Delta flight number 4391 from SFO to LHR London Heathrow International Airport.
The bird that would carry me out of my home for the first time was “Mustang Sally,” a Boeing 747 operated by Virgin Atlantic. I had never been on an aircraft this massive.
Let me take this opportunity to say that Virgin is the best way to fly. Period.
The 11 hours from San Francisco to London were mostly spent watching movies and sleeping. I managed to avoid being seated next to a crying child or a sweaty man, so I chalk that up as a victory.
It still hadn’t dawned on me that I was leaving the country for the first time in my life.
Business as usual.
The cars were driving on the wrong side of the road.
I noticed this during the end of our descent onto the runway. Besides some small stone buildings here and there, this was the only difference I noticed right away.
Upon disembark, I was greeted by the sound of a piano playing music I can only describe as “regal.” There were large size photographs of royalty and authorities everywhere. A rather posh first impression of England, but maybe that was fitting.
I walked outside the airport after retrieving my bag for a breath of fresh air. It didn’t feel like I was thousands of miles away from home. Now to find a bed.
The metro station at LHR was downstairs, so I walked back inside and moved through a crowd of chauffeurs and cigarette smoke. Public transportation was an entirely new animal to me, as I am used to driving everywhere. I saw signs for Paddington, so that became my first destination.
I opened up Hostelworld, and to my good fortune the highest rated hostel in the area was around the corner from Paddington Station. I walked down the street and came across The Pride of Paddington, a pub / bed-and-breakfast at the corner of Praed St. and Spring St.
My first proper English breakfast was phenomenal.
I enjoyed the free breakfast that came with my reservation and the hostel staff showed me to my room. I was in a 6 bed dorm on the second floor, and grabbed the top bunk next to the window.
I love sleeping next to the window.
Instagram has proven time and time again to be an excellent networking tool, connecting millions of different people across the world. While getting acclimated to my new living quarters, I was hunting around on Instagram for London based photographers.
Mohammed Ibrahim (@mi.london) came up right away, and I sent him a DM asking to shoot. He invited me to the roof of the building he worked at, the Walkie-Talkie in downtown London.
We arrived during a cocktail party for the people working in the building. I had free reign (and free drinks) to photograph from wherever I liked, and could stay as long as I want.
The view was breathtaking.
London is an interesting dichotomy of post-modern steel frame architecture and stone buildings that have stood for hundreds of years. This juxtaposition of design aesthetic really highlights the features of modern architecture, as well as providing context to the historical significance of many older buildings in the city.
I received a message from Nikolay Bogdev (@nikolay_b), another London based photographer who offered to show me around. We met up the following day.
Nikolay likes symmetry.
I always enjoy shooting with others, as I see how they see things and it provides a new perspective on my surroundings.
On the way to meet up with Nikolay, I made a friend named Heidi. She tagged along while we explored the city, and clued me in on the different English mannerisms / phrases.
She explained that if someone said “[are] you alright?” it wasn’t because I looked ill. Apparently that is the west coast’s equivalent of “what’s up?”
Good to know.
-Henry David Thoreau
It is said that loneliness is a sign that you are in need of yourself.
Through my life I have encountered many different people, experienced different things, faced adversity and trials, and by these circumstances I would up on the path to finding myself and being grounded in my passions. I am traveling alone, and yet I do not feel lonely.
…part of the journey to truly finding myself includes an innate need for companionship. Or maybe it isn’t really a need- I cannot say. I am very fortunate to have forged such strong friendships, and I relish in meeting new people and forming new connections, but sometimes the allure of having someone to walk by your side through trials or travesty or travels is very attractive.
But I digress.
Besides, it is difficult to feel lonely when you are surrounded with the sheer number of people out and about Downtown London….
…and also with the number of CCTV cameras everywhere, someone is always watching you.
You are never alone.
I visited the tourist destinations in London very briefly. For me, the monuments and attractions lose their charm amidst the crowds of selfie sticks, tour buses, and souvenir stands. The tourism industry does not preserve the history and meaning of the buildings- it commercializes it.
It would seem that the prevalence of cellphone cameras and digital/social media has caused people to live vicariously through their own snapshots, rather than appreciating the time they actually spend in a place.
I struggle with this at times- as a photographer, I am surrounded with photo opportunities at every turn, especially given that everything I see throughout my travels at this point is totally new to me. Often times I find myself wanting to raise my camera at everything, but it is important that I put forth effort to leave it at my side, and to appreciate the sights and sounds in front of me rather than a 2x3 frame on a digital screen.
The tourist attractions are not how you get to know a place. They are good for checking things off your Facebook bucket list and providing recognizable photographic proof that you were in a different country (or a different place in the same country?), but not much more than that.
I have found the real character and charm of a place outside of the tourist centers- in the side streets, the alleys, the neighborhoods, the small towns, the locals stomping grounds. If you only see the tourist destinations, you only meet tourists.
The two most striking differences I have found throughout my travels have been the people and the architecture. Those two things are what I sought to capture.
I also met a cat.