Although the wheelchair was responsible for a fair amount of problems, at many times it was a very useful asset to have. When we first travelled to London to meet up with the UK tour group, we bought train tickets at Cambridge station, but being ignorant of first-world public transport systems, was not immediately sure where exactly we would use it. No matter: we had a wheelchair! So a friendly attendant at the train station came and opened up the gate for us without us having had to use our tickets. The same was true for coming back: although we were wise to the system by know, as we (read: the wheelchair) approached the gate, it open magically. This meant that we had completed a round-trip from Cambridge to London and back without having used our train tickets. And the tickets were valid for a month. The implication? A saving of £35.50 (≈ R600) when I returned to London! I was on my own now, so naturally I had to give up the “to” portion of my return ticket.
I had been in London three times before: when we landed, when we left on the UK tour and when we returned from the UK tour. On non of these occasions were there any real time for sight seeing. With our holiday nearing an end, it was time to change this. I left my parents behind to go and explore London on my own a bit while they recuperated from the continental tour.
I arrived early and procured an underground travel pass. Unfortunately, for some reason, I chose the “off-peak” option, which was cheaper, yes, but limited my travel times. Still, I hung around a bit at King’s Cross station, having tea and breakfast until peak time passed. I then bordered the underground to my first destination for the day. Although I would have liked to have visited Warwick Castle and Bletchley Park, both of these are well outside of London and there wouldn’t have been time to do them and London. Being a two-week veteran of international touring, I figured that I should not aim too high there either. I planned to only go to three places: the Imperial War Museum (IWM), the Cabinet War Rooms and the Tower of London. I arrived in London early in the morning, so this was doable, right? Unfortunately, as is so often the case with me, I did not get to all of them. In fact, I entered the IWM, forewent lunch, and emerged in the late afternoon when everything was closing. But, what a place! The foyer is filled with machines of war: tanks, Jeeps, howitzers, rockets, submarines and aeroplanes. When I eventually got passed this, I discovered a plethora of information in the exhibitions. I first went into the D-Day exhibition and when I was done with that, I had already been in the museum for more than two hours. Knowing that time is pressing, I simply couldn’t bring myself to miss out on the World War 1, World War 2, Holocaust and Espionage exhibitions. So, I consider the day well spent, because it is such a terrific place I could just get lost in (although I would need someone there with me to remind me to eat).
At the IMW, I came face-to-face with my nemeses again: school groups. It seemed like half of the primary schools in London has converged on the IWM; and then there was the regular patrons as well. But, I am thankful for them for this: helping me see how young people take in history. Of course I was in primary school myself some years back and know what fun excursions can be. They are not learning experiences, but mandatory time to muck about with your schoolmates outside of the class environment. And the generation I saw that day did justice to this paradigm. Even the “well-behaved” ones: do they realise exactly what they are seeing when the gather around their teacher to draw a picture of a German V2 rocket? How far from these children’s minds are the atrocities of war? Specifically a war that has ravaged their city 65 years ago? That is not a long time ago: most of their grandparents lived through it. And that is the other face I saw that day: the one of elderly people being accompanied by their teenage descendants. I would try to get close to these rare couplings and try and eavesdrop, yearning for the stories they are sharing with their grandchildren. There was an old man and his grandson whom I saw at the end of the Holocaust exhibition. There was also a Jewish man with two adolescent boys in the World War 2 exhibition, but I could not understand them, as they were speaking Hebrew. But these weren’t cases of children being dragged to the museum against their will or even being punished to have to listen to grandpa’s stories: they wanted to be there, they wanted to learn and they wanted to hear. This was something very touching for me. War is only waged by a few people: everyone else is simply caught up in the middle of it. I still find it hard to believe that WW2 was raging a mere 65 years ago. It is something we can still touch, because we still have people amongst us who can tell us about that time. While visiting my history teacher from school after I returned, she told me about something she had seen in the IMW: three men together in the foyer looking at the Sherman tank. It was clearly a grandfather-father-son group. The boy was excited about seeing a real-life tank and was running around, presumably making fighting noises. The father was amazed at seeing this object which played a significant part in his father’s life. As for the grandfather—tears started rolling down his cheeks as he said “It looks just like the one we had!”. History we can touch—I don’t mean old buildings or pots presented to us by archaeologists or WW2 tanks, but rather we can touch the flesh of the people who lived through it and listen to their voices—is a powerful thing… it is almost sacred. We must learn from it. But being the younger generations it seems inevitable that we shall push forward with our ignorance and stubbornness to learn from our elders and repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
I learned a valuable lesson that day: if you don’t want to just tour the “face” of a city like London (see the Tower of London, move on, see Westminster Abbey, move on, see Buckingham Palace, move on…), you are going to need two or three weeks per city to get everything done. We proved that you could tour through western Europe in a week, but every place has a story to tell and you could spend several years learning everything. It was late afternoon now and although rainy weather had persisted throughout the day, a special kind of rain fell: that which accompanies you home from work and makes you extra glad to be home when you get there. But I had no home in London, so I did the second best thing late afternoon rain is best for: I met up with a friend. She and her boyfriend had travelled to London together in search of experience and adventure. I knew they had been through some good time and some rough times, but it was good to see that she hadn’t really changed. We chatted for a while, mostly about her experiences in the UK and my adventures on the holiday. Afterwards, we departed together to the underground. She pointed out some sights; we passed right by St Pauls Catherdral (another must I missed out on) and she accompanied me for my very first stroll over the Millennium Bridge. All in all, it was great to see her again. But I still got a feeling that something was wrong… which was confirmed a couple of weeks later when she broke up with her boyfriend. They had been dating a while before they decided to go overseas together, but this again proved that such a step drastically test a relationship. As far as I am concerned, going to live overseas with someone is a decision which is either going to make or break a relationship in the long run.
I may not have had a home in London, but I did have lodgings in the form of an old school friend: the infamous Djiaak. After school his family moved to Johannesburg and he went to the university there, so I only saw him a handful of times since then. We had kept more-or-less in touch and I thought it would be nice if someone “from the old country” visited him. We went to a pub before going to his flat, but couldn’t stay out too late, as he had work in the morning and I had to get ready for day two in London. After two-and-a-half weeks of being away from my friends, it was nice to meet up with some friends again whom I had seen even longer last.
For day two in London, I had to return to King’s Cross station, as my parents would be joining me for the day. The reason for their coming to London was twofold: they wanted to see London, of course, but R&J also treated us to tickets to go see Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theater in London. We again decided to go on a guided bus tour of the city. There are only two cities in the UK which has a population of over 1 million people, and one of them, London, is also the largest city in Europe. My first impressions, however, was that this wasn’t the case: Paris had felt bigger. I think the difference is that the main tourist attractions in Paris is much more spread out than in London: the bus tours completed their routes relatively quickly. Our first stop was the London Eye, which my parents decided to go on. Before we left South Africa, I was advised that this is largely a waste of time (although my parents did enjoy it), so I set off across Westminster Bridge to have a gander at the Houses of Parliament. I then realised that Westminster Abbey is right behind the House of Parliament, so I went in there, although I couldn’t take my time in there, as I didn’t want to keep my parents waiting. Although I did tell my parents to give me a call when they were done, you don’t really want your cellphone to go off in what effectively is a very elaborate crypt. I was surreal to walk past (and on top of) the final resting places of so many English noblemen and noblewomen. Kings, queens, princes, dukes… their earthly remains separated from me by but a slab of marble. It is a fantastic place, but the question of desecration did arise within me: people are buried underneath the floor and thousands of people mill through there every day. I wish I could have taken in more, but I had to leave and meet up with my parents again. After lunch we rode around on the bus again a bit, over Tower Bridge and getting off at London Tower. The ideal would have been to go in, but from my experiences the previous day, the fact that it was getting late, and the amount of people queuing to get it, we decided it was not going to happen for us today. We then just walked around and took in the sights.
Being concerned that we would be late for the show, we then left for Her Majesty’s Theater. It show was simply amazing… I now fully understand its success and longevity. The acting, the music, the effects, everything was just spectacular! I was concerned that I only had a t-shirt and jeans with me to wear, but that didn’t prove to be a problem. Still, it was a very stately affair and I appreciate the opportunity to have seen such a fantastic show? Afterwards we still had to return to Cambridge by train. And guess what? The gates were opened for us and we did not have to use our tickets. My parents also didn’t have to use their tickets that morning, so after two trips to London, we could present R&J with two-and-a-half return tickets to London which only expired in two weeks’ time.
There is something about London which I wish to comment on. London prides itself as a cosmopolitan city, but Paris felt much, much more cosmopolitan. Everywhere I went in London, I heard foreigners: Americans, South Africans, but hardly any British accents. Tourism alone doesn’t make for a cosmopolitan city. In Paris, sure, you can find tourists if you go to the tourist attractions, but when you see people who came from another country, they likely live there and are not tourists. People go to London to make quick money and then want to return home. In fact, there are so many foreigners in London, that if they were to leave all at once, the entire economy could collapse. But I believe many people who go to London for work eventually want to return home. In Paris, people are often unable to return home due to the circumstances under which they came to Paris, so they are eventually absorbed into Paris. This makes Paris, for me at least, feel much more like a melting pot of cultures.
The following day was our last full day before we were due to return to South Africa. We spent it by shopping, resting and packing. That evening we went to see another show with R&J: a local production of Oliver.
And so the day came we had to leave. Its been fun. So long, and thanks for the fish. We finished packing and had breakfast with R&J before they took us to the bus stop. They have a policy: no goodbyes at the airport. This is something I can understand: hellos are happy things… goodbyes, not. So we said goodbye, swallowed our lumps and turned our attention to the excitement of getting home. Touring is fun and exciting, but there comes a time for everyone, I think, when they have had enough and really just want to go home. Maybe they want to return to their old routine, maybe they want to share their experiences, or put what they have learned into practise, or they want a chance to rest and save up for the next trip, or just want to see their family and friends again. Whatever the reason, you want to go home. Admittedly by this time I was tired of lugging all the luggage around… no doubt it did much to refine my Herculean physique, but enough is enough. So, it was with great anticipation we hauled in the bags to the check-in area… only to be told our flight has been delayed… for 12 hours. Not too worry, they would put us up in a hotel—a nice one! But it was still another day of dragging bags around, packing and unpacking… needless to say, we weren’t thrilled by the news. No-one was. Our flight was due to land on Sunday and now would only land on Monday. This was a problem, as people had to return to work and school on Monday. Yes, some of our fellow passengers got very verbal and very distraught. I had no concrete commitments which could be affected, my father is retired and my mother soon got over worrying about work. So we set off for our hotel, which turned out to be a very, very posh one. It was the first hotel where I had a room of my own and may very well have been the most comfortable one we had been in. But I did pity the poor staff. You see, our flight was a direct flight to Johannesburg, which means it would have been full of South Africans. Of these South Africans, a healthy amount of them were Afrikaners. Even for a hotel in London (a city which is saturated with South Africans), the concentration of South Africans must have been overwhelming. Everything was arranged on short notice, of course, so the hotel people were caught on the back foot. That night, we dined like kings, along with the honoured guest. But by the following morning, the hotel staff had composed themselves and we were ushered into a our own dining room for, frankly, a very plain breakfast. I’m sure they were glad to see us go. The advantage our original flight would have had the advantage of being a night flight, so we would be able to land refreshed from some sleep. Now we were flying through the entire day, so now at least I can say I’ve stayed awake through a transcontinental flight. This meant that when we landed in Johannesburg, it was night and there were no more flights going out to Cape Town, so we had to spend another night away from home—this time in a small B&B. But we got up early and a few short hours later, we were home.
And so my story ends. What is left to say? Is there some insightful conclusion I can reach? Some profound piece of wisdom I can share? No, there is nothing earth-shattering I can say. This summary of the trip, as far as I am concerned, is a rather dismal attempt at conveying what I experienced. Words are meant to convey information, not experiences. Therefore, all I can say is this: go. Go there for yourself; see, smell, touch, taste and feel. Laugh, cry, be excited, be energised, be exhausted, be humbled and be amazed. Go and experience.