Bridget Jones and British Boroughs

On my first day in London I spent a bit of time with Giles as he showed me around central London, pointing out all the different bars in Soho and all the shops and eateries I should try, and helping me familiarise myself with some of the major landmarks, stations, and even the lingo – I was only given one chance to mispronounce to awkwardly Leicester Square. Giles said most people mispronounce it – it’s pronounced ‘Lester’, as thought the ‘ic’ isn’t even there – and I momentarily wondered what the hell went wrong with the English language for that to have ever happened. After being all over Europe, England was the last place I had expected to have problems pronouncing words or place names.

That evening, Giles and I went to see a performance of ‘The Sound of Music’ at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Giles was a big lover of musicals and theatre, and he had gotten complimentary tickets from a friend of his who worked there. I’m not exactly sure how he pulled it off – they were very good tickets, centred and very close to the front, on a sold out night. The show was fantastic and the cast were amazing – however, there was another learning curve that I would experience that evening, in a theatre that was very much exposed to the elements. Despite it being a relatively warm and sunny day in London, as soon as the sun went down it got cold. Or at least, cold for an Australian. I hadn’t really anticipated that when I’d set out from Hackney during the middle of the day, but right now I was seriously regretting my choice of shirt and shorts. I had to borrow Giles’ big warm coat to drape over myself for most of the second half of the performance. Granted, he didn’t even need it – I guess being a local he was acclimatised to the conditions. It was something I made sure to take note of during my time in London, though – despite it still being their summer, it was the tail end of the season, and it wasn’t going to feel anything like the summer I was used to back home.

After the show we had a quick drink in Soho, but Giles had to get home to pack. Yes, Giles had to pack – he was off to America for two weeks. When I had figured out when I was going to be travelling to London, I’d dropped Giles a line to ask him if he’d be free to catch up at all while I was there.
“When exactly are you going to be in London?” he asked me. I told him when I was flying in, and approximately how long I thought I might want to stay – in my true fashion, I hadn’t really planned that far ahead.
“Oh that’s a shame, I’m only going to be there for one day before I’m going to America,” he’d said. But what he’d said next seemed almost too good to be true. “Have you found a place to stay in London yet?” Of course, I hadn’t.
“No, not yet…” I replied, thinking he might have a couple of hostel recommendations.
“Do you want to housesit my apartment and stay in my room while I’m away?” He didn’t ask for any rent – just that I minded and looked after the place for him. His housemate would be going away for at least a week during that period too, and I guess he may have felt better knowing there was someone around the place and keeping it safe. And of course, I was facing the opportunity of two rent-free weeks in London – one of the most expensive cities in the world, apparently. I didn’t have to consider it for more than a second before accepting Giles’ extremely generous offer. I guess I had proved myself to be trustworthy enough on the few occasions we had met, and I was yet again blown away by the kindness that people who I barely knew would show towards a weary world traveller.

***

And so Giles set off for his American holiday and left me to my own devices when it came to discovering London. I briefly met his housemate, a Canadian guy called Blake, but he was only around for a day or two as well before he set off on a trip to Serbia. We was only supposed to be gone for a week, but in all my time in London he never actually returned home  – I guess Serbia must have been pretty amazing – and I literally had the place to myself the entire time I was there, save a few days at the beginning and end. As someone who had been sleeping in hostels, spare rooms, and sharing both beds and apartments with some of my hosts, it was actually a pretty incredible situation. For the first time since perhaps Helsinki, and I had an entire apartment to myself. As excited as I was to actually get out and see the city, there was something about that circumstance that I just had indulge in. On a Sunday evening, I was flicking through the internet on my iPad to see if there were any parties or anything cool that I could make a trip into town to visit. Then I turned on the TV – basically just for the hell of it because, hey, I had a TV for the first time in months! – and saw that Bridget Jones’ Diary I was about to start. I considered it for a second: I was going to be in London for quite some time, and who knows when I may have the luxury of having a place to myself again? So the only trip I made that evening was around the corner to the fish and chip shop – a great British tradition – and returned home to sprawl out on the couch to watch one of my favourite British rom coms. In the end it did actually feel like I was experiencing a bit of British culture, with all from the comforts of my British living room. I regret nothing.

It was the first time that I would curl up in front of the TV in London – it’s arguably one of the most local things you could do – but wouldn’t be the last. However, there were other nights when I didn’t feel like trekking it on the tube all the way to the city, but I didn’t feel like just staying at home either. Giles had told me he would put me in touch with some of this friends so that I wasn’t so alone to begin with, and I had gotten in touch with some of them to arrange meetings. However, on this particular evening I turned to one of the numerous gay social smartphone applications. While these apps are mostly used to arrange a far less innocent type of rendezvous, as a traveller they’re actually quite useful in their originally marketed purpose which is to “meet other guys”, which is how I found myself walking through the neighbouring district of Bethnal Green to a nearby pub to meet Dean. His background was a mix of French and Greek, and had been living in London for about a year for his work. We met in a traditional looking English pub, but the inside was a different story. It was full of teenagers getting absolutely wasted, spilling their drinks all over the antique, rustic furniture they were lounging on while some house music blared from somewhere on the floors above. It wasn’t really the thing either of us were in the mood for, so we downed our drinks relatively quickly – though assuring I didn’t spill a drop – and hastily took our leave.

I hadn’t really been looking for a wild night out anyway, so Dean and I took to the streets and just talked. The good thing was that at this stage of my trip, I was never short of any weird stories or crazy adventures to share, so I always had something to talk about. We talked about a lot of things, but nothing in particular, and Dean asked me about London and what things I had seen.
“Ahh, I don’t know, I haven’t done much yet,” I said to him, scanning through a mental checklist of things I wanted to see and finding it almost completely blank. “I’m just making the most of my unique living situation and enjoying a place to myself.”
“Fair enough,” Dean chuckled. “Well, there’s this place I can show you that had a really nice view. It’s a bar in the City.”

I was about to getting a rough schooling in the local geography of London. It turns out that the City of London is just one specific and rather small section of the wider region of London (although City of London is actually part of the Greater London borough – I know, it’s confusing), which is made up of a collection of other boroughs and cities, such as the Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and the City of Westminster – which is the relatively larger borough home to Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, and Soho. The City of London was a little more than a square mile where much of the financial district of London is located. The more Dean tried to explain, the more confused I became, and it took actually getting home and looking at a detailed map – and even a little bit of Googling place names – before I even began to slightly understand it. I’m not going to go much more into it – mostly because I don’t think I would be entirely correct – but we ended up walking a fair way to get to a place called SUSHISAMBA. It’s not a Japanese restaurant, and it isn’t a Brazilian nightclub – perhaps it’s a fusion of the two different cuisines, but all I know is that it was super fancy and pretty expensive. I didn’t think I was going to get in – it was smart casual dress code, and I was wearing the only warm jacket I currently owned which was an unremarkable looking black hoodie. But I wasn’t stopped when we tried to enter, and so Dean and went up the elevator to get to the bar on the 38th floor.

The view from the bar at SUSHISAMBA.

The view from the bar at SUSHISAMBA.

The elevator was glass, and gave you a somehow nauseating view of the wider city as it shot upwards with impressive speeds. Once inside, I had a glass of wine and Dean had a beer – I didn’t dare order anything more in such a pricey establishment.
“I wouldn’t come here for the drinks,” Dean said, “But for the view… it’s pretty amazing.”
And it was. Certain parts of the bar were restricted and reserved, so I couldn’t get as close to the windows as I would have liked, but from the bar you could see in all directions, and even though it was dark, you could still get an impressive sense of how immense the city was. Or should I say, City of London? Greater London? It was all a bit too confusing for me, but I told myself I’d have a couple of weeks to get used to it (note at time of writing: that obviously never happened).

On the way home, Dean pointed out to me several dragon statues. “Those dragons mark the boundary of the City of London,” he said to me. The City of London’s Coat of Arms features two dragons supporting the City’s Crest, and there are two original dragon statues which were made in 1849 that stand roughly 6 feet tall. There was also a collection of smaller, half-size replicas, and they are all located at the main entrances into the City. We passed one of the replicas near Aldgate High Street on our way home, and Dean continued to tell me more of the history of the City, although by this point in the night it was so late I was only half listening.

One of the dragons that guard the entrances to the City of London.

One of the dragons that guard the entrances to the City of London.

We walked as far as we could until we had to go our separate ways. It was a strange evening – Dean seemed like a perfectly nice guy, but we didn’t get along that famously or anything, and there was no real connection. I never ended up seeing him again, yet I still remember the evening we spent together pretty clearly, and the minor history and geography lessons he attempted to teach me. I’d done a bit of crazy partying while I was in Amsterdam, so I guess taking the time out for myself and taking cute midnight strolls in the city was just the kind of change of pace I’d needed.

Leave It To The Locals

After traveling for over a month, I was beginning to feel pretty confident with my abilities in navigating new cities with a simple map and the unearthed Boy Scout skills from my childhood. The day before I had been driven from place to place in a motorbike tuk tuk, feeling relatively posh with my own little carriage to be chauffeured around in. During the evening of my second night in Phnom Penh, I had a brief encounter with another guy staying in my dorm, who had told me that he and a few other people had rented their own motorbikes and driven themselves around the city. Back in Ho Chi Minh City when my Couchsurfing host had offered me the controls of the vehicle, I had, rather sensibly, declined the offer. However, I’d seen quite a few people at my hostel in Saigon rent and even buy motorbikes, using it as a cheaper form of travel as well as a way to see more of the countryside. I had told them they were crazy, but one of the Americans had assured me that the traffic out there was nowhere near as crazy as in the city itself.

It never really crossed my mind again until it was mentioned to me in Phnom Penh. I’d seen the roads and the traffic, and it didn’t seem quite as busy as the hustle and bustle of Bangkok or Saigon. I told myself that I should be making the most of the unique experiences on offer here, and so far I’d been all about pushing my boundaries and challenging myself. With that in mind, I set off down the road to rent myself a motorbike, oblivious to the fact that my stay in Phnom Penh was about to get even more harrowing than a trip to the Killing Fields.

***

In retrospect, it was a terrible decision. As my mother reminded me when I emailed her after the fact, “You can barely ride a push bike, Bob!” Yet I was taken over by some kind of invincibility complex that most young adult males get after a six pack of beers (though it should be noted that I made this brilliant decision completely sober). The fact I’d never really ridden a motorbike didn’t occur to me as a potential problem – how hard could it be? It was only when they showed me the bike and demonstrated how to change the gears did the sheer unfamiliarity of this vehicle truly hit home. My blank, uncomprehending expression must have given me away, because one of the men suddenly shouted, “Ahh! Automatic! You need automatic?”. Honestly, I’d had no idea there were automatic and manual motorbikes until that very moment, but I figured I was going to have a hell of an easier time on an automatic one, so I agreed enthusiastically and waited for him to bring around another bike. After a brief overview of the controls, they handed me a helmet and the keys, and away I went.

I puttered along through the small streets, using the same cautious method that I employed for crossing the roads as a pedestrian, before turning onto a main road and zooming along with the rest of the traffic. It was a similar thrill to riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi, except this time there was a certain element of fear, given that I was the one who was actually driving. But I was doing pretty well so far. I was heading towards Phnom Wat, a large temple located in the north of the city, surrounded by lots of traffic. I managed to park the bike next to Phnom Wat, which was situated in the middle of a huge roundabout. I wandered over to the temple and had a brief look inside. It is still a very active place of worship, so I didn’t stay too long so as not to disturb the prayers inside. Besides, I was keen to get back on the motorbike and do some more exploring.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

***

And shortly after that is when it all went wrong. My destination was to be the Russian Markets, which are supposed to be a unique and interesting corner of the city. I’d checked my map and memorised a rough route through the main roads, but I’d only been driving for a few minutes before I came up to the next roundabout. I needed to turn left, but as I followed the roads, I realised I was veering right, and there didn’t appear to be any way to change my course. Was I not as far as I thought I was? Was I taking a wrong turn? Could I still turn left from where the road was taking me? All these perplexing questions bombarded me at once, and the fact that they drive on the right side of the road rather than the left didn’t help my heightening confusion – although the very limited road rules at all hadn’t laid the best foundation for building confidence. In the end, I hesitated for just a moment, but that was all it took. I came tumbling off the motorbike and skidding across the road.

It all seemed so slow and surreal at first. I thought for sure that I was dead. I’d heard the horror stories, the idiot tourists who thought they knew what they were doing when they set out onto the roads and ended up becoming another statistic. I could hear my mothers “I told you so” screeching through the back of my mind. But as soon as I was down, I was jumping up again and scrambling off the road. The way I’d fell meant I’d skidded out of the roundabout towards the edge of the road, rather than deeper into the oncoming traffic. Anyone behind me just swerved around me and continued on their way, as though nothing had happened, or as though that kind of thing happened every day – though for all I knew, such accidents were a common occurrence.

A few of the motorbike taxi drivers on the edge of the road rushed over to my aid, pulling the bike up and helping me wheel it to the edge of the road. I checked my arms and legs to find myself, remarkably, almost unscathed. The only exception was a shallow, bloody graze on my right knee, though I was so full of adrenaline at the time that I barely noticed. I cleaned myself up as best I could, and the local men checked to make sure the bike wasn’t damaged. Thankfully, other than a few mild scratches on the paint, which could have very well been there before I took my little tumble, it was fine. I thanked the men for their help, though they didn’t understand English, so they simply watched me curiously, probably trying to figure out the exact same thing as me – what the hell was I going to do now?

There was nothing else I could do. In my shaken and unsettled state, I mounted the bike and took a few deep breaths. I assessed the roads and where I was going, and then revved the engine and took off again into the traffic. With my confidence shattered from the fall, it was one of the most terrifying decisions of my life, but I didn’t really have any other option. I could have called the rental company, but I didn’t want to risk having to pay for any damages if I confessed to crashing the bike. I couldn’t ask anyone for a lift, since I was the one who had the vehicle. Though it screamed of the illogical and was beyond all common sense, I managed to get back on my bike and continue driving around the city.

***

It was horrific. With the exception of the crash itself, I had never felt so scared as I did navigating the streets of Phnom Penh by motorbike. For some ridiculous reason that I still can’t explain, I decided to travel further from where I was staying, perhaps in the hopes I would regain confidence and learn from my mistake. I didn’t. Every turn, corner or crossing filled me with terror. I had several extremely close calls with both other motorbikes and cars. In the haze of my terror I think I actually even made it to the Russian Markets but by that point, shopping for whatever trinkets they sold there was the last thing in my mind. It was on the return trip that I became not only frightened, but lost. I remember stopping at a petrol station, staring out into the peak hour afternoon traffic, and wondering how the hell I was going to make it back to my hostel alive.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

After a lot of slow puttering down busy streets and long waits at corners to make sure there was absolutely no chance of being caught by other traffic, I finally made it back to the hostel. I’d been following the setting sun to make sure I was going in the right direction, and using what little I did remember of the streets from my drive through the city yesterday. It had been another long and exhausting day, and as soon as I parked the bike I showered, tended to my wound, and put my leg up by the pool whilst nursing several scotch and Cokes to calm my nerves. Needless to say, I had learnt my lesson. The traffic might not seem dangerous when experienced locals weave their way in and out of cracks and crevices of the gridlock, but it’s still a death trap for anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

I promised my mother I would stay away from motorbikes altogether, but that’s literally impossible in most parts of Cambodia, so from now on I’ll just leave the driving to the locals.