My First 5 Days in London

Day 1

My plane landed in Heathrow Airport on a Friday morning at the beginning of September. I took my backpack and headed to immigration. Most of the officers were of diverse racial backgrounds, which was to my surprise as I expected mostly Caucasian. London truly is one of the most diverse cities on Earth. The visa check was quick, I received a warm welcome from an officer of South Asian descent. Customs also went smoothly, the officer just asked if I brought any cigarettes or alcohol and let me carry on after simply saying no.
The first thing I did was purchase a SIM card to contact my cousin Eastman, whom I would be staying with until my flat is ready. (By the way, this is not recommended because you can get better deals in the city. Better to rely on airport Wi-Fi and screenshot the directions on google maps). Both sales reps were also of South Asian descent and gave me excellent advice based on my data needs and budget as a student. I exited the airport and was greeted by the cool grey London sky. Gmaps suggested taking the bus, as it was the easiest and cheapest option. Not knowing how to pay, I foolishly handed a 20-pound bill to the driver. She responded in a Jamaican accent that cash was not accepted, and I had to buy an Oyster card. I head back to the airport and searched for the machines. It felt complicated at first but luckily someone immediately came to help and then I was finally on the bus to Eastman’s house.
The bus station at Heathrow

On the double-decker bus ride, everything felt surreal. Looking left and right, passing by the British houses and shops, the diverse pedestrians on the sidewalk, it felt like I was still in a dream. An elderly lady sat beside me and shared interesting stories. After I said it’s my first time in London and dropping off at Carshalton, she mentioned a famous landmark church that is open for public this time of year that gives a nice view of the town from the bell tower. This was a nice display of British hospitality.
The bus finally reached Carshalton and I landed my first official steps in London. I was in a high street, filled with shops, cafes and fast food joints. I noticed many of these joints were labeled halal. The gloomy skies gave a slight drizzle, but it didn’t matter. After years of dreaming and waiting, I was finally walking the sidewalks of London.
My first steps in London

Eastman picked me up with his car and we drove to his suburban home. It was such a nice comfortable place in a beautiful neighborhood. Being there brought back memories of my childhood home in Madison, Wisconsin. We had a biryani lunch that Eastman got from the mosque after Friday prayers.
Eastman’s son Zack came home from school later that afternoon and we enjoyed home-made roasted chicken by Chef Eastman. We then went to the neighborhood mosque for dusk prayers or Maghreb which was just a 5-minute drive. Afterward, I joined Eastman to pick-up his wife Olga, whom I hadn’t got a chance to meet in years. Olga gave a warm welcome and assured me that I would enjoy the city. She shared me the phrase, “In London, everyone is different so everyone can fit in.” And that was exactly my first impression.

Day 2

The gloomy clouds from the first day were wiped away, giving sunshine and clear blue skies. I started the day doing my favorite activity in someplace new: randomly walking around the neighborhood. I followed the path that had more trees and just kept on walking. I passed by the well-kept line of British-style housing, passed the green spaces, passed a school, and the Mini Coopers parked by the street. I stopped by a local convenience, greeted by a friendly Bangladeshi shopkeeper and bought a granola bar. I could really embrace the feel of living like a local. I enjoyed every aspect of the nice neighbourhoods; the peacefulness, the harmony, the comfort. For the first time in years, I truly felt at home.
Morning walk around Eastman and Olga's neigborhood

After the walk, I joined Eastman to watch Zack’s rugby match at his school. It was a perfect day for it, the sunshine gave warmth in the cool autumn days. This was the first time I watched a match but could follow thanks to the movie Invictus and cable tv broadcasts in the late 2000s. Zack’s team dominated the match, he did well setting-up his player and there were players like trucks that just rammed through the defense. I cheered from the sidelines with other parents and finally learned the ending position of a try determines the position the extra-point kick.
Zack's rugby match

I joined Eastman to the Asian supermarket where I learned there are so many Indonesian food products available here, like petai and durian. After lunch, Eastman told me it such weather is rare and suggested me to do some exploring. So, I took the train to Victoria Station and visit the city’s main landmarks. The train ride was less than 45 minutes and gave nice views of the city’s green space and suburbs. This was also the first time I felt the enjoyment of overhearing conversations. An announcement came from the operator saying that there will be no meals provided during the journey. A young child around 4-5 years old then yelled, ”Meals? Those are for airplanes!”, in a local accent.
I arrived Victoria and walked towards to the first stop: Buckingham Palace. Unlike the suburbs, obviously, Central London is much busier and packed with tourists. I followed the directions to the palace and found its gates that were crowded with people trying to take a good shot of the Queen’s Guards with their smartphones, which I did too. I then just walked up to the fountain that was decorated with gold statues of mythological characters and sat to enjoy the atmosphere. 
Buckingham Palace

I then continued my walk to Green Park and St James Park that were filled with tall, shady trees. There were ponds for swans, mallards and Canadian geese to swim. I stood between the bridges and admired the scenery the pond ending in front of classical old buildings between the trees and flower blankets. Exiting the park, I found a cool fortress-like building and decided to go through it. Turns out it led to Trafalgar Square which I remember from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. This was a surprise since I was just randomly walking without any navigation device, something I love about just wandering around. The square is one of London’s oldest and most important public spaces. Known for its fountains with lion statues, there are so many activities to see such as talent street artists. It also the location of the National Gallery, which is totally free. And from a distance, I saw the Big Ben (before it was fully covered).
St James Park

Before going to London’s main icon, I took a detour to Soho. It is amazing to see the variety of unique cafes and shops to visit. There are theatres showing plays and musical that starred movie stars like Ian McKellen, Sienna Miller and Orlando Bloom, and classics like Les Miserable. There is also a Chinatown that is a unique blend of Chinese and British architecture. I stopped by a comic book store (a nerd at heart) and the mosque for afternoon prayers or Asr. It was kind of funny to see a mosque next to a burlesque costume store.
Trafalgar Square


After praying, I went back to Trafalgar Square and followed the Big Ben until finally reaching it and saw the whole House of Parliament. I crossed the river Thames over a bridge to find the best spot to relax. There was a Chinese couple taking pre-wedding photos a few yards away.  I found some benches that I recognized from Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and just sat. Staring at the Big Ben, with the clock not yet covered for renovation, I let all the feelings sink in. The orange late afternoon sunlight blanketed the house of parliament. Boats cruised along the river. Joggers passed by showing that it’s a great place for an evening run. There were not many people around this spot, many were also by themselves and enjoying the moment. A moment that made me feel nothing but grateful.
The Big Ben

The House of Parliament in front of River Thames

Dusk was approaching, so I finally got up and walked back to Victoria Station. I kept looking back at the Big Ben in admiration and to take better photos. On the train back, I overheard a funny conversation from London teenagers. Don’t really remember what they were talking about, but I learned the phrase “I’m dead!” and “I just died” which figuratively means you died of laughter. Arriving Eastman and Olga’s home, I realized that I just had such a perfect day.

Day 3

I had plans with my soon-to-be flatmate Monika, who arrived a few weeks earlier, to pick up a printer and do some sightseeing. Our first stop was Buckingham since Monika hasn’t been there yet. We were hoping to see the changing of the guards but turned out it's only on certain times. Lunchtime came and I remember Olga mention a popular Sunday market with plenty of international cuisines. She was busy preparing for a gathering, so I searched the location in Gmaps and led the way. Foolishly of me, I just typed “market” and we ended up in an empty alleyway that is literally called Market Pl after walking for half an hour. I felt bad for Monika, who was already hungry, so I asked a public worker about any market. He said there weren’t any nearby but Carnaby would be a good place for lunch.
Carnaby is a really nice place indeed. It is a vibrant old quarter within the centre, the location of one of the oldest department stores, and decorated with colourful restaurants. I made up for my mistake with Monika by shooting a boomerang video of her in front of the Carnaby sign. We ended up eating at a local halal burger joint called Burgeri, which serves really juicy burgers! I told Monika that my blunder with the market led to this place. Looking at her expression, she started to know that I can be full of sh*t sometimes.

We got some dessert from Ben’s Cookies continued to walk through the glamorous Regents Street and Oxford Circus. It is lined up with magnificently beautiful old buildings that are occupied by famous brands like Zara, Mango, and GAP. We did some window shopping, checked out a huge Apple store, and went to Starbucks to wash-off melted chocolate from our fingers (there are not many public restrooms in the area).
After exploring, we went to pick up the printer at a student house near Liverpool Street. I learned that this area is home to the Shard and the Gherkin. I have always been fond of the two buildings, especially the latter, after seeing it on the Apprentice UK.

The Gherkin in the background
We eventually found the market Olga mentioned, Spitalfields Market, which did offer a wide variety from Texas Barbecue to Singaporean Laksa. It popped in my head that she said it was near that student house. I told Monika about it and she gave me that glare again. We did check out the market where a bought two t-shirts for 20 GBP. One says “Straight Outta Hogwarts” and “Pew Pew Pew Pew Pew Pew” in Star Wars writing.
We passed the nice and comfy-feeling Brick Lane district, which was literally a lane with red-brick houses and shops on each side. The student selling the printer was really kind and offered to show her accommodation. She also shared about the weather here, saying it is mostly wet and wetter.
Monika was already living at our flat in Maida Vale so we took the printer back there. As Monika said, the area really is posh, but we will be living in the more economical side. The house was pretty decent considering its price and in a convenient location. I met my other future flatmate, Arnis, who have been living there since last year. She greeted me with a refreshing flowery drink, lavender water if I’m not mistaken. Mita, a current tenant that offered me to continue the place, was there too and the four of us had a nice conversation. They asked me to stay but I had to catch the train. However, I was still chatting with Mita when Arnis and Monika came back with some fried chicken, so I decided to stay after all. They infused the chicken with green chilis to make it tastier and resembling Indonesia’s ayam penyet. It was a nice meal and I left the house at around 8.00pm, which was supposed to early enough to catch the 9pm train.
Unfortunately, I did not know there was a concert in Hyde Park. My bus to Victoria station had to divert its route and got stuck in traffic. I really had no idea how to reach the station from here, so I just prayed. I also began to worry that the bus would be skipping Victoria because the person next to me just said it's supposed to stop there. My heart was racing, and I kept checking google maps. My other option was to return to Maida Vale and ask the current tenants, who were all females, if I could sleep on the couch. Luckily, traffic eventually freed up and I arrived at the station just minutes before the last train at 11.30pm. I sprinted and hopped into it with such a relief. Should keep reminding myself to never make assumptions and anticipate possibilities of the unexpected. 

Day 4

This was the first time visiting my campus, University College London (UCL), to get my Biometric Residence Permit or BRP. I entered the gates to see many new students wearing UCL jumpers, mostly Chinese, taking pictures in front of the Wilkins Building in the main quad. It is a stunning nearly-200-year-old building highlighted by its majestic columns and dome. There are many wooden benches in the area for chilling. Across from it is the Cruciform, shaped like a red castle fit for a Harry Potter movie.
The Wilkins Building
The Wilkins Building is decorated with history. There is the preserved body of Jeremy Bentham, the spiritual founder, that fulfills his request to show complete dedication. A large poster about the first Japanese students from the 19th century hung on the wall, marking the start of the nation’s opening to the world. The hallways were equipped with tables, benches and plugs for students to work. This kind of reminded me of Unpad’s, my undergraduate university, RR-an. The difference was, the latter was just the terrace in front of the administration office.
Collecting my BRP took less than 10 minutes so I did some more exploring around campus. I found a large bookstore called Waterstones, which I learned is a chain retailer. This branch is in an old 5-storey English building with cylinder towers on each corner and decorated with gargoyles. The inside is super-comfy, and I could spend a whole day just browsing. Most books are not wrapped in plastic and there are armchairs to get a preview before buying. I spent most of my time in the children’s section on the top floor to find some books for my nephew. I found the book “Oh, the places you’ll go” by Dr. Seuss and remember my Mom once bought it. Reading it again really moved me, especially the words “sometimes you won’t because sometimes you don’t” and “will you succeed? Yes, 98 ¾ % guaranteed!” . It really reflected my journey from dealing with rejections from scholarship sponsors, getting lost, realizing my capabilities after connecting the dots, and finally starting grad school in London.
I strolled around the parks behind the Main Quad and walked by my department, the Bartlett Developing Planning Unit. It was a nice cosy place in a former house complex right in front of the park in Tavistock Square. There is a statue of Gandhi in this park and it is an amazing feeling to share an alma meter with a revolutionary legend.
Lunchtime was approaching and I later found a street food market in Tottenham Court Road with cuisines from all over the globe and decided to buy something for lunch. Choosing wasn’t easy, there was Palestinian, Indian, Lebanese, Thai, Italian, Argentinian, Korean, and more. I ended up buying a large Lebanese falafel since I haven’t had a real one in ages. It was really tasty and filling, I devoured it while sitting on a bench in the nearby square watching pigeons searching for crumbs.
My delicious falafel

Later that day, I headed over to King’s Cross hoping to open a bank account. I found the British Library once it started to rain and went in for shelter.  It is a large facility with several workspaces free for the public. There are reading rooms which require registered passes. The main highlight is a humungous bookcase almost 4 storeys high.
The British Library

It stopped raining in less than an hour and I headed to Barclay’s King Cross. I passed by the magnificent St Pancras Renaissance Hotels, which seems to be the accommodation for royal families. It has fairy-tale like architecture with a clock tower resembling the Big Ben. Not far from it is Kings Cross Station which leads to Hogwarts. There actually is a 9 ¾ platform with a trolley replica that is halfway through the wall. I took another stroll around the area, admiring the old houses lined-up in a compact form. Many of these houses were transformed into hotels.
I learned that I needed a proof of address to open a bank account, which I would not get after official enrolment at UCL. Rain started to pour accompanied by strong wind, making me soaking wet. Although I did not get what I came for, I really enjoyed the moments around Kings Cross.

Day 5

It was my last day staying at Eastman and Olga’s as I would be going on a 5-day trip to Rome for a reunion with the Hills, close family friends from Wisconsin, the next day. My flat would also be ready after the trip. So, I went there to store my luggage there with the consent of current tenants. The sun was shining again with rays going through the shady trees. Mita greeted me at the door and made some Samyang, spice instant Korean noodles. We had a nice chat with some of her friends that were visiting over about their travels across Europe. I parted the flat and strolled around the neighbourhood. The flat is next to a nice park with large shady trees, a playground, and a jogging track. There were dogs of all sorts of breeds, from dachshunds to dalmatians, being walked or playing fetch with their owners. I found shops selling fresh fruits like blueberries, peaches, and plums that cannot be grown in Indonesia. I also found many affordable fried chicken joints and pizza parlours. There was also a nice cafĂ© called M’s corner selling Illy coffee and had outdoor seating (unfortunately, it closed for renovation after I moved in). The neighbourhood I would be living was nice indeed. I was happy to feel that I made the right choice.
My neighborhood in Maida Vale

I went to campus again hoping to get some conditional letter for opening a bank account, but it wasn’t possible. So, I decided to do some more exploring. Piccadilly Circus was my first stop since it is only a 20-minute walk from UCL. London is such a walkable city. I passed by the elegant houses of Bloomsbury that were home to historical figures like Virginia Woolf and Charles Darwin. I found several unique local shops, cafes and restaurants along the way.
When I reached Piccadilly Circus, I was awestruck by the combination of illuminated signs, video display and well-kept classical English buildings. It is a very busy area and full of activities. I found a Cinnabon, which I haven’t seen in years, and bought a cinnamon roll. Cashier was a friendly woman wearing a hijab. I realised this is common in London since there is so much diversity and Islam is the second most practiced religion. I enjoyed my reunion with Cinnabon while sitting on the edge of Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain like most people. There was a very talented street performer with an acoustic guitar singing my favourite British songs; Pompeii, the Scientist and Wonderwall among them.
Piccadilly Circus

I continued to walk towards the next landmark on my bucket list, Tower Bridge. Many people, including myself, mistaken it with London Bridge. It was a 30 to 40-minute walk from Piccadilly Circus but there were many sites along the river Thames. First is South Bank, where I saw the famous London Eye. The area also has several art venues like the National Theatre. There is a graffiti-decorated skatepark that I also recognized from Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4. I found an open-used bookstore selling many popular classics for good prices. I passed Shakespeare’s Globe, where you can watch his famous plays in the original format.
Next was the Millennium Bridge, the same bridge the Death-Eaters destroyed in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The bridge is an architectural masterpiece. Walking on it makes you feel like you're floating, because the barriers are much different than normal bridges. It connects two landmarks, Tate Modern and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Tate Modern is an 8-story modern art gallery with free entry, like most museums in London. There was another talented musician that covered Ed Sheeran and then performed an original. He was promoting his new album and I hope he gets signed by a record label soon. I knew St. Paul’s Cathedral from the Da Vinci Code. Its structure reminded me of the capital building in my childhood hometown, Madison, Wisconsin.
I found a cool mural of Shakespeare before passing through an alleyway between old buildings. Borough Market came soon after, which offers almost any delicacy you can think of. There were so many different cheeses, cookies and pastries, Ethiopian coffee, Indian and Thai curries, oysters, duck confit sandwiches, venison burgers, ostrich burgers, you name it.
Shakespeare Mural

I came across Hay’s Gallery, which was a famous trading centre during the colonial era. Nearby is the HMS Belfast, an old warship from World War 2 that is now a historic sight. And then I saw it, the Tower Bridge. It is so much more majestic in real life. The two decorated towers showcase its elegance. The bridge links several land marks. On one side is the Tower of London, a historic castle built in the 11th century. I could also see the Gherkin and the Shard nearby. The other side is City Hall, a modern quarter-sphere shaped building that is surrounded by other contemporary architecture. I then discovered another thing I love about London: it’s a perfect blend of old and new.
Tower Bridge and City Hall

I spent the rest of the day just sitting around City Hall and enjoy the atmosphere. I watched tourists pose for a new social media profile picture. I took many photos myself and asked a friendly South Asian tourist to take one for me. He directed my pose and took 4 photos from different angles.
Coming back to my cousin's at night, I met Olga's brother, Eka, who is a pilot from Qantas Airways. He is a really nice and humble guy and shared his inspiring travel stories from around the world. He's even been to Johannesburg and Cape Town, which are on my bucket list. I got lots of good advice on my travel plans around Europe during term breaks. 

To wrap-up my first 5 days, I can understand why London is considered the greatest city in the world. Its diversity shows acceptance of people from all different background, anyone can be a Londoner. Its blend between old and new shows how the city thrives to modernity while embracing its traditional values. Mobility is super effective as every area is connected by public transport. The people show great humility and respect for your personal business. Having said this, London now has a special place in my heart. 


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