Those who have traveled with me before know that I am not the type to wait around in a hotel room or an airport if there is a way to get out and see the sights. Life is too short not to take advantage of a few extra minutes to get out and see what the world has to offer. Sometimes there is not a lot of time, but there is enough to have an interesting experience even if just for the purpose of amusing yourself. No one else may actually be interested in the story, but at least you have a memory that you can reflect back on and hopefully it brings a smile to your face. One such short story that has become an amusing memory is the time I was leading a team to Albania. We had a short lay over in Münich, Germany, and since none of the rest of my team had been to Germany before I thought it would be a nice idea to go through passport control and stick our heads out the door and breath some good ol’ German air. We walked out into the taxi and bus concourse and just as we all took a deep inhalation a large tour bus drove by bellowing black diesel exhaust right in our faces. We all coughed and sputtered and staggered back into the building. Dwayne’s comment was, “Yeah, good ol’ German air.” Unfortunately for some of the team that was the only experience they have had of Good ol’ German air, but we still get a kick out of remembering that time.
Another time I was leading a team to Albania and we had a short lay over in Zürich, Switzerland. Again we decided to step outside the airport, and I was the first to go up to passport control. Now in some international airports they don’t automatically stamp your passport. They just look at it and hand it back to you. So if you want a stamp you have to ask for it. As the controller handed back my unstamped passport I asked him if he could stamp it, “Just for fun.” He said, “Sure, just for fun,” and gave me a nice hard stamp. I asked him if he could also stamp my friend’s passports, “Just for fun.” As each came to his counter, I could hear a nice hard thump as he stamped their passports, and each time he said, “Just for fun.” I don’t know if he thought we were just a bunch of crazy Americans, but I had to think that this might have lightened his day with a little humor.
This desire to see what’s out there has caused a certain amount of anxiety as I have lost count how many times we have been the last to board the aircraft because we just barely made it back in time to the airport after taking one of our little jaunts, but that in itself makes the trip a little more exciting. Remember the O.J. Simpson commercial where he is running through the airport hurdling over luggage… well, I have done that many times, but I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything. It is a requirement that if you are going to travel with me you will use a small backpack as your carry-on instead of a piece of luggage that you have to drag along behind you. Why? Because you can’t leave the airport to experience the culture of your lay over city, and eek out the last precious moments of your time there, and then be able to run like a mad man through the airport hurdling over luggage, if you are dragging your own luggage behind you. A small backpack allows you to become an athletic traveler.
The last story that I shared about my time in Istanbul is a predecessor to this story. The group of men from Texas that I traveled to Istanbul with were going to go through Morocco on the way home, so that left me all by myself to go to London. My layover was a long one. I arrived in London about 9 AM, and my flight back to the U.S.A. was not until the next morning about 11 AM. A guest house had been arranged for me in Red Hill which is a suburb in the south part of London. When I got to my guest house I knew there was no way I was going to spend the whole day sitting around my room even if I was all by myself.
It was about a mile walk to the town center where I found a book store. I found a good map and a schedule of the transit system for London, and then went to the counter to pay and ask the girl at the counter how to get to the train station. Even though I am pretty sure she was speaking English I could not understand one single word that she said. Fortunately she talked with her hands, and pointed in different directions as she described to me how to get to the train station from the bookstore. I followed the hand directions and my map and finally found the Red Hill station, which much to my delight, went all the way to Victoria Station. I say much to my delight because that was the only station I had actually ever heard of even though London has several other large stations.
The ride took about thirty minutes with several stops in between. From Victoria Station I walked to Buckingham Palace and sat down on the steps of the monument with all the other tourists, and then walked into St. James Park and Green Park. It was a beautiful March day in the park and the trees were just beginning to flower. I wished my wife Karen had been with me as the park was full of couples walking hand in hand. I then walked to Westminster Abby and Parliament Square. Earlier in Red Hill I had bought an all day pass, which allowed me to ride all of the transit for one price. I highly recommend getting one if you are in London. I took the Underground to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, and then took it back to Piccadilly Circus. Somehow I found Harrods Department store and walked through there for a while. I’m sure I couldn’t stumble onto it again if I tried, but I was on an adventure, and took things as they came.
The only photos I have of myself in London—pathetically—was when I stopped to take a photo of my reflection in a store front window. I also had my first experience with an attendant at the toilet in Harrods. I walked in to find a pretty young girl in a green blazer with the Harrods emblem on it. The cost was going to be two quid or about four dollars. I decided, 1) I wasn’t going to pay four dollars to use the toilet, and 2) I wasn’t going to have a young girl standing there while I did it. I finally found an outdoor toilet facility in the park.
It was getting late, and as you can imagine, I was pooped. I walked back to Victoria Station, and saw a pub across the street named Shakespeare, and ate a huge fish and chips dinner. I checked the train schedule on the massive overhead board, and saw that my train heading back south was to leave at 22:00 hours. Now I know that 22:00 hours is 10 o’clock PM, but like I said I was tired and I wasn’t thinking straight so when I looked at my watch, which was set for a twelve hour clock, and saw that it was 9:58 PM, in my head I was thinking I still had another hour to shop. As I walked away from the board I vaguely heard an announcement declaring that the train to Brighton was leaving. Ahhh!!! My train was leaving! I ran to the closest open door of the train and jumped in just as the door shut behind me and the train began to pull out of the station.
My heart was practically beating out of my chest as I crossed in front of an older British couple and sat next to the window. The seat compartment was such that there were four sets of seats facing each other with an aisle down the middle. There was just the older couple and me in this compartment and after a nod, and a smile, and a congenial Hello, I stretched out in the seat and quickly closed my eyes. I knew there would be several stops and that it would take about a half an hour before we got to Red Hill. My day had actually started at four in the morning when I left for the airport in Istanbul.
I felt the train stop periodically as I dozed, but I was too tired to open my eyes. I must have fallen asleep because I suddenly jolted up in my seat and looked out to see the station sign for Red Hill hanging right at my window. I think a voice in my head—I’m going to say God—told me to wake up. I grabbed my backpack and darted past the British couple just as the door to the compartment was beginning to close. As I squeezed through the door onto the station platform the old man yelled after me, “Better hurry, Yank.” I stood there panting to catch my breath as the train pulled out of the station on its way to Brighton, the last stop and end of the line for the night. I would have missed my flight the next morning had I slept through that stop. I walked back through the quiet neighborhood to my guest house chuckling to myself one of my favorite self-abasements, “Rob Dakin you crazy galoot.”
May God Bless You until next time!