Arriving at the London airport was a bit surreal. We are residents of an enormous country, and can fly/drive for many miles without hitting a border. We can live in a bubble of familiarity about our country the whole time. Setting foot onto the soil of another country (other than Canada) feels… important. Not in the sense that we have done something amazing and that we are now important (not at all), but more so that this is an important step to take for a human being on this planet – to step into another country, another culture, another way of life. England is certainly a bit less of a culture shock than most other countries, but still a place worth stepping foot in.
Note: I wrote a short blurb about our very first day in London here, but wanted to expand on that while writing about the days that followed, so here goes!
When we arrived in London, it was about 10am local time (or 5am Eastern/2am Pacific). We slept very little on the plane, so just a wee bit tired. Our first order of business was to get some new stamps on our passports. This would be the first stamp for my new passport as I had to renew it in order to travel after we got married.
The UK border entry crawled by without a hitch, though I felt like just rolling up in a ball to sleep in a corner somewhere. Once we made it through, we headed in the direction of transportation. Our first notion was to take the express rail that was advertised. When I read it was £20/person (about $30.50 in USD), I turned to Jesse and said “Nope, not that one!” as I was fairly certain that was nowhere close to the cheapest option. We discovered the automated ticket machines and purchased a day pass as well as Oyster cards (just like Orca cards in Seattle for the busses – apparently sea life is very relevant to public transportation).
Next up was to figure out where we were going. Somewhere in the central part of London. We decided Picadilly Square was a good option. As I discovered, this spot looks very much like Times Square in New York. Tons of shops, giant video banner advertisements, tons of people. I was hot, tired, had a full bladder and was beginning to feel a bit hungry – though that was mixed with a sort of queasiness from the lack of sleep. I found a nearby restroom (or W.C. or Toilet as they are called here), but it required coin payment to get in – something like 20 or 30p (or 30-45 US ¢). We had only been in London for about 30 minutes, so we did not have any cash on us. This meant hunting down the nearest business that might not notice or mind if I used their restroom. We happened upon a Whole Foods with a large dining area, so ended up stopping there for a bit to rest and grab a bite to eat. We contacted our couchsurfing host, Duncan, to see where we should meet and when.
Once we got our directions worked out, we met Duncan in a stunning old building (which he was nice enough to give us a little tour of). I took a photo looking up from the center of the bottom floor. That should give a little indication of the architectural style of many buildings in London. It is absolutely mind-boggling how much artistic handiwork went into the finishing touches of so many buildings. In any case, Duncan let us store our bags in his office until he was out for the day, so that left us with about 30 lbs. less weight to carry around as we explored the surrounding area on foot. He also gave us some London guide books to use and a couple of energy drinks to keep us going. It was *just* what we needed as I was about to fall asleep while walking.
We checked out the outside of Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, took touristy pictures of Big Ben, saw the London Eye from afar and got caught in a little rain. Not bad for just a few hours of sightseeing! We met back up with Duncan at his office around dinner time to pick up our bags. He walked us to a nearby bus stop so we could get to his flat while he biked home. There are a bunch of bicyclists in London, it’s pretty awesome. There are even bicycles you can rent from stations dotted all throughout the city – literally every few blocks, so you are never far away from a cheap mode of self-powered transportation. This is in addition to the many underground/overground rail and bus stations throughout the city. London is an extremely well-connected city when it comes to transportation.
There aren’t many personal cars on the road due to gas prices and – get this – a congestion charge of £9-12/day for central London and some surrounding areas. That’s roughly $13-18 just to drive your car downtown for ONE day. There are some exemptions for tiny cars and extremely gas efficient/electric cars, so the personal cars on the road that we have seen are either very expensive (since those who drive them can afford the congestion charge) or veeeery tiny. It seems to work well in the city with all the transportation options available, but there still seems to be a ton of diesel pollution all throughout.
After we dropped all our stuff off, the three of us decided to go out to eat at an Indian restaurant. Duncan told us it was about a 5-10 minute walk away. It felt like forever to me since we hadn’t been doing much walking before our trip and we had been awake so long. When we returned from dinner, Jesse said that it was *maybe* 15 minutes. Google maps says 22 minutes – though at our pace it was probably closer to 30. I enjoyed the walk mentally, but by the time we made it to the restaurant, I’m pretty sure my feet were ready to rebel against me. We enjoyed a delicious dinner and decided to take the bus back to “home”.
Once we arrived, we made it up to Duncan’s flat and crashed pretty quickly. I think I slept for a good, solid 12 hours. It felt good to sleep for so long, though we didn’t get out and about until the mid-afternoon the next day…
To be continued!