Not My First Choice

London from the clouds

After multiple, albeit weak, attempts at getting to Turkey in the hopes that I could road trip during this unknown time, I decided to use the same airline to get me to London instead. Some countries aren’t accepting guests, others want strict quarantine with an app, insurance, and a tracking device. Some countries didn’t seem to care while others tried to enforce their mask-wearing (or face covering) policies. Initially, I was going to come for three days and hope that my visa got approved overnight, but Caleb told me to extend in the off chance that I got to see outside, something we both miss, and because he’d be at work anyway.

The convenience of covid is that airlines allow unlimited changes to your schedule, if they haven’t canceled that route, and only sometimes do you pay a price difference if it’s significant, so I extended my trip for two weeks. Caleb is also living vicariously through me during this as he has yet to have a break this year because he doesn’t consider house arrest a vacation when he has to video conference with the boss and various departments for half the day and be available throughout the night when the crew needs his advice, which is often. We both agree he seems too young to be in his position, but I love seeing him in charge.

Caleb was able to delay going into work today so that he could spend the morning with me. We went out to a restaurant for the first time in eight months which seems ridiculous to say because even in my poor childhood we found a birthday or other reason for celebrating monthly that would give us reason to splurge. We went to Dome, because it’s close and our choice would have to be open this early, open at all, and have outside dining, which is still the law. The waitress takes our names and numbers; some places only need one person’s data (no more than groups of 6) as long as they can contact the others.

I was the only person at the counter getting my ticket printed because I forgot that I checked in online (which hasn’t been an option since the airlines were required to check if you were allowed into your destination as some people were getting stuck in the airport of their connecting flight). I was also the only one going through security and think this is the closest I’ll come to knowing the loneliness of those too wealthy or too popular to mingle with the rest of us peasants. Then again, they have their limo, jet crew, and security detail to keep them company. I’ve got time to spare but only half an airport to explore. I suppose it makes sense with the decreased flight schedule and leaves less space to sanitize frequently, but I wonder if they’ll still use this building once the sickness is over and the new airport can open or if they’ll demolish it and build another park, hotel, and mall… or keep the structure for a themed space.

train view in black and white

I send Caleb a picture of the incredible prices at the airport and he responds about the ridiculous taxes in-country, but these are half-off deals at companies that have managed to stay in business and are trying to keep it that way or it’s a covert going-out-of-business sale, but I just don’t need booze, cigs, perfume, and purses so I continue to walk while keeping my bags, coat, and boots within eyesight so that they’re not deemed abandoned and immediately destroyed, as that’s not an empty threat in Bahrain.

Passengers have to go through a secondary security point and I’m just as surprised as the agent at the image on the screen. I should’ve tried to sneak a picture but I stared harder trying to make out what it could be that made it look like I had a large knife in my bag. The agent takes it to a table and I reassure him my panties and chargers don’t bite. I held onto my nail clippers and he took my bag through the x-ray again with no problem, nevermind the coffee mug full of water (because it seals better than my same size water bottles) or clear bag of soaps (as I’m not sure what will be available at my Airbnb’s). This is just another reason I love to travel… not always knowing the rules or if they’ll be enforced, but I packed according to the strictness of London. I will take my camera out separately and all my liquids without discriminating on their small size… as they get me every time for a packet of marmite or lip gloss.

This is the first time I’ve seen the airline or this airport for that matter (with all the different languages of travelers) try to enforce boarding by zones. People assume that Arabic is the most popular language here just because it’s the official one, but which variation and dialect you are most likely to encounter depends on which neighborhood or geographical background the speaker comes from. You’re most likely to encounter Arabic when dealing with the ministry as it’s a requirement of the job. Gulf Arabic only makes up 5% of the population, the lowest of 19 Arabic-speaking countries. Other popular languages in Bahrain are Balochi, Persian, Urdu, Malayalam, Hindi, Nepali, Bengali, Amharic, and English for the Americans, British, South Africans, etc. In contrast, California is comprised of 58% English and 28% Spanish speakers, which is why I still study Spanish, German, Turkish, and Russian so that I have a bit of varied vocabulary to help me while living and traveling in various countries.

I’m sitting calmly on the plane until this dirty kid crouches in the aisle seat while his parents get their tickets figured out. His mom takes his shoes off and his feet look like he walked to the airport through the mud. He has multiple lollypops in his hand that he shoves completely in his mouth leaving his left side a sticky mess that he doesn’t mind putting on the seat before putting back on his candy-stained tongue. He has plastic cutlery in his other hand. His mom has to get up to tend to his younger brother and he hops into the seat next to mine. I tell the kid he needs a wet wipe.

sunset from the train

His mom puts him back upon her return and Gulf Air lets me know that “using your own wipes might decrease effectiveness of our disinfectant.” It’s a good thing I don’t plan on murdering all the bacteria within reach, not sure why that made me think of DDT. I return to my reading and this quote couldn’t have come at a better time, “Take a cold shower before acting impetuously (acting quickly without thought)” as I’m hoping to use this trip to slow down, think more, and appreciate the mundane again.

The dad gives the younger son a sucker for each hand, one of which almost ends up in the hair of the guy sitting in front of him. I really do take advantage of not knowing what has happened before me or around me unless someone encroaches on my seat physically. I take this same mental approach when sleeping in used beds, using someone else’s towel, and any public space where anything could’ve occurred, as sometimes there’s still evidence.

We were served lunch and I gave my crackers to the little boy and he was having fun playing with them until he made his mom wear them and got his tray taken away. His older sister, the middle sibling, is visiting his seat in an attempt to calm him. There’s no social distancing here, unless you count one flight every other day as limiting the people filling seats, though having all the window seats filled on an otherwise empty plane isn’t good for business or planet either. I give him my salt packet next and he eats half of it before I can take it back. I get a look at my mask and realize why I don’t wear white around food. It’s a good thing I brought a spare like the airline recommended.

The sister moves into the seat next to mine and I let her use my screen, since hers doesn’t work, to watch Nella the Princess Knight, a British-American-Irish animated series with a unicorn. I gave her disposable headphones so she could pass out on her mom until the baby was dropped into that seat so that the mom could go lean on her husband. I help keep the boy asleep by holding him off the floor, patting his side, and letting him hold my arm while his sister takes what leftover space she can get to sleep. Meanwhile, I fight the urge to rest until the burn in my eyes feels like they’ve been rubbed with red onion and japaleño.

Portland Rd, South Norwood

I watch a bit of Call of the Wild on the screen in front of me before waking the kids when the 20 minutes to landing is announced. I take a picture and short video with the mom’s phone of the third layer of clouds we’ll descend through over the Thames river. I’m first in line for passport control until some guy in a uniform takes me to the side (really in between the UK and not-UK residents lines) to understand that I’m here for a visa run, don’t have a job, and my husband works in Bahrain. I still get through in seconds thanks to the automated system.

There are so many staff who seem to be waiting just to help me. I don’t mean to look lost but the last time I was here I had my navigator with me and had done some pre-planning. There’s plenty of apps for the London transit system, but finding the one that works best can be the least of your worries if you don’t know exactly where you’re going. I had put in the wrong address thanks to auto-fill and then lost service going underground. I asked a guy for general directions before learning there are a multitude of stops in any one area and a four-minute train ride can be a 40 minutes walk. He said he didn’t know but then approached me to show the route he’d found and by then I’d regained signal on my phone. I was hoping to skip downtown (for price and distance) but forgot to look up the route for my first Airbnb which is further from the airport but on a direct line to London Bridge (north into the city) and Brighton (on the south coast).

Two hours after buying my Oyster card and I’m getting off at the right station, Norwood Junction, that’s closest to where I’m staying on Portland Rd about an eight minutes walk away. The first thing I notice, besides the warm 65°F weather is the lack of masks being worn on the street. They’re required on public transportation or you’ll be fined increasingly, per offense, to a max penalty of roughly $8,000. All shops and restaurants have signs posted to wear a mask unless exempt (not all disabilities are visible) and a QR code, except at grocery stores, where you scan in for the country’s track-and-trace program.

I’m greeted by the host on the street corner as I look for the right door. It’s behind the building and above the shops. I set my bags down after my very short tour of the kitchen, bathroom, two rooms I don’t see, and my room with a loft bed, five-foot mirror, cushioned chair, four hangers, and a hanging closet organizer with a notebook and pen. There’s a small table with a bottle of water and a card with the wifi password. I talk with Caleb as I walk around looking for food and settle on lentil chips and hummus from Sainsbury’s. I consider how late I’m eating and realize if I stop I’ll fall asleep regardless of the noise outside and the neighbors above. I get to meet the kitten of the flat and her Polish owner who offers me a tour of the kitchen (washer, fridge, cabinet with sink above, and oven with more cabinets above) before excusing herself to her room for tea.

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