Two weeks ago, I took a ten-day trip to jolly old England. It was not only my first real vacation (meaning one that took longer than three days, and one that took me out of the country), it was also research for the book I’ve been writing, and a pilgrimage to the place that inspired the book.
I’ve been dying to go to England since forever. My desire to see it intensified when I finished writing the final draft of my book.
I had based my story in Salisbury and Amesbury. They are towns close to Stonehenge, which plays a central part in the storyline. While writing the book, I had used pictures and maps gathered from the internet to visualize the place where my characters lived. I also used Google Earth so I could figure out how my characters could go from one place to another.
I wanted so badly to walk the path my characters walked. I wanted to see the houses I had picked as a model for their residences, and to explore the towns they lived in. This was a far off dream, as far as I was concerned—something that could happen but only in the far, far future.
But a stroke of good luck, and a little help from God/the Universe made it possible for this dream to come true much sooner than expected. My aunt JD had joined the Wheel of Fortune as a contestant, and actually won. She knew about my dream to go to the UK and to see Stonehenge up close. So when she got her prize money, she made sure to give me a part of it so I could go to the UK. Thanks to her, and to my best friend Maiko, I got to fulfill a dream.
Maiko was the only one patient enough to read my first draft from beginning to end. She gave me some really good suggestions and pointed out inconsistencies, which I worked on in my succeeding drafts. She’s also read my fifth draft. In short, Maiko is the only person who has ever read the entire book twice. She’s seen the changes the characters and the story has undergone.
And she professes to be my number one fan. Naturally, she had to come with me to my England trip. She loved my story as much as I did and she was very eager to join me in my quest to walk my characters’ paths.
Now that you know the story behind my trip, and have been introduced to my travel partner, let’s get to the juicy part—the Journey.
Our awesome friend Lena was kind enough to leave work a little earlier so she could drop us off at the airport. She took a picture of Maiko and I before we went inside.
At LAX, before the Trip
We had checked in hours before, so all we had to do was get our checked-in luggage weighed, scanned and loaded into the plane. I thought it would take us five minutes tops, but unfortunately, the couple ahead of us were taking up the sole attendant’s whole time as they frantically searched for the man’s missing ID card.
Another counter finally opened up and we managed to drop our bags off. We were headed for the security checkpoint toward the gates, when I remembered that we had brought a bottle of soda with us. I gave it away to one of the security guards, who took it after some hesitation.
The line at the security checkpoint wasn’t as long as I’d expected it to be. After getting my passport scanned and stamped, I got my first experience with the new body scanners.
I tried not to think of what my x-ray picture looked like as I stood there with my hands behind my head.
After we re-organized our clothes and our carry-on luggage, we headed for our take-off gate. We were two hours early, so we found a table near the coffee shop and parked ourselves there.
Hanging out at a coffee shop before the flight
While Maiko chatted with her mom on the phone, I bought some souvenirs for Frances (a former student I was going to meet up with in London), and exchanged my dollars for some British pounds. I had planned on exchanging just half of the money at LAX, and the rest of it in London, in case they had a better rate; but the lady insisted that LAX’s rate was better and they don’t charge commission. So I went for it.
(I would learn later on that I should’ve followed my original plan. Oh well, lesson learned.)
Being cheap—er—budget-oriented and smart travelers, Maiko and I had packed our own dinner. I bought a large soda at Burger King (I felt bad that we were using their table without buying anything), and we gobbled up the rice balls and croquettes Maiko had prepared at home.
We still had an hour and a half before our 8:30PM flight so we spent it wisely. Maiko worked on her book translation while I read. We tried to ignore the obnoxious teenager behind us. He was skyping (rather loudly) with someone on his laptop. Of course, he had to be on the same flight as we were. Thankfully, his seat was far from ours.
Before long, we were on Virgin Atlantic Flight 24 and headed for England!
Although the seats were a tad small, I was pleasantly surprised at the amenities the airlines had. Each seat had its own small entertainment center. You could play tons of games or watch movies and TV shows for hours.
They also gave away a complimentary pouch filled with a pair of socks, an eye mask, a toothbrush and some toothpaste.
Blankets and earphones were provided, along with a decent dinner, snacks and breakfast.
Cute soda cans
I also liked that they had a water station where you could fill up your water bottles.
Two movies, a few hours of sleep, and a relatively easy flight later, we were flying towards London Heathrow.
I saw many fields, hills and trees as the plane descended. England was a lot greener than California, and I could already feel my excitement building.
The excitement waned a little as we walked about two miles from the airport gate toward the main airport building. My excitement waned even further as we waited in line for an hour to get through the UK Customs Border.
The customs official asked what the purpose of our travel was, I told her it was for vacation, and also book research. She asked what my book was about and I said it was a middle grade fantasy book. She gave me a confused look so I said my book was like Harry Potter, only not as good. She laughed, stamped my passport and wished us a pleasant vacation.
We spent several minutes searching for the carousel that held our luggage. I finally spotted our bags yards away. The conveyer belt was moving fairly quickly so I had to make a mad dash for the bags.
After we’d gotten all our bags, Maiko and I purchased some UK Sim cards from a vending machine. We chose the T-Mobile brand, because we had heard that it had the best data plan and we wanted to use our smartphones. We plugged our UK sim cards into our cellphones, and were slightly disappointed when our data services didn’t work. We decided to just figure it out once we got to our hotel. At least we could make calls if we had to.
I had purchased an Oyster Card before we left for the trip so we used this to get ourselves on the tube.
Oyster Card – Lets you get on all the underground trains and buses around London
We were happy to see that there was a line going straight from the airport to King’s Cross Station.
It was around 7PM when we finally arrived at King’s Cross Station, we had a bit of trouble orienting ourselves. We asked one of the station guards where Swinton Street was, but he sort of gave us the wrong direction. Finally, I asked one of the shopkeepers who pointed us in the right way.
We arrived at the Arriva Hotel and checked in. We lugged our bags through the narrow corridors, eager to relieve ourselves of the load.
We had the surprise of our lives when we opened the door. It was the smallest hotel room we had ever been in. A step took us directly into the bathroom and three steps took us to the double bed that occupied most of the room. There was a large cabinet with open shelves for our things, and a small fridge placed underneath a narrow table. The place was so small, you could literally open the fridge while sitting at the edge of the bed.
The story was the same in the bathroom. There was only enough room to stand and maybe turn around once in the shower stall. The shower stall doors slid sideways because there wasn’t enough space to place a door that opened outward. The sink and the toilet bowl, were both a step away from the shower stall.
It was a good thing we planned on being outside most of the time.
My mom had asked us to check on my stepfather’s aunt who lived in Islington. She’s 82 years old and lives by herself. So, after we got ourselves a little organized, we used the internet to get directions to where she lived. Luckily, it was a 15 minute walk from our hotel.
We headed toward Islington. Halfway up the street we passed by a Thai restaurant. We realized we were starving so we sat down and had our dinner there.
Dinner at Thai Aubergine
In London, they ask you whether you want still or sparkling water. And the water always comes in a fancy glass bottle, which looks more like it should contain some alcoholic drink instead of water. Good I think I did my research. I asked for still water, and we ordered our food.
We worked on our cellphones while we waited for the food. We figured out that the 10 GBP that we had paid for only for the sim itself, and that we still had to “top off” our sim to get some calling credits.
After gobbling up our meal, we had a bit of trouble figuring out how much tip they expect from customers in England. Maiko finally got the courage to ask the waitress, who said it was 12%.
We paid for our meal and headed up King’s Cross Road towards Islington. On the way, we passed by a small grocery store with a cellphone Top Off sign. We decided to each purchase 10GBPs worth of cellphone credits there.
The top off receipt was easy enough to figure out. After topping off our cell, we headed for Aunt Helen’s house.
We thought we were lost, until I mentioned that Aunt Helen was supposed to live up in the 17th floor. Maiko started laughing and pointed to the only building in the area that could possibly hold 17 floors. We headed toward it.
It turns out Aunt Helen lives on the 22nd floor. She looked confused when we opened the door. But she quickly let us in when I introduced myself. I pointed to a family picture in her living room and said that was me standing on the left side.
Aunt Helen was the nicest and fun-nest person to talk to. She had a few lapses in memory and kept asking us the same question every five minutes, but otherwise, her witty sense of humor was in tact.
After she asked us if we wanted tea for the fourth time, we finally agreed. She made us a pot of tea and even spent several minutes looking for her best china.
English tea and biscuits
She served the tea with milk and sugar and a plate of jam-filled biscuits. I was so glad we finally agreed to have some tea, as it was the best I had tasted so far.
We bid her goodnight and at around 10:30PM, finally got back to our small (really small) hotel room. We showered, unpacked and prepared for the next day. Before we knew it, it was midnight and we needed to sleep.
Join me this Friday for England Day 2: Warwick Castle, Stratford Upon Avon, Lunch at the Cotswolds, & Oxford
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