I Asked London's Uber Drivers to Take Me Somewhere 'Fun' and Ended Up Here
Driver #1: Shafi, 32
Destination #1: London Central Mosque – Marylebone
My first driver gives me two choices. The first is his favourite Somali restaurant in Shepherd's Bush, to drink unpasteurised camel's milk. The other is London Central Mosque.
While I'm sure camel's milk is both nutritious and tastes absolutely fine, the second option is definitely more appealing, if not without a caveat. Religion scares me, to the point that I've avoided people of faith for 26 years with almost complete success. My one slip-up was when an ex dragged me to his cousin's baptism, where the kid screamed for his life while the priest water-boarded him in the name of God, so you can maybe see why I have my hang-ups.
Sensing my doubts, Shafi reassures me that I'm about to have the best day of my life.
Setting off from Bethnal Green, we talk about camels the entire way. Eating them, raising them, riding them, drinking their milk (which apparently never expires). Shafi even shows me pictures of the camels he owned in Somalia – camels who have their own photo folder on his phone.
"I love camels. My father's side of the family are camel people," he says. "They have energy. They reserve food. They are very strong."
The mosque is more than just where people go to pray. It's a communal watering hole, a meeting place, a place for rest, a place of learning and a place for social gathering, complete with a library, bookstore, museum, teaching rooms and a food hall. Upstairs, the wives are gossiping; downstairs, the husbands are praying; and in the courtyard the children are playing Magic: The Gathering.
There are people sleeping everywhere. One guy is sprawled out on a table in the dimly lit canteen, three more on the floor in the prayer room, some under the sun in the courtyard. This place feels a world away from the noisy city streets outside – the Wrigley's-covered bus stops, oil-slicked roads and hordes of Spanish tourists inhaling hot exhaust fumes while they wait to see a wax figure of will.i.am.
Inside the bookstore, the shopkeeper tries to peddle me some Arab literature. "Enjoy Your Life is the Muslim version of Harry Potter, except more about spirituality and less about witches. It's a page turner," he says. Problem is, it's £24. With rent coming up, I ask him to put it on hold, with no intention of coming back for it.
Driver: Irfan, 34
Destination #2: Hoxton Grill
It's 10PM when I arrive at Hoxton Grill, my second driver's "favourite" place in London, which is also suspiciously close to his next pick up location. "Go in. Have a drink. Dance with some people," he says, lazily.
The Hoxton Grill is in the upmarket Hoxton Hotel, which was founded in 2006, down the Old Street end of Shoreditch, by the co-founder of Pret a Manger. That sentence should tell you exactly why the word "Shoreditch" has become synonymous with the word "gentrification".
The Hoxton Grill is a strange place. There's no identifiable demographic, just a very strong odour of cologne and lots of exposed brick. Some people are dancing by the DJ booth, some are drinking cocktails by the bar, some are reading in the hotel lounge area's distressed leather chairs, others are eating steaks and shouting at each other over the din. I'm now fairly certain this isn't really Irfan's favourite spot in the city, because I'm fairly certain it isn't anyone's favourite spot in the city.
Determined to have a good time, I buy myself a drink and some shots. Moving onto the dance floor, while still gagging slightly from the tequila, I survey the crowd. Out of nowhere, a guy pops up beside me, pressing his face to my cheek. "You like this song? I wrote it. Can I buy you another drink?"
An objectively bad pick-up line, but in this £10 shot-and-mixer market, who can afford to turn down free booze.
"Go on – a double rum and coke and two tequila shots."
Moving swiftly away, I strike up conversation with two bald American brothers sipping glasses of wine at the bar.
"This place sucks," says one. "We snuck out after our wives fell asleep. Wish we just stayed in bed."
Hours fly by, and after trying and failing to find some fun around with many more shots, I decide to get going.
Driver: Dewan, 36
Destination #3: Tower Bridge
My third driver suggests Tower Bridge. "St Katherine's Pier is beautiful around this time of night," he says. "I go there to listen to the noise of the tide. It reminds me of my village in Bangladesh."
I've lived in London for almost a year and am yet to pass under the arches of Tower Bridge. Why go there? Isn't it just a place where cars cross from one side of the river to the other? I suppose not; Dewan's enthusiasm for the monument inspires optimism within me, so we set off towards SE1.
I'm several drinks past the point of being able to maintain a conversation with anyone, so I ask Dewan to tell me a story as I hang my head outside the window, concentrating hard on not ruining his footwell carpets. Pulling up eventually, I hear the distant thump of a bottle smashing, a car backfiring and a woman screaming – all good signs.
Standing at the foot of the glowing concrete arches, the first thing I notice is the drop in temperature. But then I look around and realise I'm in the middle of everything iconic about London. Tower Bridge in front of me, the Shard, the Gherkin, the tip of the London Eye, all within my view.
I've always found these moments – the ones where the London you usually see on postcards suddenly appears in front of you – somewhat uplifting. As tacky as tourist traps are, and as devoid of real culture as these kind of place often are, it's always a reminder that you're in one of the world's greatest cities.
I find a spot as close to the water as I can reach and close my eyes, listening to the waves hit the concrete. It doesn't remind me of Dewan's village in Bangladesh, but it does remind me of my own home – a town in Auckland surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, Devonport.
On the lowest concrete platform under the Tower Hamlets end of the bridge I stumble across the remains of a romantic dinner for two: two empty bottles of Coke, the scraps of curry and rice, a finished packet of Marlboro Lights and a plastic cup filled with what looks a lot like pee. It makes me happy.
On top of the bridge a couple is really going for it. Behind them, some teenagers are fighting over a tinnie of Red Stripe. As for me, I'm done, ready to end my tour of London's hottest spots.
More on VICE: