Favorites: November 2006 Archives

Travel As Adventure

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I'm waiting for a pan of water to boil so I can heat up a Home Bistro dinner--I'm way too tired to cook anything. My body has no idea what time it is and I had a killer headache for about half the day.

I was telling my boss that I don't know how I'm going to fill out the expense report for the trip that ended when I got home at about 6pm last night; it's not going to make any sense. I paid for 2 hotels Sunday night: one in Salisbury and one in London. I paid for a bus ticket to Woking and a taxi ride in London.

I had a good plan--an excellent plan--for getting to Salisbury Sunday night. I was expecting to arrive at the Milford Hall Hotel at about 2am and had emailed to let them know I'd be getting in around that time. I was to ring the bell to awaken the night porter.

My plan allowed plenty of time at London Heathrow Airport to get to the main bus station and buy a ticket for the last bus to Woking, where I would catch the last train to Salisbury. It should have been a piece of cake. I didn't, however, build any fallback positions into the plan to accommodate the learning curve.

As I said, I had plenty of time. I got to the main bus station at 10:30pm and the bus didn't leave until 11. The ticket windows were closed so I purchased a ticket from a machine. It was a National Express machine and the ticket had the logo printed on it even though the bus to Woking was not a National Express bus. I didn't know this about the bus to Woking--I didn't know anything about the bus to Woking--and this missing piece of information could have been inconsequential but turned out to be catastrophic. I walked out to the "platforms" on one side of the station and asked a fellow who was working there how I'd know where my bus would be pulling in. He could/should have said "Go back inside; there's a big electronic screen high up on the wall. Sit in a chair and stare at it until your bus number comes up." But he didn't. Instead he glanced down at my ticket, saw the logo, and said "Oh, you want a National Express bus; they all leave from the other side of the terminal."

So I walked out to the platforms on the other side of the terminal and waited for 45 minutes. I finally asked a woman working on the platform what had happened to the bus to Woking, and she said it had left from other the side of the terminal, since the buses to Woking aren't National Express buses.

That's the beginning of my story; things went downhill from there. The woman on the platform tried to help me. She got on the phone with someone working inside, and they discussed bus and train schedules, searching for any combination that would get me to Salisbury that night. The train I'd planned on catching in Woking originated at Waterloo station in London, and it hadn't yet left London. I'd built so much time into my schedule (it was an excellent plan--did I say that?) that there was still a possibility I could go into London and get on the train there. The woman finally decided I should try this, although she said it would be close. At this point she could/should have told me to take the Paddington Express into London and then take the underground from Paddington Station to Waterloo. I've taken the Paddington Express a couple of times; it's easy and fast--about 15 minutes to London, and I've taken many trips on the underground. Had I done this I would have had a good chance of catching the train. I guess it just didn't occur to her. I didn't suggest it myself because I was in receiving mode, so to speak, waiting for her to tell me what to do. After all--what did I know? I was a clueless American, too stupid to know that buses to Woking aren't National Express buses.

There was a bus sitting at the terminal that was about to leave for Hatton Cross station, and she told me to get on it. She said that Hatton Cross was on the Piccadilly line, so I could take the underground all the way into London and, with one change, on to Waterloo. I got on the crowded bus and grabbed a pole since the seats were all taken. It was awkward with a briefcase and a suitcase, but some guy almost always grabs my suitcase and helps me out in such circumstances, and this was no exception.

The bus arrived at Hatton Cross and we all piled off and discovered that the Piccadilly line had been shut down for the night due to construction or something. Apparently traveling on Sunday can be hit-or-miss. We milled around for a while wondering how we were going to get to London; by this time I'd become one of a large group of like-stranded travelers. Two buses were brought and we piled on.

After just a few minutes the driver pulled over at a bus stop. A young Brit complained bitterly--"Are you going to stop at every fooking stop? Just let me off here, then," and he got off. The bus driver got on his radio and conferred with someone. He was instructed to drive straight into London, to King's Cross station. After we'd gone some distance a woman came to the front and began to complain bitterly. She'd intended to go just two stops on the Piccadilly line; if she were taken all the way into London she wouldn't be able to get home. Her cell phone was dead and she had no money.

The driver pulled over, and so did the second bus, which was behind us. The two drivers conferred for a considerable amount of time. Our driver pulled out a map of London and studied it. Someone loaned the woman a cell phone and she arranged for a ride. She got out and walked to a nearby best western hotel to meet her ride.

I knew by then that I wasn't going to catch the train to Salisbury. I decided to go on to Waterloo station anyway, and find a hotel within walking distance. I figured I'd have to take a taxi from wherever the bus dropped me off.

The driver announced that he was going directly into London, and was that okay with everyone? No one objected, so we started out again. When we got to the outskirts of London people began walking to the front of the bus and asking to be let off when we were close to their destinations. The driver was accommodating and began making frequent stops. I asked him to tell me where I could get off and get a taxi. Not that I was in a hurry, but he wasn't going anywhere near Waterloo station. It was well past midnight and many of the streets looked dark and deserted. A fellow passenger heard me and suggested I get off with her at Hammersmith station, since there was a car service office there where I could get a taxi that would be cheaper than one of the black London cabs. And so I did, along with a couple others, and a fellow from Germany and I shared a cheap taxi to Waterloo.

Of course I'd long missed the train to Salisbury. It was after 1am by the time I got to the station. A couple of very nice men working the night shift offered to let me stay in the first aid room there, saying they'd wake me at 5 and I could catch the 5:30 train. It was a nice offer, under the circumstances, it was better than sitting on a bench all night, but I had all day Monday to get to Salisbury and trains left every half hour or so in the morning, so I decided to get a room. I asked the workmen if there was a hotel nearby, and one of them walked out to the sidewalk with me and gave me very simple directions, which I asked him to repeat just to make sure I'd understood: walk down here to the main street, cross over, turn left, then take the first right; you'll see a row of hotels.

I followed his instructions. No hotels. I walked further along and took the 2nd right. No hotels. I continued on, carrying a briefcase, dragging a suitcase, and I was beginning to get a sinking feeling. I knew roughly where I was, having seen the London Eye, the big ferris wheel, while in the taxi. I was right in the heart of London, near the Houses of Parliament. I couldn't have been more than a few blocks from the hotel I'd stayed at last time I was there. But because I hadn't intended to see London at all on this trip I had no map with me, and once the sun goes down I can't navigate (note to self: study the stars).

I was relieved to see one of the black taxis coming toward me. He had no fare and I flagged him down. I asked if there was a row of hotels up ahead and repeated the directions I'd gotten at the station. He shook his head, then said "Get in; I'll take you to a hotel, don't worry about the fare." He drove past a couple of "posh places" and took me to a Novotel, one of a chain. Think Motel 6, but not. He said they get busy and might be fully booked, but they could help me find a place from there. I offered to pay him something but he wouldn't take it, so I just said thank you and let the good deed stand.

The hotel did have a room, and I checked in at about 1:30am. It was cheap for central London, but still expensive: £109, about $200. It was clean, with clean bedding and a good shower. It was a smoking room but it didn't smell like stale cigarettes.

Once I was comfortably in bed I started to feel sorry for myself, not for what I'd been through but because I'd gone through it alone. I examined my feelings and asked myself if I wished my husband had been there with me. Lord no. He had a tendency to lose it under difficult circumstances, which would have made it much, much worse. I used to try hard to prevent his losing it, and because he knew I tried, he complained all the more bitterly. Lord no, I didn't wish he'd been with me.

I asked myself if I wished my son had been with me. Lord no. Although he doesn't "lose it", he sees no reason why he should try to keep his (or my) spirits up when things are falling apart, and he can get downright morose. Seeing him miserable raises my own misery to the power of ten. No, I didn't wish this night on my son.

On the other hand, I did wish my dog were with me. He takes responsibility for his own good cheer and never blames me for his misery, even when I squirt medicine in his ears. He's always happy to be with me, and he loves taking walks so much that he'd have loved walking down a dark London street at 1am. He loves sleeping on the bed with me and would have loved doing so in an expensive cheap hotel in London.

Of course the reality is that he'd have growled at the cabbie, but we'd have made our way to a hotel eventually, although he wouldn't have been allowed to stay there. Sigh. Well, still, I missed the dog most of all at that moment.

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