Have you ever ridden on one of those really tall roller coasters? You wait in line for what seems like an eternity. It winds back and forth through metal gates and every three minutes or so, you take a few steps forward. When you finally arrive at the front of the line, you are hoping desperately that the ride will be worth the time spent waiting. You get on and strap yourself in. The attendant comes around and checks to make sure you aren’t about to fly off. You hear the buzzer sound the all clear and with a jolt you are propelled forward. Then begins the eternal climb accompanied by the rhythmic click, click, click of wheels on track. Your feet dangle carelessly as you rise further and further. Your heart begins to quicken and a slight pit forms in your stomach.
“I’m really high up now,” you think.
You keep climbing. Pretty soon you are over the treetops and have a clear view of the parking lot. The vehicles all look like matchbox cars arranged very carefully in straight rows. You return your attention to the track. All you can see is track disappearing off into the sky. You are nearing the vanishing point. And finally you arrive at the top.
There is a pause. It seems to last a minute or two and then . . . WOOOSH!
Sky. Ground. G force. Trees. Crowd. Ground. Sky. Track. G force. Trees. Crowd. Slowing. Station.
You brush back your windblown hair and breathlessly unbuckle yourself. On wobbly legs you walk toward the exit and disappear into the crowds of the amusement park.
That’s sort of what it has been like in my first few days at Durham. I am still very much on the roller coaster ride. I don’t expect it to stop until well into first term. I have been racing around trying to complete all of the essentials while simultaneously trying to get my bearings. I have been lost, have walked miles in a day, been frustrated, and been very happy, all on top of being completely jet lagged.
I suppose I should start at the beginning.
Tuesday morning I woke up not really sure I was ready to do this. I had no choice, but it felt as though the weight of mountains was crushing me. A thousand doubts plagued my mind. What if my bags are too heavy? What if I lose my passport? What if the flight is delayed and I miss my connection? What if I can’t find the Durham University Welcome Committee at Newcastle Airport? It went on and on like that.
I took a shower and came down to breakfast. My parents were up already as were my ferrets. I played with them as much as I could before they tired and went off to curl up for their naps. After breakfast, I sat in the living room watching TV as though I had nothing important to do that day. It was surreal. The trouble was there was nothing to be done. My packing was done, I brought the cases down, and all I had to occupy myself were my buzzing doubts.
Finally it was time to go. I hugged each of my ferrets and said goodbye. My parents and I loaded up the van and we set off for the airport.
We arrived at the airport and found short term parking near my check in point. All of my packing had amounted to three checked bags and two carry-ons and I was feeling grateful for the extra hands. I checked my bags and the check in representative praised my excellent packing. None were over the weight limit! It was time to head toward the security checkpoint. That’s when I finally had to say good bye to my parents. We hugged and I quickly went through to the checkpoint before I could change my mind. With one glance back I was on my way.
I went through security with no trouble and proceeded to my gate. When I arrived I went to make sure I had my boarding pass and passport handy for when it was time to board.
“Where is my boarding pass?” I looked frantically in all my things and could not find it anywhere. All my doubts came flooding back. I retraced my steps and went back to the end of the security checkpoint. I asked one of the TSA officers what I should do. She smiled and told me it was no problem, that they could print me out another at the gate.
I went back to find the desk empty. It was too early for anyone to be there. My flight didn’t leave for another two and a half hours. I sat and waited keeping my eyes fixed on the desk. Just then a gentleman walked up to the desk. He was clearly a passenger with a wheeled carry-on bag dragging behind him. He looked around to see if there was a way to call anyone over and then, finding nothing, placed a long thin white paper on the desk and walked back to his own gate. I ran over and there was my boarding pass! (Thank you whoever you were for turning it in.) I returned to my seat and waited.
When I finally boarded the plane I was feeling just as nervous. I needed to make my connection! We seemed to be taking forever to board and my rows were the last to be called. When I made my way to my seat, there was someone sitting in it. (Oh gosh! Had I gotten the wrong seat?) A flight attendant arrived on the scene. It turns out the woman who had taken my seat had gotten the row wrong. She was supposed to be in the row in front of me. I decided it was no problem, that I’d just take her seat. It even turned out we had both ordered the same special vegetarian meal, so that all worked out very well.
The flight was long, over seven hours, and I didn’t manage to sleep at all. I watched two episodes of Doctor Who and Star Trek Into Darkness. I tried desperately to snooze but to no avail. It was pitch black outside the plane window. I could make out some stars but other than that, there was nothing to see.
When we arrived in London, it was completely obscured by fog. Of course we have all heard of the London fog. I’m here to tell you, it is not an exaggeration. There was nothing that could be seen of the ground until I was standing on it.
I had a very tight connection. Only an hour to make it to my Newcastle flight. I began to feel my heart pounding in my chest with sheer anxiety. As I cleared the gate, I noticed a Heathrow worker standing with an iPad that had my connecting flight’s number on it. I approached him and he told me he would take me through to the next gate I needed to be at. We waited for another passenger from my flight who was taking the same connection and we made our way to the border crossing. I was stuck behind a few other people and it was taking ages. Now anyone who knows me will tell you, I am not the type of person to make waves or seek favors. I will wait in a queue and take punishment before I try to play the system. In this case my survival instincts took over. I asked the person directing us to the agent if I could be allowed ahead as I had a tight connection. It worked! I apologized to those who I had jumped and thanked them.
Finally it was my turn. I had my landing card and my passport all ready. She looked at them and then asked for my CAS letter. (Certificate of Acceptance) I froze. I knew it was somewhere in my big red binder I had made of all my important documents. I took it out of my laptop bag and began frantically looking. I looked for a good three minutes and my panic rose with each passing second. Finally, she put me out of my misery and said anything with my university would do. I handed her the offer of accommodation email and then came the question.
“What were you doing the past year?”
I thought for a moment. Well that’s nice of her to make small talk. Oh no wait, she’s not making small talk! What was I doing? I was unemployed. Well I can’t say that. I hung out with friends, sang in a choir, played with ferrets. No, that won’t do. Oh wait, I know!
“I was an intern at the state museum where I lived,” I said still with panic in my voice.
She stamped my visa and I was clear. But I wasn’t clear.
I had to go through security again! I had done so at the other airport and didn’t think I’d have to do it again but I was very much mistaken. I panicked again. The line was so long! Then I saw one of the security people and decided that it had worked before maybe it will again. I asked to jump the queue.
She was fantastic. She took my bags. Put them on the conveyor belt. I took my laptop out quickly and kicked off my boots and placed them in the bin. Then I went through the detector. My things took what seemed like ten minutes, but they finally came through all right. The woman from security pointed me to my gate and I bolted after an effusive thank you.
I ran to the gate and got in the queue. I had made it! I was exhausted, bedraggled, and quite discombobulated. When I finally stepped onto the plane, I was still out of breath. The flight attendant smiled and looked at me. He was an older gentleman with black rimmed glasses. He looked at my boarding pass.
“Been flying all night have you?” he asked.
I sighed heavily, “Oh yes, I’ve been going for ages.”
“Oh, well you don’t look it. I can tell from your accent though.”
I stopped and looked confused. LIGHT SWITCH. I’m the one with the accent now! It was the first in a series of tables turning. I smiled at him and went to my seat.
The flight was only an hour. It was over before it had really started. We came in for our landing and all I remember seeing were green fields filled with sheep and cattle. It was bizarre, like I had landed in the middle of nowhere. I waited patiently for most of the people to disembark before moving. I had no reason to rush now. I’d have to use the loo and then wait ages at baggage claim. My cases were never one of the first to go. It was the first time I ever disembarked on the tarmac. I went down the stairs imagining I was stepping off of Air Force One or something.
I made my way slowly to baggage claim. Got a trolley to put my five bags on and stood with everyone else waiting for the bags to start coming. You cannot know my amazement and joy when two of my bags were the very first ones down the conveyor belt. I snatched them up and put them on the trolley. Then the third came very soon after.
Then came the hunt for the University Welcome Team. I had been told to look for people in purple shirts but there were none to be found.
To be continued…