There are plenty of ways for Americans to make a good impression in London. Scurrying into stores dripping wet, asking for large sacks of rice and zip lock bags isn’t one of them. I was enjoying a relaxing walk along Regent’s Canal after a visit to the Camden Lock Market in North London when, daydreaming, I tripped over a mooring post. I fell to the ground and my backpack, containing my Nikon D7000 DSLR camera and my iPhone, tumbled right into the canal.
It only took me an instant to realize that I needed to jump in the water to retrieve the bag and in my urgency, I didn’t think to ditch my wallet or take my shirt, pants or shoes off before taking the plunge. Recovering my bag was easy, but hoisting myself back out of the canal took some doing. And as I pulled myself out of the murky, smelly water, a small crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle, perfect theater for a Sunday afternoon.”You oh-roight, mate?” one man asked as I stood on the narrow walkway, dripping wet and feeling ridiculous.
“Nice day fer a swim, innit?” quipped another. Indeed it was a lovely day for a swim; 61 degrees with London’s characteristically ominous, fast-moving clouds.
A passing boat pulled over and a couple rushed over to me with a bath towel and a clean T-shirt. The man said the shirt was mine to keep and the woman helped me dry my camera and iPhone.
“You’ve got to find a sack of rice and fast,” the man said. “The sooner you get your electronics sealed inside a bag with rice, the better your chances.”
I walked back to the Camden Lock, my pants feeling oppressively wet and heavy, with water sloshing around in my shoes. I consoled myself with a roti at a Pakistani sandwich stall and the owner confirmed that I needed to find some uncooked rice and fast.
A South Asian clerk in the nearest supermarket I could find, eyed me warily as I asked for a big bag of rice and zip lock bags.
“Why are you all wet?” he asked.
I explained and suddenly he became interested in my quest.
“I have a wet iPhone too,” he said. “Let me know if the rice works, will you?”
He didn’t know what zip lock bags were, but we found the British equivalent along with a few small bags of rice. After I paid for the items, I crouched down in the corner of the store and put my camera and phone inside the bags, then began poring the rice over them. An over-officious middle management type in a short-sleeve shirt and clip-on tie came over to me, and in the sort of vaguely hostile way a store security guard might approach a homeless person, he asked, “What uh you doing there, sir?”
But thankfully my new friend rushed over to explain. “It’s OK,” he said. “He just took a swim in Regent’s Canal and is trying to save his gear.”
I returned to my apartment in Earl’s Court, still wet and smelling like something unpleasant dredged from the bottom of the canal. I rather liked my new T-shirt, but felt sick thinking that I may have just pissed away $2,000 worth of electronic equipment into an old canal. I heard different stories about how long I needed to keep my gear turned off and inside the bags of rice. Some said you needed just 24 hours, but others said 3-4 days. I was in town to cover Wimbledon but played it safe, resisting the temptation to snap photos of the All England Club for four full days. On my last morning in town, I nervously took my items out of the rice, like a teenager opening a slim-looking admissions letter envelope from their dream college.
The camera worked, but the iPhone was displaying gibberish. I took it to a cellphone shop on Earl’s Court Road and a Pakistani man named Akbar, who sat on a stool surrounded by phones and phone gadgetry, read my iPhone its last rites.
“This phone is dead,” he said, grim faced and stoic. “Very dead. I’m afraid there’s nothing that can be done.”
I felt a bit like a dog owner facing up to a grim diagnosis from a veterinarian. As I boarded a train for the brilliantly named tube stop “Cockfosters” I took stock of my trip. I was leaving town without a working phone but I had an unforgettable story to tell. And a new T-shirt.