After tiring of London, I had planned a blissful week in the Scottish highlands before returning to London in time for a flight to Japan. Everything would all go smoothly, I thought. But as it turned out the travel gods had other plans. If there’s anything to be expected when travelling, it’s the unexpected, as I found out during a most bizarre 24 hour period spanning two continents and a Pachinko parlour.
“You know that Sarah girl?” said my brother in London on the other end of the phone, “apparently she thinks you’re cute.”
“She does?” I asked. Sarah was a stunning blonde Irish girl. I hadn’t in a million years thought she might be interested in me. “What would make you think that?”
“I know, I couldn’t believe it either. Her sister told me.”
“Why has it taken you 5 days to tell me that?”
“I’m telling you now aren’t I?”
And with that brief exchange with my brother, who was living in London, I packed my stuff into my backpack and got on an overnight bus from Inverness, leaving Scotland a day early despite having had a lovely time biking in Skye and hanging on the cold sands of St Andrews. The bus took 14 hours to London, via Glasgow. There’s only two things about that bus trip I remember, one being a guy with really stinky dreadlocks who sat in front of me for the whole 14 hours (think mouldy cheese), and two people who were having sex in the seat in front of him when they thought the whole bus was asleep. Unfortunately they were precisely the two memories I’ve been striving to suppress.
And so it came to be that I arrived back in London a day before I was due to fly out to Japan and took Sarah on a night time visit to… Tower Bridge? Seems a bit of a strange choice of venue thinking back on it, but it seemed to make sense at the time. And so then in turn, it came to be that I awoke hungover on the morning of my flight, looked at my watch and panicked. My brother had flown out to Ireland very early in the morning and I had assumed (wrongly) that he might wake me. Never assume! My sister, who was living at my brother’s place in London, woke up and asked what was wrong. “I’m late,” I said, throwing clothes into my pack. “Shit. Really late.”
I hugged my sister goodbye and hot-tailed it down to Balham station as fast as I could. To my horror, the station was closed. Some kind of signalling problem. Why does this always happen when I’m late for a flight? Security guards turned me away at the entrance and pointed to the Southern overground rail station around the corner. I headed to buy a ticket, but there was mass confusion in the peak hour rush and the queues for the ticket machines stretched down the street. Damn it. I was going to miss my flight. I weighed up my options, and then jumped the turnstiles, ticketless, backpacks and all. “Oi what’s that geezer doing?” I heard someone behind me say. I didn’t stop to turn around and ran onto a packed sardine train just as the doors were shutting. The packed commuters grumbled as I pushed my backpacks into them. “Sorry, sorry,” I apologised to all and sundry, sweating. Little did I know how fortunate I had been that the underground Northern Line was suspended that morning.
At Victoria station, there was more chaos. A scrum of people competed to get through the turnstiles and out of the station. I had no ticket and no time to spend queued up. So I went up to a guard and said “Mate could you let me through, I’ve no ticket and late for my flight.” To my surprise, he said “No problem” and opened the disabled gate for me to pass through. Wow: it’s amazing how well sheer brazenness works sometimes. Finally, I sat on an underground Piccadilly train, enroute to Heathrow. I calculated that I would have just enough time. The day had been saved.
Or so I thought. Because the train began running really slowly. And then it pulled into a station and stopped, which would be nothing unusual, except 5 minutes later we were still stopped. I looked frantically at my watch. The seconds ticked by and nothing happened, no announcements were made. Soon we had been stopped for 10 minutes, then 15 minutes. People looked sheepishly at each other, looked out the train doors, but the station was almost deserted. Finally, after 20 minutes had elapsed, the train shuddered back to life. The loudspeaker was silent, and still nobody came on to tell us why we had been stopped. The train pulled out of the station, and station-by-station made its way slowly but steadily to Heathrow. There was 45 minutes remaining til takeoff as I rushed up into the terminal. As I ran my gaze caught a plasma screen showing the BBC News. The label across the bottom of the screen shocked me- “THE ENTIRE TUBE SYSTEM HAS NOW BEEN SHUT DOWN”.
How could this be?, I thought. I had just been on the tube! Mercifully there were no queues at check in or security and I made it to the gate just as boarding was wrapping up. Some stragglers were watching another TV screen before boarding the flight. The anchorwoman was talking about a “major incident” on the London Underground. But I couldn’t stay to sate my curiosity as they were about to close the gate. I jumped on the plane and we took off for Helsinki, Finland, where I would board another flight for Osaka, Japan.
In Helsinki, 5 hours later, the news reports were now indicating that a brutal and pathetic terrorist attack had occurred. It had happened at 8:50 and I had arrived at Heathrow at 9:10, twenty minutes after the attacks. Not only that, but one bomb had exploded on the Piccadilly line, on which I was travelling, but on a different train. In addition, it turned out there had been a plan to bomb the Northern Line, which hadn’t been running due to signal failure. I was stunned and it suddenly dawned on me that nobody knew where I was. I called my sister from a payphone and she was beside herself. “Where have you been?” she yelled. “Why did you not call earlier?” By strange coincidence, my parents were due to fly into London that day from France. My brother was in Ireland and not able to get back to London for some days. My sister was alone and she was scared. “Why did your plane even take off? They shut the airport.”
“I don’t know Steph. All I know is I’m going to Japan. Just relax okay?”
By the time I arrived in Japan, it all felt like a bad dream. I remember seeing a man reading a newspaper in Kyoto with photos of the horror back in London. It didn’t seem real. With the miracles of international air travel and jetlag, I could hardly believe that I had been there. At my hostel in Kyoto, they told me that I was too early and that there were no beds available yet. I groaned and explained politely that I had just come from London and that I was stressed out and could I just have somewhere to lie down for a while. Kindly, they obliged. This being Japan, I left my shoes at the door of the hostel as required and went upstairs and crashed out.
A few hours went past, and I got up excited in anticipation of a day of sightseeing around Kyoto. I ran down to the door in my socks and my shoes were nowhere to be seen. This can’t be happening, I thought, as I searched through the pile of other people’s shoes. But my shoes were gone and they weren’t coming back. I spoke again to the lady at the reception. She was very sorry but I knew it wasn’t her fault. It was some stinking lowlife backpacker (the worst kind) who had decided to help himself to my near-new size 11 Vans. To make matters worse, this was the only pair of shoes I was travelling with – I was really doing the backpacker thing on this trip. The only other footwear I had were thongs, and it was definitely not thongs weather. I headed off into the outdoor drizzle in my thongs cursing at the pavement.
At some point I was wandering through the colourful Japanese city streets when I came to a Pachinko parlour. Not knowing what Pachinko was, but dazed by the neon lights, chiming music, jetlag and the past 24 hours, I wandered into the parlour. There were rows and rows of strange machines that resembled a cross between a poker machine and a pinball machine. I am not sure what possessed me, but I inserted a 500 yen coin and was immediately surrounded by excited Japanese attendants, all falling over themselves to explain the object of Pachinko playing to the crazy barefoot Westerner.
Before long, I started getting it. Pachinko is a game in which you shoot small ball-bearings through a network of small pins, finally landing in some hole in the bottom of the machine. You turn a dial to control the force with which the balls are shot, and the idea is to land them in one particular small high-scoring hole. If you can do that, you win some more ball bearings, which drop from the machine into a metal receptacle similar to coins dropping from a poker machine.
I couldn’t quite see the difficulty in this game- I started landing all the balls in the high scoring hole, and so I just kept making fine adjustments to the force with which the balls were shot out, and they kept landing mostly in the high scoring hole. My winnings bounced into the metal basket. The Japanese attendants whooped and cheered and soon there was a crowd of whoopers and cheerers watching me go. “Play again, play again!” they laughed. The balls that were coming out of the machine started overflowing their receptacle and were bouncing in every direction on the hard tiled floor. I could see I was making a mess and I kept trying to stop but all the Japanese people were too excited and kept sitting me down again. The attendants produced plastic baskets from somewhere and began to collect all the balls that were overflowing from the machine. It was a party and a spectacle. “Play again, keep going!” they implored, and every time I obliged, I kept winning. Finally, half an hour had elapsed, I was surrounded by plastic baskets full of ball bearings, and it dawned on me that party or not, I was spending my precious time in Kyoto inside a dimly lit arcade room rather than outside looking at temples and cherry blossoms. So I finally disobeyed the wishes of the attendants and stood up.
Into my open arms they handed me a stack of ten or so plastic baskets full of silver metal balls. “What on earth am I supposed to do with these?” I asked, but the answers in Japanese gave me no clue. Finally one guy grabbed me and walked me down the hall. I saw a stand with teddy bears and candy. Oh that’s pretty cool I thought, I can exchange them for crazy Japanese toys and candy. But the lady gave me some strange tokens in return for all the balls, and the attendant grabbed me again and led me down some stairs at the end of the room. Down the stairs was a whole new floor which was filled with a different set of glowing machines that I recognised- regular poker machines. “No,” I said, trying to back up. “I don’t want to play any poker machines.”
“Here,” said the Japanese guy, gesturing to a slot in the wall. I looked through this tiny slot and could see a withered old man inside! What kind of sick messed up dungeon like place was this? The younger guy took my tokens and passed them through the slot in the wall, and to my surprise, out popped a withered old man hand with a wad of cash. 20,000 yen! (About 250 US dollars.) I couldn’t believe it. “Wow!” I said.
“Yeah,” said the young Japanese guy in English, “you rich.”
I later found out that gambling in Japan was totally illegal, which explained the strange staircase and the strange old cashier inside the hidden dungeon. I possibly could have been arrested. But I was ignorant of all that. Needless to say I strutted my stuff around the temples of Kyoto that afternoon with renewed vigour. Having just visited an ATM at Osaka airport earlier that morning, I struggled to fold my wallet with all the bills inside. Really, I’d had some strange luck those days. I’d had a hot date, I’d avoided a bombing, and though I’d lost a pair of shoes I’d been immediately rewarded with enough cash to buy several new pairs. It got me thinking about fate and chance. Even so, I’m still not sure what the moral of the story is.
All I know is that I went back to Japan again a couple years later and put money in a Pachinko machine and despite knowing what to do I promptly lost. So Pachinko is not the path to glory and riches I thought it might be. I was in and out within 5 minutes, minus 1000 yen, and my travelling companions were smug and decidedly unimpressed by Pachinko parlours. Since I’m a scientist, I’ll just conclude that the mystical travel god Boris the Benevolent was looking over me those few days and that it wasn’t meant to happen again. Either that or there’s some sort of conspiracy by evil Pachinko companies in Japan to hook unsuspecting shoeless Australian white boys on illegal Asian gambling.
What do you think? Are some things meant to happen? What crazy unexpected adventures have you had when travelling?