A layover in London taught me more about myself than I expected

I planned an epic trip to South Africa, but I didn’t expect how much I’d enjoy one little leg of the journey.

In November, I spent an incredible two weeks exploring Johannesburg, Dinokeng Game Reserve, Cape Town and Hermanus.

IMG_6327

I drank delicious wine, met amazing people, embarked on cultural, historical and wildlife tours, and soaked in as much of the country as my work vacation days would allow.

On my 36-hour flight back to Vancouver, I had a 10-hour layover in London, from 7a.m. to 5p.m. I was dreading it.

But I so wrong to.

I’m an advocate for the unexpected.

I like travelling to places I don’t know a lot about, so I can learn while I’m there. I prefer not to look at Tripadvisor or read glowing recommendations, because I don’t want to get my expectations up too high and be disappointed.

I’ve never been a huge fan of London. Most of the time I’ve spent in the city has been in thick grey downpours. But when I groggily got off my plane and through UK Customs, I was greeted by fresh air and sunshine—a respite after 14 hours on a plane.

Every destination deserves a second chance.

Without much of a plan, I boarded the tube and took off, bound for… well, I didn’t know. All I had was my backpack, camera and fleece, which I hoped would be enough to ward off the early Winter chill sweeping England.

I people-watched on the train until it stopped at Piccadilly Circus. I climbed up the stairs and emerged onto the brisk streets. A grin caught me smack in the face.

I felt at home.

London in the sunshine reminded me of the months I spent living and working in Wick, Edinburgh and Horsham a few years ago. Old brick buildings stood slated with soot and history. I followed imposing statues and well-dressed Brits with accents that pulled the corners of my lips up even further towards St. James Park. I grabbed a latte and a muffin and wandered through the crunchy crimson leaves. A Remembrance Day paraded filled the streets towards Buckingham Palace, where the changing of the guards lured tourists. I sat with a view of the pond and cracked my book.

parade

Travel, to me, is best absorbed slowly.

I’m a social butterfly—I love meeting new people; it’s one of the main reasons I travel—but there’s something to be said for little moments of solitude. I watched families and couples bustle about their day. I listened to the water shoot out of the fountain. I breathed in British air, somehow so familiar to me.

Completely on my own time, I got up and continued to Westminster Abby to Big Ben and back, all without Wi-Fi or cell service or Google maps or a travel partner or a plan.

And it felt so, so good.

I struggled to find an old pub that looked authentic enough and served food without a tourists surcharge. I opened the door to a stuffy pub that was 99 per cent white-haired men in trench coats sipping pints and women nursing wine. I backed out and it went back up to 100 per cent. I landed in a holiday-decorated pub and ate a mediocre Sunday roast beside a window with “Fish and Chips” scrolled on the glass as my phone charged behind the bar.

I passed a handsome dark-haired man sipping coffee straight from a white mug walking down the street and wished I’d said something witty. I bought a travel-inspired card game and tried on a red jacket in Marks & Spencer. I got on the tube to head back to the airport and realised I just wasn’t ready to leave yet.

So I got back off, because I had no one else to think about, no one else to convince or wait for or worry about. Just me.

I walked alongside Hyde Park to Harrods and into the Egyptian room, which is my favourite. I stepped into a busy Starbucks for a last-minute holiday coffee and looked out over the hectic streets and realized: I’m genuinely happy, wherever I am, being with myself, just wandering.

Westminister

All that on a 10-hour layover.

 

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