People told me it was foolish to abscond to rural China for a month with a single pair of shoes, and they were probably right. Those black Vans, which I’m wearing now, endured great treks across the sun-baked, dusty farmlands of Yangshou, protracted hikes up and along the highest costal reaches of Hong Kong’s outer islands, and everything in between. The two white stripes that break the black of each shoe, synonymous with the brand, are smeared with the grime of a foreign land. Glue sealing sole to shoe has gradually relented, and the heavy action of big toes on rubber has eroded two symmetrical holes, exposing equally perforated socks, leaving nothing but the bare skin of feet to suffer the scorch of Chinese tar and soil.
Things were no more put together at the outset. The shoes were new – a week, maybe two weeks old. But their condition had already transitioned from ‘store new’ to ‘noticeably worn’. The past fortnight had been a nightmare, and immaculate Vans were not my priority. The turbulence had started with a move, and I’d rendered the stress of travel planning much more pointed by working right up to a day or so before departure. It was a decision born of anxiety – that month had also seen several, costly capital flights, but, in the end, was one that made the whole experience dearer, and contributed to an immense stress.
I was home, in Cardiff, for just a few days. I’d finished my last shift in Birmingham the previous evening, before taking the train back to South Wales for a cousin’s wedding. It was rare for the family to gather en masse, so I figured I’d make the effort. Plus, it was an opportunity to say goodbye, and allay some of the anxieties I was having with free wine. It was a good day. The weather held up, the music was good, and I reconnected with people I hadn’t seen for months, or years. I left that night feeling markedly less stressed, and with a new sense, with first goodbyes being uttered, that the ball was rolling, that things were finally moving.
A serenity had come over me that night. It stayed with me, and amplified. Passing hours affirmed increasingly that my worries were mislaid. I first left home, and then Cardiff, after a meal, and made my way to London, from where I’d take a connecting coach to Stanstead for my flight in the morning. We hurtled down the M4 and pulled in to the city far ahead of schedule. The London-Stanstead express driver had no qualms in exchanging my seat on a later bus for an earlier ride as I was, quite literally, the only passenger on a 56 seater. I re-buried my head in Kissinger’s On China for the final leg of the journey, before settling down later that night in an airport Travelodge. I had made a decision at some point to be meticulously well-prepared for everything that lay ahead of me for the coming month. With this in mind, emboldened by the ease of my experience thus far, I took the time to lay out my clothes for flight day, repacked to only the bare essentials, and laid out the ‘three indispensables’ – passport, phone and watch, neatly on the table for a quick getaway in the morning. That night, I slept soundly, with a clear mind, in anticipation of the next day.
The next day, everything fell apart.
I woke on the morning of July 9th with time to spare. I stretched-out amidst a tangle of white, linen sheets and took a hasty shower before bundling the remainder of my stuff into my small brown luggage, being sure to collect the three indispensables on my way out. Check out was a breeze, and within five minutes I was in the back of an Uber, making my way through the rush-hour din, stuffing my face with a pain au chocolat I’d swiped from the breakfast bar. I wound down the Hybrid’s window, to hear the full roar of Airbuses and Boeings as they sped over roadways towards the runway. I’ve always had a passion for flying. The experience of air travel is certainly thrilling enough to distract me from what should be more pressing considerations. This fact, in combination with the little time I had left myself to prepare for the trip, and the niggling anxiety that comes part and parcel with a first foray into solo globetrotting, led me to neglect many of the obsessive tendencies I usually exhibit towards detail, and ticket checking.
I marched confidently into Stanstead airport, e-ticket and passport in hand, anticipating a brief transition from check-in to duty free. This was my first flight from Stanstead, but I’d done my research. I had a working knowledge of all the restaurants that lay beyond the x-ray machines and heavy-handed security personnel, and was eagerly anticipating a Leon burger accordingly. I peered up at the departure board and sped through the listings for my Finnair flight to Guangzhou, via Helsinki. Nothing. I read again, this time a little slower. Nothing. I read each flight in turn, distracted by a growing unease in my stomach. Still nothing.
I immediately clocked what had happened after a third, unsuccessful reading. I pulled my phone from my side to view the e-ticket that had been open in anticipation of check-in for about twenty minutes. I read the information backwards, from right to left, denying myself a crushing defeat for at least a few more seconds. The right of the ticket displayed the shorthand for Helsinki’s Vantaa airport, ‘HEL’. An illustration of an aircraft separated destination from departure further left, in the middle of the screen. Further left still was a combination of three letters which, to this day, give me a biting sense of foreboding. What should’ve, in my mind, read ‘STN’ displayed ‘LHR’ – London Heathrow.
A wall of self-possession at once gave way to torrent of panic. I dropped my bags and sat on the spot, under the departure boards, surrounded by a clamour of inquisitive tourists scouring the listing for their check-in gates – inevitably with more success than myself. I searched frantically for another flight. But, with a £500 price tag, I wasn’t going anywhere. I was floored. The thought of returning home that day, defeated, of explaining to everyone who was surprised to find me still in the country for the next month that I screwed it all up made me sick.
Composing myself, somewhat, I did the math. There was no way. Trains were delayed, buses were delayed, and I’d be heading into London at rush-hour. I put my phone down, shut my eyes, and took a moment. In an attempt to normalise the prospect of a dashed summer I tried to convince myself that this was an omen, that, maybe, dropping out would be for the best. My phone bleeped with a message, it was mum, it read something to the effect of ‘have an amazing time, see you in a month! xx’. I became irrationally angry, not at anyone in particular, not even myself – though I certainly should’ve been. In that moment, I became convinced that I was being played. That fate, the universe, whatever, was villainous – in short, I became the worst kind of sucker.
I sat there beneath the departure board for five more minutes or so, too stupefied to move, and with no apparent reason to. Innumerable pairs of legs weaved around me with purpose, most on their way to some wonderful, foreign land – an airport really is the worst place to miss a flight
I won’t bore you with the detail but, somehow, everything worked out. In short, an attempt to beat the odds and make check-in at Heathrow fell flat. But a costly call to Helsinki allowed me to cancel my flight, five minutes before check-in closure, for what constituted far more than a partial, or deserved, refund, which was put towards a Saudia flight later that same day. With Helsinki substituted for Jeddah, I sunk into an armchair at an empty restaurant and sipped at a Jack and coke, completely defeated and exhausted.
Fortunately, the cock-up was no bad omen. From here, I fell headfirst into one of the most valuable experiences of my entire life – an experience that, for a moment, was very nearly resigned to the trash. I have never felt happier, or more fulfilled, in staring down at my feet to be met with a shabby pair of shoes. Shoes stained with the dirt of a hundred indelible stories, my grimy Vans.