By video, I tried to justify tacking a three-night solo romp through London onto the end of a nine-week rotation at the close of my contract in South Sudan to my wife back home, who was selflessly taking care of our two little bottomless pits of need, though I would be freshly unemployed while touring one of the most expensive cities in the world at a time when money would matter more than ever.
Me on Skype: “Did you know there are now SIX Premiere League teams all based in London, and one of them (Tottenham) has TWO Americans? Did you know football (I can’t bring myself to say soccer anymore, I am too worldly now) was INVENTED in England?’’
Tahra on Skype: (No direct response, busy mediating dispute between the girls.)
Me on Skype: “Did I tell you that my good friend Henry Chu, London bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, is there? Yeah, he’s a great guy. We can hang out.’’ (In fact Henry and I hadn’t spoken directly since 1995.)
Tahra on Skype: (No response – video screen shaking violently, moving fast, as in The Blair Witch Project, unintelligible girls snarling, something related to a fairy doll, Tahra trying to negotiate a trade involving millet crackers.)
Me in South Sudan: “Tahra? Tahra? Hey. You ok? My plan is to write a travel piece called London On the Cheap -- I bet no one else has thought of this – and then I can offset my trip expenses by selling it freelance. Yeah. I still have some really good newspaper connections. I could probably make fifty bucks.”
Tahra in Massachusetts: “Sorry. I’m back. Of course you should do it, you may never get another good chance to see a soccer game in London. We can all wait another three days.''
My husband antennae, often tuned to the wrong frequencies, detected some wifely encouragement - was it real? I wasn’t sure until she went online and somehow bought me one of the last remaining tickets to see Chelsea, the reigning champions of Europe, winners of last year’s Champions League and one of the most elite football teams in the world, playing at their famed Stamford Bridge home stadium on the weekend I had penciled in for my London stopover. What a wife! Until that point, I wasn’t really thoroughly committed to going, and was a bit anxious about the implications, repercussions, funding and what have you. But now, with my bodacious soulmate’s blessing, having somehow finagled me one of the hottest tickets in town for a certain weekend in one of the oldest and most famous cities in the world, it would be unconscionable NOT to go – who could waste such a perfectly excellent (and non-refundable) opportunity, even if I am actually a Man U fan? Well then, it’s settled.
First up: plane tickets. The company would pay for my trip home to the States from Juba, per terms of the contract. Usually they send me Juba-Nairobi-Amsterdam-Detroit-Albany. But this time, I boldly asked if they could arrange a multi-city return ticket with a three-day stopover in London during the weekend of the Chelsea game, and a red-eye out of Nairobi so I wouldn’t have to pay for an extra night of lodging. Miraculously, the company obliged me, and I further arranged to depart Juba and get to Nairobi in the morning on a Wednesday, leaving me with enough time to cruise around Kenya’s capital before the late night flight out. Upon arrival in NBO, my plan was to hire a driver, buy some handmade beer cap toys (the girls, especially Ursula, really like them) and something nice for Tahra at a Masaai market off the Mombasa road, grab lunch with my soon-to-be former colleagues Phylis and Judy in Westlands, and make it back to the airport with plenty of time before my 11:30 pm flight to London. (Author’s Note: Kenyans can make just about anything out of discarded metal beer caps and scavenged wire. But is a lunch box made out of beer caps inappropriate for a kindergartner? I guess we’ll find out.)
Another, more pressing question: where to stay in London? I tried looking online for inexpensive inns, something small and preferably luxurious, English breakfast included, in the center of the action maybe in Soho or Chelsea, say for under $100? Or a quaint cob cottage with a thatched roof, something hobbitty, serving greens from their organic English garden aside the bangers and mash? But no such thing existed, and I wasn’t quite prepared to go hosteling. (Eleven years ago on my first night in Key West, I had to throw wasabi soy nuts at the face of a big snoring drunk across from me on a lower bunk. Packed into a warm room with five other off-gassing, respiring cheapskates. Worrying about my valuables.) My London friend, Henry, electronically laughed when I asked if he knew of any nice but cheap places to stay, and quickly snuffed out any notion I might have had about crashing with him. Ordinarily, he emailed, he’d love to have me, but he was moving to a new place in Clapham that weekend and it wasn’t a good time, but we should certainly meet for a drink at least; send a text. I decided that even if he was fibbing, I couldn’t blame him, as I hadn’t been in touch with him regularly for 18 years; possibly I had developed poor hygiene in the interval, or become an acolyte of Tony Robbins with big plans, or a Republican. But I didn’t think it was a fib. As I told Tahra during my London pitch, Henry is a great guy.
Then I remembered a website called AirBnB. It enables ordinary humans to post short-term rooms to let, with good rates, pretty much everywhere in the world, a sharing-economy kind of thing for travelers looking for something different, on a budget. I was staggered by the number and variety of places available in London, many at prices around $100-$150 per night or lower. I narrowed down my search to an area not too far from Henry’s new pad in Clapham, and not too far from upscale Chelsea (which is where J.R.R. Tolkien once lived, FYI). I found a clean-looking and tastefully decorated flat offering a one-bedroom, bathroom and kitchen shared, owned by a young married couple in Battersea Park, south of the Thames, close to Battersea Park rail station, straight shot to Victoria Station, easy access to buses and the Tube. Sixty-six dollars a night, uniformly excellent reviews from previous lodgers. It was available the nights I needed, and when I informed my hosts that I’d be getting into Heathrow very early, could they accommodate a morning check-in, they said sure no problem, they both had to go work early and would be gone when I arrived, but would leave the keys for me, a complete stranger posing as a writer working on a piece about London On the Cheap, at Hazle Dry Cleaners, around the corner from their flat. And so they did.
Hazle Dry Cleaners, Battersea Park, London. An unlikely point of entry, but when traveling on the cheap, one must allow for the unexpected.
I took a bus to Hazle Dry Cleaners, I think it was the 452 from Knightsbridge, after taking the Tube from Heathrow. Bought a Day Pass, allowed me to travel around very cheaply.
One of the first things I learned about Londoners: they only allow humps inside specific zones, in contrast to the No Humping policy on Amtrak trains back home.