It finally happened. It may have taken a year of hand-gesturing my way through seemingly insurmountable language barriers, eating mysterious food served in cheap and unhygienic restaurants, getting lost on incomprehensible byzantine bus routes, and sleeping in rooms ranging from bug and rat infested dungeons to hot and rancid closets, but it finally happened. I wouldn't change a minute of the last year because all of the challenges have given me what no luxury hotel or group tour packages never could; my “a-ha” travel moment.
My travel epiphany happened in London after my second night in a row of sleeping in an airport. First I spent the night in Almaty airport (small, quiet, and clean: **** I give it a four star rating) and the second in London Gatewick (constant loud announcements, but very comfortable seating and the security is not as intrusive as I feared: *** three stars). There is something about spending over 48 hours trying to sleep in busy public spaces that puts accommodation into perspective. Not only was I too broke to get a hotel either of these nights, but I was also too cheap to buy any food. So I spent my hours slicing block cheese and salami, scouting for good spots to snooze, and watching people from all walks of life filter in and out.
Needless to say, when I finally arrived at my hostel in Central London, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Clean beds, hot showers, a locker to store my bag, and a free breakfast! What more could I want? Life was good. That is when it happened. I had just gotten out of a luxurious and unapologetically long hot shower when I heard a familiar sound; a midwestern college girl on a summer Eurotrip. I couldn't believe my ears, not because I was listening to a fellow midwesterner, but because she was complaining energetically. “I can't believe they put 15 people in these rooms . . . like do they even clean these showers? . . . only cereal and bread for breakfast, no thanks . . . London is like so confusing to get around, you know? . . . “ I won't pain you with the rest, but there was more, lots more. That was when I had my travel moment and realized how far I had come. On most points she was right – the rooms were crammed, the showers weren't spotless , and breakfast was a bit slim – but until I overheard my straight-outta-Iowa roommate's comments, I would never have thought about the negative aspects of the hostel. Until that moment I still felt like a rookie Yankee tourist, but hearing what a real rookie tourist sounds like helped me to realize how far I've come.
Scrimping and saving every Som, Yuan, Rupee, and Lyra I could for the past year put things into a different light. I am happy to sleep in an airport hall curled up on an uncomfortable bench if it saves me a few bucks which will allow me to travel for a few days longer, to see a few more sights, and to eat a few more meals of local food. In my “a-ha” moment I realized how this year of travel has changed me, and I believe for the better. I will no longer take the day-to-day luxuries of living in the US for granted . . . well, at least I will try to be mindful of these daily blessings for as long as possible. If you ever hear me complain about trivial inconveniences (“damn, my cell phone is out of battery!” or “the grocery store is out of skim milk again!”, or “this stupid internet connection is sooooo slow!”) please remind me of this post and the unconsciously annoying American who inspired it. I promise it will shut me up for a while.
But anyway - London:
Although I found Central London a bit sterile and cutesy, I enjoyed my three days wandering around the city. Just when I started thinking that the city was trying too hard to appear like a hyper-British stereotype with the goofy guards and red phone booths, I sat next to two old men in tweed jackets drinking tea, smoking pipes and discussing Charles Dickens in their finest Oxford accents – that's the kind of awesome British scene you can't concoct. True to its status as an international city, London is full of people from all over Africa, India, East Asia and Europe. The city is stupid expensive, but it is easy to walk around and all the museums are free. The National Gallery and Tate Modern art museums are world-class; I saw works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Michaelangelo, and Leonardo DeVinci all in one day.
I am writing this from London's Heathrow Airport (intrusive security, obnoxious announcements, and very little seating ** */2 two and a half stars) after a less than restful night. (Now that I am an expert on free airport accommodation, maybe I should start a website in which people can find and post information about sleeping in airports around the world. Sounds like a good idea, right? It is, but someone beat me to it; www.sleepinginairports.net check it out for yourself) Since England is not known for its culinary specialties and London is bloody expensive, I've only been eating food I packed from Kyrgyzstan, which I am thoroughly tired of at this point. Luckily, in a matter of hours I will be in Toronto in the loving care of Jessica's mother, Marg Lewis, and then off to the serenity and beauty of Wabun to spend ten days relaxing, rejuvenating, and recuperating on the shores of Lake Temagami. I have already begun to focus on my next travel challenge; getting a job in Austin, Texas and getting admitted to an alternative teacher certification program for the following year. Wish me luck, with all I've read about the economic situation, I may need it.