LETTER from ERNA MORGAN McREYNOLDS
Just leaving Belfast to go to London was scary. Soldiers dressed in camouflage gear held machine guns and guarded barbed wire topped fences which ringed the airport.
I kissed my family through the fence. Security whisked my suitcase away and sealed my handbag in cling wrap until we landed in London.
After 10 days in Northern Ireland, I loved the security. I imagined my plane blown up in mid-air, hurtling to the Irish Sea.
But Northern Ireland — I was still with my family. London? Perhaps the biggest city in the world. I had to travel miles from the airport to central London. I had figured out a bus would be the cheapest public transportation — and found the right stop.
A couple of hours later, I was at Kings Cross-St Pancras – railway, bus and underground stations all in one place.
My $1 a day guidebook said my hostel was a short walk from Kings Cross. I realized that author hadn’t been lugging a suitcase with all of his worldly possessions to get there.
Eventually I found the street number on a windowless door. I pushed the buzzer, climbed a windowless flight of stairs. Arrived at a dingy counter where a clerk scrutinized my passport, wrote down details, demanded cash in advance.
Then he locked my passport in a safe. Told me I couldn’t have it till I checked out. By then I expected that he would murder me in my sleep, steal my traveler’s checks and cash them with my passport.
I hadn’t seen the worst part yet. He led me up another unlit winding stairway to the women’s accommodations. Bunks three high. You slept with your luggage on your bunk. Bedding consisted of purple polyester sheets. Changed only once a week. No matter if someone checked out. I checked in two days before Wednesday when clean sheets came. Boy, was I grateful for the advice to make and bring a sleeping sack.
Even in my flannel sack on the third tier, I imagined cockroaches crawling over and rats chewing on my ears. I had read about a rat chewing an inner city baby’s ear off. My cheap bunk was a
But I had a long list of London sites to see. Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, The Tate, National Gallery, St Paul’s Cathedral, Madame Tussaud’s, Baker Street were just the beginning of my list for my short London stay.
But I needed food. Growing up we didn’t go to restaurants often, but we didn’t have many choices in the country. How should I choose? At least in London menus were posted in windows.
I didn’t know what “rashers” were or “baps”, so I stuck with things I could understand. Then before I went into a restaurant I did the mental gymnastics to convert pounds into dollars. Not an American diner breakfast. Watery instant coffee with milk. No free refills. A couple of greasy fried eggs with one slice of bread, cut in quarters.
Then off to my first destination — Trafalgar Square. My foldout map showed two miles. I clasped my guide book and umbrella. I clutched my purse close to my chest where I stashed most of my cash. More than one use for a bra.
I had read about pickpockets. Unlike a walk in my Upstate village, the sidewalks were crammed with people. Constantly bumping into me. I hadn’t figured out that not only did cars drive on the “wrong side” of the road, people also walked that way.
Then my map reading skills failed me. London is an old city and its streets are a labyrinth. Hours and miles later I arrived at Trafalgar Square. An amazing site — not just to see the great monument to Lord Nelson, but all of those other tourists trying to get pigeons to land on their hands. From there a road led to Buckingham Palace.
Then hours later after seeing Buckingham Palace, wandering through a park, past the famous horse guards and Downing Street I had to get back to my hostel. No matter which way I turned my map, I couldn’t figure out which way to go. I had thought I would remember my way back. A foolish idea.
I couldn’t afford a taxi. I didn’t understand the red bus system. So I walked and walked. That day I learned not to think I could remember what direction I had to go. I studied the map in advance.
Drew lines on the map. I was never doing that again.
Scary being lost in a big city. And on my very first day. I thought I had made a big mistake thinking I could do this by myself. But I couldn’t go back home.
So I gritted my teeth.
I found my way back to the hostel to climb up to my top bunk and pull my sack over my head. I thought about how I would make it through all of those other big and even more foreign cities in the next weeks.