9th December, Swindon, UK
"Welcome to London Heathrow. The temperature outside is 5 degrees ..."
I didn't really hear the rest. All I could think was that when we left Singapore, it was 11pm and 25 degrees celsius. Everyone we'd sent emails or text messages to joked about coming back to the cold. I had thankfully kept hold of just one warm(ish) top as we made our way through SE Asia. It had stayed packed at the bottom of the case, but was now being put to good use. It still wasn't enough.
Manda's sister and mum came to collect us at around 6am and had also brought some extra layers of clothing. They were very welcome (the clothes and the people!). Very soon, we were on our way back down the M4 towards Swindon. It stayed dark the whole time, a very strange concept for us having come from right near the equator - dark at 7am? Not heard of. As we made our way off the motorway and into Swindon I got my first feeling of 'my God, it's just like we haven't been away' ...
A friend of ours who also used to work at Nationwide and who went traveling said that when he came back to Swindon, he had to keep looking at his photos to remind himself that he hadn't dreamt it all, that it had really been him who'd been been to all these places around the world. I completely understood what he meant now. We were passing places that we'd passed hundreds of times before, but not in a long time, but it might just have been last week for all it mattered. Nothing changes. Well, we've changed, and I'm sure that some of the roads may have been dug up in a year, a block of flats might have sprung up somewhere and maybe a shop or two has closed down, but essentially everything was the same. Just as we knew it would be.
Once back at Manda's house we got shock number one: in her absence, her family had re-carpeted her entire house, moved all sorts of furniture around and all the contents of drawers in all the rooms had been re-organised. Heck, it was difficult enough trying to remember where we'd put things a year ago and now we had an extra obstacle to contend with! It was a nice surprise, though, and perhaps it was the best time to do it. The other surprise wasn't quite so nice - the boiler wasn't working properly, so we had no central heating to warm the ice block of a house up. A small, portable heater would have to suffice until we could get a heating engineer out to look at the boiler and (hopefully) fix it.
Manda's mum and sister left us to unpack (or at least make a start). So confusing - just what do we do with this stuff? Where do we put it? After all, everything had been moved around in our absence, much like supermarkets that shift all the aisles around to confuse everyone, and we weren't sure where certain items 'lived' any more! We did our best, simultaneously putting things away and throwing away older items - it's amazing what being away for a year can make you think of some of the 'stuff' that you have collected in the past. It all seems so unimportant, so much clutter. Then we reminded ourselves that we had sent more packages back during our travels which might now seem like even more clutter. Even more reason to throw away more of our older stuff, then!
Not only was there no heating, but we had no entertainment (TV with no licence or reception, DVD player not connected) and no phone (land line or mobile). The first problem was partially solved - I was able to get a DVD working OK, but the TV would have to wait until a little later. The second problem would not be properly solved for a while. The land (telephone) line would no doubt involve several phone calls to arrange, and probably a visit from an engineer or some kind, maybe weeks from now. So, the quick solution would be to get a new mobile number for the time being. At least then I'd have some way of contacting people to fix the other problems! Besides, I'd changed my mobile number several times in the last year (a number for Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Malaysia) and it had been a doddle to arrange. How difficult could it be?
I made my way down to Tesco in the freezing cold, wondering why I'd ever moaned about it being too hot or about the presence of mosquitoes - all is forgiven! I scouted around for the phones section and discovered that they sold SIM cards on their own for pay-as-you-go service (what I wanted right now), but the process of setting it up was more complicated than I'd been used to. Welcome to UK red tape. The cost was also massively higher than the equivalent charges I'd been used to over the last year (a rough estimate - 6 or 7 times more expensive for call charges). Welcome to rip-off Britain.
I have to say that walking around Tesco on a cold Thursday morning in December is about the best way of throwing yourself back in the deep end as far as acclimatising to UK is concerned. Everywhere I looked I saw grey faces, miserable faces, almost toothless mouths from which could be heard dull-sounding voices moaning about whatever took their fancy (I didn't tune in to the details). Youngsters all looked like potential trouble-makers, the girls all looked like council estate heroin addicts with 6 kids, the workers on the tills looked like they should be either at home squeezing spots into a mirror or down at the bingo hall, pencil hanging out of the corner of their mouths, a comatose expression on their faces. In fairness, they were probably all perfectly normal people, but to me everything seemed grey, grey, GREY. My perception of normality had changed. What was now normal for me was colourful people (in more ways than just the colour of their skin) who generally smiled, and if they were bitching about something or other, I would normally be blissfully ignorant!
So, I had achieved something today - a new telephone. My next task would be to try to find somewhere that I could send the various emails that had piled up in the outbox on my laptop. It seems weird to think that I would have to go foraging for this, but like I said, no land line at home ...
I ventured out into town. Swindon Town. It all seemed so strange to be back here, looking at the same old shops, trying to work out what subtle changes there had been (none, really, apart from the new Starbucks, woohoo [note: that was a sarcastic 'woohoo']). Here I was trying to find a place that I could connect the laptop at, a town for which tourism is not exactly a focus. Why would there even be an Internet café? I had my doubts about finding somewhere, but actually came up trumps at one of those LAN Gaming places (this was new to me).
Finally, I managed to secure some transport - a bicycle! My brother had been borrowing my bike in my absence but brought it back for me a short while ago, so there in my shed was my old mountain bike, still in one piece. It's not going to help me carry anything big around, but at least I'm half mobile with the bike. And this is pretty much the scenario for the coming weeks over Christmas - trying to get everything back to normal, getting all the things in place that most people take for granted. Manda described it best when she said that it feels like she's just moved in to the house. In a sense, that's just what we're doing.
So, that's the journey over, and our challenge now is to adjust back to UK life. It will be nice not having to do a diary entry every day, but it will not be so nice not having anything worth writing about. I know which option I'd go for, given the choice! Regardless, there will be a few more posts on this site covering the after-travel experience and, once we have regular Internet access, the site may get a face-lift, perhaps some other new sections (more pictures, perhaps, or even a travel tips type page), but that may be a little while yet. There are more immediate concerns for us now. And on that topic, where is the damn heating engineer? He was due here about two hours ago! Welcome back to England, eh?