The London trip (April 23-26) marked my very first experience with solo travel (not counting Copenhagen). I spent a great deal of time figuring out the logistics of my short weekend stay in London, everything from the flights there to accommodation to sightseeing plans.
I decided to fly with easyJet (the Southwest Airlines of Europe). For accommodation, Preben had informed me earlier about Couch Surfers and Hospitality Club, awesome concepts where people offer their couches or bedrooms to travellers for 1, 2, 3 or more nights in exchange for friendship and stories. I joined both sites but was unable to find accommodation quickly enough due to lack of time (and because I only sent out 3 hosting requests; I didn’t want to spam everyone, lol). However I remain a member of both sites because I definitely plan to do more traveling in the future.
I ended up settling with the Astor Hyde Park hostel, my very first experience with one! I was a bit wary of the fact that my room was mixed female and male, but according to the reviews online no one had any problems with it so I decided to give it a shot!
The easyJet flight on an A319 to London was fast and smooth. I was a bit nervous, thinking, “what am I doing, coming to London all by myself?!” I was also very excited — London was one of the cities I’d read so much about and now I was going there!
The plane lands at London Gatwick. I am armed with my directions for how to find the hostel. I first go through passport control, then proceed to convert my money to pounds sterling. Then I buy a train ticket, pick up my bag and it’s off to Victoria Station! At the station I had to ask an attendant to point me in the right direction of the Tube! It was a bit overwhelming…people going in all directions, noise, trains, arrgh! Maybe this was too much for me!
But I found the Tube and got on the right train (the District Line). I had to ask someone which direction of the line I should take. People were very helpful and I have to admit, it was refreshing to be able to just speak English without having to ask them if they spoke it first!
During my first ride on the Tube I was a bit distracted because I had luggage and because I was thinking about finding my way. But let’s just say the London Tube makes the Copenhagen Metro look like a tram in a tiny airport.
When my stop came up, I got off (loved hearing the famous “Mind the Gap, please”) and proceeded to find Astor Hyde Park. I wanted to see the cars driving in the “wrong” direction. It was quite fascinating. But since the UK is one of the few countries that drive on the left, they’ve kindly painted white words at every intersection telling you which direction to look. Even though I followed these directions, my instincts still told me to look the opposite way. It’s funny how these things make you realize you have certain habits/instincts you don’t even know you had. At least, that was the case for me!
As I was walking to the hostel, a man on the opposite side of the street came out of a building carrying a laptop. The next thing I knew, he was on the ground. I looked around and no one else seemed to have seen what just happened. I wanted to go over to him to see if he was all right, but I was all the way on the opposite side of the double-laned street. Crossing that street mid-block with luggage would be a no-no given my inexperience with left-side traffic. Less than a minute later though, 2 people on that side of the street stopped to help him. I stood and watched for a little bit, trying to figure out what was going on. He was bleeding and didn’t seem to be able to move. Maybe he tripped and fell on the concrete and broke his nose or something? I watched for a few more minutes, nearly forgetting about the hostel, then I had to get moving.
The hostel was very close, I had to cross a few more streets and then walk down to the end of Queen’s Gate, and there I was! Nearby were Hyde Park, the Science Museum and the Museum of Natural History. The hostel staff were very nice and I loved their accents, lol. There were no elevators and my room was on the second floor, so I hauled my bag up the stairs. Quite a workout! No one was in the room when I arrived, but I could see their stuff by their beds. I chose an unoccupied bed, top bunk. Put my stuff in the locker under the bed and then decided to take a rest. I read for about an hour.
Then a girl came in, she offered to let me use her laptop to check my mail or surf the web while she took a shower. Afterward, we chatted. Chelsea was her name. Like me, she was travelling solo. American, but working as an au pair in Paris. She was on vacation from her job, so she’d decided to come to England for a few days. She was actually on her way out; moving to a different hostel the next day. She’d spent the previous day walking around, seeing the major attractions. She told me where I could find some cheap shops near our hostel as well.
After our chat, I decided to do some walking myself. It was about 16:30 and I was hungry. easyJet doesn’t give free food on their flights. I decided to explore the neighborhood and then get some dinner.
I walked up and down the streets, marveling at the traffic direction. Nearly got hit by a car at one point. I also marveled at the British flags flying on buildings. For dinner I went to this Chinese/Thai restaurant. Delicious and it was a pleasure to speak English without feeling guilty (although one of the waitresses’ accents was a little hard to understand). After dinner I went to a drugstore and bought some gum. Used to chew it religiously back at home, but got out of the habit in Copenhagen. English everywhere! On signs, on product packaging, coming out of people’s mouths — wow! Also it was really neat to spend British pounds (I’m easily amused) — since British history had such an influence on American history, I heard so much about England growing up and now it was amazing to me that I was actually there, actually spending pounds (well, American money loaned to me by the US Government, disguised as pounds, lol).
Not to say that I liked spending pounds. At first I was fooled by the seemingly “low” prices — Danish Kroner are higher numbers so seeing small numbers like 8 pounds or 10 pounds made me think, wow, it’s just $8 or $10! But nope! British pounds are nearly double the US amount. So 8 pounds is roughly $16! Yikes! After I realized that, I became very conservative about spending money.
After the supermarket, gum in mouth, I decided to catch a ride on a double-decker bus! The bus schedule at the stop near the hostel was impossible to understand, so I didn’t even bother. I just decided to catch the next bus, ride it to the end of the line and then catch the opposite bus back. When the bus arrived, I climbed to the top level and stared out at the “wrong-way” traffic. Very neat ride. Took lots of photos. The ride took nearly 45 minutes to an hour. I’m not exactly sure where I was in terms of location but it was neat nonetheless. Saw lots of shopping streets.
The bus stopped at Baker Street. I crossed to the opposite side but could not find any sign for the bus travelling in the opposite direction. Hmm. I figured that the stop was not near or was located elsewhere. I didn’t have the energy to figure it out and didn’t want to look lost even though I was quite lost. So I just decided to briefly explore the area before figuring out how to get back home. I wasn’t too worried because I’d spotted a sign for the Underground near the bus stop, so I could just take the Tube back or ask someone for directions if I couldn’t figure out the bus. In this area I found the Picadilly Circus and a building belonging to Westminster University.
By this time it was 20:30, so I decided to head on back to the hostel. Took the Tube.
When I got back to the hostel, I decided to get to bed early so that I could wake up in time for the Old City walking tour the next morning. Throughout the night, I could hear new people coming in to the room. But I was too lost in sleep to notice. It had been quite a day, and I was exhausted!