Day 3: Crossing that Channel

Tuesday, 18 Oct ’16

S.B. – This trip is a constant reminder of how much we need to do this together. Your birthday or mine, next year?

This is the day I make my way to the continent. I’m fascinated at the idea of crossing the English Channel, it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was 10. Of course, back then, I had just started to learn to swim and my child brain was being overly ambitious when it decided that I must swim the English Channel. Today, I wasn’t going to swim the English Channel, but cross it by a ferry, and that was compensation enough. Perhaps that’s what happens as you move forward in life. You rephrase your ambitions and desires in whatever form you’re able to fulfil it in.

To get to the port, I had to ride from London to Dover which took me about two and a half hours. And I sleep for a good two hours! I just couldn’t keep myself awake and so I have no idea what London streets I might have crossed, what English countryside must have passed me by and what anecdotes I’ve let escape because I wasn’t paying attention to the scenes outside my window.

I was only jolted awake by hunger. Yes, that’s one way of bringing me back to reality. Starve me and I come crashing back from whichever dream world I’ve been wandering in. A signboard catches my eye – Dover, 12. Now my brain kicks into gear. Dover? Dover? I’ve heard of it before, haven’t I? I mean, before I took this trip. I’ve read of this place. Did something happen here? I’m trying very hard to place it, but it isn’t coming to me.

Fifteen minutes later, I’m struck by an epiphany. “Oh!”, I exclaim. My co-passengers assume that I’m amused by the beauty of the scenery. But it’s not just that. It’s the white cliffs that suddenly emerge on the landscape that remind me where I know the place from.

Dover faces the continent, the French coastline in particular. European invaders have long looked at this part of the English coast as the point to breach. That’s where I knew Dover from. From my study of English history. And to see the white cliffs looming closer and closer, well… that was a stunning sight to behold.

I hear the first French words of my travel there. An immigration officer comes on board to stamp my passport, looks at me and says, “Bonjour”. How I melt! French guy, speaking French, speaking to me – what more could I have asked of this day?

I have some time before I need to get onto my ferry and I take to wandering around a bit. I find myself admiring the cliffs. In the midst of all this serenity, I find myself in front of a Burger King counter. How does that happen? How does the familiar entrench itself upon the new? How does the commercial encroach upon the beauty of nature? How does the feeling of belonging set in, in a place far away from home? I’m amused and assured at the same time. A young boy, can’t have been more than 15, mans the counter single-handedly, as dozens of passengers, waiting for their ferries, come to place their orders with him. He’s young and confident. He knows his territory well. He can recommend burgers, tell you about a better offer and swipe your card, in a jiffy. I think I would have taken longer to even read the menu. I acknowledge his presence with a smile, which he returns politely and a little shyly.

Cliffs of Dover, from across the English Channel
Cliffs of Dover, from across the English Channel

Thirty minutes later, I’m on the ferry that will take me to another country. I’m so excited. For about five minutes. Once the ferry actually starts moving, I realise, I can’t stand up. I don’t have sea legs!

I’m sick in an instant, and I have to sit down to steady my head. No, no, no! This can’t be happening. I’m crossing the English Channel. I love the sea. And right outside is scenery that I must capture, on my camera lens and diary, both. But if I am going to be sea-sick, there is no way I can be smiling and posing for selfies. This is one of the moments when I’m screaming in my head. How is it, that some things turn out to be drastically different from the way you hoped, the way you imagined them to be, and not for the better?

I sit sulking for almost an hour, as my destination, Calais, approaches. Finally, I steel myself. I walk with slow, steady steps and head to the upper deck. People look at me like I’m loony. Or drunk. Or both.

Once I’m on the deck I feel better, breathing in the chilly air. Up here you can quickly discern who is a tourist and who a regular passenger. Regulars sit sipping their coffees or reading their books, while the tourists, armed with their selfie sticks click incessantly.

And here’s where I strike off the first of my travel tasks, courtesy D.S.

#TravelChallengebyDS (1/18): Offer to take a photo

It’s a couple from the Philippines, Grace and Mario (I discover their names much later), whose picture I offer to take. They are quite a matched couple; short of height both, their imaginations tickled by the sight of the smallest of novelties, that often elicited the expression “whoa!” from them. They kept me giggling for a long time. For the next 14 days really, as they were my co-passengers on most rides.

I landed in Calais, and the only thing I did on my first landing in France was to turn my watch an hour ahead. Well, today is not the day I stay in France. Or visit any part of it. Or even eat here. I’m only passing through. Passing through France. Passing through Belgium.

Flat lands of Belgium

I don’t have an opinion on France (yet). I do on Belgium. It’s very country, the parts that I see at least. Flat lands, meadows, sheeps and cows. I’m on the road for hours and the landscape doesn’t change much. I experience European highways. And the roadworks on those highways. And the traffic caused because of the roadworks on those highways. But the scenery is pretty much the same. Until Antwerp.

The fiery skies outside Antwerp
The fiery skies outside Antwerp

The sun is just setting as I pass outside Antwerp and a fiery scene meets my eye. It’s a rendering from a painter’s imagination. The colors are striking and vivid. The sky and clouds are dyed in shades that I would assume existed only on a color palette.

Another two hours later, and I’m finally at my destination. Amsterdam. My first impression? I’m not certain, because it’s nightfall and the only sights I see are lit up by neon or fluorescent lights. It doesn’t help me decide whether I like what I see. Or even to figure out what is it that I do see. So I can’t tell you what Amsterdam was like at first sight. I have to wait until morning to figure out.


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