Three days after leaving Phoenix, we’re thousands of miles away, having the time of our lives, when I reach back to check for my wallet between trains on the London underground and discover my wallet’s been nicked. Bloody hell.
The map is not the land.
It’s amazing how much we depend on our technology. According to Google Maps, Northampton is about an hour north of London. My office is about an hour southeast of my house in Phoenix. Of course, what you don’t see, when you consider routes into London from your desk in Phoenix, is that it’s probably the middle of the night there and that’s why Google isn’t advising three hours in traffic.
We had purchased our non-refundable, non-exchangeable tickets for the London Duck tour well in advance based on the assumption it would only take about an hour to get from Cat’s place in Northampton to central London… on a Monday morning. To our credit, the tour was booked for late morning, but it would prove a challenge to get there in time.
We avoided the M1 with a passion, winding our way through tiny villages and backroads until we found ourselves in a Wal-mart parking lot in Breckton. Technically, it was an Asda parking lot, but Asda is owned by Wal-mart and it’s clearly evident the minute you go inside (to use the toilet). The high cost of low prices indeed.
A quick sprint across the street and up the stairs to the Docklands Light Rail, or DLR, terminal to make our train into London. Cat had a pre-paid card that would get her on the train, but we had to buy tickets at the electronic kiosks at the station, which was pretty much just a covered patio between two sets of tracks. Both were out of order.
The conductor stepped off the all but empty train and advised we needed to board if we were going his way, but we said we didn’t have tickets and the machines were down. (Kiosks like that are always a pain in the ass, ya know?) He just told us to hop on anyway. We were London-bound!
PRO TIP: If the automated ticket machines are all out of order, snap a picture with your phone (proof, just in case), then get on the train anyway. Should a conductor come through the cabin and ask to see your ticket, explain the situation and buy your ticket there. If not, go to the information desk as soon as you get off the train and do likewise. The rail system around London is really the least stressful way to travel!
We took the DLR in to Canning Town (just two stops short of “my beloved West Ham“), where we couldn’t leave the station because we didn’t have tickets to get us through the automated turnstiles! Cat to the rescue! She passed through, got in line at the information booth, and bought Vanessa and I flexible day use tickets which would get us onto just about any tube or train we needed in the London area.
We descended a lengthy escalator and hopped on the Tube (aka: Underground, eg: subway) – the Jubilee Line – which crossed under the Thames river three times before we reached Waterloo Station. At that point, we stepped off the tube, took another escalator back up to the surface, and walked out into more cold, dreary weather. Awesome.
At this point, we were more than 30 minutes late for our Duck tour and we hoped they would be understanding of our traffic and train tribulations. The small office was bristling with activity, as the small staff coordinated what had to be hundreds of tourists and a small fleet of 70 year old amphibious vehicles around one of the busiest city centers in the world.
Luck of the Duck
Turned out, we were booked onto the 1130 tour after all and had time to go next door for a much needed cup of coffee and pastry before we needed to meet our Duck at the stop up the road.
Caffeine levels supplemented, we crossed the busy street and rounded the corner to the bus stop with the special sign to wait for our Duck. It wasn’t five minutes later a large, yellow bus-sized boat-looking truck drove by, rolled up over the curb as it made a U-turn on the narrow street, and the staff members on the sidewalk began giving out instructions to line up for the 1130 tour.
What the Duck
The Ducks are amphibious vehicles used to deliver ammunition and supplies to the beachhead during WWII. Our Duck – Beatrice – was explained to be a 70 year old Chevy which had a more modern, diesel engine installed. It was a 6WD vehicle with a propeller and simple rudder in the rear, which were clearly (to this gearhead) engaged similarly to 4-low in a 4WD vehicle with a 2-speed transfer case.
After a quick safety briefing, we were on our way – and stuck in central London traffic. The wet weather meant they had the plastic windows unrolled, which made picture-taking a bit of a problem. Just as well, it was pretty chilly riding around in what was basically a convertible bus on a cold, rainy morning.
We drove past Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, and several instances of Oliver Cromwell staring down King Charles I, whom he was instrumental in having tried for Treason and executed in 1649. As we went, our guide told us all kinds of cool stories about the things we were seeing. I can’t remember them all verbatim (should have had the Hero Cam running), but a couple notes…
- There are four giant lion statues in Trafalgar Square. It’s said that, should Big Ben ring 13 times, they will wake and walk the streets of London.
- There is a very large building right next door to Buckingham Palace where all the staff live. If you work for the Royal Family for a set period of time, you get to live there for the rest of your life (presumably free). It’s a choice location, really.
- You can still have tea at The Ritz, but there’s something like a 5 month waiting list – and it’s more than £100 for two people.
We saw the places where Winston Churchill used to buy his cigars. (Damn it. I forgot to get cigars!) Or places where members of the Royal Family have been known to frequent, where Prince Charles had his stag night (eg: bachelor party), for example. It was really cool. The traffic was horrendous, but it was all really cool.
Next thing we knew, we crossed a bridge over the Thames. MI-6, the English equivalent to the FBI (and James Bond’s employer) was on our left, a swath of shiny new condos (where people like Sir Elton John live) on our right, and then we made a left turn, as if pulling into MI-6. The driver stopped, a gate opened, and we pulled into an alley between buildings.
Our driver stepped off and a new driver took the wheel. He shifted the Duck into 6-HI, then shifted into 6-LO (propeller mode). We rolled down the gravel ramp toward the water at something like 2mph, the big diesel turning near redline due to the super low gearing. There was a splash and a gentle feeling of pushback as the massive, yellow machine simply came off the ground and turned down river.
The bottom of the “window” was at least 6ft above the road while we were driving, but now it was perhaps only a foot above the surface of the river. Our tour guide, I think his name was Neal, didn’t skip a beat, continuing to point out things you can really only see from the water.
There are lions along the walls and it’s said that, “When the lions drink, London sinks,” because the city would likely begin to flood at that point. There were also spots along the wall where you could see the repairs made after bombs had damaged them in the war. We made a U-turn near Parliament and the clock tower (Big Ben is actually the bell inside), and made our way back toward MI-6. Our tour would soon be over.
We had planned to ride the London Eye, which is massive, but Cat is deathly afraid of heights and we couldn’t ask her to sit out in the cold while we spent an hour leisurely taking a ride on what is essentially a giant Ferris Wheel. Perhaps next time we’re in London!
We decided to do some shopping; souvenirs and whatnot. A quick stop at the obvious tourist trap (where I posed for one of the more popular pictures taken on this trip), and we were back underground, headed… hmm… I don’t really know. We got off the first train, I reached back to check for my wallet (as I tend to do when in crowded areas), and it was gone.
While there’s a chance my wallet simply fell out of my pocket on the train and I left it on the seat, that’s never actually happened to me before. I hate to think that some degenerate managed to get that close to me, but there’s probably a reason why so many movies show pickpockets in subway stations. Bastards.
One old, due for replacement leather wallet, a US$10 bill, a £5 note, my Arizona driver’s license, my social security card (I know, I know), my debit card, two credit cards, medical and dental insurance cards, a couple shopper discount cards, and a Mr Goodcents card with, like, one stamp left to go for a free sammich. Damnit.
PRO TIP: Before you leave, make good quality photocopies of your passport, driver’s license, and credit cards. Leave your social security card locked up at home. When you go out and explore the city, keep the copies of your cards (should all fit on a single piece of paper) separate from your wallet. IF you get the pinch, you will have all the information you need in one place to quickly cancel those cards OR you will still have your passport secure back at the hotel or such.
Cat to the rescue (again)! She grabbed the first payphone she saw and explained our situation to the operator, connecting us on a collect call to Chase Bank in New York City, to report my debit card stolen. Within five minutes of realizing my wallet was missing, I was on the phone with my bank, who advised there were no pending charges on the card after the last I’d made that morning, the card was canceled, and a new card would be waiting for me in the mailbox by the time I got home.
Fortunately, I’d used the bulk of my cash to purchase our souvenirs before we boarded that train, but I still had another credit card I needed to cancel and, boy, what to do about that. I had no internet connection, Vanessa didn’t have a duplicate card, and all I had to go on was the name of the card company.
It’s the people that make London great
I explained to Cat that the credit card was issued by Household Bank, which was owned by HSBC, who had recently sold the business to Capital One. What a clusterf*ck. No worries, Cat found an HSBC branch (it’s a consumer bank over there, like Chase or Wells Fargo over here) a couple blocks over and we went on foot.
As I stood in line to speak with a teller, tripping balls at pretty much being robbed so early in the trip, a woman approached me, asking if she could help me. When I explained the situation (feeling like an idiot for having to explain such a stupid credit card scenario), she told me I should go upstairs to the private, VIP banking area, and tell them what happened.
At the top of the stairs, I was greeted by a young man in a crisp, black pinstripe suit. I looked around, everyone else was dressed to the nines. I felt like a slob in my cargo pants, t-shirt, Mitsubishi hoodie, and overloaded backpack. (Everyone in central London dresses like a pimp. It’s uncanny.) Without flinching, he asked how he could help me. I explained the sad sack story again.
Within a minute, he had found the call center number, dialed it directly, and handed me the phone. Then he asked me if I would like anything to drink while I waited for them to pick up. He treated me like I belonged there. I was trying to memorize his name to give him credit here, but then I heard Spanish on the other end of the line. (I always wondered what happens when you “Oprima dos para servicio en Español.”
“Con permiso. Habla Ingles, usted, por favor?” I shocked myself at the ability to converse in Spanish in my panicked state on the other side of the world. After a quick chat, we confirmed this card had not been used, was canceled, and would be replaced. I thanked the gentleman at the top of the stairs for going the extra mile, he said it was no trouble at all and said he hoped the rest of my stay in London was more enjoyable.
All this happened so quickly in my mind, but it must have been hours in reality, as Cat, Vanessa, and I decided it was best to get some dinner and much needed drinks. We got a table at a Brasserie called “Browns” and I opted for comfort food – a bacon cheeseburger and Mexican beer – finally beginning to relax.
After dinner, we made our way back out the way we came, returning to the ASX at the Asda in Breckton, and making a quick jaunt up the motorway to Northampton, where we sat down for a light meal of cheese and biscuits (eg: crackers), tomatoes, beer, and wine. Vanessa called it a night just before midnight, Cat wasn’t up long after that, and Andy I sat around drinking random Belgian beers discussing rally and what it’s like here versus there. We called it a night sometime around 2AM.
A stressful day, to be sure, but what adventure is without stress? Tuesday would be a new day, filled with new friends, world class rally cars, and more.