Chapter 1: London

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After a few tense hours sitting in inexplicably bad traffic on I-4, we made it to Orlando International on time and I hopped onboard my flight to Iceland. Except for the utterly indecipherable Icelandic flight updates and a pitiful movie schedule with no film after ‘75, the flight went fine. When we arrived at the gate, we were warned to watch our step; this was due to the somewhat appropriate layer of ice covering the exit ramp. I had a 3-hour layover and was determined to see what Iceland had to offer; I shrugged off some weird looks from security and walked outside the terminal into the barren snow-covered world that lay beyond. Due to a poorly-conceived engineering decision, the entrance for the terminal was about a half mile from its exit, so I plodded through a few feet of snow against a fierce wind in 2 below; I resisted the urge to make a snow angel in my only pair of long pants. I spent the remainder of the time perusing the gift shops - the hot items seemed to be blankets/coats/other sources of warmth and many varieties of pickled/frozen/freeze-dried fish, so I plopped down a hundred kroner and enjoyed a hearty breakfast of a very chewy, yet tasty herring.

A few hours later, I found myself once again in Heathrow airport and hopped on the tube to Bayswater. Since I had made it a point to do absolutely everything on my previous trip to the city, finding new sights was a bit of a challenge. Having finished the last of my fish jerky, I went in search of food - London offers a greater variety of restaurants than just about anywhere else - where in the States you would have to look up a given cuisine on CitySearch and drive a dozen miles to find the place, here you have a few dozen varieties represented in a span of 100 yards - unfortunately these are universally expensive - this is due to a fundamental difference in understanding the value of their currency - they genuinely believe that they are giving you a good deal and have no grasp of the piddling dollar that shows up on your paycheck.

The first stop was the Camden market which offered hundreds of shops all geared toward the 20-something, clubbing druggie, providing everything from glow-in-the-dark mohawks to cannabis-flavoured lollies. A new phenomenon that oddly seems to be legal for the over-18 crowd was that of “magic mushrooms,” some sort of mind-altering fungus that was prominently advertised every five feet. And to make absolutely sure I was getting my quota of illicit drugs, roughly half of all the people I passed offered to sell me “skunk” - maybe I went too far with my “not a tourist” disguise. I next made my way to the Covent Garden/Soho region and wandered aimlessly until I found a comedy club offering a show reviewing the years events. Surprisingly, only about two-thirds of the jokes were badmouthing our president - the rest were on obscure British happenings and were thoroughly unintelligible. Because there were a fair number of us in the audience, one of the comedians provided American subtitles for the British slang.

I headed back across town, passing under many massive Christmas decorations which bore the cast of the Incredibles. The hostel was a bit run-down - the hallways were at random angles, and the stairs wound in every conceivable direction but only led somewhere about half the time. In the morning, I moved south toward Chelsea. Crossing the river, I tried to follow something called the Thames path since I had somehow gotten the impression that it roughly followed the Thames. Unfortunately the path wove through large industrial parks, construction zones, and depressed neighbourhoods, and seldom came within a mile of the river. A while later, I arrived in London’s East End; here I visited Brick Lane, which is the heart of BengalTown, and grabbed lunch at an Indian cafe. Next I moved to the “Museum of Childhood” - this place offered little insight into the video games and computer programs that I remember from my childhood, but instead suggested that children played with action figures, puppets and board games. Among the collection was the original Star Wars set, the first ninja turtles and, on a more disturbing note, a butcher shop play set, complete with a variety of animals in different stages of dissection.

The following morning, I wandered into Notting Hill through the famed Portobello Road Market; I went a bit early (3.5 days to be precise) so there was only one vendor and he only had his shoes up for sale. I eventually left the range of my maps, walking through Kilborn adn other random suburbs with names I don’t remember. Once I was sufficiently lost, I jumped on a bus in the opposite direction and headed clear across town to the Docklands.

This is supposedly the largest commercial development in all of Europe and is home to lots of futuristic buildings. On the way out of the district, I jumped off the lightrail with glee as I spotted a familiar face - the smiley from the “rolling back prices” Wal-Mart ads - yup, it’s in Europe too. I next went to mudslide park and farm - this was actually one of several “city farms” that as far as I can tell, offer cows, horses and other livestock for public consumption. Had I not just eaten, I might have taken advantage of this allowance to get some milk or an egg, but as it was I was quite full and had to pass up this golden opportunity.

Next I crossed under the Thames through the pedestrian tunnel and into Greenwich. Here I visited the observatory where the prime meridian was established and stood with a foot in each hemisphere. After I eventually tired of bounding from one half of the globe to the other, I went to the national marine museum; I couldn’t stay here long because I had around six layers of clothing on and was nearing heat exhaustion, but there seemed to be some cool boats and other ocean-related memorabilia. From there it was on to the dining hall of the Naval Collage, which was quietly trying to outdo the Sistine Chapel. I returned to the city centre and went on a bus tour of the sights - not in the conventional sense, but by hurriedly switching from one to the next at each intersection - this approach was much cheaper and was free of the annoying guy who feels compelled to bore you with every detail of every monument you pass in six different languages.

Since I had no room reserved for the night, it was time to head to the airport; I had tons of extra time so I resolved to do this by bus. I stopped in the town of Richmond along the way; this was apparently the home of Europe’s largest city park; however, due to some weird meteorological quirk, the sun had set 3 hours before I arrived and I was forced to postpone a hike through the woods til my next visit. Four more buses and three hours later, I had made it the remaining 5 miles to the airport. Here I was delighted to see that backpackers had removed many of the armrests from the benches and it was now possible to lie across 3 or 4 of the seats comfortably.

As on my previous visit, the droning security announcement stopped its 10 minute repetition from midnight til five, but this time around, there was a crazy lady to fill the void by screaming obscenities at some unseen assailant every thirty seconds. A squad of seven Bobbies finally confronted her at 4 in the morning; she had apparently arrived from Sydney the previous night and no one had shown to pick her up (can’t imagine why). So, after a long, restless night, I had to find new and interesting ways to stay awake til noon - since Heathrow keeps your gate secret until half an hour before your plane takes off, it would be quite easy to pass out in the departures lounge and invalidate my very expensive non-refundable ticket. The plane’s departure was slightly delayed due to engine trouble and when we finally pulled away from the gate, the turbine made some funny noises and the captain announced that the engineers had botched the first repair and we would go back to let them try again - there’s nothing like having confidence in the airplane that’s about to take you on an 11-hour flight. 90 minutes later, we left for what would briefly be the longest flight of my life; Virgin Atlantic was the right airline for the job - they offered a slew of new movies and 35 video games - my plans to make it til New Years by sleeping on the plane went out the window as I watched Sky Captain, 28 days later, Manchurian Candidate, and, just to escape the odd mental state the last two had left me in, Garden State - as well as a dozen old school SNES games. Upon landing, we were told that we would have to wait another hour for the police to arrive to clear up the disturbance that had broken out at our gate - welcome to LA!

Wow, Iceland sure is a beautiful place... or at least that's what this Mastercard ad would have you believe; from what I saw, it was a bit of a barren, frozen wasteland.

Trippy artwork in my London hostel

I really have no idea what this thing is.

Christmas lights featuring the cast of The Incredibles

Crazy Nick and his Amazing Traffic Cones

As if it weren't hard enough driving on the left, try to imagine the pattern for a traffic light like this.

Just when it looked as if I'd have to adjust to a foreign culture...

The Docklands is the largest commercial district in Europe; and what is the biggest, most elaborate building in the complex? Why, Bank of America of course.

The Greenwich Cutty Shark