Since I wrote this story, I’ve acquired quite a list of travel stories. Matter of fact, after this occurrence, I realized that I like putting myself in tough situations. It’s when you learn the most and open yourself up to fate. I love that feeling and I owe the discovery all to the time I went dumpster diving on a day trip to Cambridge.
There were no hostels in Cambridge, hotels were far out of my budget, but what’s one night homeless on the streets? After all, I am just a broke college student; if I want to travel the world at this point in life, I have to be willing to make some sacrifices.
However, what proceeded to happen called for far more strategy than I had ever imagined and ultimately changed the way I travel the world. The irony of dumpster diving in Cambridge, England; home to one of the notoriously expensive universities in the world, was too much to pass up. I knew this would be one of those travel stories I told for a long time.
Spur of the moment Cambridge day trip from London
It was mid-April last year. I decided to take a Cambridge day trip from London which was only about an hour and a half to the north. In the spur of the moment I booked my place on the bus and was on my way to Cambridge twenty minutes later.
I was getting fairly fed up with the London traffic. It’s an absolutely awe-inspiring city for a cultural experience, but I can’t stand the amount of tourists there for more than a few days at a time. So, I decided I could take a day trip to Cambridge and figure out a thirty-hour itinerary on the bus ride there. It was no big deal. These kind of day trips are simple compared to some of the traveling I had done to this point.
Well, nothing is ever as simple as it seems on the surface. I found out Cambridge does not have any hostels and it was already almost 2 p.m. – the chances of me finding a Couchsurfing host this late were slim. Being desperate, I curiously searched for the cheapest hotel in Cambridge which ended up being the equivalent of $106 for the night; far exceeding my fairly extreme budget.
Extreme budgeting calls for extreme sacrifices
So, I made my decision; I was going to be homeless for the night. How bad could it be for one night? I was there to check out the infamous University of Cambridge’s nightlife on a Friday night and would probably stay out and party until the early morning anyway. I would only have to manage a couple of hours on the streets before I’d be on a warm bus heading back to London.
The first thing I did when I arrived in Cambridge was some amateur scouting for a safe, warm sleeping spot. I was wasting my opportunity to see the city in the daylight, but it was better for my peace of mind.
It was windy, but it remained sunny. There was no way I was anticipating bad weather, but I never thought to check the forecast either. I was looking for signage indicating it was illegal to be out overnight in various places, but never saw anything like that. Most likely, I was more concerned with the legality of sleeping outside rather than the idea of being comfortable. I, admittedly, had no idea what I was looking for but it calmed my nerves going at it in a faux-prepared way.
After spending too long doing this, I decided to enjoy my time and do some wandering. Upon destination-less wandering, I came to a secluded bridge over the River Cam. There was (what seemed like) an ideal sleeping spot that I planned to return to at the end of the night.
Unexpected problems on my day trip to Cambridge
It was not until the sun went down that a huge storm came and changed up all of my plans. Rain started falling while I was inside Fez Club. I didn’t notice. There was quite a steep entry fee to get in and shortly after – I realized it had started raining. I figured staying at the empty club was probably my best choice with nowhere else to go that would be dry. I’m the type of person who can’t leave a club after paying entry; no matter how lame it is.
I stayed as late as I could until the bartenders started giving me weird looks. But I couldn’t blame them; I was the weird one at the club alone that night, but I was desperate. And desperate times call for staking it out inside an empty club while the DJ helplessly blasts loud club music for people I could count on one hand.
It was only about 1 a.m. but I knew there was no way I could stay at Fez Club as long as I had planned. The rain had let up and so I took the opportunity for a chance to run to my bridge. It was about 40 degrees outside and a lot chillier than I had planned. In my head, the alcohol in my body would have kept me warm at night, but I was sober. All I had was one jacket that was in no way waterproof.
On the way to my bridge, I ran into a bit of dumb luck, if you will. I found a rain jacket in a stockpile of dumpster trash. Again, I was desperate. I had to dig it out from underneath a few miscellaneous items, but it looked warm so I used it.
This is starting to sound a bit far-fetched, I’m sure. After two hours of attempting to fall asleep in my spot under the bridge (that ended up being not-so-comfortable and wet), I decided to find a new, warmer place to sleep.
A change in perspective from an unlikely source
I made my way back into town where I met Rich and Julie, a homeless couple by choice who grew up not too far from Cambridge. About an hour was spent talking with them in the middle of the night underneath a covered area. I learned so much and my eyes were widened by their lifestyle choice.
“Sometimes people get us mixed up. We want this lifestyle and don’t bother anyone, we keep a tidy public area because we know it’s the public’s. We are without a house but not without a home,” Rich explained to me.
Rich was full of wisdom like this and Julie was just as bright. Each of them held a college degree. Each of them was far and away more knowledgeable about almost everything we talked about than I was. But they preferred the simplicity of not having more money and material things than they needed. They were not beggars; they were simply living life for themselves. I found this type of mindset to be very inspiring.
“Especially being so close to this University full of stuck-up rich kids – we don’t always get treated with respect; especially from the drunk crowd,” said Rich.
The homeless population in Cambridge is more than you would expect; especially right around the prestigious University – there are quite a few people living on the streets. I am so fortunate to have run into Rich and Julie. I’m a fairly open-minded person, but I must admit they broke so many stereotypes about homeless people in my mind. I’m no longer intimidated by beggars. This is something I struggled with for a while during my travels.
Regardless if they needed it or wanted it, I still bought some doughnuts for Rich and Julie for the morning. I hope that didn’t offend them as I just wanted to pay their humanity forward. I have nothing but respect for those two. We parted ways and I felt greatly impacted by our encounter, but I still faced the problem of having nowhere to sleep.
Not-so-friendly local encounters
After another thirty minutes of wandering around in the rain, I finally found a nook in front of a bank to sleep in. So, there I lay on the cold concrete, head propped up against the concrete “baseboard” of the building. I couldn’t control my strong shiver from the wind cave I was sleeping in, but at least I was staying dry. I was asleep for a few hours when I got a tap on the leg.
Without turning my head, I was sure it was law enforcement or a manager of the bank I was sleeping in front of. It wasn’t. It was a homeless man.
“Hey, mind sparing a few quid, man?”
The fact of the matter was that I did have the money to spare him, but I didn’t appreciate his approach – and especially that he woke me at four o’clock in the morning and seemed drunk.
“No, man. Sorry, I don’t,” I remained very short to show my frustration as I turned back around towards the wall.
“C’mon, you’re not homeless. You’ve got to catch your 8 a.m. at the Uni tomorrow,” he said. I believe he was trying to aggravate and intimidate me.
At that point, I had wished Rich was there to teach the man some proper homeless etiquette. He had officially aggravated me. Exactly the type of homeless who gave the homeless community a bad name. He was the aggressive drunk type that I was previously spooked out by.
“Look, if I had money to spare for someone like you that taps me on my leg in the middle of the night to talk shit on me, then I wouldn’t be sleeping here on concrete in the rain,” I said in the sternest tone I’d ever used with a stranger. Perhaps it was because it was so late and I was already stressed.
He left me alone and I laid awake, not able to fall back asleep again. I reflected on the way I reacted, but I couldn’t feel bad about it.
By then, the rain had stopped and the sun would be rising soon. Instead of spending any more of my thirty hours in Cambridge laying awake on concrete, I chose to get up and explore the silent city.
Sneaking around King’s College
I made my way back to the University of Cambridge around King’s College. A sign that had earlier blocked the entrance stating that people not associated with the University were not allowed to enter wasn’t there anymore.
I decided to enter the university grounds since the sign wasn’t there. I got almost a full self-tour of the area as the sun was rising without a soul in sight. Sooner or later, I knew I’d run into someone that would stop me.
“Hello, sir,” a man who was dressed sharp like a professor approached me, “May I ask what your affiliation with the university is?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure if I could be in here, but there was no signage stating I shouldn’t enter. I only came for a few photos,” I explained.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave immediately,” the professor said as if I was some kind of threat to the two others on campus on an early Saturday morning.
I’m aware that King’s College makes a profit off of organized tours, and I knew I wasn’t allowed in without paid entrance if I wasn’t a student (yes, I was playing dumb with him a bit), but he didn’t have to be so rude about it.
He watched me until I made it around the corner but didn’t walk me out. I retaliated by continuing my tour. Not the coolest revenge plot, but at least I got a bit of an adrenaline rush from sneaking around for another ten minutes.
Broke college student travel stories
Soon after, my thirty hours and the day trip to Cambridge was over and I caught my bus back to London.
I survived the short night but learned so much about myself. Sure, it was a little more stressful than staying in a hostel, but I would never trade the night for an ordinary night in a hostel. Sometimes doing things that scare you can teach you the most.