Travel Diary – London

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10th June 2017

The grand journey began, as many journeys of self-discovery do, with the solitary figure of a girl, boarding a midnight bus in a small town, destined for the big city. She is no seasoned traveller, but not a novice either.

Whilst many such journeys come into being as a quest to find oneself, that is not our heroine’s motivation, for she has found herself many times over. Instead, she seeks to grow, using travel as a medium to lose the parts of herself which no longer serve her. For example, it would do her good to lose the part of herself which thinks a 7-hour-long bus journey is a sensible idea…

I had stayed up past midnight the previous night, watching the election results on the news, which was perhaps not the most sensible way to spend my last night at home. Whilst I spent all of yesterday on the verge of falling asleep, I refused to nap because I convinced myself that if I was tired enough, I would certainly sleep through the entire bus journey.

I settled into my bus seat, positioned my purple neck-pillow around my neck, and set a guided meditation playing on my phone. I would surely be asleep in no time!

I estimate that I got about two hours of sleep within the 7-hour bus ride. Two hours, split into many twenty-minute intervals. I arrived in London exhausted, but thankfully not too grumpy. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt during the ten months since I left home, it’s how to identify my own needs, and make sure they’re met. So I obediently ate the sandwiches I’d brought with me from home, and gulped down the remainder of my water bottle as I wandered down the streets beside the bus station. Hungry/dehydrated Eliza is not fun to deal with, and I’m determined not to make an enemy of myself this early on in the journey. So Sensible Eliza must look after Inner-Child Eliza’s basic needs, in order to create one great big Harmonious Eliza.

My next priority was caffeine and a plug socket, to recharge myself, and recharge my phone. If you’ve read my travel blogs of yesteryear, you will be familiar with the fact that I have absolutely zero sense of direction. On the bus I had seen a Pret and a Starbucks a couple of streets away from the station. Naturally, I ended up heading in the opposite direction. I wandered through Chelsea, lugging around my 10kg backpack, and my laptop case, and handbag, too tired to be annoyed with myself for not packing light enough.

Eventually, I stumbled upon a Pret, where I sit now, with a soy cappuccino making its way to my stomach. I’m still waiting for the caffeine to kick in. Somehow, it seems I have a far greater chance of falling asleep with my head resting on this wooden table than I ever did of falling asleep on that bus. I just want to nap, but I can’t check into my hostel until 2pm. It’s currently 8:51.

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After leaving Pret, I decided to explore the city (carrying 10kg of luggage on my back. Sometimes my intelligence fails me).

Every street or so, they have these helpful little maps, telling you where you are, and everything nearby. After consulting these, I decided to venture to the south bank, which, due to school trips, is the one (tiny) part of London I’m properly familiar with. I ended up on Buckingham Palace Road, and decided I may as well be a cliché tourist for a little while, given that I had so much time to fill.
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I was plodding slowly along, trying not to get hit by a car every time I crossed a road (seriously, London, y’all need more traffic lights), when I heard a snap and the sound of something falling to the pavement. The “something” was my laptop case, and the snap was the sound of its strap breaking. Oops.

After letting some very bad words run through my head, I began damage control. I never actually checked to see if my laptop was okay, oops. But the fact you’re reading this right now is evidence that it wasn’t broken.

It turned out that it wasn’t the strap itself that had snapped, but one of the loops it was clipped onto. I assessed the laptop case, searching for a solution. I settled for clipping the strap onto the handles of the bag, and went on my merry way. Except, the handles added a couple of extra inches to the strap, which meant it didn’t rest at my hip, as it had before. Now, as well as the ridiculously heavy bag upon my back, I had a laptop slapping against my thigh every time I took a step.

Genius that I am, it then occurred to me that laptop straps are adjustable. Except, it seems that this laptop case hates me, because that strap had a mind of its own, and readjusted itself every few minutes. Still, I persisted. I continued walking, adjusting the troublesome laptop strap every few minutes.

After much walking, I reached Buckingham palace. As one would expect, there were tourists everywhere. I am not a fan of tourists, due to my hatred of crowds and slow-walking people. To my horror, I realised that, for the next two months, I am, for all intents and purposes (*drum roll*)…a tourist.

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There is generally a distinction between what constitutes a traveller, and what constitutes a tourist. A large amount of it is based on stereotypes, based on everything from accommodation, to outfit, to activities. I would always place myself firmly within the “traveller” camp. Because, to me, there is a certain stigma around tourism, in that “tourists” (or the stereotype of them) don’t actually experience the “real” country.

As a British person, I stood in the grounds of Buckingham palace, and thought “this is not the England I know”. We could go into greater depth and discuss how the royal family is not an accurate representation of this country, given that they live in luxury and a large amount of this country lives on a low income (not to mention all the people relying on food banks #fuckyouTheresaMay). But on a most basic level, a few buildings in one city are not the whole country. I live in the far North of England (well, lately, I’ve been living in Scotland), and London is a different world. London, to me, seems suspended from reality.

It then occurred to me that if I feel this way about London, it is surely the same with every country. I can call myself a traveller all I like, but I’m still going to spend two months in the capital cities of countries, experiencing the mere surface and thinking it’s the full picture. Granted, I’m not exactly doing this in Estonia. For one thing, I’m not going there just to go blindly from one tourist attraction to another. I’m going there because it’s the country where my books are set, the first country I travelled to alone, the country where I learnt who I am. Estonia has a special place in my heart, and I want to experience as much of it as I can. Also, I’m going to Tartu as well as Tallinn, so I won’t just be in the capital.

But what happens when I leave Estonia? When I go to Latvia, will I suddenly become just another tourist? I don’t know. I hope I will form an emotional bond with every country I travel to, just as I did with Estonia. But how do I avoid experiencing only the surface of each country’s identity? I suppose it’s something I will learn along the way.

After getting road rage from walking behind snail-paced tourists, I decided to escape. I went to St James’s Park, and sat at a picnic table, overlooking the pond, and ate the remainder of the food I’d brought from home. After spending nine days at home in the Cumbrian wilderness (well, a very tiny village), I was particularly appreciative of this park. Back in Glasgow, I lived near Kelvingrove Park, and spent a lot of time there. It’s so important to have green spaces amidst the concrete confines of cities – places to escape from the noise and humans and traffic.
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As I sat, eating and enjoying the peaceful park, I accidentally dropped a little bit of my food. That was when the pigeons began to swarm. Not only did the pigeons crowd around my feet, they began to attack each other. I finished my food, and got the hell out. Escaping from the park was quite a challenge, as lots of areas were closed off due to some kind of parade. I continued on towards the south bank. I found Parliament Square, and made a mental note of its location, because I was considering going to an anti-Tory/DUP protest there later. Then I went down Parliament Road, where I was highly appreciative of the anti-Theresa May street art.

There was also a faded "strong and stable my arse!" written on the pavement.
There was also a faded “strong and stable my arse!” written on the pavement.

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I finally located the river, and, upon realising I was on the wrong side, crossed a bridge that was absolutely swarming with slow-walking tourists. I had planned to go to the BFI (British Film Institute), which I’d been to a couple of times on school trips. But they were doing bag searches, and I was still carrying my luggage, so I decided to avoid it.

I continued along the riverbank. My main priority now was to find somewhere to buy water. I was wearing four layers of clothing, because I couldn’t fit my coat and hoodie in my bag, and it was at least 20 degrees outside. I finally located a Caffé Nero, where I bought water and raspberry lemonade. I stripped off the torture chamber of my outer layers of clothing, which were soaked through with sweat, and made use of the free wifi, to check the distance to my hostel: 4 miles.

If this was Glasgow, I could get from the west end to the east end in a shorter distance than that. London is enormous; monopoly did not prepare me for this shit.

I decided to skip the protest, and walk to my hostel. I had to go back through The Mall, and deal with the swarm of tourists at Buckingham Palace again, and on top of this, the Laptop Case from Hell was still attacking my thigh. Naturally, I got lost, and ended up walking some way in the opposite direction.

Sometimes smart people do stupid things. For example, they make bets with themselves that they can survive two days in London without using the tube (or any public transport). It would have cost me £4.95 for a single ticket. The Glasgow subway charges £4 for a day ticket. £4.95 is ridiculous.

When I finally realised I was going in the wrong direction, I considered breaking my bet. Then I remembered that I could buy two coffees for the price of one tube ticket, and I walked on.

It should have taken me 1 hour and 27 minutes to walk from the south bank to my hostel in Kensington. It took me 3 hours and 15 minutes, carrying my 10kg backpack and the Laptop Case from Hell, wearing four layers of clothing in the midday heat, with no water. There were stalls selling water along the roadside, but they charged £1.50 for 500ml of water, and the same pride which stopped me from buying a tube ticket made me refuse to spend that much money on such a tiny bottle of water.

When I eventually reached Kensington High Street, I bought a litre of water, and gulped it down during the 15 minute walk to my hostel. My face was dripping with sweat from the gruelling walk.

If there was a God of irony, or a God who likes to laugh at us mere mortals, this God would rule over my travels. (Oh who am I kidding? Such a God probably governs my whole life). I am a very tall person. I am also a mildly claustrophobic person. So I was just a tad horrified when I reached my room and saw that my assigned bed was the middle of a three-person bunk, Bracing myself for the inevitable head-banging (which thankfully didn’t happen), I slithered into my bed. Not very comfortable, but I didn’t care, because it just felt so good to lie down.

Also the entire hostel was decorated in pink and purple, my two favourite colours, which seemed like a good omen.
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I stayed in bed until my hunger caught up with me, and then I went out in search of food. I bought a very large tub of noodle soup, and sat on a bench in Holland Park to eat. I’d been so excited to find something vegan, that I hadn’t checked what I was actually buying. The noodles were full of chilli. With streaming eyes and nose, I persevered in my eating endeavours.
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A Ukrainian woman came and sat on the bench next to me, and we chatted a little. Some time after she left, the most adorable little black pug approached me. He put his little paws up on my knee, and I stoked his silky little head. Then he clambered onto the bench beside me, and watched my noodles enthusiastically.
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As I walked back through the park to my hostel, I realised I was actually happy, for the first time since arriving in London (I’d been a wee bit grumpy up until this point). I realised just how important it is, whilst travelling, to have a base to return to. And something as simple as having a room to leave my bags in, a bed/cage to make a nest in, makes all the difference. Having a “home” to return to, even just for the night, helps to counteract that “lost” feeling which comes from wandering around unfamiliar cities.

When I returned to my room, I showered, crawled into the bed/cage, and proceeded to sleep for 12 hours.

11th June 2017 –

I woke to the sound of snoring strangers. I am not a fan of sharing bedrooms. I shared a room with my sister for 12.5 years, and I had a roommate for the first six weeks of university, so having a private sleeping space is something I have greatly come to value. However, sleeping in a hostel doesn’t really bother me. Perhaps it’s because literally all I did was sleep for my entire time there, and hence I didn’t have to deal with the full hostel experience.

I checked out of the hostel just before 10am, and deposited my bags in the luggage storage room. Then I headed to Pret. The only vaguely cheap vegan food I could find was popcorn (very overpriced, nonetheless). So I had a breakfast of soy cappuccino and sweet n salty popcorn. I spent about three hours in Pret, finishing off yesterday’s diary entry, until my hunger finally outweighed my laziness.

I wandered around Kensington, in search of food. It was a relatively pleasant walk, because all the tourists must have still been asleep, and therefore were not crowding the footpaths. I ventured to Notting Hill (where I, shockingly, did not see Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts), and bought some very average chips and overpriced ketchup. I remember the days when ketchup sachets were free. Charging 30p for them is an outrage!

The chips tasted less and less appetizing the more I ate, and I started contemplating the fact that chips are literally just deep fried potatoes. In some countries, the local cuisine is made up of so many different flavours and ingredients. In Britain, we chop up potatoes and throw them in a vat of boiling oil. Fascinating.

Once I was done philosophising over my crappy chips, I set off walking again, in search of water. One day I will actually invest in a reusable water bottle. Today was not that day.
After buying a bottle of overpriced water, and a litre of unnecessary mango juice, I went to Kensington Palace Gardens. I still had several hours to kill, and the thing I yearned for most in the world was to take a nap. But I worried that if I closed my eyes, someone would steal my bag.

I sat on a bench by the pond, and watched the pigeons dancing on the pavement, and the ducks bobbing along in the water. I sat for some time, watching the weak waves of the water, with the wind blowing my hair across my face. I was bored of sitting; I just wanted to sleep. I opened my handbag to search, in vain, for a hair band, and discovered a forgotten copy of Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” hidden behind my diary. I read for a while, which improved my mood somewhat. Even at 40 pages in I could tell that this is a good book to read whilst travelling.
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When I felt a little less tired, I got up from my bench and explored the park. I discovered a couple of swans, and started talking to them, as I would to my cat. (When you’re travelling alone, you have to make do with any company you can find). I also saw a goose, with the most adorable fluffy little goslings, which were super cute. I decided they were all called Ryan.
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At five o’clock I started to head back to Kensington High Street. I went to Waitrose and bought (overpriced) carrot sticks, corn chips, and hummus to have for dinner, and sat and ate in Holland Park. My train to the airport was due to leave at 11:25, and my hostel was (according to Google maps) approximately two hours walk from the station. Factoring in my slow walking from the weight of my bags, and my complete ineptitude at navigation, I decided it was best to allow four hours to reach the station.

I collected my bags at 6:15, which left plenty of time for walking, as well as having a coffee break along the way. Collecting my bags was the last thing I wanted to do. I was pretty sure that my legs would buckle beneath me the moment I put my backpack on. Miraculously, this didn’t happen.

As I departed from the hostel, I began philosophising about the disparity between the different ways I think about my body. I don’t always have a very good relationship with my body. There have been many times where I’ve just looked in the mirror and gone “Ugh! Seriously?” Too tall, too fat – you name it, I’ve thought it. But this very same body has carried me across the world. These legs with the fat thighs that no amount of exercise can shift, are the same legs which have carried me through all my adventures, carried me from the moment I took my first steps, in Dubai airport when I was one year old.

And it doesn’t make sense to me that I can resent these legs for something as insignificant as their appearance, when they have never failed me in their strength.

The walk was long. Me, the Evil Backpack, the Laptop Case from Hell, and my pretty purple handbag made our way from Kensington towards the south bank. I spent the entire journey wishing for it to end, fantasising about the long sleep I will have when I reach my hostel in Tallinn. I stopped at the Caffé Nero at the south bank, 3.7 miles into my walk. I was so tired that I doubt I would have made it to the station if I hadn’t stopped to rest. I fuelled up on coffee and water, and luxuriated in a comfy armchair.
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I was exhausted and completely fed up. I wanted to sleep or cry. I did neither, though there were tears in my eyes when I checked my messages. I had a message from my mum, talking about my cat, and what she was cooking, and how quiet the house was without me. For a little while I desperately wished I was back at home.

Eventually I forced myself to get up. I went to the bathroom and brushed my hair, which made me feel a little saner, then I headed along the south bank to Blackfriars bridge. There was a violinist busking in the tube station below the bridge, and the beautiful melody followed me as I climbed the stairs from the river bank to the bridge. Violins always make me think of my sister.

The tourists had vanished by this time of night, and I had the twilit bridge almost entirely to myself, with beautiful views of the river. I had 1.7 miles left to walk, and I was very sore and tired. I started talking to myself as a parent would to a small child. I explained to myself what I was doing, where I was going, and the steps it would take to get there. I bribed myself with the promise of a very long sleep when I get to Tallinn.
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Then I remembered the fail proof way to motivate myself and make tedious journeys faster: singing. It was late at night, and the darkened streets were deserted. So I sang, treating the empty footpath to slightly-off-key renditions of Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey classics. And it worked! I found myself walking more briskly, and before I knew it, I’d arrived at Liverpool Street Station, with plenty of time to spare.

A very tired Eliza, on board a train
A very tired Eliza, on board a train

I easily located my train, and made it to the airport without a problem. I found a Costa Coffee, and bought a very large soy cappuccino, which has sadly failed to combat my exhaustion. It’s 2:46am. I have 4 hours left before my flight leaves.
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In seven hours from now, I will be in Estonia, and I don’t know if I’m scared or excited. The only thing I feel right now is tiredness. But I’ve survived the first leg of my journey. And not only did I last two days in London, I did it without using the tube! I won the bet I’d made with myself. My prize was aching shoulders and sore feet. Do I regret it? No. I don’t like to use the word regret. I would say I’ve learnt from my mistakes, but I don’t know if I’ve necessarily learnt not to do it again. I’ve learnt how strong I am, I’ve learnt that London is bloody massive, and I’ve learnt what it means to do everything at my own pace. And by doing it all on foot, I’ve seen far more of the city than I would have otherwise. I’ve also learnt that letting myself suffer makes for a far better story.

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