Visiting the UK – Part 15 – Conclusion.
So, it’s now been a year since my trip. I didn’t imagine it taking me this long to get all these posts written. Guess that just makes me even more of a slacker than I thought.
But let’s not dally! Let’s begin that arduous trip home! The photo to the right was one of the few photos I took on my flight home (before completely passing out for the duration of the flight.)
On my last night in Dundee, I slept horribly. I’d already spent three nights sleeping on my brother’s floor, curled up in the fetal position because I was sharing floor-space with his friend so I was unable to straighten out any little bit whatsoever. After three nights in the exact same position, my hip bones were bruised and I couldn’t find even a moderately comfortable position to sleep. I was all hip-bone and bruises at that point.
So, I only slept a couple of fitful hours. I was awake at 9AM, which for anyone who knows me, they’ll understand how remarkable it is that I woke that early on my own. They’ll perhaps fully understand how lousy my sleep was.
I remember eating toast and then I don’t really remember what followed. I know I made sure I was packed, double checked I had all of my things. I don’t recall if we went out or not. I might’ve dozed off later in the afternoon earning a bit of extra rest. I just can’t recall. My brother walked me to the train station, we said our good-byes, hugged, and he watched me pass through to the ticket barrier and out onto the platform.
There was a father and his two little boys (maybe 5-7 years) waiting nearby for their train and I spent a good half-hour watching the boys fight with each other, running up and down the platform recklessly. They came so close to falling off the platform and onto the tracks so many times that I couldn’t help but glare at the father. Not to mention the little brats were screaming and crying and annoying everyone else waiting on a train.
Since I’d eaten nothing but toast all day, I had a coke and some crisps while waiting. [I remember one woman sitting on a bench next to me who kept glaring at me as if my eating the crisps was annoying her more than the screaming kids. It made me so uncomfortable, I wrapped up the bag and put them away to finish later on the train.]
Once on the train, I slept bits and pieces, mostly just dozing on and off. It was a very long ride – heading from Dundee all the way back to London would take me almost seven hours.
I remember being a bit nervous on the train ride because I was alone. Everyone else had someone with them or someone to talk to. I had myself and my luggage – blatantly announcing that I was a solo traveler. It might be some of my dad coming out in me, but I was convinced that marked me as a target of some sort. You know how parents like to put the fear of God into you over trivial things sometimes? I think it was a lot like that. I had a strange sense of paranoia going on.
The great thing was that after a few hours, some more passengers got on at another stop. There was an Asian guy who sat on the opposite side of the train only a few seats up from me, diagonally, with his laptop on the table. At this point, my PSP was dead, my Nintendo DS was dead, and I had only my journal and my iPod to entertain me.
This guy was Thai, I think. I say that because I watched him pull up a Korean drama on his laptop. The sub-titles flashing across the bottom looked very much like Thai subs to me. Though I suppose they could’ve been Vietnamese…I don’t remember. I just know they weren’t any of the eastern languages I know how to recognize or can read. I recognized some of the actors in the show though and I knew it was a show from the KBS broadcast station. So, without understanding what was happening in the show, I got to [like a creeper] watch two or three episodes with him.
When he finally reached his stop, I decided to sleep some. I was reluctant to sleep because I was terrified something would happen and I’d miss my stop. However, I couldn’t sleep well enough for that to happen anyway.
By 10:50PM, I had made it to King’s Cross Station. Sadly, my train had been delayed by 20 minutes, so I didn’t get to stop and take any pictures. The Harry Potter fan in me died a little.
I rushed through the underground station to make my connection to the Heathrow Airport on the Picadilly Line.
I was in a bit of a panic here because I only had a small window during which to make my connection in the first place, but after the train had been delayed 20 minutes, my window had shrunk considerably. I didn’t know if that would affect the other trains, like…would they wait a few extra minutes for those of us who were running behind? Or would we just get screwed and left behind?
You have to keep in mind, I didn’t grow up with a train culture. Oklahoma has “drive-yourself-everywhere-or-don’t-go” culture. That’s what we grew up with. So I was just ignorant of how the whole system would work. All I knew was if I missed that connection, I’d be spending the night panicking – trying to figure out how I’d afford a cab ride (because in my panicked state I was thinking it’d cost an exorbitant amount for some ridiculous reason) or find a bed for the night or etc., etc., etc.
When I got to the right platform, I had to ask a stranger which train I wanted. I tried to read the tube map but failed miserably. The schedule seemed so convoluted to me. I was quickly pointed in the right direction and according to the arrival sign, I had only 1 minute left. So one wrong turn and I’d have missed the train. And yes, it came promptly in 1 minute. And if I’d read it all correctly, that was the last tube into Heathrow for the night.
By midnight, I was getting off the tube at Heathrow. There were only two of us left on the tube as it pulled in: myself and a middle-aged man who looked like a businessman. We stepped off the train and into a fire alarm ringing throughout the tube station. The announcement kept telling us to immediately get to a safe location.
Of course, the station is deserted. So the man and I are looking around in a very concerned sort of way. I’m sure you can imagine. We finally found a worker and he told us it was just a drill they do every Saturday. He sent us on our way, telling us there was no fire and we were fine, so we continued up to the terminals amidst cries of “The Fire Alarm Has Been Activated, Please Proceed to the Nearest Safe Location. Staff Will Assist You.”
At the next floor up, I found myself back in International Arrivals right where I’d begun this journey. Both the tube-man and I were searching the floor cluelessly. The signs had pointed this way for Terminals/Departures but here we were standing in Arrivals. We turned around and saw that the signs from the one direction (coming from the tube station) pointed towards Arrivals as “Departures” but if you were coming from Arrivals, it pointed back behind us to a row of elevators, listing those as “Departures.”
Seriously, it was confusing. We came up the stairs to find ourselves in Arrivals, which was completely closed with all the shops locked up and all the lights off. We had no idea where to go. The sign had a clearly marked arrow pointing this direction for Departures. Until you turned around, then that same arrow was pointing the opposite direction.
You know, in all honesty – the arrow as simply pointing at the ceiling. It was just a straight up arrow. You have to use that human cognitive power to infer that they mean for it to point ahead. But in this case when it’s pointing straight up, it can mean straight ahead no matter which direction you’re coming from. In that case, let’s try putting the arrow on only one side of the sign? Maybe on the other side, you could put small print (Turn Around) or (Wrong Way).
Just a thought.
So tube-man and I went back up the elevators and then separated, each going to our respective departure check-in areas. I headed straight for the nearest toilet. I’d just sat through a six-seven hour train ride and then another one-two hour tube ride to the airport.
Once the toilet was conquered, I aimed my path straight to the nearest vending machine. There was no where else to get food and I hadn’t had anything but 2 slices of toast and then that bag of crisps at the train station. So, I got me some cheese crackers and another bottle of coke.
After I’d bought my snacks but before I got to sit down and eat them, I was stopped by an American girl probably a few years younger than myself. She asked if I knew where check-in was for American Airlines. If possible, she looked more confused and lost than I was. So I felt obligated (as the older one) to try to help this kid out.
I told her I had no idea but that I’d seen a sign somewhere between getting off the tube and where we were now that had all the airlines and their departure terminals listed. I told her that was how I’d found my own.
She was excited and said she’d been trying to figure it out for over an hour and no one could help her. (I assume that means most everyone was being snotty or she didn’t want to wake anyone because like 90% of the people waiting in the airport were conked out.)
So I led her on a crazy search for a sign – the location of which I had already conveniently forgotten. I knew I had seen it, but I couldn’t remember precisely where. When we couldn’t find it on the floor we were on, we went back down the elevators to the Arrivals, then we back-tracked all the way down to the train platforms until I saw the one I’d used. Of course, it had to be IMMEDIATELY upon getting off the tube. So we had gone quite a ways.
Turns out she was at the wrong terminal. We were on 1 and she needed 3. She thanked me profusely because if she had just spent the night there and found out she was in the wrong place in the morning, she said she’d have missed her flight. So we parted ways: me back up to 1 and her off to find her way to 3.
She was a very, very polite kid. She was ridiculously grateful to me for helping her. I felt pretty good about myself. But I’ll admit that going back through the train station and up all those empty, closed floors was super creepy. I don’t know what it was like for her or how she was even going to get to terminal 3.
I was pretty sure the last tube had run and there wouldn’t be anymore that night. But I guess just because there were tube stops at the terminals didn’t mean that was the only way to get there. I assume there’s a perfectly normal walking route.
So here I sit now. I devoured my snack crackers, but I fear I’ll end up tossing half a bottle of coke. [I never could drink pop by itself. Have to have food. It just sloshes around in my stomach and makes me feel queasy otherwise.]
It’s like 2AM and I’m trying to stay awake cause back home it’s only 8- no, 9PM? – they already had Daylight Saving back home. At 7AM, I should be able to check-in and get a…well, not a ticket, but a stand-by notice, I guess.
I’ll just be letting them know I’m here and ready. God willing I get on the 9AM flight with no hassles – otherwise I guess I’ll shoot again for the 11AM and then again for the 2PM if I have to. I’d love to have business class again going home, but I’ll take anything so long as I get on a flight.
Heathrow is deserted. It’s funny because I remember being told that this airport never sleeps and it’s always packed, etc. Guess whoever told me that didn’t really know as much as they thought. There’s a few people sleeping around…there’s a janitor running a floor machine. [You can just barely see him in the photo there...]
I’m struggling to stay awake so I’ll be exhausted enough to sleep on the plane. But I’ve got 5 long hours of sitting ahead of me. I’ve got no internet, iPod is dead now, no Nintendo DS, no PSP – only this and my Kindle now.
Luckily I’ve already killed one and a half hours writing all this out and getting the journal caught up. Hopefully around 5 or 6 the little news stands or the bar will start to open so I can try for a bit of food or something. I guess I’ll switch over to reading for now. My hand is starting to cramp…
I had a really hard time staying awake that five hours. There were several times I packed up my Kindle and journal and I just started walking laps around the main part of that room, pulling or pushing my suitcase around. I saw a man in the bar upstairs watching me and I was so irritated because I wanted to be up in that bar eating something. It was closed but there was someone up there. My assumption was that he had to work there. But the part that irritated me was how he just sat there and stared. I was tired and hungry, thus making me cranky enough to be bothered by that.
Well, it’s about 4AM now. Apparently this place kind of starts to wake up around 4AM. The United check-in counter is either open now or just finishing their set-up. I figured 4:30 AM is a bit early to check in for a 9AM flight. I might try at 5:30 or 6 though.
I haven’t been in enough airports to realize that once you check-in, you get to pass through the magical gates to duty-free world where there are shops and restaurants and food aplenty. I would have planned to check-in immediately had I not been so ignorant. Instead, I found out mostly due to impatience.
I checked in right as they opened. Came into the gate area and DUTY FREE – I ate breakfast at a place that might’ve been called ‘Giraffe’ – had a B.L.T with 2 fried eggs and potato wedges. I only got the eggs because my blood sugar level was dropping and I could feel a sugar attack coming. My doctor had told me to eat protein when I feel like that, so I got the eggs for protein. It seemed to help.
Boarding is supposed to start at 8:20 – it’s only 7:50 right now. I still have a bit of a wait left. Sheesh.
Aha! I have successfully traveled back in time! It’s 15 til 3 and I’m sitting in a truly overcrowded Chicago airport. I haven’t seen an airport like this year, it’s really super packed. Boarding to Witchita should start at around 3:40 though I almost expect for it to be delayed a bit, just judging from how this waiting lounge looks.
I slept practically the entire flight. I think I was awake long enough for the breakfast fruit tray and again for the pre-arrival meal of braised beef short rib. It had some nasty mashed potatoes so I didn’t eat those. I ate the carrots, the beef, and a white roll before I had to stop because I wasn’t feeling well.
I got business class again coming over from London. It was immediate. Normally, you wait for paying passengers to board then they call up the stand-by passengers. That didn’t happen in London. They called me up before everyone else and shuffled me onto the plane. I got a window seat up by the front of the plane. These seats were amazing. Far better than on the flight over – these actually reclined ALL THE WAY into perfectly flat beds. It was so nice.
The woman in the aisle seat next to me could’ve been a twin to my boyfriend’s step-mom. Same hair, same style, same voice… it was eerie. I kind of like to think that this was a gift from the universe. On both of my international flights, I was seated next to someone who resembled someone I knew in real life and when I say resembled, I don’t mean resembled. I mean – they were like alternate dimension copies. But it really did make it feel less scary to find that kind of familiarity there with me.
When I got to Chicago, I almost had to go through a TSA scanner. But the thing malfunctioned and quit working all together, so I just got to walk through a metal detector instead. The Chicago airport was ridiculously overcrowded. It was the end of Spring Break and it was storming throughout the Midwest. Planes were being delayed left and right.
My flight was overbooked, so I didn’t make it. [My boyfriend] was supposed to meet me in Kansas to pick me up from the airport but turns out, I might not make the roll-over flight either. As a stand-by, my name should roll over to the next available flight automatically, but mine didn’t. I went to a desk to ask why and they told me I had to be entered back in manually but they weren’t sure why. I got bumped from like the 4th on the list to like the 14th person on the list as a result.
I missed the 3:40 flight, then the next one at 7, then the one after that also had a ridiculously long stand-by list, in addition to all the paying customers trying to re-book flights that they had missed due to delays.
At this point my boyfriend was pretty angry with me for having not bought a real ticket and probably mostly for him having to waste a trip to the Kansas airport. My mom was trying to get me to find a place I could purchase a ticket, but it turns out that Tulsa was hosting the NCAA tournament so all flights into OKC, Dallas, or Kansas were all totally booked – PLUS it being Spring Break.
Charlie (who had gotten me the buddy pass) was using all his available pilot connections to try to find me another flight home so I wouldn’t be stranded at O’Hare overnight. All in all, I was fine with the situation. It was everyone else in my life that was freaking out. My boyfriend was furious at the thought of me being stranded, my dad was baffled as to how it even happened, my mom kept asking me if I could find somewhere else to buy a ticket and she’d help with money if need be.
I really spent a ridiculous amount of time on the phone, plugged into the only available outlet (which was behind a trash can next to an escalator) trying to keep my phone charged. And everyone was stressing me out on the phone, making me panicky where I wasn’t panicky before. In addition to panic, there was a bit of guilt, frustration, and even some tears involved. I won’t lie: a few times I came close to turning off my phone entirely. But Charlie was still trying to find me another flight, so that wasn’t really an option.
At some point after I missed the first flight, I ran into my brother’s friend who had just arrived and also been bumped from her next flight because of all the delays. She was trying to get a new booking herself. We didn’t have much to say to one another, both trying to find new ways home – so we promptly went our separate ways. It might’ve been nice to have someone to panic with and share the experience with, but as far as we were concerned, the two of us were basically little more than strangers to one another.
Sometime after 7 or 8 PM, I went to the airport McDonald’s and got some nuggets that I could barely stomach, due to all the stress. It was while I was trying to eat that Charlie hastily instructed me to rush over to what was practically the complete opposite end of the airport and try to get on stand-by for another United flight straight into OKC that, as of yet, had no stand-by passengers listed at all.
I got to the counter and I asked if there were any open seats. The lady said no in such a vehement way that I backed down without another word and went off to whimper. I’m far too timid. I called Charlie back and whined, asking what to do now.
Meanwhile the lady rushed off, as if sensing I wasn’t going to be giving up just yet. Charlie told me basically how to handle her but she had disappeared, along with my optimism. BUT! As luck would have it, she had only gone for a bathroom break and so when she came back, I explained my situation calmly, stating that I had a guest pass from a United employee, and asked if I could be switched to stand-by for this flight.
She did it immediately without asking questions and then said “Sit down. If someone doesn’t show up, their seat is yours.”
I was so nervous while I waited. If I got on that flight that night, no one back home would be worrying, yelling, and making me feel lousy for the rest of the night. Time passed and I got my hopes up, but then suddenly my name on the stand-by list dropped to #2. I swore the new initials of #1 looked familiar. And yeah, in the end my brother’s friend showed up and I knew those initials belonged to her. She had stolen my spot!
We chatted, laughed about how coincidental it was that we both ended up stand-by on the same flight after all that. And yet, I felt my hope slipping away. She was a paying customer, so she’d get the seat before I would. She’d make it home and I’d be stranded for the night. At that moment, I didn’t really feel like chatting or being all that friendly. I was tired, stressed, had been argued with, chewed out, and was just generally crabby.
When it came time for boarding, they called the passenger’s names. Several didn’t show up. I suddenly felt hope rising. And yet, she called name after name after name…Finally, she called my brother’s friend and she waved and wished me luck. She had just boarded the plane that we had worked so hard to get me on. I slumped back into my seat just knowing I was stuck for the night.
After few more minutes passed, I was sure the plane had filled up. All those stragglers that had showed up had filled the last available seats. And my brother’s friend had taken the only extra one. But then just as I’d given up, the gate attendant called me over and thrust a ticket at me and said, “Hurry up and take it before he shows up.” referring to the absent passenger whose ticket I’d just won. I hastily boarded the plane, texting everyone I could that I was on board a plane and would be home soon. Funnily enough, I had the exact same seat on this plane as I did on my plane from OKC to DC – it was the very first row on the right, window seat.
This time my seat-mate was an off-duty pilot still in uniform who slept practically the entire flight. I remember being exhausted but relatively unable to sleep. The most amazing thing, though, was getting to see my home from the sky at night. I don’t think I’ve ever realized just how large and spread out this little city is.
Seeing all of those lights though, was like looking at a vast network of lives, and I couldn’t fathom how many people lived below me – how many cars were zooming down roads, each on their way home or to work or to see friends – each with their own busy life to lead.
It made it both easy and hard to understand why individuals live in such a self-centric way. You either struggle with the reality that you are very small and inconsequential to the bigger picture but you keep on trucking and trying, or you live believing you can change the world and you fall into the disillusion that everything revolves around you.
Regardless of how you see it philosophically, it was visually beautiful – grids of lights and street lamps that painted a glittering picture of humanity.
And just like that my trip was over. And now a year has passed. I still have this restless urge to travel and to see more of the world…I just haven’t been able to yet.