Hello America

Amsterdam airport

I’ve been gone for 25 months and already back for three weeks. Bahrain was more and less of what I expected. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting all the educated, employed, and well-traveled people there. I want to be more like them. I’ve got lots of untold stories that I hope to share in the future, but I wanted to share a bit of my transition with you.

We knew, Caleb and I, that we’d be gone for two years, though one of us would’ve preferred less work there and more road trips here. We were locked on Bahrain without the ability to drive through Saudi and take the dogs with us. We found out in April that we’d be moving to San Diego. Caleb couldn’t contain his excitement, though he had applied for Hawaii, Spain, and Japan to soothe my wanderlust.

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Honey’s

I didn’t feel ready to return, so I didn’t help with our personal property (mattress, clothes, dishes), our car, the dogs, the plane tickets… until it was too late. Caleb spent hours each day telling others to do their jobs so we could finally leave this island. June 16th came and Caleb was ready. I was unaware of the export form needed for the dogs.

Four days later and my ticket is only half confirmed. I laughed like a loony and left the airport again. Between Ramadan (holy month for Muslims) and the Fourth of July (which affects the base) I would get stuck waiting on phone calls, paperwork, and payments between the short working day. Finally, the guy in SATO (smart ass ticket office – or whatever that stands for) got tired of the back and forth and called the airline directly. He said I may only get to Los Angeles, but I’ll be in the States.

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at Dad’s office

I made sure he had the correct credit card info and went back by the vet. The stress was turning my brain to mush. I would spend the mornings running around in the heat and the evenings with my dogs on my friend’s couch, which would’ve otherwise left me homeless, but I had plenty of offers for a place for us. Thank you to those people and I hope we meet again. The vet rushed my paperwork through as understanding of my situation, as she’s going through crap as well and is higher ranking.

With all things in order, Caleb and my dad found out I was on my way to the States as I pulled up to the airport. I was tired of the constant questioning without having answers. My flight was confirmed and not delayed. I sat for 2-3 hours on the ground in Dubai before going to Amsterdam for stroopwaffles and gouda in the airport. I landed in LA as my dad was on his way to San Diego to meet me in an hour only to be told that I didn’t have the proper boarding pass, my dogs paperwork wasn’t sufficient, and no one bothered to grab my bag.

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tea in pajamas

I called my dad and had a pbj at the USO while waiting on him to arrive in a red convertible Camaro. Real life is so much better than Skype, we hugged. We had to drive a distance out-of-town to find a room for two nights, one so I could relax now and the second to calm down after a day in traffic to visit two synth stores.

We drove into Phoenix and Caroline walked in the door from work. Some days went by in a blur and I was soon in a Mazda 5 one-way rental to San Diego. Our old house had just been put on the market early and it was first come opportunity. We took it as a six-month lease and that gives us time to get situated and figure out if we want to stay there or relocate. I stayed in a Motel 6 and ate at Denny’s before returning the car to Phoenix.

art in San Diego

art in San Diego

My dad’s friend, Sonal, was in need of someone to help watch her store again, this time selling ice cream, and my dad knew I needed the distraction and a place to sleep till my bed arrives. I agreed to three weeks and her family will manage the last one. I’ve had plenty of time to read, enjoyed the rain, and a day in my dad’s office playing in Blender.

There are things to get used to, but it’s not where the guy is to pump the gas, but what’s my zip code. It’s not the overwhelming amount of cereal options inside the store, but the size of the aisles, the cheap fresh fruit, and the homeless people outside. There’s been no traffic and I can hear Arabic as if it were, “eh or a’boot” in Canada.

the drive between

the drive between

I work from noon to 9pm with Monday off. I have time in the mornings for a workout, shower, breakfast, puppies to play with and walk while I learn Spanish, and watch music tutorials over dad’s shoulder. I then either get a ride and am dropped off early or I leave the house at 11am for a 40-minute walk to work.

I have a long list of goals that I hope to accomplish today, next week, next month, and for coming years. I had gone by the SDSU campus but it was Caleb who got me prepped to sign up for classes in the fall. I think I almost forgot how overwhelming this process could be and thought it’d be easier without the navy in the way of the payment processing. I suppose we shall see.

walk to work

walk to work

How do I feel now that I’m back? This country has made great strides in moving forward in every direction, though sometimes it seems certain areas move slower due to greed and ignorance. I don’t want to be another name caller but a part of the solution. I met plenty of people who would love to be where I’m at – the land of opportunity. It would be rude of me not to take advantage of my situation. I’ll be here for a couple of years, or days, as no one can predict the future, but I’m hoping to make the most of mine.

Posted in Animals, Art, Family, Food, Friends, Holidays, Media, Military, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Making Friends at the Beach

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morning panorama

I grabbed the small white blanket and the red pillow to sleep with – one under my head and the other over my feet, leaving Hello Kitty pajamas to cover the rest of me. I had my alarm set, but would wake up before it. I thought I heard them moving around at 7:45 and passed the time reading ‘The Castle’ by Franz Kafka. They had offered to take me to some of their favorite places today, and I’d be napping at 9:30 when Misha emerges.

She makes eggs with peppers, onions, and mushrooms. Ben washes dishes, and I make toast and tea. I spread plum jam on one and peanut butter on another. I add milk and honey to my cup. We grab our plates and walk upstairs to the roof to enjoy breakfast in the sun with a view of the construction of a building that will block the bit of ocean seen over the other apartments. Sometimes they enjoy watching the men at work as a pastime.

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near Al Khiran Resort

Back inside, I shower in their bathroom because the guest one has no hot water. There’s not much pressure either and I’m grateful for short hair and realize this is what will take Misha so long – she has thick and longish hair. I use this time to read some more. I can’t tell if I’m intrigued or want to put the book down, but the protagonist has me hooked on the mystery of his drama.

Meanwhile, we’ve decided to join a group of people going to Al Khiran, just 18km from the Saudi border, to spend the day at the beach – partly because it’s a 40 minute drive one-way and already noon, and because I had planned to spend the day on a boat and under water diving with Nautilus at either Kubbar or Qaruh. The trip was cancelled due to high winds (only on weekends) and I was grateful I had called and saved myself bringing a bag full of gear I wouldn’t use.

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playing paddle tether ball

The convoy arrives at 12:45pm and the couple rides in one car and I get in the back of another. My driver introduces himself as Mostafa, but his friends call him Steve. He’s from Egypt and his other passengers, Özge and Gonca, are Turkish. They’ve all been here less than a year and I give them an earful to listen to till we decide on music to get us through the desert covered with power lines, dotted with tents, with all the residential areas and factories along the coast.

The resort is clearly marked, from the highway, but the road we take leaves us guessing if we’re in the right place. We park in the dirt lot, grab our stuff (if the car carrying it has arrived), and walk past the construction ditch and tarp area to the clean sand with two other groups on it. They’re to the right, so we go left. I’ve put on sunscreen and brought my shawl, and though the group might’ve forgotten to bring cooking materials, there’s not a lack of shade for me to sit under with the two large umbrellas – if we can keep them standing in the wind.

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staying shady

Steve has brought paddle tether ball, Misha and Ben brought their dual line kite, and those of us not getting in the water are snacking – on a Greek sandwich and a juice box. Some will read, walk, sing, snack again – two green apples and a rainbow popsicle to give me the energy for talking, taking pictures, and waiting for the food to arrive at 5:30. Some people agreed to go for burgers and Chicken 65 and we will dance ourselves into the darkness.

The dad that brought his kids will help unbury his son and help clean the sand out of his eyes that his brother dropped on his face while the rest of us pose for a memorable photo of the strangers we called friends for an afternoon. We grab our trash and chairs and say our Arabic goodbyes in the parking lot. I get back in Steve’s car. He lives close to my next hostess and has agreed to drop me after stopping at Misha’s for my bag.

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Ben with kite

We reach Fintas at 7:45pm and agree to meet Hussein and Ashraf at Layali Al-Helmeya (also the name of a popular Egyptian drama series) after dropping Özge and Gonca to their place. Lioba, a teacher I’ve messaged via couchsurfing, and her friend Theona, will meet us at the cafe. We share a rice pudding with ice cream, and then we share another. Lioba will get one for her dinner and I order hummus Beiruty and take most of the bread with me when we leave at 11pm.

The other guys have gone, but Steve agrees to drop us each at our own after taking us to see the Kuwait Towers at night. They’re open till 11:30pm, but no admittance with only five minutes left. I don’t blame them; we can come back tomorrow. Shelley, a Canadian transplant, has called Kuwait home for ten years. She was ready for bed, but is up and delightful when I arrive at midnight.

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blue, gold, and yummy

Her house is as colorful as her personality and as soon as I’m shown the toilet and the couch, she’s off to sleep. I admire all the handmade rugs (not her craft though) and the magnets on her fridge. I find a bright Bazaar Magazine Kuwait and will read through it about art, travel, and food to unwind. There are events here – if you can find the people and ads that know about them – such is the case in the Middle East.

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Kuwait Towers

Posted in Books, Food, Friends, Media, People, Places, Travel, Water | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

No Wait for Kuwait

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Crossing Arabian Gulf St. looking west

Caleb and I got Open Water Diver certified and the urge to do so every weekend now is strong. Caleb looked into Oman, where you can dive with four of the seven sea turtle species, but the timing wasn’t right. He’d go back to work and I looked into Kuwait – a country that has some dive spots of its own, and a place that’s new to me.

I tried Airbnb – again, and again I was disappointed. The man raised the price and changed the days. Luckily, this time, I had two girls willing to host me in different parts of Kuwait, which would be helpful in keeping me close to the dive port, Al Kout, and then closer to the downtown area of Kuwait City.

I booked my ticket for 9:50am and would start packing 11 hours before I was due at the airport – and at which time I still didn’t know how I was getting there until I talked to Quinn going to Dubai who would be taking a taxi at 7am. We agreed to ride together and have breakfast while we wait – eggs on toast at Sky Restaurant – all these flights and I didn’t know this place existed.

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Marina Crescent

Our gates were switched and Quinn waited with me, while we sipped down frappuccinos, till I was the first to board at 9am. I would move from a middle seat across the aisle so that two sisters could sit with their mom. The staff member of Gulf Air was kind to offer to look for another seat for me, but it’s only an hour flight and I have plenty of space to read a bit before I fall asleep.

I land in Kuwait at 10:45 and am welcomed with 2G Internet speed. I get in line and feel out of place without my work visa. The customs agent tells me to go upstairs, with the other tourists, and get my visa there and then I can walk through the VIP line. I don’t need to buy the stamps (entry fee), but the guy next to me is nice enough to let me look at his. I’ve only planned on four days and am granted three months.

I get my bag scanned and am surprised when I look up to see so many American restaurants – they have Taco Bell out in town here (where in Bahrain it’s only on the military base). I was going to rent a car, but Kuwait is one of the picky countries that wants me to get an International License (issued from the same country as my driver’s license). If only I’d have gotten a Bahraini one upon arrival, since I didn’t get an official CPR card, I could’ve gotten one issued at the traffic school here.

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Marina Beach

I had contacted the Kuwait Embassy, went to the traffic place in Bahrain, and called AAA in the States and I got the same answer each time. I didn’t bother with Budget Rental, since it was their website that told me the rules. This would give me the opportunity to take public transportation – and I walked past the row of taxis and the cars parked in the shade to the bus waiting to leave – packed with male workers and their boxes.

I showed the guys my map and they helped me with the bus route. It’s 250 fils (83 cents) each time to get on a bus – length of time unlimited. Women have a right to the front seats – I thought the man was being kind giving up his, and I was grateful to have access to the window and the stairs – where all the action is – and views of the traffic and parks with their carnival rides, which we’ve passed two so far.

The bus will stop where people are, or want to be, as long as police aren’t present. The driver holds a few fils and the tickets in one hand, and the wheel in the other. The duct tape holds the rest. One guy jumps from the bus and tears the knee of his pants. Then a woman sits next to me and complains when the school children hop on for a free ride – which apparently is the hassle-free method for everyone.

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broccoli, udon noodles, chicken

I’m dropped to a bus stop with no idea where I’m at, but it’s only seconds before the next bus, 66, arrives. Kuwait’s buses are frequent, but the route that should’ve taken 25 minutes by taxi will take me an hour, but only cost 500 fils. I ask the driver if we’re still going to Salmiya and request Marina Mall instead as we pass through Hawally. He drops me at the crosswalk at 12:30.

I walk into Kababji Lebanese Restaurant to pee and end up ordering two tiny pastries (one the size of my palm) instead of the eight-inch pan-size I’m used to for 400 fils. This will give my phone some time to charge as having unknown plans and 38% battery can be risky. I walk through the mall’s parking lot, past the ladies section (and wonder if this is woman privilege or segregation), and into the sun on the other side.

I have to go inside, past the Cinnabon (800 fils later), and up the escalator to take the foot bridge across to Marina Crescent. My first objective was to find nature, with tourist sites nearby, to keep me busy till I meet Misha and Ben (couchsurfing couple) after work. They finish at 2:30, but are ok with me taking a cab to their hard-to-find place alone – and I’m still going on the non-plan itinerary at this point.

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wall art in Fintas

I put my feet in the sand and look left to the sheesha boys, right to the exercise guys, and in front of me is waves and lots of coast guard ships. I look down and one of the pebbles is winking at me. It’s nice to be on a beach that has more birds’ footprints than trash on it. My return trip will be through the inside of the mall, and past Pinkberry to try their lotus flavor, and settle on the pomegranate. I should take it easy on the junk food on the first day, but I feel balance with walking.

That treat will cost me 2.150KD and I finish it while waiting on the fourth bus to pass that’s not going my way – and that’s when I notice the bus stop down the street. I get into a taxi and the driver says it will be 3KD to get me to the British School of Kuwait – and a 15 minute ride is only 1.5KD. We negotiate that I’ll pay two or get another taxi. I don’t know if it’s language barrier, inability to read maps, or a basic lack of knowledge about his route, but I’m concerned if we’ll find the school until I see all the buses and children.

I hop out and put the cash in the window. I give up my driver’s license for a blue visitor badge so the guard will unlock the door and let me in. I ask a group of teachers for directions to the toilet and then squeeze through the students upon exit. I’m looking down the hallway at ‘The Great Fire of London’ when I hear my name behind me. Misha and Ben are curious to my plans and we agree that Ben will stay for CrossFit while we take a cab home because the museum nearby doesn’t open for another 1.5 hours.

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ablaq technique of Islamic architecture 

Misha invites me home and offers me drinks and books; and views of the highway from her corner window that is filled with the plants that survived. She shows me her wall of maps, flags, and memorabilia from their travels – together and alone. We talk about work and our history, and then we get into the kitchen at 4:30pm to prepare dinner – a stir-fry that’s done when Ben walks in the door. I talk the most, so I’ll be the last to finish my second plate before we get ready to go out.

They’re exhausted from the week, but figure 6:15 is too early for me and agree to walk to the beach. Along the way, there’s a red brick wall with two windows in it. The women’s side has newspapers and there’s a baker in the men’s window giving a guy 15 pieces of fresh bread. Ben buys us two to share and I tear into my half as it cools in the night air.

It’s nice to take our shoes off, all of us wearing Birkenstocks, and listen to the waves. We find a Yoda in the sand and start towards the house. We passed some women with cake and candles and I stare more this time passing. My curiosity is rewarded with a photo and a piece of their celebration – one of them is a bride-to-be. It’s chocolate with nuts on the outside and reddish with maybe dates on the inside. It’s delicious and I share.

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swing circle in park

We take a shortcut through a park – either one in the making or it’s been deserted – and stop at the corner store for milk, bread, and eggs. Misha comes in at 8:20pm to let me know they’re going to sleep soon. I’ve also spent the last 40 minutes unwinding, but I’ll stay up till 11:30 and then switch couches to find a more comfortable sleep.

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First Couchsurfer in Bahrain

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breakfast at Ric’s

Katrin requested to stay at my place, giving me a week’s notice, as her host in Doha suggested she stay with Melanie, whom I know, but who didn’t want to be bothered just two days before her skiing trip in Italy. I can understand that, and I was nervous at my first chance to show someone around the island as I had plans to stay in Friday and didn’t want to bore her. I finally agreed and gave her my whatsapp number. I was excited about the opportunity to host someone who also blogs and has taken advantage of her youth and freedom to travel – learning so much and doing what she loves.

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a camel

Her flight is due to arrive Thursday morning at 12:30am. I pick up Ali and Caleb around 6:30pm for dinner at Rendezvous, an Indian buffet for 6BD. We shared the hari chutney with papadum and the plate of dessert, but I left the men to their meaty diets while I stuck to the salads. Caleb had to work in the morning and wasn’t in the mood to keep us company till midnight, so I dropped him at the house and we went to Farid’s at 9pm.

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camels posing for Katrin

We shared juice and stories and then settled in for some Weird Al parodies on YouTube before the guys got on their phones at 11:30 – one tired and the other bored. Time to go -I’ve got to be at the airport at midnight. I offered to drop Ali back to his car, but he was willing to stick out the wait with me. I would appreciate this more after Katrin landed at 12:30, but wouldn’t get through customs till 2am. She told them she’s a travel writer who does tour guides via horse in Iceland. She could honestly leave her blog out as she doesn’t get paid for it and isn’t going to use it politically.

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selfie with camels, by Katrin

Ali bought a Lindt HELLO Strawberry Cheesecake bar that we cracked open as Katrin walked up. She was awesome from the second we met, even when Ali was coming on a bit strong in the beginning with the cussing and insults – whether serious or not. I dropped him to his car and then we enjoyed a more quieted conversation that would last till 3:30am when she would shower and I would walk dogs. She thinks the blind dogs are cute and gifted me with a bottle of white wine.

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Abu Subh Beach

I woke up at 10am and knocked on her door. She wanted to exchange cash so we walked on base (another to add to her list) and were done at 11:20am. We went to Ric’s Kountry Kitchen for breakfast and she ordered the combo platter – Tex Mex on nachos, and a blueberry short-stack for me. We finish breakfast at 12:40pm and go by the house to drop the leftovers. I use the wifi to call Casa Mexicana and make a reservation for eight people at 8pm – Mel wants to meet Katrin who will be in the mood for margaritas later.

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beach art

Caleb walks in the door at 1pm and I invite him along but he has work to do. We leave for the Royal Camel Farm in Janabiyah and Katrin’s the one to notice the triangular camel penis sheath that’s pointing backwards to pee – and we watch it do so for three minutes. Ali meets us there at 2pm, and we drop his car at Alosra where we buy plenty of drinks and him some lunch and a blueberry cheesecake to share at Abu Subh Beach – more of a harbor and park, but we stand and talk in the wind enjoying the view.

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Ali driving on King Fahd Causeway

Ali agrees to drive us to the causeway where the fee has gone up 500 fils. He has to do this for work; but for us it’s a chance to see ocean, drive without traffic, and get as close to Saudi as possible without having family or a job to get us a visa in. We get a few pictures, walk through McD’s to see the traffic side, and she’s ready to go. We get to the Qal’at al-Bahrain at 4:30pm and walk around for 40 minutes. We drive around the village to find horses to ride and the chicken farmer is no help with directions. We’ll get to watch some cowboys ride by on the beach near the fort at sunset.

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Katrin posing by the sign

Katrin had her Mexican food fix this morning so she wants to change dinner plans. We agree to Da Rae Jung – a mix of Korean and Thai, and walking distance from Farid’s who decides not to join us, but Caleb does. We get there at 7pm and order beef broccoli, vermicelli noodles, and something with rice. The food disappears and we’re done by 8pm and on our way to Casa Mexicana. We’re late, but the others aren’t here to know that. We order a margarita pitcher and a neapolitan ice cream with banana while we wait.

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ruins at Qal’at al-Bahrain

Mel and Karim show up, and he leaves before the sombrero pictures are taken. Mel and Caleb order food, and Ali sings karaoke while we wait on Julie and Dustin to arrive at 9:20pm before we leave. Caleb has to work in the morning and we’ve got other plans. Mel brought her PADI manual and I’m grateful, though she’s upset we’re not eating and I’m ok with taking the blame so my guest doesn’t have to.

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Katrin enjoying the view from Qal’at al-Bahrain

I drop Katrin and Ali at Baan Saeng Thai to meet with Pascal and the guys while I drop Caleb which takes 30 minutes – great timing for a weekend. Frank, Azazel, and Chris, and a lady friend who was a bit reserved when the personal questions (college lesbian experience) came about had joined Pascal for dinner. I was surprised to see Chris so debatable with Katrin, but she blends into any situation. They had finished the buffet and Frank and Azazel went for more oranges and sweets to share before we left at 11:30pm and split ways to continue with our plans for the evening.

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cowboys on the beach

Ozzy and Said had been waiting at Farid’s because they didn’t have a ride, but when we got there they had already walked to Old Beams, so we did too. We met them downstairs, along with one of Ozzy’s friends, and moved upstairs to our own non-smoking room – no vaping either. Farid ordered a burger, Ali biryani, and Ozzy a sizzling chicken, but sadly with no bread. The girls ordered a glass of wine each and for the second time this evening I had to tell Katrin to chug her drink because it was time to go.

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Katrin at Casa Mexicana

Ali had brought his car after the fort to our place when we picked up Caleb, so it was easy to drop him after we walked back to my car at Farid’s at 1:30am. I know Caleb has duty in the morning and I’m hoping he’ll let me sleep in because he doesn’t have turnover till late or because he’ll take his bike and I’m going to bed at 2am.

Posted in Animals, Art, Food, Forts, Friends, History, Places, Water | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Halfway to Cockfosters

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airplane to airport

There are welcome signs everywhere, but the most inviting one is the square-chested man standing next to his wide-hipped woman – the loo, at 7am. Are we part of the EU – not that we’re European, but the American flag is shown in the fast lane; along with Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – as long as you have an e-passport. We get in the ‘all others’ line and I’ve got a new stamp 20 minutes later. It takes us another ten minutes to queue for an underground train ticket to get to the station that has our pass.

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the underground

We’ll be on the Piccadilly Line that goes from Heathrow to Cockfosters, haha. I will laugh every time. I’m the driver in the car, so even when not in one I leave the navigating up to Caleb. We’re finally on the tube together – another country, and a very large city awaits us while we ride in the dark tunnel surrounded by ads and strangers who are covered in layers of clothes and carrying lots of bags. I have my phone and camera ready to capture every moment – the birds, trees, and rooftops flying by and the passengers – who are reading books, listening to music, finishing presentations, playing digital games, catching a nap, and the rest staring at something.

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sandwiches at Simit Sarayi

Meanwhile, Caleb is busy keeping up with the transit changes taking place frequently. We’re getting closer to somewhere and have to get off one train to get picked up by another. We have to make sure we’re on the right platform to go the correct direction. There are steps and escalators, and we quickly learn that you stand to the right as people run by on the left, or you will get a man’s face on you – and then he was gone. It’s just like the movies as some can hear their train coming and make it as the doors close. One couple is separated and the girl left with a panic-stricken face.

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a random alley

There are other couples just as lost as us, with way more baggage, and parents teaching their kids the routes. In the U.S., they teach nine year olds the state capitals and leave out the other details, but in London it’s all about the neighborhoods of a city that doesn’t even make the top 20 list for population or area size.  The train has priority seating for those that are pregnant, old, or find it difficult to stand – which could be children. And if someone knows they’re getting off at the next stop they won’t bother to sit – saving the seats for those that are on for eight or more stations.

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Chinatown Gate

Singles will move to make room for couples or so that a woman can sit next to another instead of a guy. There are handles, but some people just lean on available space. And while some clutch their tiny bag ever so tightly, others leave their luggage in the area provided by the door. I don’t know if this shows trust in people, ignorance in statistics, or security in a higher power but the reason for this behavior could be because of the signs posted all over the city – not the ones for a better body, prettier bag, tonight’s show, the sperm bank, or the Union Jack; but the Beware Pickpockets – in the mall, museum, restaurant, loo. Wherever you are, be prepared to be robbed.

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Leicester Square Christmas Funfair

Our first stop is Leicester (pronounced Lester – and they said there wouldn’t be a language barrier) Square on Charing Cross Road where we’ll pick up our London Pass and Oyster Card downstairs of the ticket booth, but not before we stop at Simit Sarayi – a taste of Turkey (the country, not the bird) in London. I must admit though, it was the Cinnabon that drew my attention and it’s closed doors that sent us elsewhere. There’s history to be seen and trinkets to be bought.

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Henry Irving statue behind the National Portrait Gallery

There’s lots of safety features in London – tube doors won’t close with a person in them, the streets tell the pedestrian which way to look for traffic, and toddlers are in carseats. I wonder how many days it will take to get used to the driver on the opposite side of the car. It makes me panic to see a kid I assume is texting and driving, but without a steering wheel, and then I remember they’re the passenger. London has also taken advantage of its tall buildings in close proximity together and some streets have lights and art dangling over the buses and vans below.

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Southwark Cathedral

I’m impressed with the different shapes and designs of the buildings, and their windows and decorations; the word choice on signs; the store selling bongs; and all the colors of brick, metal, wood, glass, and fabric that the city has on display. The more we walk around, the more I realize the effect the British had on little Bahrain – restaurant layout, store sales, winding roads; but with the bonus that one island has easy-to-find toilets that are always free regardless of location or customer status.

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view from Canning Town station

With cards in hand at 12:30 pm we can begin the journey to Ibis Hotel, at the Custom House at ExCel station, where I can drop off my 8 kg bag and only carry 1 kg of camera, phone, and wallet. It’s back on the tube where some escalators have at least 50 steps and couples that wear matching outfits – which I’m glad to see isn’t only a fashion in the States and China. The further we get from downtown, the more I begin to worry that I’ll regret my choice, but we pass the Emirates Air Line cable car, the O2 Arena, and the Sunborn Yacht Hotel – average $165 a night and us paying $70.

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Dockers Statue by Les Johnson

We check-in at 11:20 am. My back is relieved and my tummy hungry. Luckily for us, there is a nice man at the till of Fox Bars & Restaurants, and the items we want – eggs on toast and a Full Monty – are brunch items that are served all day. We get an espresso each, Caleb’s a double, and a Bulmer’s blood orange for the taste, not the booze. Menu’s on the table, order at the register and pay, and they deliver food. I notice cheap salmon and lots of veggie options on the menu – something I’m grateful to see.

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just around the road that bends

The cider cost five pounds aka quid (which is 2.7BD and $7) and makes it reasonable to believe that after transport and accommodation, alcohol would be the third priciest expenditure on travel that you can add to a food bill – ours totalling £25. Caleb notices their difference in customer service – no tipping, no waiting on refills, and no waiting to pay when you’re ready to leave – and we do.

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London Bridge

We get off at the London Bridge station and Caleb’s ready for another coffee. We pass a man, and his sign must’ve said hungry, because when I saw the basket of bananas I went and asked if he liked them. His positive response got him two. Caleb had wondered why I looked for the biggest ones and knew where they went when we walked away – me with no fruit on our way to London Bridge.

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Tower Bridge and HMS Belfast as seen from London Bridge

We walk through a mix of old and new – the only evidence of a McDonald’s is the hanging sign and the golden arches in the window – and perhaps the taxi that u-turned to get his two passengers as close to the door as possible. We pass painted utility boxes, markets, closed pubs, and the Southwark Cathedral. We go down some stairs, cross the street, and have somehow missed our destination – even knowing we’re not looking for the more attractive Tower Bridge.

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Caleb’s candid capture of me onboard HMS Belfast

Caleb reassures me that we were only mere feet from it. Magically from this approach all the signs, pigeons, and tourists are easily seen. The structure itself might not have much to offer, but the moving river, dark architecture, and gray clouds demand photos. Without being asked, I offer my services to a couple and a group of four. In a world of selfie sticks and bad photographers I wouldn’t bother to ask either. Caleb sees the boats on the water and, though we’re supposed to be on vacation, he can’t wait to get aboard and get near an engine – running, historical, fictional.

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view from Tower Bridge by Caleb

The closest one, about a half mile via the Queen’s Walk – a three mile path along the River Thames between Tower and Lambeth Bridges, is the HMS Belfast, part of the Imperial War Museums. It’s a steamship that was launched on St. Patrick’s Day in 1938 and became a museum in 1971 after extensive fighting in WWII and the Korean War. There are stalls selling hotdogs, mulled wine, and brownies – and though I sample the raspberry one I somehow end up with the walnut-coconut one half gone and wrapped in its paper bag and placed in my pocket.

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French/English road sign

The wooden deck is wide enough to need handrails on the wall, where usually just the safety rail will do on the edge. Some items are quaint – old small boat, surgical room, but others all too familiar – the loo, the IT equipment – and this ship was updated in 1956 to help keep costs down. If this was the States intentions they got some things right (using really old equipment), but there’s still room for improvement how many supplies and hours are wasted.

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Brass Mount, Tower of London

We climb down into the engine room and I’m more focused on all the stairs, tight passage ways (with the weight of crew members now), and can imagine it sounded like a mix between the Titanic and the USS Whidbey Island (where Caleb and I met). There’s shiny metal, insulated pipes, and dials everywhere – which are quickly becoming flat screens. I appreciate their stairs that curve making it easier to climb, but the rails aren’t as slick for sliding down – as I used to do while I was in, even if the captain told me it was dangerous.

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Waterloo Barracks and Oriental Gallery, Tower of London

Past the asbestos and buy some pricy water, skip the fried food and bins of candy, and we’re on our way to Tower Bridge. We can’t help but stop and watch this girl try to take a selfie of her doing a double butt kick – if only we could’ve gotten a decent photo or video for her and given her the YouTube link. We get the FastTrack in line, and then make the decision to take the spiral steps up, and enjoy the view along the way, instead of waiting in line for the lift of 140 feet.

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Yeoman Warder, Tower of London

The bridge was opened in 1894 and used more than 6,000 times a year – hydraulic power moving the bascules, giving it the nickname Wonder Bridge – and now electricity lifts it about 850 times annually. The glass floor was added in November 2014, after 32 years as an active walkway, and one layer shattered just two weeks later when a glass bottle fell on it. It was a marvel then, and too scary to cross the open-air walkway in 1910, and remains to this day an architectural feat that draws nearly 600,000 visitors.

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River Thames with City Hall on the left

Some people are scared of heights and others not wanting to tempt fate on glass with strangers can try to stick to the two-plank thick passage on either side of the view, but many succumb to the pressure of selfies and family photos. As I look down it’s as if I’m the human version of Frogger, but crushing buses and crowds as they pass below, while others lay on the glass for another angle. The view is nice outside and the 40 Great Bridges of the World display eye-catching from the inside – what’s left of arches in France, walking through a moat in the Netherlands, and a local one – the Wobbly Bridge. It’s official name is the Millennium bridge that was built £2.2M over budget, opened two months late, closed two days later, and took another £5M to open two years later.

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Tower Bridge

We skipped the engine rooms, which would’ve required us to cross the bridge a couple more times, and opted for the Tower of London, a World Heritage Site, instead. Not that this wouldn’t require its own maze to reach, but really it’s: cross the street, walk all the way around and down to the entrance. I notice the tall, multi-colored walls outside which seem take blocks of walking and staring – as you wonder how much of this is still the original. England is great at taking out an old brick and putting half of it back in, with a fixed half, to help preserve the look and feel of the ages – and it’s amazing.

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Arms of the Board of Ordnance, Tower of London

We pass the tiny information shack that tells people tickets are available at the building up the ramp, through the 12-foot high metal gate, to the large-to-us but tiny-to-scale entrance of this version of It’s a Small World village. Most forts I’ve been in seem large enough to defend 40 people, maybe 100 if they’re anorexic or midgets, but this place could easily fit over 100,000. This castle has done well to withstand over 900 years of war and weather to preserve royalty, records, and riches – and there’s a long queue to see over 23,500 Crown Jewels in a vault designed for 20,000 people daily with the average around 8,000 – about 7,975 too many.

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metal baboon, Tower of London

There’s plenty more to see here – awards, portraits, gifts, guns, and bedchambers. There’s stained glass, burnt bricks, wooden stairs, night lights, and metal art to keep us learning and out of line. We wander around looking at copper and carved bones, the guards gear and walk upon a scene from Game of Thrones, and past the animal room where lions and monkeys were kept till 1832 when they were moved to the zoo. Now, a cage is available for posing, because who doesn’t like to pretend to be behind bars as beast and prisoner.

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Tower Hill station

The Tower is closing at 4:30pm and we’re being herded towards the exit and the city at night (by 4pm this evening) in a slow, mannerly, way. We head to Trafalgar Square via the tube, which now has staff on duty to help direct rush hour traffic – so many stairs, trains, and doors to watch out for. We stumble upon the National Portrait Gallery, open till 6pm tonight, and entry is free. It was the first of its kind in 1856 and houses the famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare – the first to enter their collection that now has over 195,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs.

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Room 28, Later Victorian Arts, National Portrait Gallery

We stop in Chinatown, in the restaurant with the meat hanging in the window, for alcoholic boba that’s only on the menu. We walk out sipping coffee and taro and walk by The Shard when I need to use the loo. We were going to debate the $45 each to be 309 meters in the air with the possibility of a 40-mile view, but their closing times made the decision for us. If only it had been Valentine’s Day weekend when they’re open the latest. We make our way to the underground where a woman is helping her kids with their homework – spelling and chess.

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drinks at Fox Bars, art at NPG, inside Tower Bridge, selfie on London Bridge

We return to Fox Bars & Restaurants for some typical English fare – fish & chips and bangers & mash, with an Amigos draught and Three Hop lager for dinner. It’s a nice finishing touch to our first day in a new country, and our hotel only a block away. We’re getting the hang of scanning our room key to enter the lift and down to the left to 315 where we scatter our clothes about, plug our phones in, and climb under the blanket.

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