“Hi I’m Lois, it’s nice to meet you!”
This happened when I met Lois Pryce, within a few minutes of arriving at the Adventure travel film festival 2017, London. It set the tone for the rest of the weekend, with me drooling around people I’d only read about, tongue-tied, looking like I just jumped off the boat a few hours ago.
I volunteered at the festival, for the sole reason of being able to help someone else do a good thing. I haven’t done any adventures in a while, have given up motorcycles completely, and spend my weekends reading or writing. Life is slow and simple, and I seem to have some money in my account for a change.
The closest thing I’ve ever experienced to the ATFF was MTM 2015, although they are very different in the way they are executed. As someone who is scared of organizing a house-warming party, I respect people who organize such huge events.
My initial plan was to cycle the 70 odd kms from my home to the festival location. When I told Austin he said “Are you sure?” in that stereotypical British accent. I guess I was trying to make a microadventure out of it, but it didn’t happen in the end. The rear tire punctured a week before the festival, I ordered a tubeless kit but that didn’t arrive for weeks. More importantly, once my bag was packed I realized I couldn’t sit on the cycle with it on my back.
It would’ve been fun, if I hadn’t killed myself on the way. The plan was to follow the grand union canal all the way to the outskirts of London, and then find my way to the venue from there. I know, not much of a plan.
The venue was Mill Hill school, located in North-West London. Initially I thought it would be like a public school back in India, but boy was I in for a surprise. I booked the train tickets, packed my bags, and then it was time to wait for the day.
Thursday, 10th August 2017
We had to gather at the school by late afternoon for a meetup/barbecue thing, so naturally I planned to reach there about 2 hours in advance. Took a Virgin from Milton Keynes to Euston, then changed for Finchley Central, and then onto one for Mill Hill East. The final train was a bit of a surprise, I’ve never seen one wait at the platform for so long, mostly London trains fly away like Mumbai locals. The Mill Hill East is a tiny one-platform station that’s also the end of the line.
The school is about a mile from the station, but it feels much farther away on foot. I saw a lot of good-looking houses, plenty of churches, and a few vintage cars as well on the way. My backpack was a bit too heavy, but not as heavy as the midget I carried to Isle of Man.
I saw someone outside the gate who looked like a young Michael Cera. Ben took me inside and introduced me to the place.
Mill Hill is a school that looks like a museum, both from the outside and inside. A quick Google search tells you that Francis Crick studied here, yes that’s the dude who helped discover the structure of DNA. Evgeny Lebedev, owner of The Independent was a student too. For the Indian crowd reading this, Vir Sanghvi is an alumni as well. Others include the son of a former Sri Lankan president, famous actors, footballers, mathematicians, businessmen, poets, neurologists and everything in between.
Another quick search tells me that the cost of schooling here per year is about twice what my dad paid for my entire 4-year engineering degree.
Ben took me through one giant field, and then another giant field, and then a few more until we entered the main building. Met Austin in the corridor and then went onto the volunteer office. Most of them were rotating around a few tables like a few candy wrappers in a dust devil. I was told to setup tent in the volunteer area and return.
While moving out of the building, I saw a water dispenser. I was thirsty, picked up one of the glasses, filled it up, and drank it without touching the glass with my lips. Once done I put it back in the pile of glasses from where it had come, almost immediately there was a boom inside the hall.
“Don’t do that!”
“You put that glass back on top with other glasses.”
“Yes, I didn’t put my lips to it.”
“No, no that doesn’t matter, just go.”
That lunch lady did not fuck about.
I of course being the seasoned adventurer that I am had used my tent only once before. I reached the field where the volunteers were supposed to pitch and it was more or less empty. I had the choice of all the spots to decide what would be the best place to be. I took a quick look at the Sun, figured out the directions, imagined where the Sun would rise, what path it would take through the day, and picked a spot. I was rather proud of my bushmen skills.
Two other volunteers walked over and congratulated me on the choice of my spot, I didn’t realize they were being sarcastic.
A quick change of clothes and I was back at the HQ, slowly rotating along with the other candy wrappers. We prepared welcome packs for the attendees, magazines, flyers, and goggles in a bag. Midway through feeling light-headed, Lois entered the office and I had that awkward greeting with her. I’m not much of a talker, so I just listened, and answered any questions that were asked. Once we were all done Lois suggested we have some beer.
“Should I tell her I don’t drink? Na I look weird enough for today, I’ll just get a can and sip a bit. But then I’ll have to throw it all away, that won’t be nice. Do plants like beer?”
Luckily they got distracted with other ideas and I slipped out. While going out I saw a different lunch lady in the cafeteria. I was hungry.
“Hello, is there something that I could get to eat?”
“No, no this is for the children, and for festival people with meal passes.”
“Oh, no problem, thanks.”
“Let me see if there are any leftovers.”
I never say no to food, I’ll eat anything. Few years ago a customer and his girlfriend had come to an office I worked at, she was eating some ice cream in a cup. As the introductions went around she offered her ice cream to everyone, they refused, I accepted. She was surprised.
The nice big black lady struggled around walking and brought me two cups of some cake with some cream and a strawberry on top. She couldn’t find a spoon anywhere, and we walked towards the kitchen. She went in, I stood outside, I heard her tell someone to give me a spoon. The lady who I had disgusted a few minutes before showed up with a spoon. I was smiling, she was not.
After I was done eating, I walked back to the tent. Someone was setting up her tent besides mine.
“Do you need any help with that?”
“No I’m alright thanks!”
“So, we are neighbors! Do you think this is the best place to pitch the tent?”
“I think so yes.”
“Hmm, let me ask that lady over there, she might know better.”
Jane went over to the other end of the field and spoke to a woman who was sitting besides what looked like a tent big enough for a circus show.
“She tells me this is the worst place to tent for the night. It would be too hot during the day, there’s no protection against wind, and if it rains there might be standing water.”
We both picked up our tiny tents and set them up next to the big one up the hill. Apparently my bushmen skills need a bit of touch-up.
It was now time for the volunteer meetup/barbecue, I knew nobody and did not want to level up my awkwardness for the day. After I picked up a few tasty vegetarian burgers, it was time to head over to the tennis court and watch two old men play a match. Those guys were hard core.
When I used to live in Hyderabad, it was tough to find a place to ride to. We ended up with a new system, find a lake nearby, and then attempt to circumnavigate it. A simple idea, it worked wonders at making our life more interesting. Before going to sleep, I went around the school boundary once. It was too dark to notice anything interesting, but it did tell me a lot about the size of the place.
I spent another cold night in my tent, I don’t know what I should do to warm things up. I even used a few of those packets of chemicals from Warmee, but nothing worked. I’m usually a hot guy, at least my wife says so, I’m an accomplished bed warmer. For some reason those skills don’t work with tents. Is it the mattress? Is it the sleeping bag? A deep analysis of my inability to be comfortable worked well to put me to sleep.