Years ago, when I had the freedom to take off wherever I wished without having to be accountable to anyone for it, I took a trip from Houston, Texas to London, U.K. Alone. I had no one waiting there for me. No hotel or hostel reservation. No car rental. No business meeting. No secret rendezvous with a mysterious lover. No friend or acquaintance, internet or otherwise. No pretense. Nothing. I had a plane ticket, and that’s it. I knew no one there. Not one soul. And I wanted it to be this way. I decided I wanted to see London, so I did. I was in my mid-twenties, so I figured that’s what you do when you’re in your twenties: you travel. You see the world freely, as it is, no frills and no distractions (no other people along for the ride, no other opinions interfering with the impression you receive from the travel itself).
To make things more interesting, I almost didn’t go. I had a non-refundable ticket, and I was torn, just before leaving. I was torn because I was a little afraid of traveling this way, not knowing what would be there or what would happen when I got to my destination. I was in denial of not wanting to go. I had spent maybe $600 on the ticket, and I was seriously considering waiting until the date came and went and pretending I’d forgotten if anybody asked about it (which I figured nobody would anyway, so it was a moot point).
But something really cool happened. I met a fella. He found out I had this ticket, which I almost didn’t tell him I had. When I told him I had this ticket, the date for which travel was going to occur within a short time from the time I told him about it, he urged me to go. I think he could sense that I was seriously considering not going. Once he realized I was serious about this, about opting out of this solo trip, he spent his time reassuring me that it would all be o.k., that this trip would be good for me, that I would learn a lot of good things… And most important of all, he told me not to fear it. “I think you’ll get a lot out of going there,” he told me. So, tentatively, I believed him. I trusted him. But I didn’t pack any bags.
When I boarded the plane, I carried with me a light backpack, an Eastpak I had since college. I couldn’t really say I’d packed, yet what I took was more than sufficient. In the backpack, I had: my passport, my ticket, my ATM card, my new-fangled (at the time) digital camera, a pair of flip-flops, and maybe 2 changes of clothes (one for warm weather and one for windier conditions). No toiletries or other details. I remember buying a toothbrush at a chemist when I got there, along with some inexpensive, plain Colgate toothpaste. I didn’t take any United States cash with me, of course, because that would have been silly. An ATM card is sufficient for a big city like London, where you can withdraw what you need in the currency of the country you’re in rather than going into a special building and taking the extra step of currency exchange. I’d already done my fair share of traveling to other parts of the world to know this much at least, so that was good.
So… What happened after I arrived in London? I didn’t stay very long, not long enough to really put down roots. I think it was a week or two. But I… Somehow I … …found my way in London. I guess that’s the best way to put it. I found my way there. And I loved it. London is a very forgiving place, at least in my experience. I had no one there, no one I’d ever met before. I was completely anonymous, just another face in the crowd. Yet the city was mine. I felt like everyone there was just another friend I’d yet to meet. And it was so. It was very interesting meeting people who were in groups, and most people there, even those who were travelers like myself, belonged to one group or another. Group dynamics were and always are quite fascinating.
I met Australians there, and learned from them that for many Australians, it is a rite of passage to make a trek to London, to the U.K., at least once in a lifetime. I had no idea before my trip there that that was the case. I met South Africans there, too. I met Indians, and Pakistanis, Canadians, and so many other really nice people. So many other things I learned, too, some which surprised me, but most didn’t. The most important thing I learned from that trip, though, is this: people are what you make of them, and they are essentially the same everywhere. We all have the same basic hardware… The software that’s loaded up inside us isn’t always the same, but if we choose to, it can be compatible with other people’s… Because we are not machines. We are so much more than that.
I have to say that there were moments during that trip when I wasn’t sure if I could tolerate the loneliness… …though I was in a crowd of people most of the time, whether at the Tate Modern or at the Globe Theater. I walked that city, rode the Tube (LOVE the London Underground), walked down the winding stairs of the tallest underground stairway in London (which I was reminded of as I watched the end of Atonement recently — btw, incredible movie; if you’re on the fence about it, don’t be — it’s worth your time)…. Alone. I watched the people all around me, talked to them if they talked to me… Sometimes even if they didn’t. Got to know a few. I think a part of me knew I wouldn’t be seeing any of them again, but it was worth getting to know them, if even for the short time I did. They were, all of them, wonderful, even when they weren’t, if that makes any sense.
I remember a moment in time, captured forever in my memory. It was only a moment, probably lasted a grand total of fifteen seconds, but for some reason, I remember it. There was a guy, my age (maybe older, maybe younger — I really don’t know). He looked like he really wanted to get on The Tube, but he couldn’t afford a ticket. I had a day pass, because that’s something you can do in London (I learned that the first day), you can buy a Tube ticket for the day or you can pay for individual trips. Since I was people-watching, I bought a day ticket ’cause it gave me more freedom to roam. Well, at the end of my people-watching and roaming, I wound up at the Earl’s Court station, which was my stop, my home base (for the time I stayed there, anyway — and that is a story in itself). Anyway, there was a guy there in the darkness of the station as I walked out. He was … It looked like he was panhandling. And I remember there were signs on the walls there discouraging the giving away of Tube tickets to random people, with some lame excuse about increased crime and whatnot… But I thought then (and I still think now) that that was because it decreases revenue for the London Underground more than anything else, and not really for any other reason… Well, I’m not much for corporate anything, as much as I adore The Underground… I love people much, much more. …And I’m not apologizing for it. He looked the crowd over. His eyes were searching, searching. He looked me over. I looked at him. I’m guessing if he had bad intentions, he could have done whatever to hurt me. I don’t have a black belt in anything. But he didn’t, of course, and never did I get the feeling he would have either. What he wanted was a Tube ticket, which I conveniently had. I could have thrown it away, he never would have known, but why would I do such a thing??? There was a person standing right in front of me that clearly wanted one, and mine was still valid. I wasn’t going to use mine, because it was getting dark and, tired, I wanted to go back to my shared hostel dormitory to rest my weary bones anyway.
So, without a word, I looked at him, and he at me. I showed him my ticket. I smiled and handed it to him. He took it, quick as a flash, and darted off ahead to find a train to go wherever it is he wanted to go. I almost didn’t hear him, but I did. He said, as he ran,”Thanks.” But even if he hadn’t, it would have been enough for me, the look of relief on his face as I handed it to him. Who knows what he had to go do, but whatever it was, I hope it was good. I think it’s all o.k. regardless. As far as I know the Underground is still transporting lots of people from place to place with no more and no fewer problems than before I stepped foot there.
When I got back from London, the fella, my fella, the one that told me to push past my fears and go to London alone anyway, was waiting for me. He picked me up from the airport. I didn’t have to ask him to; he wanted to, because that’s the kind of man he is. We hadn’t known each other for very long, but something told me this one, this fella, was special. I may not have gone on that trip and experienced such growth without his encouragement. And I’m so happy I did. I trusted him and it paid off. That fella is now the proud Papa Bear of our child. It’s been almost five years since that time, most of which time since then has been spent with each other. How much is >20 hours a day X 365 days X 5 years? It doesn’t matter. It adds up to an exquisite dream… another fantastic, wonderful journey. Ongoing.