"You're going where?"
Just prior to my 25th birthday, I spotted, online, a last-minute deal to London.
(Hindsight being worth about 100GBP, it wasn't such a "deal".) I had possessed my passport for about five months at the time, and, was settling into a new pseudo-prestigous position. I, therefore, decided that the quarter century mark deserved to be celebrated in a big way. I thought, on a whim: "I'm gonna go to London." I called my mom and brought up the idea. She was, unsurprisingly, skeptical because I had never travelled alone before. But, owing to an I'm-a-grown-up-rebellious-draw, it was decided: 'London, here I come!'
In London, they drive on the left. For the directionally disoriented ...
I flew into Heathrow, arriving at around 6 o'clock in the morning. I remember clearly going through security. The entry official asked me a few questions: (1) "What is the purpose of your trip?"; (2) "Where are you staying?". After answering, nervously I am sure, he sent me on my way with a charming word of advice: "Stay away from those British boys, they talk funny." I flashed a smile. And just like that, I became an "international traveller".
I cannot recall whether or not I had checked baggage. I do remember that I stayed in a hotel, a Sheraton, not far from the airport.
(Thankfully, this was just a trip to London, where travel from around the airport to a more central area by public transportation is easy, even if inconveniently 40 minutes out of the way.) I took a shuttle from the airport to my hotel at a cost of $3. While I do not remember being jetlagged, per se, I was certainly tired. It was way too early for my hotel room to be ready so I had to hang out in the lobby. I wandered over to the hotel restaurant and ate something forgettable and overpriced. By about 7 o'clock, my room was ready. I had intended to set down my stuff and head out to where the action was (though probably it was still sleeping as I yearned to be). I, however, took a nap that extended well past the changing of the guards I had on my to-see list. Oops. When I woke up to realize that was a wash, I decided to call home. Or not. My cell phone would not work. I later learned that although t-mobile has a free worldwide service to enable calling from abroad, you have to request its activation; I found that a bit silly --if it is free, and people travel, why don't they just turn it on every phone automatically? Are rogue kids gonna abscond abroad and use stolen cellulars? (Also on the subject of electronics, I didn't have the sense of preparation to bring -or the sense of conservation to buy- an adapter.
Thus, when my plug-in digital camera battery pack died after about two days, I did what amateurs do: I bought disposable cameras for an obscene amount of money, that, of course, took grainy, uninspiring shots. Ah well.)
"Two blocks to the left, take the 103 to the tube, take the tube to Piccadilly." "Thanks!"
Let's say, a day pass on the "tube" costs 6GBP, and I pay with a 20, how much change ought I receive? Yeah, I didn't think it was a trick equation either.
Yet, my first experience with the tourist shakedown occured, with such simple math, in good ol' London. Being obviously unfamiliar with the currency, when I paid for my day pass, the clerk quickly tossed me a bunch of coins that did not equal up to 14GBP. Something told me to stand, right there, and count my change. When I noticed that he had shorted me about 10, all I said was, "I gave you a 20," with a stern look that said, "We do learn to count in America, buddy, give me the rest of my change now!" Feigning remorse, the clerk "found" my change very quickly (I think in his own breast pocket).
For some reason, I loved this graffiti. Perhaps I ought to credit Brassaï.
The tube was a pleasant ride. Much cleaner than the New York City subways. I did not miss any parts of any conversations since English -the "proper kind," blokes retort - is the language. (Subsequent travel has allowed me to experience how great it can be, sometimes, not to understand fully the subway chatter; it can be crass.) A bunch of schoolboys entered the tube car in their tidy blue uniforms, babbling about the events of their school day. I just rode. No ipod. Enjoying the sights of London passing me stop-by-stop, and people-watching. When I finally reached Central London, I just took it all in.
The quirky red telephone booths, the naturalness of a striking number of interracial couples, the prominence of the ubiquitous GAP and Starbucks, the charm of the streets.
Me in front of the Tower of London.
For the next few days, I travelled around, mostly on foot, but also by hop-on-hop-off bus. My highlights included a cruise on the River Thames, by night, which allowed me to see the London Eye aglow and to drift under the famous London Bridge; a tour of the Tower of the London, complete with antique torture chambers, and review of the crown jewels on a conveyor belt; several trips past the Tower Bridge, which I found to be an amazing sight to behold; a trip to the British Museum of Art, which I swear owns half of Egypt's gems; stumbling upon the Savoy and seeing Porgy & Bess (programs not included); stumbling upon a production of MoTown's hits (woo hoo black America!); wandering Covent Garden; eating at a little Indian restaurant in an alley and seeing a group of disgruntled Santa Clauses and Mrs. Clauses shout in protest: "What do we want?! Christmas! When do we want it?! NOW!"; shopping on the cheap and picking up an oh-so-touristy but fun bag, in the image of a tube stop, with the writing "Mind the Gap"; being many miles from home, on my own, and realizing that an old associate of mine was right: with a few days, and (a bit more than) a few dollars, you can set foot anywhere in the world in 24 hours or less.