London Landing

(photo: V&A’s Uncomfortable Truths exhibit)

I’ve been in London for 8 hours and already my boogers are black. Despite the deceptively sunny day (and yes, it was surprisingly gorgeous outside today), London gets an unhealthy rating for air pollution. After an Underground trip to Baron’s Court which felt much longer than it should have, mainly because I had the luck of riding with a crew of 100 Canadian students carrying the biggest suitcases you’ve ever seen on a school trip (I’m not kidding! 100!), I carried my large backpack on my back, my daypack on my front, and dragged the insanely heavy Samsonite luggage full of the stuff I brought for the FACES Kisumu clinic. It was quite a sight. I’ll bet I just looked like walking luggage. I think it weighed more than me. I felt like an ant, dragging six times its weight up the 3 flights of stairs to the bunk room at the sterile, no-nonsense Ace Hotel in South Kensington. The reviews of the Ace Hotel on travel websites complained that it was too residential, too quiet, too clean, too small, too strict. Perfect! I was psyched to have a safe place to store my why-don’t-you-just-rob-me-now traveling electronics stash.

I also need to get accustomed to UK’s use of 240 volt electricity. It’s shocking, really. I plugged in my computer power adapter and had sparks flying accompanied by a strange tingle in my arms.

After my 11 hour, cramped up uncomfortable flight sitting next to the squirmiest big British man I’ve ever met, it was nice to roam free. I thought I’d have the risk of crashing out, but I guess residency has trained me how to walk around like a zombie and pretend that I’m functional when I’m really not. So in the ten hours after I got to London, I’ve managed to pull off some mini adventures in a short period of time:

-Victoria & Albert Museum (now renamed to the hipper acronym of “V&A”): i wanted to check out the Uncomfortable Truths exhibit by artists of the African diaspora to acknowledge the bicentennial of the British abolition of slavery (in the traditional sense, though one can argue that slavery is not really gone, just reconfigured into other forms of racism and economic oppression). Their pieces were cleverly interspersed throughout the colonial and imperial artwork to remind everyone of how slaves have had a huge part in making the lives of the owning class work… and allowed them to own huge treasure troves of stolen artwork. This allowed me to run through a majority of the museum. One of the more direct series was by Lubaina Himid (Naming the Money UK 2004), where she made life-sized painted figures of slaves or servants from history and placed them in the frou frou chi chi bedroom, foyer, dining room, ballroom, etc. setups around the museum. On the back of each figure is how much the person should have been paid for the services s/he rendered. Smart.

-On a whim, I stayed on the Piccadilly Line towards Cockfosters (yes, Cockfosters. The Brits evidently don’t find this funny but you can always spot English-speaking tourists because they giggle every time Cockfosters is announced overhead). I vaguely remembered reading about getting half-priced tickets to see British theatre. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember the details about how to avoid getting scammed, so there I was, in the Leicester Square Underground Terminal, getting scammed. Sigh. I sooo hate getting scammed. Only, this one was pretty convincing- it was an official looking store, with a computer system, lots of seals on the wall proclaiming the outfit to be part of all sorts of accredited theater programs, blah blah. And the guy was pretty convincing. I wanted to see Billy Elliot The Musical (though I wasn’t so keen on the musical part) but he said that the theatre had not released any tickets for that evening. So I asked his opinion, thinking that he was a reputable dude. He told me to see The 39 Steps, an adaptation of Hitchcock’s movie, for 20 quid (that’s US $42, guys. A lot). It wasn’t until 20 minutes later that I spotted the REAL official TKTS office down in the REAL Leicester Square. It was closed, so I didn’t feel so bad at that moment. However, I started to feel bad when I showed up to the Criterion Theatre and was issued a real discounted ticket for 15 quid. That means homeboy and his outfit took home 5 quid, or about US$11 for that ticket. So now I know. And now you know. Go to the damn TIKTS office outside in Leicester Square, not the scammier places in the subway (like this place, West End Theatre Bookings, or right out of the subway). Or, it turns out, if you are a senior, have a student ID, and show up at the theatre for the show you want to see an hour before the show, you can get even cheaper tickets straight from the source.

The 39 Steps: For all the crap I have written about my overpriced theatre ticket, it was good show. It was a bloody good show. Not a standing O show, cuz Brits don’t do that sort of thing. I imagine that the original movie was captivating with all sorts of smart plots twists, etc. But this adaptation was fkin hilarious. Basically, there were three actors and one actress playing 139 parts. Actually, one dude played the same character throughout, so technically, there were 3 people playing 138 parts. They threw in so much of that slapstick and deadpan British humor that even I, in my post-flight haze, was guffawing in public. There were some slapstick remakes of train chase scenes and little-man-actor-as-elderly-lady cross-dressing scenes that were brilliant.

-London’s Chinatown: is much cleaner and glitzier than any Chinatown I’ve ever seen before. Lots of herbal and acupuncture and massage shops. Some medium to high end Chinese and Japanese restaurants. It’s possible that these are considered low end in super-expensive London, but when I have to pay more than US$10 for a basic Asian meal, I consider it high end. So for 6 quid, I got myself a bowl of veggie ramen. And now I’m starving again. Good thing I brought half a suitcase full of energy bars, chocolate, brownies and oatmeal. Too bad I’m starving because I used those calories carrying all that food around.

It’s midnight in London! Time to get my booty into the bunk bed. G’night y’all.