An ode to travel…looking back on my first solo trip abroad

Quintessential London, Tower Bridge

Quintessential London, Tower Bridge

It’s all about the people you meet along the way.

I took my first solo trip a little more than two years ago now, and all I can say is that I am definitely better off for having done so. I had just gotten out of a relationship and was pretty bummed out about it. You probably shouldn’t think of doing anything drastic after such life events, but I said, “to hell with it, I’m going to Europe!” And that’s when it all started, October 2012. I saved every penny I could. For six months, I wasn’t going to have any fun, or at least try not to. The goal was to save $1000 every month, which was pretty much half of my take home, it’d be hard.

I went to lunch with my manager one day, and brought it up. “So what would you say to me taking a five week vacation?” “When were you thinking of taking it?” “Next year in March.” “Okay.” Well shit that was easy! Who in their right mind takes a five week long vacation? Let me tell you….this guy. At least I didn’t have to worry about that anymore.

So the months rolled on and I was saving money like crazy, every penny that didn’t need to go towards paying bills went into my savings account. For the most part, I didn’t have any fun (though I did go to Seattle for New Year’s, that was awesome). I didn’t eat out, I mostly just stayed home and researched everywhere I could go and everything that I could do. I planned which countries I’d go to and how I’d get there. I renewed my passport in January, and bought my ticket to London not too long afterwards. My credit card was charged and the ticket was confirmed; this was happening. March was fast approaching. My Eurail pass arrived towards the end of February. By this point, I had everything I needed. I was anxious. I was excited. I was ready to go. There was no going back. Once I stepped on that plane, my life would never be the same again.

The flight from Los Angeles to London was about 10 hours; it was long and it sucked. The entertainment system on the plane was malfunctioning and I had absolutely nothing to do for the first few hours, “Damn you British Airways!” I just ended up sleeping, I was too tired to do anything else anyways. The flight stewardesses kept trying to wake me up to eat, but I just wanted to sleep.

We touched down in London Heathrow around 3:00 PM the next day. This was it. I was finally on a different continent, thousands of miles away from home. The first thought that crossed my mind was “Why the hell is Heathrow so big?! I’ve never had to take a train inside an airport in my life!” I remember walking to the UK Border Control, EU and UK passport holders this way, everyone else that way. I was everyone else. The immigration officer I went to was this short Indian lady. “What brings you to London?” “I’m doing a Eurotrip!” “I see, and where will you be staying?” “At a hostel called the Safestay. It’s near the….Elephant & Castle?” “The Safestay…” she chuckles, “I don’t think hostels are particularly safe personally, but…enjoy your stay.” Stamp. Phew, I made it.

Now the real adventure, how the hell do I get to the Elephant & Castle? My phone is dead so Google Maps is pretty much out of the question. I mean have you seen the map of the London Underground? It is humungous! There are lines going everywhere and anywhere.

“Excuse me, I’m a bit…lost. I can’t find the Elephant & Castle on this map.”

“No worries dear, you can’t be lost yet, you’re only in the airport. Now, the Elephant & Castle you say? Yes here it is. Go down the stairs to the Underground and take the Piccadilly Line to Piccadilly Circus and transfer to the Bakerloo Line and that will take you to the Elephant & Castle.”

“Thank you!”

I top up my oyster card and head down to the Underground. Finally I’m getting somewhere. I get off at Piccadilly Circus and realize that I am really regretting bringing a duffle bag, I definitely packed a little too much. There are long flights of stairs everywhere…ugh. And the worst part? Me and my duffle bag sometimes get caught in the gates…About fifteen minutes later, I make it to the Elephant & Castle. Now where do I go? It’s freezing outside and I am FUCKING STARVING! I hadn’t eaten in almost 24 hours. I’m walking up and down Walworth Road, looking like some desperate hobo, searching for my hostel, but I can’t seem to find it. I know the building number, but it doesn’t seem to exist. The numbers descend and then ascend as I walk down the street. Goddamn it, where is this place?! I start thinking that it was some fake listing and whoever was running it just made off with a little over a hundred dollars. I’m frustrated and hungry, but really I just want a blanket and some hot tea, because it’s so fucking cold out. After about an hour into my frantic search, I finally find the Safestay! It was on the other side of the street! The number was on the building but it wasn’t lit! How is anyone supposed to see that in the dark!

I get inside, check-in, go to my room and lock my stuff away in the cage. It’a nice place, but everything is purple! Like really purple! I head down to the kitchen and dining room to let my parents know I’m alive. It’s sunny and warm at home, but cold as balls in London. At this point, I’m a little relieved, but still frustrated and hungry. I’m contemplating going home. Yeah…I am contemplating going home. After months of planning, I am thinking, “I can’t handle this, how am I going to survive five weeks here??”

I head back up to my room, and that’s when my mood changes. There’s finally someone else in there besides me. A girl walks out of the loo saying something like “If it smells in here, I swear it wasn’t me.” I laugh a little bit. Her name is Lena, from Portland, Oregon. Woot! An American, at least we have that in common. A guy stumbles into the room a few minutes later, kinda surprised that there were people actually there. We learn that his name is Quinn, and he’s American too, from Colorado. That feeling of wanting to buy a one way ticket and high tail it home is now all but gone. What the hell was I thinking? I was definitely overreacting, I can do this. I prepped and saved for six months, can’t quit now.

We decide to head to some Chinese restaurant down the street called the Dragon Castle. The food was alright but nothing to write home about. I learn that Lena works as a waitress in Portland and that Quinn worked as a chef in Colorado. He was actually headed to Sierra Leone to chase after a “girlfriend?” It was complicated. Compared to them though, my story was pretty boring. An engineer on a Eurotrip? Definitely not memorable. We finished up our dinner and parted ways for the night. They ended up going to some night club, and I just went to wander The City and take pictures on my own.

Quinn, Lena, and I in front of Buckingham Palace

Quinn, Lena, and I in front of Buckingham Palace

For the next few days, the three of us explored the city together. We went to Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, and Greenwich to stand on the Prime Meridian. Can you believe that Lena’s London plans never included any sightseeing? Quinn and I thought it was pretty crazy. Who goes to London and doesn’t at least stop by to see Buckingham Palace or Big Ben?

I’m really glad that I got to share my London experience with these guys, couldn’t have asked for a better pair of people to share it with. If I hadn’t met them my first night there, I probably would have bought that one way ticket and gone home. I would have been out more than a thousand dollars and would have missed out on something not everyone gets to experience in their lives. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be so eternally infected by the travel bug as I am now. I wouldn’t have been to as many places as I have if it weren’t for them. Travel and life in general is all about the people you meet along the way, and I’m grateful to still be able to call Lena and Quinn my friends.