shop for 15 pounds a day plus a 100 pound deposit. our financial condition did not permit us the two wheeled luxury, and we promptly left the shop, pissed at the capitalist overlords! we decided to walk to the cathedral, passing through a marketplace choc-a-bloc with stalls of flowers, fruit, shoes, clothes, scarves. it reminded me of the flea markets of colaba or goa. there were close to a hundred different sweets in one stall, and the flower seller was selling a nice bunch for three. for that money, you could get all but a few dried leaves in london.

as we walked on, i saw the cathedral through an arch that was under repair. right across a busy street filled with musicians and shops and people and funny little dogs was the canterbury cathedral! my course tutor had been there and in his words, “it brought tears to my eyes.” once inside the cathedral, i could see why. it is magnificent, to say the very least. the exquisite stained glass panels, the never ending arches in the choir, the meticulous detail in the wooden carvings…i find no words to describe the sheer scale and beauty of the building! the light outside was changing constantly; i had to wait for the right moment to take pictures. we spent a lot of time in and around the cathedral. a lot of conservation work is being carried out, due to forces of nature and time having caused a great deal of damage to the stone.

had a meal in the garden surrounding the cathedral. there were a lot of french students out on a visit; school children being counted before entering a cafe for lunch, sweet french girls saying hello to everyone as they went along. we sat there for a while and came back to the bus station to ask for buses to whitstable and dover. a helpful lady patiently gave us the information and handed over a bunch of maps and timetables. we found that whitstable was doable in that evening, and promptly bought tickets for the next bus which arrived pretty soon. took us not more than 35 minutes to reach the place. the scenery was fantastic! straight long roads going downhill, and the sea right in front of us! the town itself is pretty, dotted with a number of fish and chips joints and seafood restaurants. i had done a bit of research before leaving, and it seems that the oysters from whtistable are known all over the world. the crab and winkle restaurant was THE place to have the choicest seafood available in the region!

we got down close to the sea, and started walking along the beach lined by colourful huts. the vast expanse of the sea was soothing. there were windmills right in the middle, which was quite interesting! we walked right up to the end, where the pebbles gave way to fine gravel, the kind you put in a fish tank. leena thought that the beach was man-made, as a beach was ‘supposed’ to have sand. had chips loaded with all possible sauces – mustard, chilli, tomato, mayonnaise…all gulped down with a massive cup of tea! our tummies a bit rested, we started back to the town center. it was already five; i missed the chance to see the famed fish market. walked to the harbour, where all the restaurants were. the rates drove away all the hunger and craving for seafood that i had so intently managed to keep alive all this time. dejected, i dragged myself to the bus stop, promising that i would come back and have the mackerel and prawns and cod and haddock and crab and…

got back to canterbury. just as we were about to check in, the hostel owner asked us to join in with the others for free pasta and songs in the dining area. we happily followed him. there were a lot of backpackers from the states, russia, germany, spain. everyone was having a good time as one of the hostel’s people was drunk (as a result of italy losing to holland…some euro cup thing!). he was busy being over the top and was surprised to find that leena was a vegetarian. he promised to get her a vegetarian pasta, got it and everyone gave a round of applause to the “vegetarian girl, what is your name, leena, leena from where, bombay!, vegetarian leena from india, mumbai!!”

had the pasta and followed the owner to the room. it looked like an attic converted into a mixed dormitory. two bunk beds, two single beds and one double bed.

leena had already decided that if they had bunk beds, she was talking the top one. much to my dismay, she did; and with the perpetual fear of being crushed to death, i slid carefully in the lower bunk. i tried to sleep, between leena constantly asking me for her bag, the bottle of water, nivea, and the ominous creaks from above making my heart skip a beat! eventually, i managed to doze off with salmon and mackerel and prawns and crab swimming around in my head!

14th June 2008

leena had set the alarm for 7:30 as we had decided to leave for dover early. we woke up an hour after she shut the alarm off! we HAD to, actually, because a woman in the room was making a racket with her heeled sandals. ticktockticktock down to the kitchen for breakfast, into the room to her bed, rummaging in her bag, to the bathroom, out again, clockittyclock to the bed, stuff something in, toktocktikiktock back again to check if she had left anything in there, to the bed again…i could hear leena muttering under her breath and cursing the woman in an early morning, laboured drawl.

got ready, checked out of the hostel and walked to the bus station.. breakfast at the hostel was only till ten, so we had to have something in the town center. which we did at a place called EAT. simple, effective branding. mushroom with cheddar cheese and tomato EAT. tuna mayo sandwich EAT. dark chocolate pot EAT. had a decent breakfast and took the 12:20 bus to dover. took us almost 40 minutes to get there. similar scenery on the way; sheep and horses that appeared like cutouts stuck into the ground, waves of soft green bobbing away to the horizon, and the black stripe right across the middle on which our bus trundled, along, almost devoid of gravity.

“let’s go right up to that end and then turn back. just up to where those people are.”
“not that far. we have to get back down before six, have something to eat and get the bus back.”

he saw that it was already getting dark. you never know how and when the weather might change. also, they had come a long way ahead. almost beyond the middle of the cliffs.
as they sat at the edge, he glanced around. the port stretched out into the sea like a huge gray canvas, taut and pockmarked with things that looked vaguely like cars and people. the sea shone dazzlingly towards the west where the sun filtered across its surface from between the clouds. a vast swathe of blue stretched all the way from the cliffs right up to calais. france! he thought. just across this channel lay ‘a moveable feast’, as hemingway had described it.

“blue, teal, turquoise, cerulean…just look at the colours here!” he turned to talk to her. but she was on the phone, speaking in a heavy choked voice. must be her mother. being so far away from home in such a beautiful place…he wondered why he never felt those pangs of homesickness.

” ok! it’s four thirty. let’s leave. or do you want to sit for another ten minutes?”
“no. let’s go. we might miss the bus back home. and i’m getting really hungry now.”
“yeah! you can never get enough of this place anyway!”

as he walked on, he shielded his eyes from the glare coming off the sea. she ambled along behind him, taking pictures of views she had missed on the way. everything looked so different as the light changed.

“we came this way didn’t we? why not go down that path? let’s see where it goes.”
“sure! maybe it meets up where we started.”

the map showed dover castle to be close by. we asked directions from a very helpful woman at thomas cook who according to herself was “not so great at drawing maps.” well, she did not know how utterly disappointing we both were in following them! the way up to the castle was through a nicely wooded area. barely 20 steps later, leena stopped for a break. “i have to lose weight. i have to eat well. i am ashamed of myself. i used to lead nature trails in school, you know? chee!!” it was tough to motivate her out of this, but i guess the view from the top helped her feel better about her tragically useless life!

arrived at the castle. it was a breathtaking view! i’m amazed at the paucity of words one so distinctly notices while attempting to describe such moments. we could see all of the eastern docks and the town and that part of dover where the famous white cliffs began. all upbeat and finger on the shutter release, we walked on in glee, until a nice blue board announcing the entry charge stopped me in the tracks. eight and a half pounds entry with a student concession! already having spent close to five times that amount in getting there, all my glee disappeared as soon as it had surfaced. we looked at each other, then at the sprawling town below us, and walked down. curses!!

got down from the castle and walked to the seaside. a few steps ahead, and the cliffs suddenly showed up right beside us! a row of houses at the base, a couple of restaurants opposite and the famous white cliffs of dover! majestic white walls with the sea lapping at their feet, and a port out in front! we found a small path leading up to the cliffs. it was hardly half an hour before we reached a point from where we could see the cliffs to the left, the port out in front and the castle on our right. and…and FRANCE!!! france right across the english channel! the ports of calais and bologne were clearly visible, thanks to the clear sky. we took in the view and walked on higher, every step leading to better vistas. we came to a clearing at a point that had wooden benches, with old couples looking out to the sea. seemed like a scene right out of a movie. we sat there for a while, looking at ferries coming in, buses and cars crawling out of cruise ships. and the cliffs stretching out endlessly to the left!

the slope down was not as steep as it looked from above, and the view was uncluttered. he took a few pictures and started walking. the seagulls were hovering above, with the crows in between, ungainly and ill-fitting. he wondered why the path seemed a bit empty and less walked on. as he looked up to her to say it, the noise of the gulls increased…

all of a sudden, four of them swooped down on them! their wings flapping nervously, the cackle and screeches getting louder as they whooshed down and flew inches past his head. he crouched down instinctively and as he raised his head to look for her, he could see three or four of the menacing birds circling her. one of them flew close and clawed her shoulder as it emptied a trail of its dropping on her sweater. her screams sounded distant in between the relentless screeching of the birds. and then, she struggled to her feet and started running.

we had to return to the bus station by seven. walked on till 4:30 and started back. speechless, spellbound, hypnotised by the ever changing blue green hues of the water and the green of the grass and the white of the cliffs and the brown of the rocks…i realised what it means to be short of words! the only time i’d felt something like that was on the har-ki-dun trek in ’04. four years have gone by, and i can still feel the chill and the fragrance of the pine strewn mountains.

the gulls hung around, motionless, like puppets on a string, diving down and rising up within seconds. it was fun to see them hop about on their small pink webbed feet. on the way down, we saw a lot of hares too, with the little ones freeze for a few seconds us and disappearing among the bushes, their whitetails bobbing into the green and brown tangles.

while he crouched face down, he looked for stones, sticks anything that could get the birds off them for a while. his fumbling hands found two sizeable rocks.from his position, he aimed and launched one with all his might at a bird that was circling above her head, claws drawn in intent. it hit the gull right behind its legs close to the stomach, and it crashed down upon a bush, wings open. that’s when it struck him. they had unwittingly walked into a whole colony of nests! the injured bird squatted there, while the others rushed at the intruders with their beaks and claws, their beady eyes fixed on them.
he got up to his feet, clutched his bag and ran in her direction. they both dashed into the bushes at the end of the path and sat down, gulping air as his hands got numb. he looked at her. she had taken the sweater off, her eyes all welled up. all red in her face, she looked at the ground in disbelief.

“look up! they are still circling above us. they are looking for us. they have spotted us. see my fingers. they’re all swollen! look at me please, look at me and talk. i am scared.”

he could feel his left side go numb. the cold feeling ran down his shoulder to his fingertips. he looked back at her, her eyes wide and watery, shaken by the sudden assault. the birds still cackled overhead.

“we can’t go back that way. forget that! the only way is to get through these bushes and try to get to the other side and find a way out.”

they walked close, half crouching, slow and cautious, looking up constantly. they came to a path that lead to a thicket so dense, they couldn’t have gone through it even by crawling on their stomachs. and it lead nowhere. the path ended where they stood. he looked down; they highway was close and the thicket ahead curved into the face of the cliff.

“we have to go back the same way.”

got down and walked back to the beach. took my shoes off and walked into the water. it was freezing! my toes got numb in seconds! jumped out in fear that i might never walk again. but the cold water was irresistible, and the pebbles massaged my feet, which felt too good! there was a bit of sailing going on and a family outing, where men and children were swimming in the water as if it were a heated pool! picked up a few odd shaped pebbles and an ’emerald’ according to leena. left from the beach for some food. had a great grilled chicken panini and a nice cold magners.

she saw that the birds had increased in number and were circling the colony, making those evil noises that she was sure she was not going to forget for a long time. the sting in her shoulder made its presence felt as a drop of sweat ran down the back of her neck onto where the gull had clawed her. when he had looked back at her moments ago, she could see the fear in his eyes that seemed to say, “i am as helpless as you are, so just shut up.” there was just one way to get out of this – lay still till the birds went away, and RUN! run for their lives right across the nest. she could see how tensely he held the bag and the way he kept looking up and ahead. they were like a pair of rabbits hiding from eagles, waiting for a chance to run out of hiding.

” RUN! come on. get out and run,” he shouted.

before she could register what he had said, he dashed out with the bag. she got out of the bushes and ran like crazy! as they reached the nest, she saw one of the birds swoop out of nowhere and rush past his head. and then, some more of the monsters emerged out from behind the cliffs and came at her.

exactly at that moment, she slipped…

she held her hands out to brace herself of the fall. the palms scraped on the ground and her knee hit a rock. she got up, the wound on her shoulder smarting with every movement. she could see him across the path, down on his knees, his back heaving with every breath. and she slipped again, this time calling out to him as loud as she could. the whirring of the birds’ feathers close to her ears increased.

the bus was right on time. till then, leena and i counted the seagulls around the bus stop. there were six of them perched atop the streetlights. and few hundred more in the garden! leena wondered why they were out so late in the evening, and why don’t they just go to their nests and sleep! she HATES birds, and has her valid reasons.

we reached the hostel, with 30 minutes in hand for the london bus! you see, we like keeping time schedules tight and up to the last minute. the rush keeps us on the edge! we get lazy otherwise, or so we placate / justify our inherent laziness!

took our bags and stuff from the hostel, looked around for the noisy woman, thanked the people and almost ran to the bu station. the bus, as usual, was spot on time! got in and talked a lot about leena’s spiky hair and BMM. the walking of the day and a good cold glass of cider got to me, and i fell asleep pretty soon. till the bright lights of a london tunnel woke me up.

by the time we reached victoria, we were both terribly tired. said our goodbyes, dragged our tired selves back home.

all in all, a very well spent weekend. it was the second time i’d been somewhere out of london, bournemouth being the first. a trip worth every penny spent. i plan to go to whitstable and dover again with ameya and gang. don’t want to miss out on the seafood and the market at whitstable. and i most definitely want to see where the cliffs stretch to!

adios! till the next time πŸ™‚

seemingly out of danger, he sat on the ground for a while before he heard her calling out to him. he got up and started walking back, his legs shaking. by the time he walked a few steps, he could see that she had managed to run past the nest. she stopped running as she got closer to him. he could see where she had hurt her knee, and her palms were red and sweaty, scraped in places.

“feels like i’m in a movie. what just happened? we should have seen the nest.”

are you ok? let’s have something to eat as soon as we get down. a beer would be great. what do you think?’

“yes! but before that, i want to wash my hands. let’s go to the beach.”

as they sat on the pebbles with the chilly water soothing their frayed nerves, they looked up at the cliffs. those majestic white walls blending seamlessly into the blue below. and the gulls soaring effortlessly, riding on the air that took them up, knocked them off, and made way for them as they whizzed down in a flash.

they are beautiful, he thought. he looked at her, at the little pebbles that pushed their way through his toes, and the receding waves.



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